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In April, the actions of the Washington state legislature were discussed on the SPU faculty e-mail list, which might be a first. We celebrated as SB 5848 “Concerning licensure for music therapists” passed.1 Several SPU faculty had worked with representatives and constituents for years to establish this licensure, which supports our undergraduate degree in music therapy, the first and only such degree in the state.2

My son, in his first year at SPU, has decided to major in music therapy. When people ask him his major, their second question is usually, “And what is music therapy?” For most, therapy connotes a conversation, not a tune. But my son and my colleagues know that music can heal with a power that, like many true things, does not call attention to itself.

Only after hearing my son explain his major several times did I realize that I myself had a music therapy story (but never called it that till now). At a time of crisis, the Spirit gave me a healing song that flipped my mind around.

At the University of Florida, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I was working in a chemistry lab. One afternoon I received a phone call with biopsy results. That lump on my leg, the one I had thought was benign, was in fact malignant. I needed extensive surgery and a hospital stay.

I walked home across campus, my head numb with white noise. But I remember a point on my path, walking east on Inner Road, where the noise resolved into, of all things, an obscure love song, titled “Everything.”3 In my inner hearing, Michael Knott sang of pairs of opposites: love and hate, heaven and hell, the obvious and the unknown. He wrote it for his wife, not for a college sophomore with a cancer diagnosis, but as I walked, it spoke directly to me.

The song was like an outward-facing Byzantine icon, its gaze focused on me alone. Knott wrote “Everything” as a love song, but at that moment, it became a gospel song. I knew that the infinite God was bigger than this cancer I hated, bigger than the hospital stay I feared, bigger than life itself, bigger than, well, everything. This same infinite, eternal God was the one that Jesus, even on the path to the cross, called “Abba,” Father. His call echoed in my mind.

When I arrived at my front door, I had come to peace with my future path and accepted it as a strange darkness I’d just have to endure. (Thankfully, that moment was the low point, and I would be declared cancer-free five years later.) When I heard that news through the phone, I felt the opposites of “I might die” and “the God of life is near” as dissonance. As I walked to the tune of “Everything,” it resolved into harmony and, much later, into health.

I have never told anyone this story, so I’m sure that Michael Knott doesn’t know how his song helped me. (Maybe now he can know?) It makes me wonder what actions I’ve modeled or stories I’ve told that God brings to mind, years later, for former students and old friends. It’s appropriate that this power is hidden from me—after all, it is God’s power, not mine.

I have no doubt that the song was the therapeutic catalyst at that turning point, but now I wonder: why that song at that moment? If the song was a catalyst, what is its mechanism?4 I think the song holds together disparate parts of life in a “coincidence of opposites,” and by extension, held me together.

This answer came from a book, not about hearing, but about seeing. In a previous post, I described how the idea of the coincidence of opposites recurs in Nicholas of Cusa’s The Vision of God, which is about how to see God in and beyond all things. Nicholas sent it out with a painted icon and described how to look at that icon to see God. Nicholas soon exceeds the limits of the sense of vision, of the other senses, and even of language itself.

But Nicholas could have made the same theological argument from the sense of hearing. In fact, if Nicholas wrote The Hearing of God rather than The Vision of God, it would start differently but end in the same place, with an expanded view of who God is and what God can do.

The sense of hearing offers certain advantages over the sense of sight for perceiving the infinite and eternal God. A true coincidence of opposites requires that each opposing thing be intact and distinct, not dissolved or averaged out. Objects cannot coincide, but notes can: Each chord is a harmony of different notes: distinct but joined in tune. In a well-mixed song, words and instruments each retain their identity but fit with the other and respond to the other. An entire musical genre—the blues—is built on the coincidence of mixed emotion. Wynton Marsalis is quoted as saying “Everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle.”5

Even a single lyric can hold opposites together. Think of the coincidence of opposites in the first line of “My Girl,” where Smokey Robinson and Ronnie White combine sunshine and clouds. Or consider U2’s “With or Without You,” which Bono wrote for his wife, saying it “could not contain her but at least captured some of her dark beauty and bittersweet duality.”6 Bono’s description contains two levels of coinciding opposites—bitter and sweet together in a word, and sight (darkness) and taste (bittersweet) together in a phrase—all about one person and one gift of love.

“With or Without You” is incomplete by itself, but it points to something more. In the song’s original context on the Joshua Tree album, it follows “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which Bono describes as “our most gospel-like song, . . .  about the quest, not the arrival. And that’s how I find faith.”7 On that album, the gospel song precedes the love song.

Nicholas also still hasn’t found what he’s looking for (quite literally!). He writes that to look for the face of God in the painted face is to “imagine a face . . .  beyond all faces.”8 Our glimpses of God are true and good, but incomplete, which drives us to look for more. Nicholas sounds like the Fourth Lateran Council when he insists that for every similarity we see between Creator and creation there is always a greater dissimilarity between our comprehension and the incomprehensible God. The similarity, however inadequate, is nonetheless real.

Songwriters have intuitively expressed the coincidence of opposites. On social media, I asked my friends for examples, and they quickly provided dozens. (I had forgotten about “With or Without You” until my friend Ken Priebe mentioned it.) A classics professor friend said the oldest succinct example of this might be Catullus poem 85: “I hate and I love. Perhaps you wonder why. I don’t know, but I feel it and I am crucified.”9 Then he mentioned two Taylor Swift songs that said the same thing.

I’ve assembled these songs on a YouTube playlist, each of us bringing what we’ve heard to the table.10 Sure, some are more perfect coincidences with more intact opposites than the others, but Nicholas would say a perfect coincidence of opposites is inaccessible to us at any rate, so a mere paradox or contradiction still points the way. A playlist like this could accompany the hypothetical manuscript of The Hearing of God like the icon Nicholas sent to accompany The Vision of God.

In the final chapter of The Vision of God, titled “How Jesus is the Consummation,”11 Nicholas describes the end result of his method. Like my son’s goal with music therapy, it is a vision of wholeness and health.

Nicholas writes of the sense of taste, that “the heat of divine love” bears “divers fruits on divers trees,” bringing to mind the “healing of the nations” by the Tree of Life in Revelation 22.

Nicholas writes of the sense of sight, that God, as “a painter mixeth divers colors,” is “able to paint himself” in each life.

To these we can add the sense of hearing, where in these songs the dissonance and harmony of opposites shows that God is both close enough to hear our cries and big enough to swallow up even the suffering of death.


  1. Congratulations to my colleagues Carlene Brown, Christopher Hanson, Evelyn Stagnaro, Bobbie Childers, and others for their hard work to accomplish this. The bill can be found at
  2. Shelley Ngo, “Music therapy licensure bill passes in Washington state,” SPU Stories, May 1, 2023,
  3. “Everything,” track 10 on Lifesavers Underground, Cash in Chaos World Tour, Siren Music, 1993,
  4. (Forgive me for always interpreting events in the context of my own discipline!)
  5. Quote posted on
  6. Bono, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022), 220. Bono describes the entire Joshua Tree album as being about “The Two Americas”: “North versus South, rich versus poor, native versus nativist,” all of which are dynamic dualities.
  7. Bono, Surrender, 508.
  8. Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God (New York: Cosimo, 2016), 26.
  9. Bill Tortorelli, personal communication.
  10. “The Coincidence of Opposites” playlist at
  11. Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God, 126–127.

Benjamin J. McFarland

Benjamin J. McFarland, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Seattle Pacific University.

One Comment

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    Music therapy is a great idea for a major, particularly at a Christian university, where there is opportunity and need to explore different ways to be salt and light and bless the world in unique ways. The Bible is full of both musical and literary therapy through the psalms and through Christ’s phrases such as “I am the bread of life”, “living water”, “the Good Shepherd” and through the descriptors of God present in passages such as Isaiah 9. And surely, there is visual therapy as well, in passages such as Revelation 4, the description of God on the throne, and in the parable of the wise and foolish builder, with God’s strong support of those who build their lives wisely.