Chapter 8: The Nature of Worship

Christian Affirmations
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 8: The Nature of Worship

Worship, we have seen, is an indestructible element in human experience; and in the Christian tradition it is inextricably associated with the faith and the moral life of the believers in the community that responds to the action of the living God in Christ. It is now necessary for us to consider more particularly the nature of worship, both in its general sense and in the specifically Christian one.

The word "worship," as has often been remarked, is a shortening of "worth-ship." It implies the ascribing of worth or value to that which is esteemed as deserving of such an attitude. There is a sense in which it may be used, and used properly, of human beings in their relationships one with another. In the marriage service in the English Prayer Book, the groom says to the bride, "With my body I thee worship." By this he indicates his respectful, indeed reverential, attitude towards his future wife; and the use of the words "with my body" suggests an even deeper truth, with which we shall be concerned presently -- namely, that it is with the totality of human personality, including the body itself, that the act of worship is offered. But the word worship has normally come to mean the giving of due praise to that Being who occupies the highest place in the hierarchy of valued realities, to God or to the object or person who in "idolatrous" religions acts as surrogate for God.

In classical theology a distinction is made in the kinds of veneration or reverence which may be given by man to others. There is first of all "dulia," or the reverence which may be paid to men who, by virtue of their "holiness," are regarded as dwelling-places for the Spirit of God. By extension, such dulia may be paid to all men, as being potentially "saints." Tertullian said, "When you see your brother, you see your Lord"; for every son of man, more particularly those who, by Baptism, have been incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ, may be venerated as one in whom God’s Spirit dwells.

There is a second kind of veneration, called "hyperdulia," which is applied to the highest human nature -- chiefly to the sacred Humanity of our Lord, Jesus Christ Himself. So intimately is His Manhood united with Godhead that the Humanity itself, says traditional theology, is deserving of a supreme reverence, although it is only the Godhead incarnate in Jesus who may be given absolute worship. In some circles the Blessed Mother of our Lord is also held to be worthy of such special veneration, or hyperdulia, yet she is never regarded as worshipful in the same sense in which God alone is to be worshiped.

This brings us to the third category, "latreia," or absolute worship. In all branches of Christianity such absolute worship is to be given to God and to God only. This is that supreme adoration which involves the total offering of self to the almighty Source of life, the ultimate and eternal Reality. And it is with this that we are here to be concerned. The lesser kinds of reverence have been noted only in order that we may be quite clear that even in Catholic circles the term worship is applied normally to God and none other, although it is important that we understand that by association with God and His presence and work, creatures are seen in the Christian tradition as worthy of something even more remarkable than the respect for personality of which democracy has spoken -- they are worthy of reverence which is religious in quality, reverence about which there is a mystery, just as in human personality itself there is a deep mystery by reason of its being grounded in the mystery of God.

In the first place then, worship is the offering to God of that praise which rightly belongs to Him. The words in the Gloria in excelsis express this: "We give thanks to thee for thy great glory." So highly exalted, so wonderfully holy, so altogether supreme and mighty in His majesty is God the ultimate Reality, that men are drawn to ascribe all praise to Him. It is not only the developed religions which have felt this compulsion; all men everywhere, insofar as they are at all religious, are driven to acts of worship, even if for sophisticated thought, the god or gods whom they worship do not seem adequate to man’s need. In the presence of that which they regard as supreme, men are impelled to fall down and adore, in however crude and (as it seems to us) barbarous a way.

Furthermore, such worship tends to have a cultic quality -- it is a social action, in which the particular race or tribe makes its act of adoration. This may be delegated to special representatives, but the whole group is involved in their rites; and frequently the tribe itself participates, as in a ritual dance or some other ceremony which is regarded as worship. Personal devotion may have its place, but this is never seen as substitute for the cultic act itself.

Worship has always included, in however tenuous a form, a rich variety of elements. Adoration or sheer praise is central. But closely associated with this is thanksgiving -- the expression of gratitude to the god for his gifts to men. Again, in men’s acts of worship, there is place for acknowledgment of human failure, for sin, for violation of the taboos which it is thought that the god has imposed. In the sight of the reality to whom adoration and thanksgiving are given, the worshiper feels his own imperfection and asks that he may be restored to the free intercourse with the deity which that imperfection has broken or damaged. Finally, worship includes prayer made on behalf of self and others -- whether it be persons or causes dear to the group, victory in battle, the obtaining of desired goods, restoration to health in illness, and the like, or whether it be that the worshipers themselves seek such gifts as they may feel necessary or desirable, like long life, particular goods which will be of help to them, or simply the grace of communion with their god.

