This is Part II of our session with Gavin Ortlund from his new book, Why God Makes Sense in a World that Doesn't: The Beauty of Christian Theism, that focuses on a specific aspect of why theism is the best explanation for the transcendent power of music-something that is recognized even by some non-theists. Join Scott for this discussion of an argument for God that you might not have considered.

Gavin Ortlund is a scholar, pastor, and writer with a growing profile among the next generation of Christian thinkers. He serves as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California, and is the author of multiple books. He blogs at and has a growing YouTube channel called "Truth Unites."

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. It's a podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian Ethics. We're here with our special guest, Gavin Ortlund, who is a pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ojai, California. He is the author of several books related to historical theology, [inaudible 00:00:23] and Augustine. But he's got a fascinating subject we're going to talk about today and I have to admit, it's not a subject that I've thought about a lot, and I suspect our listeners might not have thought about a lot, but it has a lot of intuitive appeal. Topic is the argument for God from music. So Gavin, welcome. It's great to have you on with us and I'm sure our listeners are fascinated to hear what's coming in the next few minutes.

Gavin Ortlund: Yeah, thanks for having me. I can say is the first thing, I was very skeptical about whether this argument could work, but as I got into it, I found there's actually a lot to it. So I'm excited for us to have a chance to talk about it.

Scott Rae: So tell our listeners, first of all, what got you interested in pursuing an argument from God in this particular way?

Gavin Ortlund: Yeah, I think the experience that stands kind of behind the argument for me was actually just listening to music. I think it was been probably 2017, so a few years ago and just experiencing this overwhelming longing for heaven. That wasn't the only time in my life that had happened, and you can never predict it. It's not like, "Oh, it was this one song. Therefore, if I listen to that song again, I'll have the same experience," but I just began to reflect on why does music do that?

Gavin Ortlund: Before long, I started getting into some of the literature that it would explain that from a secular perspective and that just started the process of thought, of what's the best way to understand the kind of power that music has. Again, like I said, I wasn't expecting this to be a powerful argument for God. I tend to be pretty skeptical going in because I don't want to be triumphalistic and act as though this argument is stronger than it is, but I was actually pretty amazed and I'll never forget getting into these philosophers of music and discovering the best of them are pretty honest about how mysterious the power of-

Scott Rae: Secular or religious.

Gavin Ortlund: Yes. Across the board.

Scott Rae: [crosstalk 00:02:31] all stripes.

Gavin Ortlund: Of all stripes, the mysteriousness of music.

Scott Rae: Okay.

Gavin Ortlund: So let's spell it out-

Scott Rae: Really clearly for our listeners. What is the argument for God from music?

Gavin Ortlund: Okay. I cast it as an abductive argument and that-

Scott Rae: Which means?

Gavin Ortlund: Yeah, that means an inference to the best explanation. So this is a distinct form of logic and inference then say a deductive or inductive argument where you work from premises to the conclusion. Abductive reasoning is less certain so it yields only a plausible conclusion. So you're saying, so abductive reasoning could be you wake up in the morning, you have a roommate who loves eating Wendy's, there's a Wendy's leftovers on the counter and therefore you abduce that it was probably from your roommate. But it's not a logically certain guarantee. It could have been there [crosstalk 00:03:25].

Scott Rae: [crosstalk 00:03:25] other explanations for that.

Gavin Ortlund: Right.

Scott Rae: Okay. So what you're arguing essentially is that God is the best explanation out there for the power of music, something like that.

Gavin Ortlund: Well, I'll just walk through it real quickly. That was just explaining the kind of argument it is. The actual argument itself basically goes like this. First, there's the observation that music communicates transcendence. Now that word transcendence, we could probe a little bit, but in my book where I make the argument, I just walk through many different examples of people, atheists, believers, who have had experiences that music has made them believe in something transcendent, or they testify to that feeling of transcendence. I suspect most people could relate to that on some level.

