Noise and God’s transcendence.
by Dave Skipper
In this series I am taking a unique approach to telling the story of noise:
- surveying the broad sweep of history from a Biblical-theological perspective, and specifically applying this journey to noise.
This article commences the second of the major 5 blocks I am covering:
2. Creation of Noise
3. Curse of Noise
4. Cure for Noise
5. Culmination of Noise
2. Creation of Noise
Does the Bible teach anything about the origins and purposes of noise? I didn’t think it did in any explicit way. But on closer inspection and contemplation, I keep discovering implicit instances of noise, as well as principles and concepts that apply as much to noise as to other aspects of the world and reality.
The key passages that describe the creation of the world are both simple and profound. I will attempt to open up some preliminary thoughts on how they might apply specifically to an understanding of noise. Despite the lack of any obvious reference to noise or non-verbal sound, they are packed with truths and concepts that are critical for forming a distinctly Christian philosophy of noise, as I hope to evince in these articles.
In gathering and structuring my thoughts for this article I was amazed at the layers that kept opening up. This whole series – A Brief History of Noise – was originally intended to be one article in the series The Word on Noise. I quickly realised that valid though a summary article would be (which I will probably write when this series is complete), it wouldn’t do justice to the topics. And so I found the same again with this article on the Creation of Noise – what was meant to be one article has now split into five.
So that you can see where I’m heading with this sub-series on Creation of Noise, these are the topics that I will be covering (subject to tweaking):
i. Noise and God’s transcendence
ii. Noise and God’s word
iii. Noise and God’s image
iv. Noise and God’s evaluation
v. Noise and God’s plan
Ok, take a deep breath, and off we go…!
i. Noise and God’s transcendence
- Cosmology: the beginning of noise
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
The Bible begins with this simple declaration, which is subsequently assumed and reaffirmed without reservation throughout the whole of the rest of the Bible. The implications of this statement for theology, anthropology, philosophy, history, and cosmology are immense and far-reaching, without even going further into the opening chapters of Genesis.
Briefly stated, some of these implications include:
- The universe exists due to the intentional creative act of God. Therefore we can be sure that existence of the world is not a mistake, not random, and not inexplicable.
- Because God created at the beginning time, in fact because he created time itself, we know that the purposes of God precede history and underpin human existence.
- Because God is the Creator of everything, we know that he is all-powerful (omnipotent), all-seeing (omniscient), and all-hearing (omniaudient).
- Because God created everything, he is the owner and king over all creation: he made it and it all belongs to him.
- Because God is the Creator, Owner, and Ruler, we can be confident that he is in total sovereign control over all of time (history) and space (the universe).
- God didn’t need to create the universe. God depends on nothing, while everything else that there is or ever was or will be is completely dependent on him for its existence.
- God’s sovereignty has also ensured that the account of creation has been reliably recorded and preserved in the Bible for all generations.
All of these points form the basic foundation of a Christian worldview. They are some of the basic presuppositions out of which I am writing this whole blog. Crucially, these points are not abstracted speculations, but evidence themselves throughout the Bible.
What about implications for noise?
- God did not need to create noise, or the possibility for making noise.
- Noise finds its origin and meaning in the will and character of God.
- God’s creative act in the beginning paved the way for all the sonic and creative possibilities of noise.
- God as sovereign Creator defines the properties and parameters and purposes of noise.
- Noise testifies to the creative imagination of God.
- Noise in all its intricacy and diversity and power is a generous gift from God.
Taken at face value, the most intriguing aspect of Genesis 1:1 is that it places the creation of the heavens (space) and of our planet earth side by side, simultaneously at the beginning. The popular theory of a Big Bang and all that entails doesn’t sit comfortably here. Genesis states that earth was specifically created at the start, the implication being that earth is vital and central to God’s plans for the cosmos. Our world is not a random speck of rock preceded by billions of years of expansion and stellar evolution.
- Chaos: the appearance of noise
Did life originate in primordial chaos (physical or metaphysical noise)? Did life emerge and develop via random processes (statistical and meaningless noise)? Is noise primary to the makeup and essence of the cosmos? Are chaos, randomness, and noise at the heart of our universe’s origins? The Bible emphatically declares otherwise.
