Saturday, May 16, 2009

Why Do Christians Worship God? Part I

by Phil Weingart

In the world of Christian apologetics, the question “Why do Christians worship God,” comes up usually as a challenge from scornful atheists who view God as a narcissistic megalomaniac who demands attention to feed his weak ego. Of course, their idea is anthropomorphic (it assigns human characteristics to God) and therefore invalid. However, discounting the unwarranted scorn, it’s a fair question, and one that I’ve had difficulty answering in the past, other than to say “Because God says to do it.” So, I examined that part of my life a bit more carefully, and developed a more robust answer.

There are actually several reasons why we worship, all arising out of different parts of our relationship to God. Since our relationship to God changes as we mature, our reasons for worshiping change over time as well. The categories I’ve discovered are:

  • Natural worship, or the natural response to God as creator;
  • Instructional worship, or the required response to God as parent;
  • Battle worship, or the necessary response to God as liberator;
  • Intimate worship, or the voluntary response to God as intimate companion.

The first and last are natural responses of the individual, and are not commanded by God; the second and third are commanded by God, but for our benefit, not His.

Today I’m going to describe Natural Worship. I’ll follow up in the coming days with separate installments explaining what I mean by each of the other three terms.

Natural worship: the response to God as creator

A little after 3 PM on January 15, 2009, US Airways flight 1549 took off from Laguardia airport in New York only to fly through a flock of geese, rendering both engines mostly inoperable. Without enough lift to stay aloft in the wake of the freak incident, pilot Chesley Sullenberger turned the plane around, determined that he would not make it back to Laguardia, and after checking unsuccessfully for alternative runways on which to land, laid the plane gently onto the Hudson River in one piece, at a point within easy reach of three major docks. Because of his level-headedness, preparation, and flying skill, 155 people were rescued unharmed who could easily have been involved in a fatal crash. The nation responded by making “Sully” a hero for a few weeks, and properly so.

Why is it, do you suppose, that we all automatically praise excellent performance, as we did Captain Sullenberger’s? This is clearly a human characteristic, not a cultural trait; every culture on the planet has some form of recognition for jobs done well, as they count jobs done well, and for the people who do them. It’s so much a part of us that we never wonder about it. Of course we praise those who do well. Doesn’t everybody? This is as natural a part of being human as are eating and sleeping.

Every one of us has experienced the same feeling while looking at a sunset, or at a vista of enormous mountains, or at a storm on the horizon over the ocean. The power of nature is awesome, and the recognition of it is a common human theme, a stock topic for poetry and song. I submit to you that this is the same impulse as the impulse to praise those who have done well; we recognize what is excellent, and we respond by first feeling, then expressing its excellence. The only question is, whom or what are we praising?

Praising nature itself is like praising a remarkable feat itself without knowing who performed it. When we see something remarkable take place, we naturally want to know who, what, and why. While the feat is remarkable, it’s the person who performed it that deserves the praise. And by the same token, Scientific Materialists speak of praising the excellence of nature as an end in itself, but the Christian does them one better; the Materialist can feel awe at the creation, but the Christian feeling the same awe knows Whom to commend. It’s great to enjoy a work of inspired engineering; how much better, to enjoy close friendship with the Engineer?

I’ve been taught at various Christian meetings that praise is commanded, with reference to the Psalms, vis: “Praise God in His sanctuary! Praise Him in the power of His creation!” (Psalm 150) I think the ministers who teach this are misreading the Psalms. This is no more a command to praise than a dinner bell is a command to eat. This sort of praise is not commanded because it does not have to be. It’s a natural response. When one sees greatness, one praises it.

The only part of natural worship that requires anything approaching a command is the exhortation to notice. Allow me to illustrate: I find that I enjoy road trips, driving excursions that require me to drive on the interstate highways in the US, particularly on clear days when the traffic is not too heavy. I enjoy it because it’s an occasion where I get to view the horizon. During ordinary days when I’m not driving, my focus is on a computer screen, on my lawn, on cooking utensils, and so forth; it takes a special occasion, like a road trip, to force me to look at the horizon and remember the exquisite world I live in. In the same manner, the Psalmist encourages us to look up and notice; and once we notice, praise comes naturally.

What I’m calling “natural worship” progresses as the Christian gains maturity. It begins by recognition of nature, but as the Christian grows, his or her awareness of God’s acts grows as well, and praise naturally follows. Thus Christians with a little more experience will find themselves praising God because, for example, a check arrived in the mail at a moment when it was particularly needed. The natural response to good fortune (”sweet!”) converts into gratitude (”Thanks, Jesus”), and with gratitude comes recognition of God’s sovereignty (”God is amazing.”) And then, as the Christian matures even more and this sort of interaction becomes the norm, comes a sort of intimacy with God that I will discuss later in this series as intimate worship. Natural worship grows in proportion the Christian’s awareness of the work of God in his or her ordinary life; it never needs to be commanded.

It appears that this sort of praise is designed into us for the purpose of identifying and recognizing God. If that’s true, then atheists’ questions on the order of “If God exists, where is He?” are at least partially answered by nature.

We can infer from the design, from the natural impulse to praise and from the naturally-occurring objects that evoke praise, that God recognized that we humans would be plagued by what I call the “Fish Problem.” The “Fish Problem” arises when one considers how difficult it would be to explain to a fish in the ocean that there exists such a thing as an ocean. The fish has a problem understanding (suspending such obvious problems as language and intelligence, of course) not because it cannot see the ocean, but because it has never experienced anything but the ocean. There’s no background against which the ocean appears in the foreground. By the same token, humans cannot see God in our universe because there’s no part of the universe that is not an active, ongoing work of God. God is never the foreground in our universe because everywhere, God Himself is the background. It’s not that God is nature (that would be Pantheism,) nor is it that God started nature and then stepped away (that would be Deism,) but it’s more that God wearsnature, like a glove on His hand (this is an analogy; God is not a spatial being). Every event in nature that is not touched by human will is an act of God in some sense.

Thus, the literally correct answer to “Where is God?” is “Where isn’t God?” But because we have this foreground/background problem, God designed into us and into our world both the impulse to worship naturally, and the natural object of that worship; looking up, noticing, and offering praise to the creator of what we see is a natural response, as natural as eating or sleeping. So the correct answer to the atheist who asks “Where is God?” should be, “Look up and take notice,” because the atheist is someone who has somehow lost the natural ability to wonder at the immensity of nature and praise Whomever made it.