Gavin Ortlund: So then the question is, okay, what's the best explanation for that experience. I just examined two alternatives, especially, theism and naturalism. There could be other options we'd also need to consider too, but on naturalism basically you're left with evolutionary psychology. So here you're just explaining everything about us, including that experience of transcendence in terms of the evolutionary process that proceeds us. I give some arguments for why that's pretty unsatisfying and it's not as good of a framework as theism and I explain how theism enables you to look at music.

Scott Rae: Okay, and we'll come back to the naturalistic basis for that in just a minute. But you mentioned that this argument is not the idea that music has transcendence, is not exclusively the the domain of theists, that some very prominent atheists have also held this view, for example.

Gavin Ortlund: Well, you can hear lots of anecdotes of people... In my written material on this, I talk about Albert Einstein, I talk about Steve Jobs, I talk about a couple of agnostic philosophers, all of whom have had an experience where they, upon hearing some beautiful strand of music, say in one way or another, either a, "That's the best argument for God that I've ever heard," or b, "That makes me wish that I believed in God." So that's in and of itself, doesn't really tell you too much, but it's just a fascinating observation that makes you start to wonder, well, why is that?

Scott Rae: Okay, so let's go back to the evolutionary psychology. That's one, that's one of those non-theistic explanations for the power of music. How does that work?

Gavin Ortlund: Okay. This is really the only option on the table if you are a naturalist, because everything about human beings is explained.

Scott Rae: Okay. Just to be clear for our listeners, to remind our listeners, the naturalist is the one who believes what about reality?

Gavin Ortlund: Naturalism is the belief that there is nothing beyond physical nature. That entails that human experience is explained reductively by the process of evolution leading up to us. Now, a theist could also think that evolution plays a role, but they wouldn't see evolution as the sum total explanation.

Scott Rae: Okay. All right. So the explanation from evolutionary psychology goes how?

Gavin Ortlund: Well there's all kinds of theories and it's so fascinating to read them. Most people come down to a combination of some theory or other. Some theories talk about music in terms of pattern recognition. Because the great challenges music doesn't seem to have, and the enjoyment of music doesn't seem to have survival value. People note that music accesses the same part of our brains that food and sex access, and obviously food and sex have survival value. So the question comes up was, well, why did we evolve this love of music? Some people stress pattern recognition. So our brains evolved to notice patterns. Music has patterns. So our brain sort of gets a dopamine hit subconsciously as we're discerning these patterns. That's one view. Another view is that music mirrors speech and so we respond to music in the way we evolved to respond to other people's facial expressions and communication.

Gavin Ortlund: There's all kinds of other theories but I think the important thing to note is they all result in music being kind of accidental. It's an offshoot of the evolutionary process. There's a secular thinker named Steven Pinker who calls music auditory cheesecake. So just as the way our palette evolved such that we love desserts, rich desserts like cheesecake, that's like music. It's what some people call a spandrel, which is basically, that's an architecture term for the triangular shape that's created when you build an arch. So it's not the direct results. It's a byproduct of the process, and the idea is our love of music is basically an accident. It's because of the happenstance of our evolutionary history and that means two things, that our love of music is accidental. We could have evolved such that music would be white noise to us, and it means that it's illusory. The feeling of transcendence we experience in the context of listening to music is an illusion. There is nothing transcendent it refers to. It's just tricking our brains into that experience of transcendence.

Scott Rae: So even though it's a basically universal experience, it could still be viewed as accidental by the naturalist.

Gavin Ortlund: That's right. Yeah. If you rewound the evolutionary tape, you could end up with a circumstance in which music was, as I say, nothing more than white noise, maybe even something we wouldn't enjoy.

Scott Rae: Okay. So why is the theistic explanation better than that?

Gavin Ortlund: On a theistic explanation, music can be seen like all forms of beauty as it reflection of the creator. In fact, on a theistic worldview, people have often, this is something that really amazed me in my research, Christians have often attached a special significance to music, and you see this in works of fiction. For example, Tolkien's The Silmarillion, which is the creation account for The Lord of the Rings, explains the creation of the physical world in terms of musical harmony. He has these angel like creatures creating musical harmony and it says that that is how physical reality was produced.

