Exploring Reality and Meaning in Absolute MusicPatti Whaley
Delivered at the SOFN (NZ) Conference on 10 October, 1998
One of my favourite scenes in "War and Peace" is the moment when the widowed Prince Andrey falls in love with Natasha. Natasha has gone to the clavichord and begun to sing. "Prince Andrey stood by a window talking to the ladies and listened to her. In the middle of a phrase he ceased speaking and suddenly felt a lump in his throat from tears, the possibility of which he had not dreamed of in himself. He looked at Natasha singing, and something new and joyful stirred in his soul. He was happy and at the same time he was sad. He had absolutely nothing to weep about, yet he was ready to weep. For what? His former love? His lost illusions? ... His hopes for the future? ... Yes and no. The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable existing in him, and something limited and material, which he himself was, and even she was. This contrast made his heart ache, and yet rejoiced him while she was singing."
If I read a paragraph like this to my local SoF group, it would keep us busy for months. Could music, or any similar non-linguistic event, really have such an effect on anyone? What was the meaning of such an experience, and how could it be explained in a nonrealist context? The question of non-verbal meaning was at one point such an obsession with us that I joked to another member that no matter what topic we officially set for the evening, we would have ended up arguing about non-verbal meaning within the first half-hour.
Two of us in our group are long-time practising musicians, and so dedicated to the proposition that music is significant. I've studied music, in some way or another, for about 40 years now, and until I came to SoF, I assumed without question that music had meaning, and in fact had more meaning than many other things that seemed ostensibly more real. After my belief in traditional Christian doctrine began to decay, music was a way of orienting myself in the world, morally and metaphysically: I derived from it an almost religious sense of the goodness of the universe. For the last several years of my church-going, music was the reason I went. Friends would sometimes ask me why I went to church, or why I chose a particular church. I would say it was because of the quality of the choir that I sang in, and they would say "Oh, I see, it's just aesthetic", with an air of relief that it wasn't really religious. This term "just aesthetic" bothered me a lot; I would want to answer that the phrase "just aesthetic" was nonsense; anyone could see that five minutes of Purcell or Benjamin Britten were worth far more than what one generally heard from the pulpit on any given Sunday.
When I joined the Sea of Faith, one of my first reactions to non-realist linguistic philosophy was to ask how one would understand music in this schema. The answer was that music was just notes; no more, no less. There was not, nor could there possibly be, anything "behind" the notes. All meaning was linguistic meaning; or, as Cupitt phrased it in his book Mysticism after Modernity, "only language can turn an event into an experience of something." It was unclear whether Cupin meant "language" to refer only to verbal language, or whether other types of symbolic order could also convey meaning. This was what my local SoF group had such trouble with; Cupitt himself did not seem to address it directly; he talked often, and very well, about "turning your life into an art form" but he did not seem to have an artist's view of nonverbal reality. In response to the story of Prince Andrey, and in response to my own story, nonrealism seemed to be saying that no such experience could logically have happened.
When Lloyd Geering told me the topic of your conference: "Inventing Reality" based on a book about physics as a language, I said without hesitation that I would address the same question from a musical perspective, not because I knew how to explain it, but because it was high time one of us tried. I want, then, to talk with you about music as a language: in what ways can we say that music conveys meaning, and what kinds of meaning can it convey? Can we, in a non-realist context, come to an understanding of its impact on us; and can its impact on us in turn expand our understanding of non-realism?
