Picturing God and Things of the Spirit (4)

Don: We’ve been looking at how we form our images of God from the standpoint of technology and artificial intelligence. Jason spoke about how education influences our view of God. Donald has led a very productive and fruitful discussion in the last few weeks on imagery and how we form our image of God. 

This week, I’ve asked Donald and Carolyn to talk about how music informs our image(s) of God. We still plan to go back to Jason and talk a little bit more about how Jesus used education and how his educational techniques are important in sharing the images of God—we do have a little bit more work to do with this. But I do believe it’s been a very productive discussion so far, at least for me..

Donald: In recent weeks I touched upon the image of God being obviously something that no one really knows, but how God is depicted is a different story. We can find a variety of approaches to how God and things of the spirit are represented visually. I also noted that music plays a significant role for some of us in our spiritual journey, being as uplifting as it is. It can do a variety of things, and that’s what I’d like to explore today. 

I am not an authority on music, but one of our group—Carolyn—is.

Don: Carolyn has had formal training in music.She’s been a musician at the church level for decades, was a choir director responsible for the entire musical program at a number of churches, large and small. Her rich and deep experience with music as a tool for portraying God qualifies her, I think (and as Donald said), as an expert for this part of our discussion.

Donald: The relationship between music and understanding God is a deeply personal and subjective experience. It probably would also be said of our visual understanding of God that it’s a personal thing. For many individuals, music has the power to evoke emotions, inspire contemplation, and create a sense of connection to something greater than oneself. That, I think, is quite unique. 

Why do people want to sing? Why do they want to make a noise? What turns noise into music? Music’s evocation of something greater than oneself varies among different cultures, belief systems, and individuals, but throughout history music has been closely tied to religious and spiritual practices. Various religious traditions incorporate music into their rituals and ceremonies as a means of worship and communion with the divine. Music can help facilitate a sense of awe, transcendence, and reverence, allowing individuals to connect with their understanding of God in a profound and meaningful way. 

We’ve asked before whether worship is an individual or a corporate activity, but what about music? Is that a solo or a corporate thing? Why do we participate in a choir? Why do we listen to a choir versus listen to a soloist? I’ve narrowed our conversation a bit today to hymns. I’m not sure younger people have a clear understanding of what a hymnal is, and what hymns that were written a hundred years ago really signify. 

The music and lyrics for a hymn are often the work of two people—composer and lyricist. Hymns are a form of sacred music used to express praise, devotion, and theological concepts related to God and various religious traditions. Through hymns, individuals can develop and enhance their understanding of God in a deeply personal and meaningful way, which brings us back to our picture of God and how hymns can contribute to it. 

A hymnal is typically divided into categories such as hymns of worship, theological hymns, and community hymns. Hymns of praise and worship foster a deeper emotional connection to God by cultivating a sense of awe of God’s greatness. Theological hymns provide insight into different aspects of God’s character and deepen our understanding of his nature. Community hymns reinforce a shared understanding and picture of God within the faith community. An example is We Have This Hope—a relatively new Adventist hymn that is very specific to the hope in this church. 

Both the lyrics and the melody of a hymn can serve as a catalyst for deepening one’s spiritual journey, as a pathway, as a means of connection with God and one’s understanding of God. I think music provides a much stronger connection than visual imagery. 

What are some early references in the Bible relating to music?

Carolyn: An early Biblical reference to music can be found in the Book of Job. Sorrow and grief pursued Job, causing him to question God’s reasons. God countered: 

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
Who set its measurements? Since you know.
Or who stretched the measuring line over it?
On what were its bases sunk?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-8) (Emphasis added)

This is a very early reference to music in the Bible. Song was just one of several forms. David sang and played his music to Saul. He played music as a shepherd. When Moses and the children of Israel were finally safe on the other side of the Red Sea and watched the waters roaring back to cover their pathway and save them from the mighty army pursuing them, they lifted their voices together and sang a song of praise to God, thanking him for the miracle that they had just witnessed.

Donald: What do you think about human capacity in our relationship to God?

Carolyn: First of all, I would just like to say I am so in awe of the Trinity. I’m so in love with Jesus, and I can feel the Holy Spirit within me, always guiding me. I actually feel it. At the creation we were made in the image of God the Father, mentally, physically, and emotionally. I have always visualized him as a heavenly being shrouded in a glorious light. To me, this is very important, because Jesus and God are the light of the world and our heavenly light. When we get there, we will not have a night, because there is going to be so much light in heaven. Along with this wonderful, glorious light we will also hear his rich, majestic, and melodious voice. That is how I perceive God the Father, in all his love.

Michael: I think it’s an amazing topic but it seems to me that perceiving God through music and imagery are completely different things. They use different senses, My question is, are we separating those today? Are we focusing on hearing as a way to understanding God or are we combining the senses of dight and sound?