Gavin Ortlund: The same thing in The Chronicles of Narnia in the magician's nephew, Aslan, sings the world into being, and while he is singing, the stars join in with the song and are singing in harmony. This is a classical Christian view that the angels sort of sang and it draws from the verse in Job 38, that speaks of the angels singing for joy at creation. Now that's one particular piece of this whole thing but the bigger picture is simply that music is a reflection of the [Creator 00:11:06] and its beauty therefore isn't an illusion. Its beauty is actually a clue of what ultimate reality is really like.

Scott Rae: So [inaudible 00:11:16] something like a window into what ultimate reality looks like, ultimately sourced him in being God's creation.

Gavin Ortlund: Yes. The word window is a great term to get at it. The way I describe it is in terms of metaphors.

Scott Rae: Yeah, I'm using your term. Actually, not [crosstalk 00:11:36].

Gavin Ortlund: So I'm complimenting myself [crosstalk 00:11:38].

Scott Rae: You are.

Gavin Ortlund: Yeah. Think of it in terms of two metaphors. For the naturalist, music is like an opiate or painkiller to someone who's suffering. It's pleasant and you're glad you have it because it's a distraction from what reality is really ultimately like, which is chaotic. For the theist, music is like a window to an imprisoned person. You're glad you have it because it's a clue of what really is out there. Those are two fundamentally different ways of thinking about the enjoyment of music.

Scott Rae: Now, I suspect some of our listeners are going to be thinking a little bit ahead of us on this and wondering it's interesting that you mentioned chaos by the chaotic part of reality because there's some music that will sound to our listeners much more like chaos than beauty. How do you connect that? Because there's some genres of music, I think, that are easier to sense transcendence in than others. So is this something that only certain genres of certain types of music give us, or is this a universal expert that all types of music tend to give us this kind of window?

Gavin Ortlund: It seems to me, this is one of the points that comes up in the literature on this matter is, to what extent is this experience of transcendence communicated through all music versus certain kinds of music? That's a completely legitimate question. I don't know myself how to exactly demarcate that. It does seem to be more common in certain genres of music than others. Classical music would be sort of a classic example of what a form of music that often will convey a sense of transcendence. I'm not aware of any form of music that is completely chaotic. All music has some element of rhythm, some element of harmony. So I don't see chaos in music, but I do think it's plausible to think that what we're tapping into here of this experience of transcendence, that's not necessarily the case with all music. It's certainly not the same throughout all kinds of music.

Scott Rae: Okay. I think that's helpful because I think about the music of John Cage, for example, who set out to do something chaotic through his music.

Gavin Ortlund: Right.

Scott Rae: It just, it's real, it's jarring and it's almost in the front to the senses and intended to be [crosstalk 00:14:28]. Now that may be a little different because he intends it that way. But that's some of what I'm thinking about.

Gavin Ortlund: Right. Well, and it is interesting because I think you're right, that he intends it to be chaotic and therefore, in a sense, it's not actually purely chaotic because it's intended to give this jarring effect. So if it was truly chaotic, that seems to me that it would be different than what he was doing. I think part of why his approach is famous and well known is that is so different than what we expect music to be like.

Scott Rae: True. I'm thinking about some of the really hard rock and roll, the heavy metal groups, Metallica, groups like that, that their music is sort of similar in its jarring effect, but that has pattern and rhythm and rhyme to lyrics and it does have those patterns. It's just, I think for our listeners, it's probably a little harder to see that transcendence in say Metallica, although we may have some listeners who are really avid fans too. So if I'm stepping on your toes folks, I'm sorry about that. But that, I mean, I could see that. I think that's a valid question for some of our listeners to raise.

Gavin Ortlund: Right, and it seems to me, the argument for music would not require that all forms of music equally convey that experience. It would just require some to. Although, with hard rock, I mean, if you go to a concert of Metallica or something like that, I think someone could make the case that there's a different kind of energy and even transcendence that can be conveyed through that music, but it's very different than other forms of music. That's one of the things we'll talk about is the way music communicates differently.

Scott Rae: True, yeah. So let's get to that. You say music conveys meaning.

