Chapter 7: The Unity of Worship and Prayer with Belief and Practice

Christian Affirmations
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 7: The Unity of Worship and Prayer with Belief and Practice

Man differs in many ways from other animals who inhabit this planet. For example, he is, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, the creature who laughs. More seriously, he is the animal who can reason, who has the power of self-transcendence and the capacity to make choices which he regards to some degree at least as free choices. He has fore-thought, so that he can act purposively with a longer range of the future before him than any other animal that we know. He is a creature who, like all others, is mortal but who is unique because he knows that he is mortal; man is the animal who is aware of death and therefore is able to "prepare" for it by living in terms which allow for a recognition of mortality.

But there is still another distinction about man. He is the animal who worships God. If some visitor from another planet, knowing nothing at all about this world of ours, should drop down upon us, he would surely find that the biped who was erect had a peculiar characteristic marking his behavior -- he would observe this creature on his knees in what the creature called "the presence of the invisible God." He would see the animal, man, engaged in prayer, addressing the mysterious Reality who created him, and entering (as the man would say) into communion with that Reality. He would observe gatherings of human beings for the express purpose of the adoration of their God. Man is not only the reasoning, purposive, consciously mortal, laughing animal; he is the worshiping animal.

So much a part of man’s being and so much a part of his history has his worship been, that any account of human life and any attempt to understand it that fails to reckon with this fact is by that very token a partial and even a mistaken account. Indeed, one of the failures in much contemporary explanation of human life -- as, for example, by some of our modern secular sociologists -- is precisely at this point. They attempt to describe the human situation and to prescribe for its betterment without regard for the worshipful orientation of man towards the ultimate Mystery. Hence their descriptions and prescriptions have a certain shallowness and superficiality which even a slight acquaintance with, say, the Greek tragedies would have corrected. In an important symposium, published not so long ago, which dealt with the present crisis of the human mind, every area of experience was explored, save one. The index to the book showed one entry under the heading "Religion," none under the heading "Worship." And the entry under Religion turned out to be a dismissal of the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr on the ground that he insists on man as "sinner," without (as the author said) allowing for the supposed fact that recent investigation into the area of child psychology has demonstrated that by proper adjustment to family and society in the first few years of a child’s existence, man’s tendency to egocentric behavior can quite satisfactorily be corrected and a genuine altruism substituted for it. The superficiality of that statement -- even its banality -- would seem to be obvious, but our purpose here is simply to note that this was the solitary reference to man the "religious animal," man the worshiper, in the course of six or seven hundred pages of thorough analysis of the human creature in society.

For our part, we recognize the plain fact -- that man does worship. He worships because he must; there is some drive in human personality that forces him to go out of himself in adoration of that which is other than himself. And if he fails to direct this towards God, he will divert it to that which theologians call a "creature." He will worship some object, some person, some thing -- at worst, he will objectify himself and worship that -- which then becomes for him his "god." So in our own day we have had the state or race or people made into an object of worship; we have had humanity itself set before us as the end of our striving and the object of our total devotion. In some countries, the nation or what is called its "way of life," or the values for which it stands, is put in this supreme place; hymns are sung to suchlike, and the devotion of its citizens is directed to it as to the supreme reality which must receive the entire adoration of those who "belong."

Now Christianity is a religion which cannot rest content with any such creature-worship, or idolatry. Its claim is that the only Object worthy of man’s worship and adequate to serve as the center of his life of devotion is the Reality that is ultimate -- God Himself. He is the only God whom it is safe to worship, in the sense that He and He alone, as the final Meaning of things, and their ultimate Source, can be given adoration without in the long run disappointing and frustrating His worshipers, without bringing them, indeed, to self-destruction. It is with Christian worship that we are to be concerned in these lectures -- worship as it has been understood in the great Christian tradition, in its broad mainstream down through the past two thousand years. But first of all we must understand what Christianity is, so that we can see the way in which Christian worship is both a part of, and an expression of, the total Christian thing.