The only potential foothold in Genesis for the commonly held view that order has emerged from chaos (as in ancient myths of pagan deities, Darwinian evolution, Big Bang cosmology, and so on) is in the next curious phrase in Genesis 1:2, here in bold:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep…”
Does this verse, preceding as it does the further creative works of God in the remainder of the first chapter of Genesis, parallel what could be collectively termed ‘extropic cosmologies’, that is, theories or beliefs that propose that chaos is the wellspring of life in the origins and progression of the universe? Do these first two verses of the Bible teach that the earth in its formlessness or darkness are foundational to reality? No – quite the opposite! They teach that God in his sovereignty and power is the foundation to reality, as the heavens and the earth only exist at all at his command. God precedes his creation; in stark contrast to the ancient gods emerging from primordial chaos.
So what of the formlessness and emptiness and darkness? How are we to understand them? And how do they relate to noise?
The initial formlessness of the earth was created out of nothing. God used no raw materials, he made the raw materials. A formless earth was a blank canvas, a grid, a toolbox, a starting-point. These original raw materials consisted of formless ‘stuff’ in the form (ha!) of deep waters, empty ‘space’, darkness, and the onset of unfolding time.
Already created good, the earth then got better, before being perfected through the diverse specificity of populating/augmenting/crafting those raw materials. The rest of Genesis chapter 1 outlines this process (I will look at this in the next articles).
God the artisan, the craftsman, models for us what creative work looks like. It involves preparing raw materials (in God’s case making the raw materials, in our case finding and utilising raw materials fit for use). It involves planning, processes, and progression. It requires work, time, and imagination. It is driven by purpose, possibility, and promise.
Noise is the audio consequence of the dynamic vibrations caused by the interaction of physical particles. Noise depends on movement to exist. Noise depends on relationship to exist. Is noise destructive and messy? Potentially, but first of all it is constructive and beautiful. Noise in its fine detail is exceedingly, extravagantly, even excessively intricate, not so much formless as an exaggerated conglomeration of forms that tumble endlessly over each other, yielding the net outcome of formlessness at the macro level, which is what is more readily perceived.
Noise can’t be pinned down. The essence and the detail of noise can’t be completely understood, analysed, or modelled: at best it can only be approximated. In this way noise exists in a realm somewhere beyond our grasp. Noise belongs to God before it belongs to anyone or anything else. Noise is at one and the same time part of the hidden things of God and the revealed things of God.
In creating noise, God was affirming the necessity of unpredictability within the created order. The impossibility of exhaustive knowledge of God is hinted at in the impossibility of exhaustive knowledge of the world, which is exemplified in the impossibility of exhaustive knowledge of noise (in its essence, constitution, causes, effects, trajectories). Concomitant with this is the timebound limitation we are subjected to: we cannot accurately predict the future in any detail. The future too belongs to God, known and planned and seen by him in advance from all eternity.
Noise music is easily charged with being formless, empty, and dark – those same characteristics as our earth had when first fashioned by God. These descriptors may or may not be valid, but the point I am making is twofold: first, that formlessness, emptiness, and darkness needn’t be equated with negativity, and second, that actually they provide the context and possibility for so much development and wonder.
I like to think that noise, like quantum physics, is one of God’s ways of acting incognito. A formlessness that teases limitless potential, an emptiness that is ready and waiting to be filled with beauty, a darkness that beckons new ideas, new beginnings, new images, new forms.
- Complexity: the mystery of noise
Was the creation of the cosmos quiet or loud? What sounds were present at the start? We can only imagine and speculate, but I think maybe the first hint of noise is found lurking here in this next strange statement (again in bold):
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
The Spirit of God is, obviously, spirit and not material in substance. He is not bound or limited by any spatial dimensions. Yet the very first thing we learn about God here is that his Spirit is close to his creation, close to what he has made right from the very start. He deliberately enters into his creation. He is not ‘outside’ and distant. Specifically, in this verse he is stationed at the interface of the heavens and the earth. The boundary is between the heavens and the earth is the surface the deep waters; at this point dry land has not yet appeared (that follows later in verse 9, the third day of the creation week).
What about him hovering? Hovering is the act of airborne vibrating, or oscillating, or flapping (in the case of a bird or insect) in such a way as to (approximately) maintain position. Hovering denotes the congruence of motion and stillness. It is a state of being simultaneously dynamic and static. This reveals something of who God is: living and active, yet also unchanging and complete (that is, with no need to change). Hovering also requires strength, poise, and precision. It indicates control and intent. Hovering also implies being characterised by peace and patience – not being frantic or restless or fearful.
The Hebrew word for hover used here is râchaph, which is also translated as move, brood, flutter, shake. The word implies a state of being relaxed. Râchaph only occurs three times in the Bible, and one of those instances (Deuteronomy 32:11) is in a description of God as being like a mother eagle brooding over her young. Drawing a parallel is beautiful: God is close to his creation because he loves it, he cares for it, he desires for it to grow and to thrive, and he is jealous for it (the right kind of jealousy). The Spirit of God is intensely personal. He is all-embracing, all-hearing, with his ear to the world, encircling the waters completely and tenderly.
Most of all, for the purposes of considering noise, hovering in the physical world generates sound and noise, assuming the movement is taking place in or on a medium through which the vibrations can propagate. The non-material Spirit of God doesn’t make sound in any conventional way that we would be familiar with, but God creates sound and noise as part of all he creates. After all, the sounds we hear are not the sounds of the source of origin directly in itself, but the vibrations passed through air (or water or other material) reach our ears and are converted into signals that we perceive as sound.
My guess is that the image being described in this verse involves the waters being impacted by the Spirit’s hovering. While a gentle hovering would do little more than generate gentle ripples, I imagine that more likely there would have been churning waves, fierce ocean storms, and dramatic turbulence below the surface. In other words, there would have been a terrific noise!
Fluid dynamics is a fascinating field of study. The sheer complexity and unpredictability of all the particles’ interactions quickly gets out of hand, yet the basic mathematical models are essentially rather straightforward and elegant. The simple and controlled act of ‘hovering over the waters’ would have produced a staggering richness and spiralling of water movement and noise. Water’s capacity for endless noise and endless variations of noise was instigated from the very start of history and continues to fill the open-eared listener with amazement, terror, fascination, and wonder.
And what is the physical phenomenon that we know as the instigator of storms and waves? Wind: the movement of air caused by pressure differences. It should come as no surprise then that the Bible often pictures the Holy Spirit as the wind of God and the breath of God, and wind/breath metaphors are comfortably applied to his activity. Genesis 1:2 makes the point of origin explicit: the Spirit of God is the original, the true, the ultimate Wind/Breath, of whom the winds/breaths of our world are mere echoes and pointers, (Future article series Elemental Noises will explore the spiritual-physical-noise themes of wind in more detail.)
Earthbound hovering is good noise material: the buzz of bees and drones, the hum of hummingbirds, the whirring and whooshing of wings, the stuttering and chopping of helicopter blades, the droning and din of hovercraft. And then the turbulence-induced noise of air and water that can result from hovering (especially the more extreme the hovering) serves to amplify and develop those sources into an even greater sonic palette of textures and surprises.
So we see that God didn’t just make things that can make noise ‘by themselves’, but he was actually the very first direct noise generator! In a very real sense, then, the sounds of winds and waves are the sounds of God, echoes of his very first creative activity!
Some intriguing and unanswerable questions emerge: was the Spirit of God hovering at a particular frequency, say some resonant frequency of water? If his hovering could have been audible in any way, I imagine it would have been more a comforting hum than an annoying buzz (one of his names is the Comforter after all). And since hovering is a time-dependent activity, how do we understand God’s acting within time given that he himself precedes and is outside of time? Can we surmise that noise came before God’s first spoken words (coming in the next verse, Genesis 1:3, with the famous, “Let there be light”)? And (quite possibly a question you have been asking while reading my thoughts), to what extent are these verses to be understood literally? For example, is the hovering just a figure of speech?
The Bible’s assertion that an infinite, eternal, personal God created the universe out of nothing flies in the face of much of human thinking on origins. Genesis 1 is too easily dismissed as prescientific speculation, superstitious nonsense, ancient myth, or religious crackpottery. However, I believe that the story of noise is inextricably bound up with the Bible’s historical accounts, beginning with the start of Genesis, and this only serves to heighten and deepen and broaden the meaning and role of noise.
I find in the Bible’s creation account an inspiring vision of and for noise that far exceeds the generally perceived status of noise.
I am aware that some of the ideas I am presenting are tentative and speculative. I am endeavouring to be faithful to the Bible’s teaching, while also approaching it with a noisician’s eyes and mindset. By asking questions about what the Bible’s depictions and descriptions might have sounded like, I inevitably have to apply my imagination. So let me just reiterate at this juncture that while I believe that the Bible provides the word on noise, my own words are merely a first tentative word on noise. I therefore welcome comments, corrections, questions, critiques, suggestions, theories, concerns, and the like.
Next time, I will look further into the first chapter of Genesis for more exciting nuggets of noisology!
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!