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Why Sing?

Unitarian Universalist Christian Table of Contents

The James Luther Adams Papers

The Unitarian Universalist Christian, Vol. 48, nos. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1993

Part 15: Why Sing?

The Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, captures a memory of his childhood: a triumphant act that the circus clowns of his youth used to perform. He says:

A clown would stroll in with his livid, floured face, seat himself on the railing, and produce from his bulky pocket a flute which he began to play. At once the ringmaster appeared and intimated to him that here one could not play. The clown, unperturbed, stalked over to another place and started again. Now the ringmaster walked up angrily and snatched his melodious toy from him. The clown remained unshaken in the face of such misfortune. He waited until the ringmaster was gone and plunging his hand into his fathomless pocket produced another flute, and from it another melody. Alas, inexorably, here came the ringmaster again, and he again despoiled him of his flute. Now the clown’s pocket changed into an inexhaustible magic box from which proceeded, one after another, new musical instruments of all kinds, clear and gay or sweet and melancholy. The music overruled the veto of destiny and filled the entire space, imparting to all of us, with its impetuous, invincible bounty, a feeling of exultation, as though a torrent of strange energies had sprung from the dauntless melody the clown blew on his flute as he sat on the railing of the circus.

What an apt parable of the dauntless melody of existence itself. Is it because the universe is at heart a song that human beings are inveterate singers? Let us be borne down with toil, and we will chant an accompanying song of work. Let us lament our loneliness, our despair, and even then will we sing. All sorts and conditions of people in all the experiences of joy and sorrow, work and play, solitude and society, somehow persist in singing with Emerson:

Let me go whe’er I will

I hear a sky-born music still.

Why do we sing? Some people will answer that all experience, especially all intense experience, demands the impassioned utterance of rhythm. They will perhaps suggest that this rhythm issues forth in harmony or in contrast with the rhythm of the heartbeat or with the rhythm of breathing. Some will say we sing in order to have company; others say that we are merely chattering simians; yet others will say that we must give expression to our excess energy. A song may revive some memory of a cherished experience. Think of the flood of remembrance that D. H. Lawrence releases when he says:

Softly in the dusk a woman is singing to me
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of tingling strings,
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

We are told that people sing in order to bring their experience under control. To be able to sing of one’s grief, for example, is to view it in perspective, to assimilate it into the whole of one’s experience. To sing rightly is at once to give beauty of utterance and to stabilize one’s inner life; it is to give form to experience and yet to allow the exuberance of hope to burst through the form. These answers to the question, Why sing?, are provocative but somehow inadequate for the religious consciousness because the depth dimension is lacking.

Something deeper is hinted at by the poet who composed the book of Job. The creation of the world, the divine creativity, is music; it is song. The morning stars sang together, and all the children of God shouted for joy. “Indeed, the history of the literature of religion includes as its most widely shared ingredient the history of the hymn. Think of the hymns of the Israelites, the hymns of the Christians, the hymns of the Rig Veda, the Song of the Blessed One, the Mahabharata. We sinners seeking redemption are inveterate singers.

Some religions have interpreted the universe as a dance, or as a song and a dance. For the Greeks, song and dance were an imitation of the life of the God who is the creative power of the universe. In the dance, the dancer personified the God being celebrated. The dancer, in moments of ecstasy, became one with the god and partook of the divine life being celebrated. The human song and dance were a striving to participate in the cosmic song and dance. Similarly, the poet Shelley speaks of our attempt to be one with “the ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the eternal type of all that we love, admire, and would become.” The cosmic song and dance are a form of communion with the being of God, a standing outside of the prison of one’s ordinary identity and experience, a participation in the serious but spontaneously playful drama of love and strife, death and rebirth.

In India we find a similar idea of the character of life as song and as cosmic dance. The cosmic process has often been called the Dance of Shiva, the God of many arms. At every moment, the dancer, whether divine or human, is giving expression to a cosmic meaning or purpose or will. God is the cosmic artist who is ever fulfilling the inner urge of love of life and beauty, dancing to the fullness of joy.

The Christian, in singing, does more than express emotion. Like the singers of other traditions, there are songs of praise, confession, recollection, dedication, and fellowship. Hymns become forms of communion between people and God, providing a bridge that leads to the victory of the creative and recreative powers of the divine, thereby enabling us to find a new flute and a new melody such as the song the stars sang together on the morning of creation.

Why do we sing? Carlyle has told us: “All Deep things are song. It seems somehow the very central essence of us is Song; as if all the rest were but wrappings and hulls. The primal element of us and of all things, the heart of creation, is music.”


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Categories: Poetry, Prayers & Visual Arts, Theology & Philosophy