Thursday, March 05, 2009

worship in a violent world

one important thing my studies at mhgs have taught me is to read outside of my tradition. i'm finding that more than often i am surprised and benefit greatly from the various perspectives and angles on things. currently i'm reading james allison's undergoing god and was very much drawn in by his second chapter, called "worship in a violent world." it was originally a talk he gave and the full transcript is here if you want to read it (recommended). in the chapter prior, allison does some groundwork to cast a vision of God as "I Am"- a God who is not "over and against" other gods, who is not merely "one of the gods." this removes all anxiousness, competition and violence from his theology, replacing it with an invitation into deep rest, into the being of God. his vision for worship flows out of this: "Christian worship is predicated on the understanding that there is nothing left to achieve." (40) allison contrasts True Worship to the nuremberg ralleys of nazi germany- which in structure and intent look frightenly like most modernday worship services (and this is something he never says flat out, but the similarities are obvious)- and this is a form of worship he calls "dangerous and dehumanizing." these are some quotes that jumped out at me:
  • "...Any given liturgical action, act of worship, is something to help us on the way, it is not an end in itself. If you like, it is designed to be learned as a discipline to help us inhabit more fully the creative life story, which we are gradually and peacefully receiving, of leaving the world of 'worship', the world of principalities and powers. Unlike [worship as we have come to know it], it is not designed to take us outside our ordinary life, but to enable us to dwell more freely and creatively within it, a lifelong therapy for distorted desire." (39)
  • "Any liturgical act is a staging post in a journey, and should point towards the dwelling within that journey. It is an induction into a more fully inhabited, more conscious, and freer creation of that journey, which is itself the bringing about of the Kingdom of God on earth, not a temporary excision from the journey in order to engage in something ecstatic." (40)
  • "When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it's supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It's a long term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn't abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbour, but which increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us. The build up to a sacrifice is exciting, the dwelling in gratitude that the sacrifice has already happened, and that we've been forgiven for and through it is, in terms of excitement, a long drawn-out let-down." (45-46)
  • "...if the True Worship of the True God looks like the worship of a god, or if they look more like each other than unlike, then we have fooled ourselves... In short we have been lazy, and settled for more of the same with a different name." (35)


pedro said...

It's been great to have some longer, more thoughtful posts. I like reading what you're thinking.

The last bullet point grabbed me. It's especially profound if you understand True Worship in the broader context of a Life lived as Worship (e.g., Paul in Romans 12). If Life is Worship, then how we experience life should be full of wonder, mystery, and complexity.

T. Nathaniel said...

I have just a couple of questions. One for you Phil and one for Pedro.

Phil: I wonder what Allison would say about the worship of ancient Israel. It is true that the Israelites are careful to distinguish between their God, "I Am," who created the heavens and earth, and thus rules over all people and all places, but they nevertheless showed very little tolerance for the gods. While their God, Adonai, might not have been threatened by these lesser gods, the prophets railed against their worship and often violently opposed it (by destroying the high places, etc.).

What is more, this God gave a very definite pattern of worship, which included many instructions for the layout of the temple and for the performance of sacrifices. Are we to understand this worship as a means to an end, as a boring practice that centers us more on our everday lives and activities?

Pedro: This brings me to the second question. It is a good thing to think about all of life as worship, to see what is transcendent and mysterious in everything that we do in such a way that God breaks into this world, but it seems like Allison is talking about something very different. When he describes worship as inherently boring, underwhelming, and a let-down, then how can it ever lead to a sense of wonder, awe, and mystery?

Here I think that it is important to view all of life as a worshipper of God, because it is only then that we can see it for what it really is, a good gift from the good God who created us and loves us, which should bring about the right response which is gracious thanksgiving.

What I am worried about with Allison (and I admit here to not having read anything more than the quotes above) is that he is flipping the influence upside down. Instead of viewing life through the lens of worship, he is viewing worship through the lens of life. It must be boring, un-inspired and immanent if it is to release us to the everyday world with the motivation to live only for that world and nothing more. The question or concern that I have is that if our worship does not teach us wonder, than how can we ever see the world with wonder? An underwhelming liturgy is not enough for the redemption of the world.

I think that we do need to proclaim the uniqueness of the God of the Bible who names Himself, "I Am," and we should be careful not to confuse Him with the gods. But we should also acknowledge that there are two ways of confusing Him with the gods. The first would be to see Him as one god among the gods, and the other would be to see Him as the unity beyond and behind all of the gods. The first way is polytheism, the second way is monism, and the faith that has been handed down to us is something entirely different, and that is monotheism.

Peace to you both.

elnellis said...

great questions todd. i had the same question (i wrote in the margin of my text)- indeed YHWH went to lengths to prove his superiority over other gods. but the emergence of jewish monotheism was different than other forms of monotheism. this was a God who's self description (I Am) was anchored in his existence alone. a God who is perhaps more like nothing than like anything that is. allison references the burning bush as a power that is not in rivalry with anything, and thus unlike everything else that is.

as a little context, allison is a gay catholic theologian whose project, for what little i know of him, seems to be the acceptance of homosexuality in the believing community. (i am reading outside my tradition). from that context, i can appreciate his perspective on faith systems and entire theologies that define themselves by what they are against.

writing in the witty english tradition of gk chesterton, he says that "monotheism is a terrible idea but wonderful discovery"- the idea is one that must be asserted over and against others, and defended as an abstraction. monotheism as a discovery is one that we find to be true as we become faithful worshipers (again, i'm not agreeing or disagreeing with allison's view on homosexuality, merely finding his articulation of these other things helpful in my process.

i read his comments on worship as critiques of emotion-based services that are more manipulative than anything else. they are experiences that disconnect us from reality as opposed to prepare us to live in reality. places where we loose our sense of self instead of developing healthy differentiated selves.

i'll just paste his description of the nuremberg ralley:

"My point about a Nuremberg Rally is not that it is uniquely awful, but that it is particularly convenient. The liturgical organisers of the Nuremberg rallies knew exactly what they were doing, and did it remarkably well. You bring people together and you unite them in worship. You provide regular, rhythmic music, and marching. You enable them to see lots of people in uniform, people who have already lost a certain individuality and become symbols. You give them songs to sing. You build them up with the reason for their togetherness, a reason based on a common racial heritage. You inflame them with tales of past woe and reminders of past confusion when they were caused to suffer by some shame being imposed upon them, the tail-end of which woe is still in their midst. You keep them waiting and the pressure building up. All this gradually serves to take people out of themselves; the normally restrained become passionate, unfriendly neighbours find themselves looking at each other anew in the light of the growing “Bruderschaft”. Then, after the build up, the Führer appears, preferably brought in by means of a helicopter or airplane which has been seen from beneath by the gradually effervescing crowd, and before long, the apotheosis takes place, and he is in their midst. They are already riveted, the waiting helped prepare that, they are united in fascination with this extraordinary person, to whom they have handed over the task of being the chief liturgist. And he does not disappoint. With a few deft words and gestures he conjures up the mood of those present, pointing to the huge gathering as a sign of a new unity which is overcoming the pains and humiliations of the past, pains and humiliations caused by enemies from afar, and more important, by readily identifiable enemies who are much closer at hand, he need not say more. But none of these will stand in the way of the heroic victory which this new gathering, this huge unanimity portends. A victory which presages a new world order without the presence of those enemies within, one where only the good and the pure such as those who are gathered here, will remain. The Führer is even able to thank God whose providence has allowed him, unworthy servant of the Volk, to expend his life sacrificially on behalf of his people in his daily work of leading them into this new world. By this stage of course, the crowd is delirious, outside themselves, united in love and adoration of their Führer, and of course ready to do whatever he asks of them. On their way home that evening, though they may not notice it, part of the magic of the day will have rubbed off on them. They will look at the Jew from across the road in a different light. He will have lost personality in their eyes, and become a representative of the sort of thing the Führer had suggested to them. They will be that much closer to turning a blind eye to his disappearance, to agreeing that old Mr Silberstein the cobbler is indeed a threat to society. To the divinisation of the one, there corresponds the demonisation of the other, which is the dehumanisation of them all."

at the end of the chapter he comments on the 1989 events that brought down the berlin wall. the reality was that the wall was down, even if people refused to believe it or live as thought it were true. to live in the kingdom is to know that something has shifted, death no longer has hold, and the more i live into that, the more true it becomes. this has to be the realm of wonder. and this is what i think he means when he says that we worship, not to "make something happen" but we worship to remind ourselves that something has happened and we find freedom for ourselves, our community, our planet as we live into the mending of the world. often, in evangelical worship, we are hoping for something to happen, and disappointed when it doesn't. i like the restful, less anxious vision of worship he casts- a needed perspective in the larger conversation. but i do resonate with your concerns.

T. Nathaniel said...

Phil: That makes a lot more sense with the added context.

Both Catholic and Orthodox liturgical worship will seem boring to the one who is used to a Nuremberg experience.

I still think that he gives up too much to let those of such indiscriminant taste dictate what is truly interesting and engaging.

The liturgy is the same every week, but I have never left under-whelmed. And I do really think that the traditional worship of the Church (the Eastern and Western liturgies that are based on a synthesis of Jewish Synagogue and Temple worship), which is worship in spirit and truth, helps us to see reality rightly.

The main concern that I had was about how he is thinking about God. Does the divine 'Yes' embrace everything, or is it also a 'No' to certain things? It seems to me that it is certainly a 'No' to idolatry, and to the accompanying moral degeneracy.

What he says about the burning bush makes some sense, but I would be worried about making the fire of the burning bush an avatar of God, in the Hindu tradition, rather than the real and physical presence of God that I think it denotes in the Bible. We could get more clear about his view of God if he would talk about the presence of God in the incarnation of Christ, rather than the burning bush. How would his analysis of the burning bush change if we thought about it as an image of Mary, the God-bearer who accepted Christ into her own womb?

Philip said...

I love Allison. I'd love to read your thoughts as you get further along. He's use of Don Quixote, his catholic reading of Romans, etc. Such good stuff. And I think he's someone who definitely needs to be read in depth. He builds on himself so much that you might miss his viewpoint from quotes delivered out of context. For Todd, I think his assertions are very much in line with a God who is against idolatry, and Allison goes to great lengths to show how brilliantly God disassembles our own violence and idol building.