Let me start by isolating the source of the problemwhat we call absolute music, or music that exists only for its own sake. There are some types of music where the question of "meaning" is answered by something outside of the music itself. All music that accompanies a text falls into this class; the text defines the context in which the music is heard and understood, and the music intensifies the feelings proclaimed by the text. Other music is intended to accompany physical movement, and so we have forms that are based on dances or processions. Essentially all music through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and a great deal of the music of the Baroque period, falls into these two classes, music to be sung to or music to be danced to. Possibly the first important music where a subject is explored and worked out for its own sake is the Baroque fugue. From this period that is, the early 18th century comes the sudden flowering of absolute music; within a relatively short period of time, say 50 years after the death of Bach and Handel, the classical symphony, string quartet and sonata had become mature art forms, and it is these forms which still primarily define our standard of "serious" composition and the body of work to which the concert-going public is most deeply attached. If we're going to explore meaning in music, this body of work is our primary laboratory: music which refers to nothing outside of itself and serves no obviously useful purpose. Our attachment to this music is so outside of our normal activities of getting and spending, so unrelated to our usual hierarchy of physical and psychological needs, that philosophers often comment on it as a mystery equal to the mystery of the life force itself. Or, as George Santayana wrote: "That the way in which idle sounds run together should matter so much is a mystery of the same order as the spirit's concern to keep a particular body alive, or to propagate its life."
If we begin by exploring what it means to say that music could be a language, one of the first things we must clarify is that if music is a language, then it is a language in the non-realist or post-modern sense, that is, it is a cultural construct, not a naming of an "underlying" reality.
For most of our musical culture, music has been regarded as a sort of "naming", an expression of inherent physical qualities of sound, and as a universal, God-given language. The argument went something like this: we have known, since Pythagoras, that the vibrations that cause musical tones are complex. A string that vibrates along its entire length at a speed of 440 vibrations per second will produce an A above middle C. But it will also vibrate in halves at twice that speed, which produces an A one octave higher; and in thirds at three times that speed, producing the E five notes above the second A; and in fourths, and fifths, and so on, producing ever higher notes. This is called the overtone series. And, in fact, if you take the first 8 notes of this series, and transpose them all so that they fit into one octave, they result in something known as the natural C major scale. Voila, say the musical theorists: the musical scale is an inevitable outgrowth of the physical properties of the natural world. Furthermore, the intervals that we perceive as "consonant" are those intervals at the "bottom" of the overtone seriesthe octave, fifth, fourth and major third, while the "higher" and more complex intervals, like the minor second, are perceived as dissonant, and the tritone, which doesn't appear in the overtone series at all, is the "diabolus in musica", the devil's interval. So, not only the C major scale, but the harmonic system itself, with its consonance and dissonance, and the importance of the relationships between the tonic, dominant and subdominant chords, is laid out for us in natural acoustics, just waiting to be discovered. It was a short step from this acoustical theory to the "harmony of the spheres", expounded by Boethius and later "proven" by the astronomical studies of Kepler, the theory that the planets and stars, moving through space, would produce an equivalent series of tones.
Like most absolutes, this one has taken a severe beating over the past decades. Although the recognition of the octave and the perfect fifth seem to be fairly universal, the major scale itself only came into prominence relatively recently, in the late Renaissance; until then, composers had seven different scales to choose from, of which the major scale was not particularly the favourite. Neither are our perceptions of consonance and dissonance stable; until the 14th or 15th century, the third was considered extremely dissonant. Around the 16th century, it began to be used as a consonance, and we now perceive it as very stable, and even necessary to soften the rather hollow sounding octaves and fifths.
Furthermore, the whole notion of specific tones, divided into whole steps and half steps and specific intervals, is an invented language. Like many languages, its refinement as a system depended on the refinement of the physical means of capturing the system, in this case, the development of musical notation. Notation began as little marks above the text denoting a general sense of melodic direction, rather like diacritical markings. Only gradually did it solidify through the development of specific shapes, the introduction of lines to show how far apart the tones should be, and then the introduction of signals to indicate note duration and rhythm. Musicologists now assume that this was not a process of refining notation to bring it closer to an existing idea of specific tone values, but that the specificity of the tone values and the specificity of the notation evolved symbiotically. The more exact notation allowed new musical values to be invented and defined.
The strength of this invention is such that, for most of us, intervals smaller than a half-step don't exist. Of course they exist, in the sense that between any two vibration frequencies there is an infinite number of other vibration frequencies; but most of us cannot hear them or sing them. We have created, in effect, a musical culture where we can only sing in mathematical integers, not in fractions. When we meet a culture, such as India, that sings in "fractions", that is, in quartertones and microtones, we are quite baffled. We think of our musical scale as absolute because we are as accustomed to its pattern as we are to the order of letters in the alphabet; but both are cultural inventions. Nothing about them is God-given or inherent in nature; they are truly human creations.
The sense in which music is a human language extends beyond the basic musical materials of tones and scales, to our ways of talking about musical form, musical space, and musical logic. We talk about these things as if they held some objective reality, but they are highly metaphorical and intensely culture-specific. For example, a musical myth that we tend to treat as an absolute is that music must begin and end in the same key. Sonata form is built on the principle that listeners derive great satisfaction from arriving back at the "home" key, and so a sonata that begins in one key and ends in a different key is unthinkable. It misses the whole point. But in fact, psychological experiments show that listeners, even very experienced listeners, generally cannot tell if a piece ends in the "wrong" key. As long as the key is prepared as if it were the home key, and "sold" as if it were the home key, listeners will believe that it actually is the home key. The actual sense of "home key" has no objective, experiential reality even for the duration of a single sonata. The idea that listeners will "know" whether they have been returned to the home key or not is simply a very powerful mythological idea in our musical language.
Another habitual way of speaking about music involves metaphors of space. We constantly say that tones are higher or lower than other tones, or thinner, or darker. Or we speak of melodies as 'broad', or of having a strong sense of direction, and in many ways we indicate that we have this very clear image of music taking place in two-dimensional or three-dimensional space. Of course it doesn't take place in any space at all but the metaphor is so strong that even when I realise that it is a metaphor, it doesn't seem like a metaphor; it seems like that's the way music really is. It is as if the metaphor must exist in order for me to be able to imagine and discuss the material existence of a musical line.
We can certainly say, then, that music is a language in the sense that it is a human construct. It does not represent any sort of physical reality; it is a powerful and complex set of mythological and metaphorical structures specific to our culture. Any meaning that music has, or any message that it can convey, has to come from the music itself; it cannot come from anywhere else. If we want to examine that meaning, we must try to look behind the metaphors and try to see more closely what is actually there.
First, at its most basic level, music is the imposition of order on sound. Humans are order-making creatures. We create order in an attempt to rescue ourselves from chaos, as we learn from the Book of Genesis, by dividing the light from the darkness, the day from the night, and the waters from the dry land, or, if we are musicians, meaningful sound objects from random noise. We are constantly sorting, sifting, classifying and creating patterns, and we find this deeply satisfying: the creation of order gives us an almost metaphysical reassurance that the world itself is orderly, and therefore understandable, and perhaps even hospitable. The imposing of order is one of the most fundamental requirements of meaning.
The flip side of this coin is that we hear things as music because we perceive that order has been imposed; we are able to enjoy different musical styles precisely to the extent that we are able to comprehend their sense of organization and pattern. So at its most basic and irreducible level, music is any series of notes that makes sense to us. In that very strict sense, to ask whether music can convey meaning is to ask the wrong question: we perceive music as music precisely because it does convey meaning, because we hear it as an intentional pattern rather than a random occurrence.
What we hear as an intentional pattern depends on musical syntax. Syntax, in a language, is the way of signalling the relationships and hierarchies between words and packaging the flow of information into digestible units. It is not the semantic meaning of the word but the way the words fit into recognizable patterns. Such patterns are absolutely vital to the musical performer, who could not cope with the flow of notes in a piece unless he could organize them into meaningful chords, scales, keys, and entire movements. Otherwise, he would have to deal with each note as a totally new entity. His ability as a performer is at least as dependent on his ability to learn this syntax, and convey it to the listener, as on any purely physical talent or training.
For both the performer and the listener, the greater one's ability to perceive this order, the more different styles one can perceive as music. The sense of outrage, the "that's not music!" that modern compositions evoke in some listeners, results from the sense that one has passed from manageable order into unmanageable chaos. We do not want to hear simply sounds, even if they are lovely sounds; we want to hear musical events. If the sounds do not, aurally, make sense, the piece will only frustrate us. This is most apparent when we grapple with serial, or 12-tone music. Although 12-tone music is almost rigidly intellectual on paper, and follows strict logical patterns of repetition and transposition and inversion and so on, it simply doesn't sound comprehensible to the ear. Stravinsky or Bartok, although they are much less "logical" than Schoenberg on paper, are much easier to comprehend as music; once your ears have adjusted to the level and type of dissonance that they use, the syntax is perfectly clear.
Musical syntax is often spoken of in the terminology of verbal language and logic, for example we talk about musical 'phrases' and 'sentences'. In some styles, such as Mozart, one has the clear sense of hearing a statement and a response, or a question and an answer. We can hear that an idea is stated, developed, varied, contrasted, and finally confirmed. It is rather like being able to see an abstract model of a thought process, as if you could separate the semantic content of thought from the shape of thought, and simply look at the shape of thought on its own. The rules of the thought process are specifically musical rulesnot logical rules, or scientific rules, or rules shaped on any non-musical realitybut we can very clearly see a coherent thought process taking place and a coherent structure being created.
Often musicians prefer to leave things at that, and simply say that musical thought is musical thought and it cannot be translated into anything else. There is a story that Robert Schumann was asked the meaning of a piece that he had just played, so he sat down and played it again; the piece meant what it said, and there was no point in trying to say it any other way. I had a ferocious theory teacher in graduate school, who thought all musicologists were frauds because we spent our lives trying to describe and explain music. He insisted that the only proper commentary on a piece of music was another piece of music. In a sense, of course, he was right. There is a sort of conversation between composers, in the dialogue of ideas between Mozart and Haydn, or when Stravinsky gives us a 20th century take on 18th century comic opera. So one could say that the notes are the notes and there is nothing more to be said. Or, as Cupitt would say, the language of music is outsideless, as is every other language.
But if I were satisfied with that answer, I wouldn't be making this talk. If what we want is order, or a sense of propositions very elegantly explored, we could equally well go to public demonstrations of mathematical proofs. The fact is, and meaning no disrespect to mathematicians, we don't. Music and mathematics are often compared, and they do have many things in common, but the nature of their appeal is quite different. Mathematics requires talent and training; people without mathematical talent rarely yearn to become mathematicians or go to public mathematical demonstrations. Music seems to exert an enormous pull on people with no talent or training whatsoever. We often think that one must at least have a certain familiarity with a musical culture in order to enter into its story, that you must, so to speak, "know the language", but even this is not always the case. I have heard a story of a particular Tibetan Buddhist teacher, who grew up in a remote Tibetan monastery, came to the west and was taken to hear a performance of the Bach B minor mass. This performance so overwhelmed him that he wept, afterwards, for six hours. There must be more going on here than a powerful sense of syntactical order!
So where shall we look next?
One school of thought explores the mythological archetypes implied by certain musical structures, for example sonata form. In sonata form, as many of you will know, the opening musical idea is stated in a home key, followed by a modulation to another key, usually the dominant, where a second idea is stated. There is then a "development" section where the ideas are dissected, played with, taken through various other keys, and gradually led back to the home key where they are restated in their final and most stable form. This is sometimes compared to the "myth of the hero". The hero sets out on adventures, he encounters obstacles and dangers, he slays a dragon, wins a princess, finds his soul, becomes an adult, and returns home to live in peace and prosperity. There is no doubt that this is a deeply meaningful myth for most of us. Variation form, where a single theme in a single key is subjected to various figurative or motivic transformations, has been compared to an exploration of the soul, which undergoes various adventures but always remains somehow essentially itself, even as it ascends to its final apotheosis. Telling myths in this abstract musical way has a certain advantage over telling the myth verbally. In a verbal story, there is a specific hero, who is someone apart from me and may be quite different from me. In music, there is only the form of the story; the subject is whoever I want it to be, which means that it's usually myself; it's the very indefiniteness of the language that allows me to experience the story as if I am not an observer but am myself the subject.