What is Christianity? Primarily it is a Gospel -- a proclamation which implies a response. That is to say, it is a religion which finds its center in what purports to be a revelation of eternal Reality to man. Now "revelation" is to a considerable degree a "weasel-word," to use a term employed nowadays by some of the semanticists; that is, it is a word which is susceptible of many meanings and which therefore must be defined if we are to grasp the significance which it possesses for Christians. Within the great Christian tradition, revelation does not primarily suggest the disclosure of a set of truths -- be they ethical or religious or philosophical -- that give information to men about their actual behavior or their ideal behavior, or even about the nature of the universe and the meaning which it may possess. In the first instance, revelation means for the Christian the action of God. It means that the eternal Reality has done and is doing something; it means activity in the historical realm.

The reason for this Christian understanding of revelation is to be discovered in the historical background of Christianity itself. The Christian religion is rooted in the Hebraic tradition, of which the Old Testament is our primary record. And dominant in those Hebrew documents is the conception of God as the living God, the God who does things. For the Jew, God is not an idea or an ideal; He is a living Being, with a purpose which He is effecting in His Creation. He is not only the Source and Explanation of the universe m a metaphysical sense; He is the undergirding and moving Power which energizes ceaselessly in and through all things. Towards the fulfillment of His purposes He has brought man into being and He offers to His human children the privilege of co-operating with Him so that they may have a share in the effecting of these ends and, at the same time, find a supreme joy for themselves as they are related to Him and participate in His communication of life.

This is by no means the whole of the Jewish understanding of God, for it insufficiently stresses the righteousness of the Lord of Creation. But for our present purpose it will serve to indicate why it is that Christian thought has never been content to rest in a conception of God as the ideal Reality, the supreme Value or Constellation of values, the absolute Mind, or any such idealistic view. The very terms of Christian thought are set by the Hebrew insistence on the living God. So it follows that the notion of God’s revelation, as Christians believe it, must be understood always through the great Hebrew affirmations -- this, in fact, is why the early Church refused to cut the Gospel of Jesus Christ loose from its moorings in the Old Testament, and why such thinkers as sought to do this, like Marcion and other Gnostic writers, were condemned as perverters of the faith.

God acts. He acts in a more general or pervasive fashion through the ordinary run of events, the normal processes of nature and history, the emergence of prophets and teachers in all races and at all times. Thus it is possible to secure, from a consideration of "general revelation," some knowledge of Him and His ways. Such knowledge is good and true so far as it goes, but its very variety and its wide diffusion make it impossible for it to be used as giving a determinative disclosure of the divine nature and the divine purpose in the world. If man is to have such a definitive and normative understanding, there must be some definitive act, some norm which is expressed in the course of his historical experience, that will "set the note" and establish the criterion in the light of which all else is to be understood and evaluated. In other words, some particular action or set of actions in the historical realm -- which is the realm in which man actually lives and from which his concrete existential knowledge is drawn -- must be seen to be "important" in the most profound sense of that word. For something is "important," in the deepest way, when it becomes the clue to everything else -- when it is, so to say, the lens through which all else is seen and by which all else is understood. To put it in traditional theological terms, special revelation is necessary if general revelation is properly to be grasped and its significance known.

Now it is the peculiar claim of Christianity that the life of Jesus Christ, in its complete sense, is the special revelation" of God. Here, the Christian affirms, God is "in action," in a degree and fashion elsewhere unknown. Here, set in the midst of a general and pervasive revelatory action of God, is a particular and an intensive action; here God is singularly and specially at work. In Jesus Christ, prepared for through the long preceding development of Jewish religion, and His meaning apprehended through the long centuries of subsequent Christian experience, man is given a vivid and striking disclosure of the eternal Reality; and given it not through the retailing of information but through the whole content of a Life. God meets man, not on the level of intellectual discovery and comprehension, but in a living fashion, in the rich intercourse of Life with life. All that has taken place elsewhere can now be seen in a fresh way, as the work of the same God who for us men and for our wholeness of life was made man in the life of a brother Man. Furthermore, because this has occurred in the sphere of human experience, men are related in a new way to God as a consequence of God’s relating Himself in a new way with them. A new relationship is established between God and man, indeed between God and His whole Creation. There was God and man; now there is also Jesus Christ, in whom God and man are so inextricably and personally united -- united in act and not only in thought -- that the very conditions of the divine-human relationship, and, by implication and application, the situation in which human life itself is lived in relationship to God, are different from what they were before, or from what they would be apart from, this fact. History is no longer the same; for history is now the history which includes Jesus Christ and all that He was and is, and did and does.

