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Reality and Resonance: The Church Turns Toward Worship

by F. Thomas Trotter

A graduate of Occidental College (AB) and Boston University (STB, Ph.D), Trotter was Dean and Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. Later he was General Secretary of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church and President of Alaska Pacific University. His special interests are in religion and the arts and religion in higher education. This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.


Despite neglect in the recent past, there are signs that the church is again turning to explore the faithful forms of its public worship. For what is this act of obedience but the exploration of the outskirts of the terrible mysteries of God?

Holiness is a category of experience in religion that has had rough going in recent times. We have been so sure of the immediate needs of obedience to the gospel that the reality of God in our lives has seemed to have been exhausted in our doing. Some efforts have been made in recent theology to design a vision of the world in which God is absent. But absence is not hiddenness. The obscurity of God is a vivid religious fact of our time. A chapel in a theological school is a statement of intention that learning and vital piety are but the same act of faith in the reality of God and the new possibilities that are resident in attention to God’s reality.

Holiness and vital piety have to do with a certain restraint that is proper in a chapel. In Israel, the fathers of our faith were very careful not to build altars or high places carelessly. The problem always seems to have been that the sacred places wailed something in or wailed something out. Franz Kafka tells the story of a synagogue which was a refuge for the people while a great wolf snorted and scratched outside. The wolf was Kafka’s metaphor for the terrible and wonderful consequences of meeting God. So careless piety may wail out the possibilities of encounter with God. On the other hand, to be contemptuous of the need for holy space in our lives is to err on the side of self-righteousness.

The solemnity of this moment is measured by the spiritual questions we have and tempered by the hope that the perceived reality of God may here find the resonance that is deep within us, "deep calling unto deep," breaking us open to new life and obedience in the gospel.

Worship is the gesture of faith by which we may be saved from thinking that we already have all the means by which to be responsibly religious. Events of life are too overwhelming for us to be sure that we have explained mystery. The pain that we feel must have some resonance at the heart of things for us to be able to endure it. The bentness of history must have some justification in order to make living into a future worthwhile. The vitality of life itself must resonate with some fundamental vitality in the world so that life does not appear to be merely the inconsequential and random interaction of atoms and molecules.

Reality needs resonance. To be confident about oneself, the world, and God, one needs the assurance of being heard. A great writer once said of the books of a friend, "When I read his writing, I do not feel that I understand, but that I am understood." Worship is the intersection of reality (our perceptions of God) and resonance (the assurance that we are understood).

Flannery O’Connor tells the story of a woman whose record as a religious person was formally impeccable. She never missed church, she tithed, she helped folk, but she did all these things with a sense of duty and heaviness; her burden was the Lord’s. One day, her world began to fly apart. In a fit of rage, she shook her fist at the sky and shouted, "You can’t do this to me!" And a voice came back again and again, echoing across the hills: "You can’t do this to me!" That is resonance. This is a lovely illustration of the context of holiness. In that moment, that space, that speech, that hearing, we learn who we are and whose we are and what we are to do, and what we might become.

There are signs in our time that men and women are turning more and more in the direction of new ways of sensing this resonance. Love, peace, justice, integrity, responsibility—where do these come from? What assures us that they are written into the heart of things by God’s intentions? The psalmist cries, "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God"—not just the things of God, but the assurance of the vitality of God.

The future of worship in the church brings up the question of the purpose of the church. In the Reformed churches, the suggestion is made that the "chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." Modern people tend to react to this with restrained amusement, which is translated into a variety of understandings about worship in the church. Among those forms of response we can identify three major modes: (1) worship as embellished public lecture; (2) worship as therapy; (3) worship as cultic rite.

In the first of these modes, worship has become the setting for preaching. In some traditions, the hymns, prayers, and anthems are spoken of as "the preliminaries," something to be dispensed with before the sermon. I do not wish to denigrate the sermon as an important part of worship, but when the sermon is not only the central intention of worship but may also have lost its power of confronting the worshiper with the gospel, then the purpose of worship is at least seriously obscured. The fate of this kind of worship is often determined by the congregation’s acceptance of the particular values of the preacher. Quite often, the sermon serves as a confirmation of the values of the congregation.

The second mode is a variation on the first. People come to worship to receive a kind of implicit therapy. The pew is a couch. Now, worship ought to have to do with the shaping of lives. But when the purpose of the service is the "stroking" of near-neurotic patterns in the congregation’s life-patterns, then the possibilities of surprise and epiphany are certainly deflected. In the 1950s there was a vast upsurge of worship on this model. Normally in those days it was focused in the sermon, but it resides today in the self-centeredness of much worship of the experimental kind. "Celebration" has become the popular term for this mode of worship. But what is so often missing is the focus of celebration. In Old Testament times, the worshipers of Baal celebrated, but Israel sought to worship in the direction of obedience and faith.

The third mode is to be seen in those traditions where the purpose of worship has become obscured in the rites of worship. Being finite, we need symbols to carry us from the finite to the infinite. When we have found symbols, and become comfortable with them, the symbols become more urgent than the reality for which they stand. In the church today, most of the difficult ecumenical questions have to do with the intractability of symbols.

Now, each of these problematic and pervasive modes of worship has a truth resident inside the formal structure. Preaching ought to be a central act for worship, but its presence must be the Word of God in the midst of the people. Healing ought to be a central fact of worship, but on the most profound level of human need. Ritual is necessary because only in ordered and commonly accepted symbols can a community identify itself as a community. But inadequate models of worship have not healed the anguish of modern men and women. I fear that they have added to the malaise of the church: that is, they promise too much and yet not enough.

What grips most of us in our time is a vast hunger for transcendence. Psychologists report that the most common problems they deal with are problems of meaning. In early psychotherapy the principal problem was neurotic disorder. Later the problem was identified as interpersonal difficulties. But lately, commentators have noted that our psychological disorders have finally reached profound religious depths. "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" A vast aridity covers the land. Cynicism is rampant. Hope is dulled. The horizon is no wider than the neighborhood of the self. Beckett’s heroes become moral by simply waiting for something to happen. How are we to be saved from this life of desires turned inward?

The desert saints in the early centuries of the church suffered from what they called "the demon of noonday." It is easy to be a saint in the morning dew and in the evening coolness. But it is hard to be a saint in the direct heat of the sun in the desert. The demon of noonday was the imp that appeared in order to test their obedience in faith, to lull them into thinking that maybe their vocation was wrong, and to remind them of air-conditioned comfort in the cities. We, who are not so modern after all, suffer this demon. He comes to us in various forms. We have a habit of ignoring worship in the comfortable times of the days of our lives because we don’t need it and condemning it in the noontimes because it is difficult.

What we yearn for is some resonance of reality in our lives. The French dramatic theorist Antonin Artaud, in speaking about the French classical theater, which had become formal and aloof from the issues of human hope, wrote, "In the anguished, catastrophic period in which we live, we feel an urgent need for a theater in which events do not exceed, where resonance is deep within us, dominating the instability of the times." Worship is the act whereby the reality of God is made present and the resonance of that reality is heard in our communities and in our personal lives, dominating the instability of the times.

This has not been the case in every generation of Christian believers. The history of Israel and the church is the history of loss and recovery of the reality of God and the resonance of worship. Another way of saying this is worship has more to do with revelation than with religion. It has to do with the dialectic of self and God and not with the accommodation of God to the values of this world, nor is it a celebration of religion (which is adjustment of God to the spiritual advantage of the believer). Worship is revelation—the possibility of the opening of experience to the authority of God and his reality breaking into our world. Worship is proclamation—the announcement of the new possibilities that are constantly inherent in the lively communion of a people with God.

An old hymn by Dodderidge, written for the dedication of a chapel, asks this question: "Will He accept our temples as his own?" The test of worship and of our places of worship in the providence of God has to do with the gift of trust and obedience returned to God, so that, in Dodderidge’s words, on the last day the Lord will look out with joy upon the chapel and say that "crowds were born to glory there."


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