We ought to note that the dominant motif of worship, at almost every level, is the offering of self to god or the gods; it is not the attempt to conform the god or gods to the will of his devotees. In the early days of anthropological investigation, many students thought that they had reduced religion to magic. It seemed to them that the cult actions of the tribe in worship, in ceremonial and rite, the dance and the incantation, were ways in which the tribal god, or whatever other deity was the object of the action, was coerced into obedience to the desires of those who participated. But more profound investigation and more sympathetic understanding of the primitive groups, as well as a deeper penetration into the meaning of more sophisticated worship, have made it clear to the majority of anthropologists that there is a very real distinction between magic and worship. In magic, the tribe attempts precisely to coerce the nature of things; in religion, the tribe seeks rather to enter into such relations with its deity that enhanced life may be enjoyed and health and soundness may be established. It may be that the same individual acts both as "medicine man" and "priest"; but his two functions are in some sort distinguished. We might say, compendiously, that religious worship is the attempt to conform man and the world to the god, while magic -- which in this sense is really pre-science -- is the attempt to conform the world to the will of man.

In a study of the nature of the Christian Eucharist, the writer has sought to show that one way in which the history of religion may be understood is as the deepening and purifying of the notion of sacrifice. For sacrifice is at the heart of all worship. Sacrifice means the offering to the god of that which is worthy of him, so that satisfactory relations may be established between the god and his worshipers. This strain runs through all religion, from the most primitive to the most highly spiritual. It is only a lack of imagination on the part of some students which has prevented them from seeing the grand sweep of the sacrificial idea and has therefore led them to a rejection of it as central to the religious life of man.

When a primitive tribe engages in an act of worship which includes human sacrifice, this may be regarded as a barbaric and appallingly immoral action. So it is, in the light of later and higher conceptions of deity and deity’s relationship to men. But from the standpoint of the primitive man, the sacrifice of a human life is rather to be seen as his attempt to offer to his deity that which he himself most highly esteems, as a token of his wish to please the god and thereby to secure that between the god and himself and his tribe a happy communion may be set up. As the race of men grows in understanding, a substitute is made for human sacrifice; the first fruits of the earth, the first-born of the flock, are offered instead. The purpose, however, is the same: that this, which is the best that the tribe possesses, may be "devoted," as the ancient Hebrews put it, to the god, for he is deserving of it, and that in consequence of this devotion, the god may look favorably upon the people and give them his good gifts.

The great achievements of the Hebrew prophets, from one point of view, were their insistence that God is not to be approached in this external fashion and their success in securing a general consent by the Jewish people to the proposition that "the sacrifices of God are a troubled spirit" -- that God wishes the offering to Him of the whole life of His people, both as individuals and as a group, not for His own glorification but rather so that He might effectively use them for the accomplishment of great ends: the redemption of the world and the opening of rich life for His children. But that which the Jews came to see was God’s demand upon them they were not in fact able to perform. For while men may see that it is the offering of themselves which is the heart of all worship, they are neither able nor willing to make this oblation. Such refusal and such incapacity are the measure of the sinfulness of man -- and the Hebrew prophets, who taught the truth about sacrifice, at the same time saw the radical sin in men which prevented their doing that which alone would "please God" and result in right relationships with Him. They saw this, but they did not have the answer to it. It is the claim of the Christian faith that the answer to it can never be given by man; God alone can provide it, and in Jesus Christ He did so. But we shall see more of this in our next chapter.

Worship, then, is primarily sacrificial in kind, in the sense that it means offering to God. The adoration, thanksgiving, acknowledgment of sin, prayer for others and for self, which, as we have seen, are integral elements in the whole action of worship, have their significance in the total giving of self, so that the sovereign Will of God may be effected in worshiper and world. On the other hand, there is a returning movement in worship, from the side of the deity who is worshiped. As the devotees give themselves to their god, using some token for their oblation such as a human life, an animal, grain, a dance or other ceremonial, so the god responds to their action by relating himself afresh to them in a helpful and enriching fashion. Communion is established anew, and the worshipers go out from their religious rite with enhanced strength and a sense of belonging to the god whom they have adored. Thus we may say that in the divine-human relationship, as it manifests itself in human acts of worship, there is a two-way traffic: from man to God in sacrifice or offering, and from God to man in the establishment of communion and the gift of new life.