There is considerable appeal in this line of thought, but there are also some dangers. It has led many musicologists down the slippery slope of literalism, and from there straight into banality. I remember an amazing lecture on mythological structures in music by Wilfred Mellers, the famous British musicologist, when he came to visit my modest Texas university. He was going to lecture about the Bach D# minor fugue from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, which is an unusually elegant and tightly argued fugue. I was learning to play this fugue at the time, and I was very excited. Mellers played the opening subject and explained to us that its strong fifths and fourths, which have been called the "perfect" intervals since medieval times, represented God. The tritone, of course, represented the devil. As soon as you got past the initial statement of the subject, and began to develop the piece and move into different keys, tritones began to appear; this represented the introduction of evil into the world, and the fugue was in fact a musical statement of the great apocalyptic battle. He illustrated this by standing at the piano and pounding out my poor fugue, with howls of metaphysical distress each time the demonic tritone appeared. But fortunately, the fifths and fourths gradually regained the ascendancy, the evil tritone was vanquished, and God reigned in a peaceful world. We, being lowly undergraduate students, didn't know how to point out to Mellers that this happens in every tonal piece; modulation away from the home key and back to the home key is what tonality is all about. We just thought he was mad. We liked to think that probably all British musicologists were mad.
The other difficulty with mythological analysis is that it only accounts for certain types of music. Clearly sonata forms do tell a kind of story, even if they don't tell it as concretely as Mellers would like; but many pieces don't. The mythological hero or the battle of the apocalypse cannot account for the simpler types of music, particularly those that rely heavily on melodic shape such as Gregorian chant. Although Gregorian chant doesn't have a "story", it still has character, and emotion; the order that it creates is not dispassionate order but passionate order. If we look closely at the sources of this passion we may discover some further clues.
The first source is the simple tendency of music to arouse us, particularly because of its rhythmic force and the relationship of that force to the changes that we experience when we are aroused, such as changes in heartbeat or breathing rates. Music has the same elements of stress, pitch, volume, and speed that we use in spoken language to signal whether we are angry, or serene, or suffering, or telling a joke. The translation of these elements into music is usually fairly clear and listeners will usually agree that a certain piece is happy, or tragic, or martial. The intent of the emotion may be to arouse the same feeling in the listener, but this is not necessarily the case. For example, hearing Othello sing about his jealousy does not make us feel jealous; it is more often true to say that we contemplate the emotion that is expressed and experience a sort of arousal and wonder in that contemplation, rather than in the specific emotion itself.
I think we can also say that some styles, or some composers, exhibit definite qualities of character which different listeners may respond to more or less positively. We may sense that a composer's ideas are banal or subtle; his development of them may be tightly argued or discursive; his style may be restrained or indulgent. We react to these aspects much as we react to the character of a person, and they strongly affect our personal preferences in music. I, for example, am not a Wagnerian; I understand the style intellectually and historically, I can discuss it and analyse it and explain it; in a sense I can objectively 'see' that it is sensually quite beautiful, but I personally don't like it. It's long-winded and insistent, and doesn't give me any space to think or to make up my own mind. On the other hand, I feel affirmed by a style that suits my own personal blend of Apollonian and Dionysian qualitiesBrahms, for example. In Brahms I often sense that I am not only hearing someone who is a kindred soul, but someone who reflects back to me the sense of character that I would most like to find in myself, the person I would like to think of myself as being.
