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Some of you will remember Douglas Adams' humorous work of science fiction, The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy. Some of you, like me, may know chunks of it by heart. If you don't know it, I should say that Adams' humour is irreverent and complicated, but contains some wonderful insights.

Our heroes are travelling through the galaxy, encountering its multifarious inhabitants. Naturally everyone speaks their own language. But communication between races is made simple by the Babel Fish, a little fish which you stick in your ear. Then you can instantly understand anything said to you in any sort of language. Then The Book explains:

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could have evolved by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.


But, says Man, the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't, QED.

OH DEAR, says God, I HADN'T THOUGHT OF THAT, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

The fun with logic and theology in this passage, is well worth dwelling on, but I want to talk, not about logical proofs of the existence of God, but rather about music. This is in honour of Peter's last Sunday with us, a sad day, but also a day in which we celebrate what he has achieved and what he has empowered us to enjoy.

Music, it seems to me, is a bit like the Babel Fish - so extraordinary a phenomenon that only the mind of God could conceive it. But instead of disproving God's existence, it seems to me to confirm it, though God would never be so tactless as to point it out, in case he got caught in a logical conundrum like the one over the Babel Fish. Mere mortals could never have thought up the idea of human music - though of course mere mortals produce every last scrap of it. Of course humans invented music in the strict sense - the beating of drums and the chanting of tales, the lullaby and the skipping rhyme. These are logical derivations of the way humans evolved; but what the human mind could not have postulated is what music has evolved into - its immensity, variety, complexity, the unplumbable depths and unimaginable heights of human music - works so complex and beautiful that over and over again the soul is ravished and the mind stunned that such a work could be.

Music is not simply an example of God's creation. Being in music is not simply a metaphor for our experience of God, it is part of our experience of God. For when we are participating in music - whether performing or listening - we are connected into something which is greater than ourself, which is unlimited and eternal. Each piece of music, and each performance of it is unique, a concrete and specific instance of an abstract whole. And as God, by definition, contains as part of his being every good thing, then music is part of the very essence of God. When we make or hear music we are tapping into that glory, just as surely as when we pray.

You may object to this that many millions of people make and listen to music every hour without a single thought of God. But that does not in itself prove that music is not part of God. Many millions rejoice in the good things of creation - food, sun and water - without giving a second though to their creator. Their inattention does not disprove the action or existence of God. And so, just because people make and love and feel music without a thought of God does not mean they are not participating in his nature. And it's not a matter of God being sneaky and getting them unawares - it's rather that generosity is the essence of God's nature, and therefore he could not, by his very nature, deny this part of himself to his heedless creatures.

Well, that's all very well for you musical types. But what about us? I hear you cry. Those of us with tin ears and the rhythmic sense of a rhinoceros? Yes of course there are people who physically cannot hear music, as there are people who cannot see, and one mourns for them, as for the blind, but there are far more people who are wilfully deaf, or just as sadly, think that their appreciation is too timid or unskilled to count. For this is where many people make a mistake. They think you need to be somehow special or musical, to love and derive pleasure from music. They think that because they don't hear what others more musically skilled or musically literate, hear, that their participation is not worthy.

But that argument won't wash. When I listen to a piece of music - say the Shostakovich 4th symphony which we heard this week at the Proms - what I am able to hear in that piece of music is quite different from what Peter, for example, would hear. I can't grasp the shape of the piece or understand its musical structure. I wouldn't recognise it on a second hearing, or be able to give you any coherent account of it, without cheating. I could describe certain moments that impressed themselves on me, and I could talk about the colour of the work and its background, but my experience of it was so primitive compared to, say that of the conductor's, that I might as well be tone-deaf. But nonetheless, my experience of that piece of music was completely valid, both for me as a music-lover and in terms of the work itself. It was not written or performed merely to be appreciated by the cognoscenti, but by everyone who is prepared to give it the attention and the love.

As I sat on the floor of the promenaders' gallery in the Albert Hall I looked all around me and saw people of every kind:- lying, standing, walking, from the elderly Americans in expensive linen, through the girl in ripped zig-zag tights, the man with a grey pigtale who had bicycled in from Staines, the simple-minded man in bare feet and a dirty orange t shirt who goes to every single prom and walks round and round the gallery, I could not tell which one was hearing every note and understanding every nuance of Shostakovich's work; I could not tell which one was only there for the fun and heard nothing more than the warm noise. It did not make any difference to the music nor to my hearing of it - what if they were all music students, and I the only amateur - so? Each person's experience of that music was different, and each one valid, insofar as he or she was paying some kind of attention or some sort of tribute to the music. Insofar as he or she was taking a little trouble to listen.

Our experience of music is part of our experience of God and is also exactly like our experience of God. All of us are equal before and in God. The mystic, the writer of prayers, the child, the doubter, the saint. Each one's experience of God is unique and each is valued by God. All that is required of us is to pay some kind of attention to and take some sort of trouble over that music which is God - that is, the greatness and glory and love which exists around and beyond and within us.

When we take just the smallest amount of trouble, pay that even the smallest amount of attention to God, we are like the people who came to Jesus, as recorded in today's gospel. They begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it - notice that - all who touched it - were healed. We need to do no more than that - to touch the fringe of his garment, through music, through prayer, through the experience of love, and we are healed.



The Babel Fish

A sermon preached by Imogen de la Bere

in honour of Peter Davis.

St Saviour's

St Albans.

23rd July 2000