Gavin Ortlund: Okay.

Scott Rae: [inaudible 00:16:26]. Now I take it you mean the music itself, not necessarily the lyrics, though that's certainly included, but it's not restricted just to the lyrics communicating meaning, right?

Gavin Ortlund: That's right and in fact, when philosophers of music speak about musical meaning, they're actually referring not to the lyrics. They're referring to this puzzling phenomenon that here we're getting into the meaning of that word transcendence. What are we really mean by that? And it is just an amazing feature of music that so many find mysterious is music is able to convey meaning and yet it's very difficult to say how it does so, because music communicates meaning so differently than anything else we experience. For example, a piece of music without any lyrics can convey either feelings of triumph and happiness or feelings of melancholy and sadness and that meaning can be interpreted, but how does it do so? Music communicates in a non-representational manner. So it's different from language. Words communicate different than music and so what all of the philosophers on this puzzle [inaudible 00:17:44] and there's all different kinds of views about this is, how does it do that?

Scott Rae: Okay, and the best explanation for how it does that?

Gavin Ortlund: Well, in terms of the argument for God for music, the important point is that music seems to have an ability to communicate or to convey meaning. The question is, how does it do that? Now, if you have a theistic framework, that is so not surprising because of what music has taken to be namely... In fact, that's what Peter Kreeft, the great Christian philosopher says, is music is the original language, which is a powerful way of thinking about music and that would fit entirely with the angels singing the world into being. That is one framework by which you could understand musical meaning is, well, this communicates meaning because it's not a random thing that we invented or discovered. It comes from God, it's a creation of God and that functions as a kind of language.

Scott Rae: I take it this would also explain, at least in part, why throughout the history of the church in Old Testament Israel, that we were so often called to praise God with song. So the question for that is how should knowing this change the way we worship in song?

Gavin Ortlund: Well, a couple of basic things. One is, I think we can experience all forms of music with gratitude as a gift from God. This isn't just something random that we discovered. This is something that we receive from God. I think we can enjoy music, especially when it does give those feelings of transcendence as something that's a legitimate avenue by which God's goodness touches us. You needn't feel guilty for feeling longings for heaven about music. You should think this is what it's designed to do. This is what it should do now and again. Then I think another practical thing would just be to value music in our worship, to value musical excellence, to not have second rate music, but to do it with excellence, to see that as an important part of worship, rather than just an unimportant feature that we just sort of add on.

Scott Rae: So you make the claim that music's power of communication is unique. That there's nothing else quite like that.

Gavin Ortlund: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Scott Rae: Okay. Let's try to spell out for our listeners in a little bit more detail of what makes that so, and I think you made a good point that it's just different than words, it's not symbolic. It directly touches our intuitions in less mediated ways than literature or spoken language, or oration, things like that.

Gavin Ortlund: Yeah. Yeah. This goes back and we can unpack this little further, what I mentioned a moment ago of music communicating in a non-representational manner. The way one famous musician, he's sort of a popularizer of music, I think his name is Benjamin Zander. I think that's right. He's done a very popular Ted Talk about music. And he says music does not go through the brain. It goes through the molecules. It communicates at a visceral level. It touches us in a ways that isn't fully rational and people can... For example, one of the fascinating things that came up when I was [inaudible 00:21:33] my paper on this yesterday from one of the questions is, someone referenced that for those who have Alzheimer's, music has been shown to be very powerful at helping them-

Scott Rae: Interesting.

Gavin Ortlund: ... remember things and helping their brain function well, and I thought that was so interesting. There's many other examples of that where music can affect you, even when you're sleeping, for example. It can affect your mood while you're asleep. So interesting. So music has this sort of direct point of contact with us. It communicates through almost sort of physical way, and not just through our intellect. Again, this is the great puzzle the philosophers of music are wrestling with, is how does it do that? What gives it that power. People speak of music as a closed system of communication. It's kind of its own sort of way, it's own sort of avenue of communication. So what all the philosophers are wondering is kind of, "Well, what is that? Where did that come from?" What I'm arguing is that it doesn't really prove God per se, but if you have a theistic framework or I argue potentially some other kind of super naturalistic framework, you've got some options for how you might understand that, more so than on a naturalistic.