Carolyn: To experience a piano concerto in the Sydney Opera House, as Chris did recently, must have been wonderful. It isn’t just a matter of seeing the pianist—it takes both our eyes and our ears. It results in a a mental conception and growing perception of a pathway to God, with his image appearing at the end of the pathway. The music draws us down the pathway, taking us closer to God, so we can see and hear him more clearly. It gives each of us an individual idea of what he is and what he’s like.

David: I think Carolyn has used exactly the right words: The experience, conception, and perception of God are what we are really discussing in this whole discussion. They imply the use of all of the senses—sight, sound, even the senses of touch and smell. (I am reminded of swinging the incense censer as an altar boy in the Anglican high church I served in my youth. To me, the feel of the censer, swinging on its chains, and the smell of the burning incense had a spiritual effect.)

Donald: I think it all it comes together. I don’t think we can separate music from sight. To be honest with you, I think that our imagination takes over when we are inspired with music. It doesn’t just stay in the music channel—it also gives us an appreciation, a sense, or a picture in our mind. A blind person combines all his or her remaining senses to form a picture of the world. 

Carolyn: Beethoven wrote his wonderful 9th symphony after he lost his hearing. The story goes that by the end of its premiere concert, the audience was on its feet, applauding. Beethoven couldn’t hear them  but he didn’t need to—he could see them, and knew what they were communicating. 

Donald: As was pointed earlier regarding music value, in the spiritual realm hymns are often sung for the purpose of worship and adoration, as took place at the very birth of Jesus.

Carolyn: The night Jesus was born, some shepherds were tending their sheep on a darkened hillside. The sky suddenly lit up with heavenly lights and heavenly beings were singing praise to the newborn baby, born King of the universe. The fact that God chose unschooled shepherds to witness the proclamation and to hear the good news and the heavenly music seems to me to show that music touches everybody in every sphere of life. In every avenue, every pathway we choose, there is music that draws us to God as the shepherds were drawn as they rushed to see this newborn baby.

Donald: Another momentous time in Jesus’s life involved sound—the sound of God, perhaps?

Carolyn: People flocked to John the Baptist to be baptized. When Jesus stepped into that water with John, God spoke and acknowledged him as his son. But he did it through a lowly dove. It makes me wonder, can we hear God through nature’s music?

Donald: Where else in the life of Christ does the Bible record singing together?

Carolyn: At the end of the Last Supper, Jesus asked his disciples to go into the garden and pray with him. He was in need. Jesus needed time to speak with his father, to be encouraged, because he knew what was coming next. Yet, the Bible tells us, Jesus and his disciples paused and sang as in one voice together. 

On a personal note: A friend of mine was very distressed and going through a rough time, mentally, emotionally. I tried reaching out to her with love and prayers and gentle words of encouragement. She was so close to taking her own life. Nothing was working—nothing at all. I started to sing a short little chorus of hope. The words were simple:

Whisper a prayer in the morning 
Whisper a prayer at noon 
Whisper a prayer in the evening 
It will keep your heart in tune 

As I sang, I felt her little body relax and she began singing with me. Finishing the song, we were able to pray—a prayer of praise and a prayer of hope. Together, we both felt the presence of God as we traveled each over our own pathway in song to our Father.

Donald: An elderly relative who has lost her memory lives very much in the present. but she lights up in church when traditional hymns are sung. It’s amazing, because as we all know, music is one of the last things that actually leaves one’s mind. She remembers, and she participates. So there is something unique about music, about sound. How can it and how does it influence our understanding of God?

Michael: Even when we’re talking about sound, we’re still referencing it in the sense of sight. Are we talking about how music influences our understanding of God, or how it influences our picture of God?

Donald: Music can change our mood. 

David: I love music but it was almost spoiled for me once when I read someone describe it as “a device to inflate the soul.” I think Michael’s point is right. We cannot picture God in any way, shape, or form. All we can do is develop some semblance of understanding of God. Music contributes to the sense that God is something wonderful, something that confers joy on everyone, and that’s enough. 

Music can, however, sometimes evoke specific images, such as the ticking clock in the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony, or the Summer storm sweeping over a pastoral landscape—you can picture the thunderclouds and the sun peeping through and the birds resuming their singing. But in general, great holy music results not in a picture but in a feeling of transcendence above and beyond the level of the human senses. It takes you into a world—a spiritual world—where sight, sound, touch, and smell as we know them physically don’t exist.

Donald: But we cling to the physical. 

David: I don’t believe we can visualize a physical God because God is not a physical being, but grand spiritual music, from Beethoven to the religious blues, can take us into the spiritual realm.

Carolyn: Jesus said “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” That is visual. People have asked to see—they want to see—the Father, but he wouldn’t let Moses see him. But I hear both sides. Was Jesus saying “If you see me, you know what the Father is like” in an emotional or spiritual sense, or in the visual sense?

Donald: Does music play a role in your life?

Michael: A little bit. What I enjoyed most in church was the hymnals. I enjoy listening to classical music, but enjoy it more if I’m also watching the orchestra play. I also enjoy some modern music—not that it creates anything spiritual, it’s simply an enjoyable experience. Music can stimulate dopamine release in our brains—I wonder if that is part of the spiritual experience. I do think music can give us a different aspect of understanding than pictures give.

Donald: To me, pictures can take us only so far. But there’s something about music. Some people have a greater appreciation of music than others. Uplifting, glorifying, gratefulness, God’s voice,… These are interesting terms to describe what music can be.

Anonymous:  I love music. All the senses bring us closer to God or even show us God—but by faith, not by sight. Beautiful music, beautiful scenery, and beautiful words are very effective in my relationship to God—they touch my heart in a way that makes me cry. When you’re in tune with God, you see him in everything—in music, in beautiful words, in beautiful scenes from Nature. 

When Moses asked God to show him his glory, God passed by and Moses only saw the back of God. A voice came to him saying God is gracious, merciful, and forgiving. So we see God in the effects that voice, words, music and so on have on us. We see the effects on our souls. When we are exposed to beautiful music or beautiful sights or beautiful words or even a beautiful breeze touching our face, it touches the heart and reminds us of God. 

Reinhard: To me, music represents an extraordinary gift from God. It calms our spirits during challenging times and acts as a fundamental part of worship. I recall a writer who identified three things to be appreciative of, that God bestowed upon humanity. These were: The splendor of nature, the concept of romance or love, and music. While he accentuated classical music, in my view, religious music carries a significant part of it.

Over the years and spanning centuries, spiritual music has been instrumental in worship. Many teachers have used the term “doxology”—a hymn or a phrase praising God. Our hymnals are filled with such expressions of faith, reiterating my belief that God gifted us with music to honor him. Whether we find ourselves alone or within a congregation, I firmly believe that music strengthens our faith and fortifies our relationship with God.

Drawing upon Biblical references, in the Old Testament, David would sing songs with his instrument, praising God after returning from victorious campaigns or wars. Looking forward to the Book of Revelation, the 144,000 chosen ones will sing a new song. As such, song and music appear to play an integral role at the end of time.

Moreover, in Ephesians 5:19, as Christians, we are encouraged to communicate “to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” It seems to me that God encourages us to embed music deep within our hearts, to make it part of our daily lives, whether alone or collectively. Christian music, in particular, brings a sense of upliftment, making us feel closer to God. I perceive the lyrics as God’s call to us, a component of our praise and collective worship.

As we have discussed, the sense of sight communicates through visuals, while our sense of hearing does so through music, both essential aspects of our human existence. In my daily encounters, music serves as a divine gift. It is a medium through which we praise God, whether individually or within a congregation, forming an essential part of worship. This is particularly uplifting and brings us closer to God. This encapsulates my experience with religious music.

Kiran: Undoubtedly, I’ve observed that some individuals respond more intensely to music than I do. I am not particularly reactive; I savor the music, yet it serves a distinct spiritual role for me. Typically, when I’m contemplating God, reading about him, or experiencing his presence, it’s an intellectual and experiential process. However, there are moments when music, in some inexplicable way, seems to tie everything together, leading to an emotional cascade that rarely occurs otherwise, perhaps during fervent prayer.

I appreciate a range of music genres, and it doesn’t have to be strictly hymnal, classical, or contemporary spiritual music. It can be relatively calm, but the key for me is when people convey their experiences of God and spirituality. When these experiences resonate with my own, they connect with my intellect and previous encounters in a powerful way that often overwhelms me emotionally, to the point of shedding tears. These moments can occur unexpectedly, even while I’m driving, which can be troublesome as it affects my vision.

Such profound spiritual moments of emotional intensity usually occur when I am praying or singing. Once, it happened during a sermon, but only because there was soft music playing in the background. In those moments, my mind gradually ceases its relentless thinking and attains a state of tranquility. This sensation persists for a few days at least. I’ve noticed that for some, these moments occur more swiftly, but I can’t say how profound their experience is.

What I can affirm is that these instances provide a sense of calm and acceptance. Even when answers aren’t readily available, there’s a reassuring feeling that everything is okay. A kind of indescribable peace takes over.

Robin: I don’t have a lot of experience with music (not as much as I would like, anyway). I played flute in middle school and high school. Modern praise music is very, very uplifting, very sing-songy and I certainly enjoy that. But on a personal level, there is nothing that affects me like the classical masters—men who had such a burden to express what God was putting into their minds that some were on the verge of insanity. Handel’s Hallelujah chorus really touches me. 

Revelation mentions more than just people singing or angels singing. And John is taken in vision—in Revelation 15 he refers to the seven angels with the seven last plagues. But then in Revelation 15:2-4 he says: 

And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who were victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God. And they *sang the song of Moses, the bond-servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,

“Great and marvelous are Your works,
Lord God, the Almighty;
Righteous and true are Your ways,
King of the nations!
Who will not fear You, Lord, and glorify Your name?
For You alone are holy;
For all the nations will come and worship before You,
For Your righteous acts have been revealed.” (Revelation 15:2-4)

Jay: It intrigues me how the recent discussions seem to interconnect, each week’s discourse linking with the next. I understand and appreciate Michael’s point regarding our interchangeable use of the terms “picture” and “understanding”. As we form a mental image of God, it invariably enhances our understanding of him. Consequently, reflecting on how we articulate this process is indeed crucial.

Something that struck me a couple of weeks ago, when I delivered a sermon at Oakwood on topics we’ve been examining, was the sensory nature of the Garden of Eden. It appears that as created beings, our understanding and depiction of God are deeply intertwined with a highly sensory experience.

If you consider the initial interaction between Adam and Eve and God following the apple incident, the narrative within those brief verses encapsulates various sensory experiences, be it taste, touch, or sound. As beings created in his image, we instinctively yearn to engage our senses to fully grasp and visualize who God is.

As Donald has discussed over the past several weeks, even though our sight can no longer perceive God in a tangible form as Adam and Eve might have in the Garden of Eden, we use it in an abstract way to better understand or visualize God. Similarly, with our topic of music today, we use our hearing, which was a concrete sense in the Garden of Eden, now abstractly, to shape a mental image of God and his nature.

As we proceed along this path of exploration, I would suggest that we contemplate how we, as created beings, were originally intended to understand God, and how, as beings now fallen from that initial state, we continue to strive for that understanding.

Don: It strikes to me on a superficial level how music allows one to internalize ideas. A song may get stuck in your head, playing over and over regardless of its value, regardless of its origin. And depending on the nature of the song, the theology may be correct. It may be verifiable by Scripture, or it might be bad theology that gets stuck into a phrase of song. So there’s something quite powerful about music that is different from just the written word. I never get a phrase stuck in my mind a phrase or a paragraph, but something about music sticks in the mind. 

We’ve made reference to certain kinds of music. I’m wondering to what extent my forefathers viewed music the way that I view it, or that my grandchildren view it, and what is the cultural element, if any, in music? I also think about the responsibility of composers to make sure that their music portrays, as accurately as possible, a concept of God which is recognizably biblical and verifiable in terms of our experience with the Spirit. 

In recent decades I have tended to heed lyrics, particularly of hymns, more closely than I did before. I can remember as a child learning lyrics that really were not words to me at all—they were just utterances that sounded like the words that my parents were saying but to me really had no meaning. As I grew older and came to understand what those words meant, I found some of them to be not nearly as holy and divine as I thought. 

For instance, I dislike the hymn Trust and Obey, For There’s No Other Way. I think it misrepresents God’s grace, and to me should be struck from the hymnal. Even the great Adventist hymn We Have This Hope is ethnocentric and self-centered. It says nothing about sharing the faith of the Second Coming and nothing about worshiping God. It says nothing about anything except “this is what we’re hoping for”. It is a great hymn and I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand and make people think I’m not a loyal Adventist (it is almost the Adventist theme song) but it strikes me as being very different from the message of Jesus. 

I’m thinking we may need to spend another Sabbath talking about music and how it influences us. There is something about classical music; perhaps something transcendent. Without lyrics, it takes one to a place that we otherwise wouldn’t go. I’m not sure if that’s just a cultural thing. Maybe my grandson has no interest in going where that music is taking him. So I think it would be fruitful if Donald would lead us in one more discussion of music and culture this coming Sabbath.

Donald: Each of you has contributed a facet of what music is, and how this gift relates to our understanding of our spirituality in a very unique way, enabling us to imagine what God might be like, One thing touched upon today is the role of Nature. It seems to play a significant role in how we understand God. That’s another aspect that we need to cover before we leave the topic.

Michael: I really enjoyed listening to Carolyn and hope we can hear more about the rich experience she just touched the surface of today.

David: I agree. Carolyn’s contribution was most insightful. Another topic we might want to explore is the role of dopamine, which Michael mentioned. Dopamine seems to be the neurological basis for our feelings of transcendence. I think there’s got to be a difference between the transcendence that (people tell me!) you get from LSD versus the feelings you get from music. Perhaps Kiran was pointing to the difference when he mentioned that he experienced long-lasting effects from music. Drugs soon wear off and leave you craving another fix (as a former smoker, I would know!)

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