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How Music Led Me to God


A while back I mentioned to an atheist acquaintance that I'd cried at Mass that morning. I explained that it was one of those times when I felt overwhelmed with the presence of God; I was so perfectly at peace, so surrounded by love, that I couldn't help but be moved to tears.

"Maybe it was the music," he responded. He went on to offer an erudite analysis of how music is known to produce certain positive sensations in the brain, noting that religious leaders from time immemorial have used the evolved human response to the stimulus of music to delude the faithful into believing that they've experience the divine.

I had to smile at his suggestion, because I actually agreed with part of his argument.

I never had a "religious experience" before my conversion from atheism to Christianity, and couldn't even imagine what that might be like. Would harp-playing angels appear in front of you? Would you hear a booming voice fill the room? I had no idea.

There had been a handful of moments in my life, however, when I experienced something that was unlike anything else I'd ever felt. On a few rare occasions I felt overcome with an odd sensation, an ecstatic elation on top of inner stillness that was so powerful that it made me feel as if I'd slipped into some other dimension. It was a moment of feeling compelled to relax, to let go, to just trust (trust in what or whom I didn't know, but that was definitely an overriding feeling when I had those experiences). Those moments were...well, if I hadn't been so certain that nothing existed beyond the material world, I might have said "spiritual." And they always occurred when I was listening to music.

It seemed illogical, really, that a mere arrangement of certain sounds in a certain order could transport me, for however brief a moment, into such a sublime state. I was aware of all the natural explanations for music's impact on the human brain; yet when I'd read about how the cochlea transmits information along the auditory nerve as neural discharges into the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe, I'd think, "Uhh, yeah, that's true…but I feel like there's something more going on as well."

One of the many things that rang true when I began studying Catholic theology was the emphasis on art—music, in particular—as a reflection of God. I came to see art as a sort of "secret handshake" of beings with souls: We share 96% of our DNA with chimps, but chimps don't write symphonies. Dogs don't rap. Dolphins can be trained to reproduce musical rhythms, but they don't sing songs. Only the creature made in the image and likeness of God can speak the secret language of music.

In other words, I realized that all those experiences I'd had while listening to music were so tremendous because they were experiences of my soul having a brush with its Creator. Or, in Pope Benedict's words:

"The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said:
"Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true."
The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer's inspiration."

Christianity doesn't deny that beautiful music can move us to feel something; in fact, it acknowledges it, and then takes it a step farther by articulating exactly what it is we're feeling. And that's why I smiled when I heard my atheist friend's comment. It is actually because I am a Christian that I take that moment at Mass when I became filled with so much love and hope that I felt like I could explode with joy, and I say: Yes, maybe it was the music.
Originally posted at the National Catholic Register. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: VK.com)

Jennifer Fulwiler

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Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She's a contributor to the books The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011) and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion (Servant, 2011), and is writing a book based on her personal blog. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their six young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. Follow Jennifer on her blog, ConversionDiary.com, or on Twitter at @conversiondiary.

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  • Thanks for this moving and insightful article! I'm reminded of Christopher Hitchens' own admissions about music - in particular, Bach and Bob Dylan. He once said:

    "The sense that there's something beyond the material - or, if not beyond it, not entirely consistent materially with it, is I think a very important matter. What you could call the numinous, or the transcendent, or at its best I suppose the ecstatic...I think religion has done a very good job in enshrining it in music and in architecture."

    I think most atheists would describe this as a natural - or, like you once did, and Hitch did, "spiritual" - part of the human experience that Catholicism co-opted and corrupted. But I think you show that the affinity, even if we call it misguided, is anything but forced - that music itself pines for faith, just as faith pines for music. Beauty doesn't need a sermon grafted onto it. The more we enter into song itself, the more we admire it and let it saturate us, the more it transforms into a signpost of something above, not an accidental outgrowth of the world below.

  • Mary Wagner

    Great article. Man's capacity for the creation of great beauty stands for me as the greatest evidence of a creator capable of even greater beauty. Glad to see Thomas Dubay's "Evidential Power of Beauty" on the recommended booklist on this site.

  • Mark Hunter

    I'm an atheist and love Bach's Cantatas. (A love shared by Daniel C Dennett - One of the "new Atheists") They don't lead me to God, just to a greater appreciation of human creativity. Each is different.

    • Leila Miller

      I once asked an atheist about that sublime, indescribable feeling of longing, aching that one feels when moved by a piece of beautiful music. I was absolutely stunned when he said that he suspected the feeling was his "envy" at the composer! I had never heard anything like that before (nor felt envy when I am deeply moved by music). Would you agree with the other atheist that that incredible feeling is simply "envy" directed at the composer?

  • DoctorDJ

    So your theme is: "Beauty. Therefore God?"

    Tain't true. Human creations that we find beautiful (music, art, architecture, etc) are human-designed and made. Nothing more, nothing less.

    As a singer I've especially enjoyed the sacred and secular works of John Rutter over the past couple of decades. Learning his Requiem a couple of years ago, I found his description on YouTube of the creation process; where he got his themes, what he was going for. Nothing god-inspired here; just a very good artist.

    Beauty is also a product of our culture. No matter how hard I try, my Western ears cannot fathom Chinese opera.

    • Hey DoctorDJ - I don't think "beauty, therefore God" is her theme, but: what best explains beauty and our experience of it? (The author was an atheist, but didn't convert because of those peak experiences listening to music. She remained a materialist.)

      Music certainly doesn't have to be God-directed or God-inspired to be godly, and believers certainly don't have a monopoly on making or appreciating beautiful music (just tune in to any insufferable "Christian rock" station). But the very "otherness" of an encounter with beauty demands an account. Creativity and culture avoid dragging God into it - although they do fail to account for natural beauty - but do they account for it? Do creativity and culture account for being absolutely transported by Terrence Malick, Faulkner, or Vivaldi? Perhaps biochemistry is better. "The cochlea transmits information along the auditory nerve as neural discharges into the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe." To my mind, this is a raw deal too - but more importantly, it doesn't finally explain the event at all.

  • Amazing article, thank you gor deep thoughts!