But the significant point in advanced religion, and above all in Christianity, is that the movement from man to God is itself a responsive movement to an action of God towards man. Something of the reason for this, so far as Christianity is concerned, was discussed in Chapter 7. But in other "high religion" as well, there is a conviction that God and His purpose have priority; even in the pantheistically-weighted religions of India the "existence" of the supremely-divine, and his disclosure of himself through avatars like Krishna or Shiva, is the assumption in terms of which the average worshiper engages in his religious practice, no matter what may be said of the highly intellectualized philosophical religious ideas of thinkers like Shankara. As Professor A. F. Taylor has insisted in The Faith of a Moralist, all "working" religions which hold sway over the great multitude of men tend to be "revealed"; and even in primitive expressions of the religious impulse something of the idea of "revelation" is to be found. That is to say, men seem almost inevitably to discover that their urge to adore a deity, however conceived, is an urge that is elicited from them by that which the deity himself is believed to be -- or more profoundly, that which it is believed that he has done towards them.

In this sense we may say of worship what the late George Tyrrell said of all religion: that there is only one worship, which begins in primitive and crude ways, grandly develops to purer conceptions, with ups and downs but yet moving forward as man himself becomes morally and spiritually more discerning, until it reaches its always-implied center in a focal and intensive expression which is, so we Christians would affirm, uniquely given in the person and the work of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God approaches man, man returns to God, and God then moves back toward men with His gift of new life in the Savior, Christ. This conception has its relationship to the idea of "progressive revelation," in that both see that there is continuous growth and remarkable development in man’s ideas of God. But it differs from that notion because of its recognition of the richness and variety in man’s apprehension of God, as well as because it discerns also that the development is by no means uniform and persistent, but has its dreadful points of failure as well as its high moments of understanding, and above all because it has been emancipated from the fallacy of the post-enlightenment period in Western history -- the idea of continuous progress and "constantly-improving" morality and spirituality on the part of man. There is really no such thing as moral and spiritual progress, if by this it is meant that man at each of his later stages has improved upon each of his earlier stages. There is only the continuing relationship of man with the eternal Reality of God, opening richer vistas here and there, descending to horrible depths at this point and at that, yet moving forward spirally, as it were, until in Christ -- so the Christian believes -- the relationship is established on a new level of depth and profundity, as well as of height and penetration. But even here, there may be, and, indeed, there has been, appalling retrogression and degradation, for men remain the same through all ages, with an inveterate tendency to reject the best they know and a distortion of their will so that even when they do not reject the best they yet tend to seek it in their own perverted fashion.

This, which is true of man’s moral and spiritual history on the grand scale, is equally true of his worship. We can find, without too much effort, examples of reversion to very primitive ideas of offering among quite sophisticated moderns; we can see, all about us, illustrations of the tendency to substitute lesser gods for the one true God; we are ourselves the victims of the temptation to desert worship itself, as even the primitives understood it in their best moments, and to turn the adoration of God into a "charm" which will, so we think, gain for us what we want -- as in so many lands today, we seek to "use" God as the support or dynamic for our own national aspirations, rather than submit these to God, so that they may be purified and conformed to His holy Will.

Yet it remains the fact that there is a movement forward, and the Christian declaration is that in this, the hand of God is to be discerned as He leads His children to a deeper understanding of His nature and of His purpose for them, thereby enriching their lives and giving them the assurance that if they seek Him they will find life eternal. On the other hand, it is not the Christian idea that in the temporal end alone -- on this planet where our little mortal lives are lived out -- there will come the grand culmination of all things. The Christian has in his Bible the Book of Revelation; and in that bizarre and difficult document, one note is dominant -- that the highest worship of which man is capable, and of which all his worship on earth is but the reflection, is the sheer adoration of God in the heavenly places, in the City of God, where there is no more night, where there is no temple, "for the glory of God lightens it, and the Lamb is the light thereof." We may find it hard to understand the somewhat surrealistic quality of the vision which the writer of this book enjoyed; but it is the heart of the Christian hope that man’s final end in worship, as in every other aspect of his experience, is to be found in that heavenly place, of which the writer says: "The throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: and they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever."