I find that the attitudes and forms of worship can be a stumbling block for those who find themselves drawn to some sort of religious practice or community.
Bowing down, singing praise, even losing themselves for a moment, can sometimes present a step too far for the one who is seeking to convert. Everyone these days seems drawn to "thick" practices, ritual, and community, but... worship? It's uncomfortable. What does it do? What is it meant for? Do we really even need it?
I've worshiped God in Christ my whole life, in different ways at different times, and even I sometimes find myself growing self-conscious as worshipping, almost as though Nietzsche is watching me and shaking his head.
"You simpleton," the voice says. "I guess you aren't one of those enlightened ones."
I'm the religious idiot. I've often felt shame for having given myself over to the ecstasy of praise and worship. Was I allowing myself to be manipulated?
The modern worshiper wishes to maintain possession of themselves still.
Many people come to religion looking for something, looking to grow, to develop, to improve. They're drawn to its purported benefit, whether it's personal, communal, or psychological.
The renewed interest in liturgy seems to reflect this trend – habits are crucial for the formation of self, so the recovery of religious rite is a practice of resistance which launches counter-rituals to the liturgy of modern capitalist life.
I don't disagree with this line of reasoning, but I find that it puts the Christian in a tough spot when trying to share the good news with those who do not yet believe.
If the attraction of a faith community is ritual and connection, what place does all this singing, chanting, and confessing about God and his attributes have to do with self-development? Is it just a covert way of talking about ourselves?
More and more religious communities are finding touchstones in our society's discourse of identity, self-development, and self-narration. This perspective on religion emphasizes how communities come together to celebrate what matters and realign themselves around their values, ultimately with the goal of each member becoming more fully human.
Where does worship fit into this picture of modern religion though? If worship is in service of shaping us as individuals and communities, then what are we really worshiping? Can one truly worship if they do so for the benefits?
What comes to mind for me is the vision of the Sangha, a Buddhist community. I see people coming together around a shared practice of meditation, the sharing of insights, teaching and instruction, the remembrance of the Buddhist teachings, even the recitation of mantras and the chanting of the sutras.
All of these actions, they seem to be based around the aim of developing as a person, becoming bound together in community, and equipping one for right living. I think that many Christians would prefer that the church look more like the sangha than it does today.
However, where in this complex of practices is the encounter with the seeming wastefulness of worship? Only the most extravagant and flowery passages of the sutras border on this type of pre-modern worship in which a superior being (or beings) is extolled for its glorious attributes and works.
In a religious community where all the practices are oriented around self-transformation and social belonging, where is the encounter with God who is wholly Other? Do we simply worship to get what we want? And if so, how is this not a regression to the basest form of paganism?
It's not that I'm opposed to personal change and communal belonging – to the contrary, I see these as wonderful gifts abundantly bestowed in the context of the loving and reconciling community of Christ's Spirit. But it almost seems like they are byproducts, not things which can be achieved by being aimed at directly.
There's something missing that I can't put my finger on..
In worship, there is both a stopping up of the mouth in wonder, and an opening of the mouth in awe. There's a relativization of the person that comes in the encounter with God. We experience what Scriptures calls "the fear of the Lord."
Worship seems deeply uncomfortable to the religious life of the modern person.
I feel it even in myself. I find myself afraid of what worship will do to me. I'm worried that I'll lose myself, and I instead cling desperately to what I feel is my identity and my beliefs, engaging in worship at times cynically, almost watching myself worship from a recessed point inside my head.
I think I'm worried if I give my heart to something that I won't get it back, that I'll become a fool, a stooge of somebody else's game. I'm so worried about being a jester in somebody else's court, of being a Mandarin in someone else's bureaucracy, and my heart is afraid that worship is the gateway to that path, to being taken advantage of, to being blinded against the truth.
This is the thing I have to struggle with, and I'd invite you to struggle with me.
What is worship, and what makes it distinct from other forms of religious practice? What is the place of worship in religion today? What do we lose when worship falls away? We may discover that something else has taken its place.
I've been feeling energized lately by some great conversations in differing domains, from a review of a psychoanalytic case history to yesterday's open dialogue about meditation in my Nagarjuna reading group. Our local church is also going through some changes too, which has awakened me afresh to the enlivening work of building and leading communities. This is the mundane work of love. We have to get our hands dirty with the loam of our shared life together.
I recorded a podcast episode this week, and I'm aiming to release that next Wednesday. I had the pleasure of interviewing Shinkyu, a Zen teacher and practitioner at the Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple. I'm looking forward to sharing that conversation with you soon!