The Musical Path To God
It was a warm August night under the stars. The lead guitar sent a piercing, melodic riff skittering out across the crowd. We leapt to our feet, whooping, shouting. We knew this song. Ready to sing! Suddenly thousands of people were belting out a song that overwhelmed the sound of the band. Everyone was swaying, arms waving, exulting. Perfect strangers clapped each other on the back.
As the song wound down, I looked at the scene around me. This was a communal religious experience, what the ancient Greeks called ekstasis. Most everyone is embarrassed to sing in public, yet in this moment everyone was Freddie Mercury. We didn’t care what people thought of us. The boundaries we carefully tend between ourselves and others, between ourselves and the natural world under the stars, dissolved slightly. It was clearly an ecstatic experience.
“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional,” Oliver Sacks wrote in seeking to understand music’s unique power over us. Even hardened atheists, like Kurt Vonnegut knelt before a melody. “The only proof you need that there is a God,” he wrote, “is music.” And the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the one who famously declared that “God is dead,” had second thoughts in the presence of a song. “God has given us music,” he allowed, “so that above all it can lead us upwards.”
In other words, when exquisite music is washing over you, it’s almost impossible not to know the presence of God. Therein lies perhaps the easiest path to the divine. You know the real presence of God the same way you know the real presence of music. It is “completely abstract,” as Sacks notes, and yet music is intensely physical, sound waves literally pulsing and penetrating our flesh (to sit in the front rows of a concert is to be pummeled, ravished). I see in this power—both invisible and physical in the same instant—a manifestation of the eternal. It’s that easy to know God—it’s just how we know music. Don’t try to make it any harder than that.
As the poet Rumi wrote:
We have fallen into the place
Where everything is music . . .
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the center of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.
If you’d like to read the whole poem, you can find it here.