Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Theologians often treat music as a potent tool for fostering sacred awareness. Music’s ethereal abstractness suggests a reality that is beyond the ability of words to describe. Of the resources available to humanity, musical sounds are the closest representation of the divine. To quote Joseph Addison, they are “all of heav’n we have below.” Yet, theologians are quick to remind us that music and theology are not the same. The absorbing impact and amorphous beyondness of music might hint at God’s immanence and transcendence, but this effect is, at best, a useful metaphor.
This cautious approach is conspicuously absent in The Idea of the Holy (1917), Rudolf Otto’s influential treatise on the phenomenology of religion. Giving preference to experience over analysis, Otto claims that supernatural encounters—or numinous experiences—are real events that stand apart from ordinary occurrences. Rationalizations and approximations are used to describe the ineffable event, sometimes giving rise to myths, rituals, and dogma. The experiential moment—the thing itself—becomes religion.
Oddly, Otto assesses the musical experience in an identical way. Music is first received as an all-consuming, supra-rational force. Only subsequently is it understood in emotional or other humanizing terms. In contrast to the visual arts, music is not representational or expressive of anything specific in the physical world. Rather, it is “wholly other”—the same phrase Otto applies to spiritual communion.
Moreover, Otto believes that numinous experiences, while separated from day-to-day activities, are not unreachable or even uncommon. All human beings have access to episodes of transcendence. Thus, the regularity with which music brings about spiritual sensations is not a trivialization of the numinous, but confirmation of its accessibility.
The blending of musical and spiritual language in Otto’s treatise has its climax in the following passage: “Such is the effect in Music in the highest degree, for Music stands too high for any understanding to reach, and an all-mastering efficacy goes forth from it, of which, however, no man is able to give an account.” Replace “Music” with “God” and the point becomes clear. (The capitalization of “Music” further sharpens the effect.)
In a recent article, religious studies scholar Christopher I. Lehrich contends that Otto’s treatment of music in The Idea of the Holy allows for a “disconcerting” reformulation: “Suppose that, instead of writing a book about numinous experience, Otto had chosen to write one about musical experience.” Beyond merely discarding the theologian’s preference to mark distinctions between music and theology, Otto essentially groups them together. Music is not simply a means for coming into holiness. Music is Holy.
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