Someone asked me once “why does God need us to tell Him how wonderful He is? Does He have some sort of ego problem?” Apart from the regrettable use of gendered language for God, it is a fair point. If God is a personal, as Christians like to insist, then it’s a bit weird. Surely God already knows how great God is? It doesn’t seem particularly loving, let alone “humble and meek”, which is another feature of God according to Christianity. How do we make sense of this?
This is the first post in a series. In this post I’m going to unpack the underlying question of worship. Why worship anything? Isn’t it all just weird woo-woo stuff, unworthy of a culture come of age? In later posts I’m going to dig into the questions of, if we are going to worship, then what and how should we worship.
What is Worship?
It turns out to be hard to define what worship is, exactly. If you plug it into duckduckgo.com (use this instead of Google) you get the following definition:
- n. The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object.
- n. The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed.
- n. Ardent devotion; adoration.
It’s quite a good definition in that it gets both the religious core of it, and the possibility of other senses. We recognise worship when we see it in religious settings. A robed choir singing, a monk sitting in silent contemplation, a candle burning, incense being lit. Devotees of Krishna singing and dancing on Swanston Street outside their restaurant.
For a secular meaning, let’s consider the phrase “a worships the ground on which b walks.” You get the sense of the ardent devotion which characterises a’s relationship to b. A treats b as though b were somehow worthy of something beyond fondness, respect, sexual desire. It is a sort of transcendent feeling, which we, standing outside, seems perhaps a little excessive. Blind to the flaws of B, A treats B as a sort of ideal. You can imagine A spreading a cloak in front of B to walk on to protect B’s shoes from getting muddy, like Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth.
Perhaps the best way of approaching it is phenomenologically – from the perspective of the phenomenon, from the inside. To put it another way: we find it a little hard to define worship exactly, but we recognise it when we see it.
It gives us a possible way of explaining things that are otherwise quite mysterious. For instance, the desire to have one’s ashes scattered on sporting grounds: this is widespread enough for people to have been warned off doing so at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. And that feeling you get in the midst of a sporting event, the whole crowd reacting as one, all of us borne up together in a wave of emotion. Or the fact that there is a more than life size statue of Christiano Ronaldo in his home town of Funchal in Madeira. And the way people go to art galleries in order to be near a picture that they could see much better online. And many, many other things about our culture which show that we aren’t merely homo economicus, concerned purely with trying to get the best and biggest bang for our buck.
We have a sense of wanting to do something to somehow respond to things, events, or people who somehow lift us out of our mundane lives, and connect us to something transcendent, however dimly understood and poorly expressed.
Humans have been worshipping for all of recorded history. Some of our oldest documents, for instance the Enûma Eliš, the stories of the Iliad and Odyssey, and many of our oldest buildings are either explicitly religious or, like the Pyramids of Giza, a product of cultures (like most cultures) that don’t draw a strong distinction between religion and politics. All cultures that I’m aware of seem to have something worshipful going on – even ostensibly atheistic ones, like the Kim dynasty in North Korea with its (insane) personality cult of the Kims.
I’m going to make a suggestion that is hard to prove definitively, but would account for the phenomena: worship is just something people do. The impulse is logically prior to the thing worshipped. Worship is something deeply rooted in human nature. As such, it isn’t really for anything. Like play, like the pursuit of knowledge, like beauty, worship is one of those things that is an end in itself, and doesn’t need an external justification.
The idea that worship is somehow fundamental to what it means to be human feels problematic, or at least strange. Surely we are a civilisation come of age, from which the Sea of Faith has receded?
In a recent article in unherd.com John Gray describes how the cultural situation of the West problematises religion in general. Gray argues that modern liberalism, descending from thinkers such as Ludwig Feuerbach and the English Utilitarians see religion as inherently regressive.
Like the progressive Russian intelligentsia to which Dostoevsky initially belonged, early 21st-century liberals believe the human future will be shaped by science and values that are somehow derived from science. Religion and everything connected with it must be rejected an obstacle to progress. A naïve version of this sort of nihilism is presented in the writings of Steven Pinker.John Grey in Unherd.com
There are a lot of civilisation reasons for this, which are explored in a lot of detail by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age (which I have blogged about before.) Here’s a short version: as secular post-modern people we find it a bit offensive to suggest that we are somehow insufficient in ourselves, that the meaning of life is not to be found through the discovery and full expression of our true authentic selves. That there is something “higher” or more worthy than ourselves feels very uncomfortable. There is a lack of fit between my sense of myself as an authentic human being, freed from the irrational shackles of the medieval / 1950s / oppressive past (delete as necessary) and the idea that I need something outside myself, something that sounds uncomfortably like the sort of tradition and authority that I’m explicitly rejecting.
And it is of course true that tradition and authority have been used at times to cover up the worst things. For instance, the sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable people in the church, and the culture of cover-up, secrecy, and institutional self-protection that made it possible. Even apart from this, the church, and indeed society in general, has been responsible for the oppression of women and sexual and racial minorities essentially forever. So I don’t blame people who want to just throw the whole thing out.
It’s not just church, of course, but all societal structures which have come to seem, at least to a lot of people, inherently oppressive.
However, this leads me with a few unanswered problems. Firstly: while not at all wanting to understate or minimise the problem, we are all stuck here on this planet together, so we are going to have to work out some sort of way of collaborating. Which inevitably seems to mean that some sort of structures are inevitable, with all that means in terms of trying to make them as good as we possibly can.
Secondly, I do not think that I’m capable of solving all the problems in the world single-handedly: I need to learn from others – and even from the dead. Perhaps especially from them, given how different the worlds from which they write are.
And thirdly, and most cogently for this post, I have this strongly felt
need, however hard to explain or justify, to devote my life to something greater than myself, to worship that which is worthy of worship. To place myself at the service of something other: something worthy.
To put it another way, I have this suspicion that beneath all the corruption of tradition and the dangers of oppression, and all the many, many ways human beings manage to fuck things up for ourselves and for one another in ways great and small, there is something I can’t quite let go of. Some sense of something greater / better / truer / more beautiful that I – that draws a desire to respond from me. Something such that it is appropriate to worship it.
The Two Questions
But that does not mean that there is nothing more to be said about it. Our starting question is in fact two excellent questions: “Why do we need to tell God how good He is?” and “does He have some sort of an ego problem?” I think it’s worth addressing them in reverse order: what is worthy of worship? What is the worthiest way to worship?
In fact, these are such good questions that, in order to do them any justice at all, they need their very own blog post. Also: I need to decide what I think.
In the meantime, do let me know what you think. Is the idea of institutional worship so completely bound up with the corrupt and oppressive nature of institutions that it is entirely irredeemable? And even more basic than that: is the idea that there is something “better”, something “higher” than us such that worship is an appropriate response fundamentally wrong?