What is Worship?

I've been thinking about worship a lot lately. What is worship anyway? Is it the thing we do on Sunday mornings at churches? Is it a kind of activism? Is it a ritual or declaration of obedience? A friend posed the question to me not too long ago, somewhat indirectly. It's easy to get our idea of worship stuck in the mud of archaist rituals and religion, to lose worship to the disconnect of concern for propriety and obedience. And, from the perspective of someone like me, someone concerned with academic definitions, it's easy to over-complicate the subject. My first response to the question was to describe it as an orientation, a directing of oneself to another and a directing of ones actions to that other. And I'm quite sure that's part of it. Indeed, that is what worship is. But if we cannot answer more simply that worship means loving God, then we've over-complicated the thing. The description cannot be limited to orientation, not when we're talking about the worship of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Orientation can never be arbitrary or imposed. Because God is love, love must be the very basis of worship. At the root of worship, then, is not only the orientation of one to another, when it is the worship of God we're talking about, the orientation must also imply the giving of one's heart to the God who had given God's own heart to God's creation. Worship implies falling in love. God is not to be worshiped merely as the object of fear. It must not be the impulse of an anxiety to evade condemnation... In other words, no worship done for the sake of avoiding hell can be considered the worship of God. For if God is revealed in Jesus Christ, revealed through the incarnate love which pursues humankind even to its darkest fringes and takes on their burden, offering hope and resurrection, then love is the only appropriate mode of worship. Worship, then, is to give oneself to God wholly, passionately, not merely obediently.

What is unique, then, about worship is not its relational quality. I can offer myself, my heart, to my wife as well, and it would not be inappropriate, but it would not necessarily be worship. What's unique about worship, though relationship is essential and fundamental to it, is the way in which it subsequently determines all other relationships. I've written elsewhere of my essential agreement with Martin Buber, Moltmann, Andrew Root, and others, that relationships make us who we are on an ontological level--as Moltmann has suggested, they are "primal" to us. Root has said, "we are the relationships that make us; we have our being in and through relationships that place us into reality, and therefore we are open ontologically to the possibility of encounter." Encounter, the offering of self to others and the receiving of others into the self, is an essential human activity. The worship of God, uniquely, is the crown of that human activity, it is normative and climactic. Worship is the offering of self which is normative of all other activity of self-offering. In other words, our worship orients and determines all the relationships which make us who we are. Therefore, worship itself becomes fundamentally an ontological category. If in our worship to God is to offer our hearts to God in love (the only appropriate mode of worship), then love will itself have the role of determination for all other relationships.

Indeed, all worship (even that which is not concerned with love as such) has this normative relational quality. For whatever relationship we allow to be most fundamental to us will determine all the other relationships. That is why idolatry is so often paired with injustice as objects of God's judgement in scripture. If our relationship with power, for example, is most important to us... if we worship it... then all our other relationships will serve power... we'll probably turn out like Frank Underwood (if you don't watch House of Cards, start watching it). We will not be able to find in ourselves the capacity or justification for selfless activity. No relationship that does not somehow serve power will be intuitive. In this way, the Bible itself can become an idol too. Our relationship with the Bible can become the relationship which determines all our other relationships and arbitrary obedience to the Bible is quite different from loving relationship with the God revealed in scripture. Our relationship with God should determine even our relationship to the Bible.

All this is to say that worship is loving God, offering self to God and receiving God in such a way that no relationship goes unaffected, undetermined even, by the loving relationship with the God who tolerates no barriers between Godself and the world which God has determined to love. If this is the God we worship, and if we worship in this way, then we will be truly and ontologically human--created in the image of God.