Scott Rae: Certainly a better option than it being an accident.

Gavin Ortlund: Yes.

Scott Rae: So one more question. Spell out a little bit further, this idea of music creating this longing for heaven.

Gavin Ortlund: One way that it could be understood is in a more general way in the way that all beauty can make us long for heaven, because all beauty is from God. Therefore, all beauty makes us long for God, ultimately, and heaven is where we will experience the most intimate and direct kind of contact with God. Theologians talk about the beatific vision in heaven, for example, where we see God and however someone understands that, [inaudible 00:23:28] have some powerful encounter with God and heaven. So it could be understood like all beauty like that. That's how this, as I mentioned at the beginning, this all began for me. I'm sitting at my desk in Chicago and I'm listening to Hans Zimmer. He writes these amazing, beautiful soundtracks for movies, and I love his music. I just remember this longing, how do you convey it?

Gavin Ortlund: Somebody listening to this will have had an experience that will enable him to know what I'm trying to say, even though I can't fully communicate it. This longing for something beyond the world comes into your heart as you're listening to this beautiful music. So I think, music can function like that in the way that all beauty can just in the way that a waterfall or a sunset or the flight of an eagle or a cloud formation can do the same thing.

Gavin Ortlund: If we wanted to go further than that, some have argued that music has a kind of eschatological quality, which means end times. So kind of looking ahead kind of quality to it built into it, because part of what makes music meaningful and beautiful is this pattern of tension and release. There's a kind of narrative structure to most forms of music that where the complexity builds and then ultimately resolves. So some people have argued that music is a sort of faint reflection of the very nature of creation, which is temporal and precedes and then ultimately resolves. So I'm not 100% sure how to think about that exactly, but I find that intriguing and I certainly think at the basic level music dysfunctions because it's something good that God made.

Scott Rae: Wow, I hope our listeners have found this as fascinating as I have, because this is so interesting to me and it's personal for me too, because my middle son is an audio engineer in the music business.

Gavin Ortlund: Oh, wonderful.

Scott Rae: He was a long time musician himself. So I think to see the notion that any genre of music has the potential to do this, to give us a window into what God is like and express that longing for heaven and to touch us viscerally, I think is very, very powerful. It's one of those intuitions that I think most of us have, but I'm so grateful to you for helping us articulate what our intuitions, what resides in our intuitions, but may not always be able to explain exactly what it's about. So Gavin, this has just been fascinating. So tell our listeners just one last thing, a little bit about the book that this comes out of.

Gavin Ortlund: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. Thanks so much, for this has been so fun to talk about. The book that this comes out of is called Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn't. The subtitle is The Beauty of Christian Theism. It's just out this month as of this recording, November 2021 and it's a argument for the existence of God. I share a little bit of my own experience of kind of times I've had to wrestle through that and how apologetics has helped me, but I'm approaching apologetics in a little different way. I take four classical arguments and I put them in a narrative frame. So the cosmological argument or the argument forgot its first cause is the beginning of the story. The teleological or design argument is the meaning of the story. The moral argument is the drama of the story and the [Christological 00:23:42] argument is the hope of the story. Then I present them as abductive arguments and I present them with a view to their beauty. So I'm saying this is not just a more plausible story than naturalism, it's just a better story all around.

Scott Rae: Now to our listeners, stay tuned for that because we have Gavin scheduled to record that episode on the book as a whole. So you'll hear a lot more about that in the weeks to come. So Gavin, this has been so interesting and so appreciate you coming on with us to talk about this. Gavin Ortlund, the argument for God from music is great stuff. You can read about it in his book that's forthcoming. So thanks so much. This has been just a terrific, terrific, insightful time.

Gavin Ortlund: Thanks, Scott. Really enjoyed it.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our masters in Christian Apologetics, now offered fully online. Visit in order to learn more. If you've enjoyed today's conversation with Gavin Ortlund, give us a rating on your podcast app and please share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.