If I say that, then I begin to view the piece in an almost spiritual way; that is, in a way that is not simply emotional but aspirational; not just in harmony with how I feel but with how I aspire to be. I remember saying on the Sea of Faith internet discussion list that I "believed in" the Brahms Fourth Symphony, that it would be as much as my life was worth to live up to the Brahms Fourth Symphony. Of course I don't mean that the symphony was instructing me in a concrete way, that I should be a good eco-citizen, or give money to the poor, or eat my vegetables. Nor does it mean that Brahms himself was an unusually admirable person. But the way in which that specific piece creates a dynamic balance between the forces of reason and the forces of passion gives me a sense of how I would like to live my life. Listening to it is an exercise in what Foucault called the "pratique de soi", the practice of your best self, the modelling of your best self. Or, I could express this slightly differently as a sense of being restored to my own inner life, to my underlying sense of self which does exist but which I lose touch with in the process of battling through my daily getting and spending. I know pieces, for example, that can manage in one or two bars to wipe away layers of defensiveness, stress, tension and disappointment that could have taken me weeks to accumulate. Like Prince Andrey, it opens up areas of myself that I have buried. Or a Buddhist would say that it restores the quality of spaciousness, the ability to be open and accepting and full of gratitude towards life.
But music recalls to me not only the nature of my own inner life but the goodness of life in general. In saying that, I have crossed the border from what makes music personally affirming and restoring to what makes it beautiful and meaningful in an aesthetic sense. Our perception of beauty is notoriously subjective, culturally conditioned, and difficuft to explain, but it does seem to be the case that much perception of beauty carries with it a sense of purposiveness, a sense of the world being constructed as if it had purpose, as if it were constructed to suit our human perception and understanding, as if it were both consciously elegant and consciously benevolent. A sense of beauty often carries with it a sense of inevitability, a sense that the beautiful object is just as it must be and indeed it could not be any other way; it is perfect. Certainly our judgement of music often carries this sense of inevitability; we are carried along by the force of a Beethovenian argument to the extent that, although we may be surprised at what he does, we eventually conclude, with immense pleasure, that he has done the best possible thing, that he couldn't have done anything differently; and that whatever hair-raising adventures we and the world pass through will, in the end, come out right and could not come out otherwise.
The need to feel this is, of course, strongly related to the need for religious faith, that is, to the need to feel that although life may be nasty, brutish and short, it is not absurd, random and senseless. Our religions and our gods speak to us about structure, meaning, and purpose in the same way that our aesthetic creations do, and we are able to carry that sense of meaningfulness with us and project it into our daily experience. This is not to say that there is structure, meaning and purpose in any objective way; rather that there is a sort of symbiotic relationship of meaning between ourselves and our aesthetic creations. We need to feel a sense of order and purpose, and from that need we create musical compositions which in turn reassure us that order and purpose do exist.
This is not the same as saying that the world is a "nice" place or a comfortable place. Some music is emotionally harrowingBenjamin Britten's War Requiem, for example, or Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshimabut often what we need from art is precisely that ability to stare into the abyss and be reconciled with it. Louis Simpson names this aspect of art very well in a poem about his mother. His mother was Russian, and she would often tell her children stories of freezing winters, unbelievable cold and deprivation and bleakness; the children would sit around her, in a warm, fire-lit room, listening. Hearing his mother's voice underlie the contrast between that distant cold and their present warmth, Simpson says "so it is with poetry: whatever numbing horrors it may speak of, the voice itself tells of love, and infinite wonder."
How music and poetry convey this to us is part of their enduring mystery, and I'm aware that I've drifted into evermore speculative and metaphysical language over the last few minutes. Thats not entirely accidental. It still appears to me that the things I can explain about the causes of music's effect on usthe relationships of music to physiological states of arousal, or to our need for order and beauty, or to our experience of the hero mythare relatively paltry compared to its actual impact on us; and it is this extraordinary impact that leads me almost inevitably to use rather speculative and metaphysical language to talk about it. In talking about music I am like Hemingway's hero in The Old Man and the Sea, returning to describe to a sceptical village the amazing fish that I caught but could not bring back to shore. Nothing I have read, nothing in my discussions with other musicians, no attempts to formulate new explanations ever seem to measure up to actual musical experience. It seems that we have created a sense of significance that we can neither translate adequately into words nor relate in any rational way to the physical and logical means by which we have created it. We can recognize its impact but we are confounded by it and cannot account for it.