Something like this, then, is the heart of the Christian claim about Jesus Christ. This is the Gospel; in the word so popular in theological circles today, this is the Kerygma, or Proclamation. It is stated over and over again, in different terms, in the New Testament: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself"; "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us"; "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." Christianity is a Gospel.

But it is a Gospel that implies a response. If it be true that God has done these things, as the Christian proclamation declares, then it follows that man must react to the divine action. His response finds expression primarily in a society, a fellowship, called into being as men and women answered back to the action of God upon them in Christ. The Christian religion, as distinguished from the Christian Gospel, is the responsive movement of men to the incarnate and redeeming work of Christ. And it is a responsive movement which is embodied in a community. The whole of the New Testament is witness to this. For what happened, as a result of the coming of Christ, was not in the first instance the development of intellectual propositions or even of moral ideas, but the knitting into fellowship of a group of men and women who knew whom they believed, not what they believed. The what of Christian belief is an attempt to state all that is implied in the whom of Christian belief; and the history of the Christian Church may be read, at least in part, as the constant effort of succeeding generations of believers in Christ to think out and think through the full implications of the new relationship to God established in Christ and enjoyed in the fellowship of Christian believers in Him. The Church is the sphere in which Christian faith is known and Christian life experienced; it is the area in which men and women, captivated by the dynamic appeal of the Lord Christ, respond to that Lord and find their little human existence redeemed and enriched and made significant. It is in this sense that we may rightly affirm that the Christian Church is itself a part of the total Christian Reality; and no one can enter into and experience the Christian fact unless he is part and parcel of the ongoing responsive life of the Christian Church.

But what has all this to do with worship? We seem to have gone a long way round to arrive at our major topic. Yet it was necessary to do this, for we shall never understand what Christian worship is all about unless we first have given it its right setting in the life of the Christian community itself. For Christian worship is one of the articulations, or expressions, of the Christian communal response to the action of the living God in Christ; and this, which is perhaps more obviously true of the public worship of Christians, is also equally true of their private devotions. We who are Christians always worship God, pray to Him, and are in communion with Him, as those who by their incorporation into the total Christian response are of and with our brethren in the faith in Christ. Christian prayer, in all its ranges, is never an individual thing; it is personal, certainly, in that it is my prayer, but it is always my prayer as one of a family of believers who share together in the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and are thereby, in the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, assured of the love of God.

Within the Christian community, worship is one of the ways of response to God in Christ. It is not the only way of response. The faith which informs the Christian’s life, by virtue of which he can say "I believe in . . ." is another and essential part, as is also the orientation of the totality of one’s existence towards God manifested in the daily course of life -- in what we call Christian behavior. To believe as a Christian, to live as a Christian, to worship as a Christian -- all are necessary for the full-orbed expression of one’s response to God in His decisive, life-giving action in our Lord. The Service of Holy Baptism, in the Book of Common Prayer, states this admirably when it requires that the sponsors in Baptism promise, on behalf of the child, that the newly baptized Christian shall "learn the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments," and describes these, among other things, as being that which "a Christian ought to know and believe to his soul’s health." The Creed stands for the total faith of a Christian as he responds to Christ; the Lord’s Prayer for his worship and prayer; and the Ten Commandments, interpreted of course in the light of Jesus’ summary of "The Law," for the moral life which is also, like faith and worship, response to God as we meet and know Him in Christ.

