One of my brothers-in-law is a nonbeliever. One evening at our house, the family's pre-dinner conversation turned to religious matters. My brother-in-law said mildly that he didn't see the point of believing in God, because there's no supporting evidence. Sensing an opportunity, I made an elevator pitch about why it's intellectually defensible to make a bet that yes, a Creator does indeed exist. My brother-in-law responded: Even if that were true, why should we worship this Creator? Unfortunately, the conversation veered off in another direction, and the moment was lost.
Hang-up: Worship as Groveling
Some non-believers and doubters ("NBDs") have a real hang-up about worshipping the Creator. I used to be one of those. I suspect that the groveling tone of a lot of worship, as practiced in certain precincts of Christianity, is what causes a lot of NBDs to cringe. This kind of worship could be summed up in a hypothetical prayer:
Dear God, we humans are utterly sinful, so much so that only divine action could ever redeem us. You would have every reason to damn our despicable selves to eternal torment. As an expression of our gratitude (or a quid pro quo) for your giving us a way out, we will completely surrender our desires, our lives, our very beings, to you.
Certainly this kind of worship-as-groveling isn't without scriptural support. According to recognized dictionaries, many of the Bible's Hebrew and Greek words customarily translated as "worship" all seem to involve a certain degree of self-abasement; they conjure images of a peasant demonstrating his overwhelming loyalty and love for an earthly king by prostrating himself, kneeling, bowing, kissing his master's hand, etc.
Groveling is never very appealing to watch. You always wonder how sincere the groveler really is. And if you believe that humans were created in something like the Creator's own image, it's hard to understand how such a low anthropology could be warranted.
Groveling before the Creator can be especially unappealing for NBDs, many of whom are only just barely willing to concede that a Creator might exist in the first place. And quite a few NBDs think that, by and large, humans are not a bad lot; these folks likely have difficulty accepting that, in the words of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, there is no health in us.
Another Scripture-Based Approach:
Worship as Acknowlegement of God
This groveling, self-abasing approach to worship isn't the only one that enjoys scriptural support. The Book of Hosea, in the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament), urges God's people simply to acknowledge him, and that good things will follow if they do:
Let us acknowledge the LORD;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.
[Hosea 6.3, NIV]
Three verses later, the book has God saying that what he wants is merely acknowledgement, not burnt offerings, together with — importantly — kindness towards others:
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. [Hosea 6.6, NIV]
Jesus quoted part of this verse to the Pharisees who criticized him for consorting with sinners:
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." [Matt. 9.10-13, NIV]
Acknowledging the Creator is something many NBDs could do in good conscience, without groveling or self-abasement.
Acknowledgement Might Lead to Admiration,
Awe, and Even Adoration
In the comments below, "Derek the Ænglican" writes:
I'd really prefer something stronger than acknowledgement, though, which sounds like a mere nod of the head--one equal to another. In the grand scheme of things, we're hardly equals to the creator of the whole she-bang.
One could narrowly interpret the English word "acknowledgement" in that way. But the author(s) don't seem to have intended such a narrow meaning: other translations, such as the NRSV, the NASB, and the NLT, all speak of knowing God; that is, God wants us to know him, not to offer burnt animal flesh to him.
I still prefer the term "acknowledge." In its broader sense, it carries connotations of being open to the truth, of facing the facts. "Acknowledge" is also a more active, volitional verb; I would guess we each have more choice about what we acknowledge than about what we know.
I can personally testify that acknowledging God, in the sense of facing the facts about "him," can lead to admiration and awe. I imagine it could even lead to adoration, of the sort that groveling supposedly signifies.
Maybe that's why, according the author of Hosea, acknowledgement, not groveling, is what God is looking for.
Hmmm. Groveling suggests absement that is over the top and entirely undeserved. I'd really prefer something stronger than acknowledgement, though, which sounds like a mere nod of the head--one equal to another. In the grand scheme of things, we're hardly equals to the creator of the whole she-bang... Revisit Ps 8 for some good creation based notions on our respective places...
Posted by: Derek the Ænglican | August 22, 2006 at 03:26 PM
Derek, you make a good point about acknowledgement. I edited the main post to address it. Thanks for the helpful input.
Posted by: D. C. | August 22, 2006 at 04:21 PM
The word used in Hosea 6:6 is da'at. Despite what the NIV translators may think, it means "knowledge" period. For instance, it's the word used in "tree of knowledge" in Gen 2.
The knowledge of God, then, would involve an understanding of our respective places in the universe...
Posted by: Derek the Ænglican | August 22, 2006 at 06:40 PM
I think the act of praise unites the human soul beautifully. God might not NEED praise, but praising Him - or just praising his creation - does wonders for the spirit (or one's seratonin levels if you must).
Posted by: John Wilkins | August 27, 2006 at 11:32 PM