If that is where we end up, what does it mean for the kind of theology that we are trying to create in the Sea of Faith?
First, I would say to my local SOF group that there is no doubt that nonverbal language and nonverbal thought are deeply meaningful. That meaning may not be representative of any physical or metaphysical reality; it is not propositional, logical, or translatable. But it creates and structures experience as surely as verbal language does, and in the same culturally conditioned sense. We can and must discuss nonverbal meaning in verbal terms in order to place it in our cultural context, in order to be able to treat it as an object, but that verbal discussion can only be metaphorical. It can point at the nonverbal meaning, but it can never contain it. Music's power as a language seems to exist precisely in its inability to be pinned down, in its ungraspability, its ability, as one SoFer put it, to "eff" the ineflable. That very ungraspability is what allows us, like Prince Andrey, to recognize the infinite within our own finiteness, to understand how a material thing can be boundless.
Secondly, we must take care, in throwing out the supernatural, not to throw out the imaginative, the symbolic, and the inexplicable. SoF language and SoF thought often sound rigourously and exclusively rational, as if we are afraid that to admit the existence of mystery is tantamount to ascribing that mystery to a metaphysical Other. Not so. We need not be so frightened by what is beyond our rational and conscious mind: the imaginative is also human, the symbolic is human, the inexplicable is entirely and most deeply human. We see in music that we create things that we ourselves cannot account for, objects of beauty before which we stand speechless, universes that we fall in love with but can never really fathom. The fact that we create something does not necessarily mean that we can understand it or control it; we seem to need a medium, even one that we have created ourselves, which can receive from us and reflect back to us things that we cannot otherwise articulate to ourselves. I am reminded of a discussion that took place among SoF members about how a God whom we had created, whom we describe as "the sum of our values", could summon us to values that we do not yet hold, or inspire us to acts of courage and sacrifice that are not rationally conceivable. Somehow we are able to project into this God needs and aspirations that we do not consciously know we have.
A historian of the American abolitionist movement once spoke of the pre-Civil War period as expressing the yearnings of a collective people towards an as yet unrealised and unnamable good. It is not entirely logical that we should be able to create something which then stands apart from us and tells us things which we do not yet consciously realize; but this seems to be the function of the best art, and a function of the best Gods as well. So, let us not think, as we create a God who embodies our deepest values, that we control what we have created, or know what it thinks, or what it is about to command us to do. On the contrary: what gives our projected God its extraordinary power is precisely those parts of ourselves which we do not yet see, or understand, or articulate. It is this quality that is properly called transcendent, calling us beyond ourselves, telling us to change our lives.
Finally, is it not precisely this uncontrollable and unknowable quality that characterizes real faith? We often treat SOF theology as a belief system, that is, as something we know. We claim that all thought systems are humanly created, and then we treat our own thought system as absolute. We state that all meaning is linguistic meaning, humanly created, and then treat the boundaries of linguistic meaning as absolute boundaries rather than humanly created boundaries. We take a position of "knowing" that there is nothing beyond our linguistic boundaries, rather than stating that anything beyond our linguistic boundary is "unknowable".
Music always pulls us beyond that boundary. It is the nature of verbal language to define, and therefore to pin down, to grasp, to close off some possibilities in order to clarify others. It is the nature of symbolic language to point rather than to tell, and to leave open rather than to close down. The difference between verbal and symbolic language, between words and music, echoes the difference between belief and faith. "Belief", as Alan Wafts said, "... is the insistence that the truth is what one would 'lief' or wish it to be ... Faith ... is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go."