We shall be studying, in a later chapter, the peculiar genius of Christian worship, that makes it genuinely Christian. For the moment we are concerned to point out the way in which the faith, life, and worship of a Christian man or woman are inter-related. As the Christian believes, so he prays; as he prays, so he believes. There is an old maxim of the Church which expresses this idea: lex orandi lex credendi -- the rule for praying is the rule for believing. And that proposition, unlike some others, is what the logicians would call "reversible." It can just as well be stated conversely -- that the rule for believing is the rule for praying. The ancient Athanasian Creed, in which high theology is given formal expression, has a remarkable verse which makes the same point: "This is the Catholic Faith: that we worship Godhead in Trinity and Trinity in Unity." This is the faith: that we worship. And the original meaning of the word which now suggests sound theology -- the word "orthodoxy" -- is "right praise." To praise God aright, to give Him the proper worship: this is the meaning of right belief. It is not very difficult to understand what is meant by such assertions. For it is eternally true -- and by now we ought all to recognize it -- that "as a man believes in his heart, so is he." The deepest beliefs which we hold, the ones that actually lie far down in the grounds of our being, are the beliefs which determine our personality and make us what we are. So it is that in our worship, when we seek to relate our little human lives to the eternal Reality of God, we reflect that by which in fact we truly live. We worship God as He is revealed to us in Christ, with all of the richness of that revelation brought to bear upon our attempts to respond in devotion to the God who moves out towards us in boundless charity. We see God in terms of Christ; we adore Him under that same representation. This, of course, is why Christian worship must necessarily be different from all other; and it is why the Christian’s view of the world cannot be reduced to the level of the generally -- and vaguely -- "religious."

On the other hand, it is equally true that the way in which we worship will go far to determine the life which we live. If we center our devotion on the nation, for instance, we may be excellent Americans or Britons or Frenchmen, but we shall not by that token become Christians. If we give our highest praise to the human race and its supposed possibilities for self-expression, we shall perhaps become faithful citizens of the "City of Man," but we shall not become loyal subjects in the City of God. Indeed, it might be said that we shall be less excellent Americans or Britons or Frenchmen, less admirable members of the human race as a whole, if we are content with an object of devotion less than Almighty God himself. For we shall be inclined, if not certainly driven, to put temporary and proximate "goods" in the place belonging only to the absolute Good which is God; and as a result we shall attempt to live without regard for that last and ultimate environment which is the only "safe" context for all other values and goals that we may set ourselves. We shall, in fact, become provincial in a very genuine sense, losing sight of the ultimacies in existence while we are intent on concentrating on the immediacies. One might say that we shall commit the sin of racial egotism, even if we are delivered from the sin of individual egotism -- although for my own part, I would think that the two are very closely related if they are not, indeed, different expressions of the same sinful pride on man’s part. Worship and prayer, if directed to God Himself, can, in the Abbé Bremond’s fine phrase, "disinfect us of self." They can give us a perspective higher than the merely human one, an attitude towards life which is more inclusive than our own petty one. They can relate us, at least in part, with the finalities of existence and so equip us to live more like true men and less like highly sophisticated yet inevitably limited animals.

So we have here a three-fold cord which may not be broken. Our faith, our worship, and our life are all knit together in the fact of our Christian membership in the Church which is the Body of Christ; they are all part of our total response to the revelation of God in Christ and so they play, each one of them, an indispensable part in our movement of return to the God who is our Creator. Out of the infinite mystery by which our tiny human lives are surrounded have come intimations of the inner quality of the creative Reality upon whom we depend; He moves in upon us to awaken and then to deepen our returning movement towards Him. In Jesus Christ, the eternal Reality has crowned what von Hügel called His "many preveniences and incarnations" by an action which is intensive and distinctive, in the whole richness of a human life united inextricably with his own. And here more than at any other point we are incited to a response -- a response which is not ours individually but ours as a fellowship of human brethren, a response which is manifested in our returning commitment to God in Christ, our thankful effort by His Grace to conform to His Will, and our selfless surrender to Him in worship. "We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord."