Music: a divine mystery?

Can music point us to God? Is it bound to the earthly realm, or does it provide a glimpse of divine mystery?

That’s the conversation musician that theologian Professor Jeremy Begbie and podcast host John Dickson embarked upon in the latest episode of Undeceptions – Creation’s Music.

Begbie thinks harmonious strains can indeed point us in the direction of the Almighty.

“There are things you can explain in music in physical terms, but there’s an awful lot that you can’t. Ultimately, there’s huge mystery there,” he says.

Delving into the philosophical realm, Dickson asked Begbie if he agreed with ancient thinkers like Augustine, who argued that music is an audible manifestation of the rational elegance of the universe, and therefore a pointer to the mind of God.

“The tradition you’re talking about is very, very ancient and in one form or another has been the dominant way of thinking about music worldwide,” Begbie repied.

“Now it’s fallen out of favour in the modern age, but for centuries and certainly for 1500 years of the Christian era, that was the commonest way. If you were going to think about music and theorise and philosophise about music, you did it with reference to the created order as a whole.”

He pointed out this way of thinking goes back to Pythagoras and Plato who posited that music was a way of tapping into and giving voice to the order of the cosmos.

But while Begbie gives credence to those ideas, he hesitates with some forms an approach to music like that can take.

“The danger is that you will leave the materiality of music behind. You will tend to see music as simply giving voice to an ‘Idea’ with a capital I, something that is always beyond the material,” he told Dickson.

“I think as Christians, we want to say that the material world is very real and very good and has its own kind of order which we should celebrate. So it’s not as if we’re constantly trying to escape it.”

But that doesn’t mean being limited to thinking the material world is all there is, the musician said.

“If we look at the material world in the way that God wants us to, we can celebrate its beauty, its order, its possibilities. I think that’s one of the things that music does.”

“It’s like to get on the roof of a house, you use the ladder, but then thinking you can kick the ladder away once you’re on the roof. No, there’s never a point at which we kick the material away. God takes his creation very, very seriously.”

Undeceptions is part of the Eternity Podcast Network.