For billions of people around the world, worship is central to a life well-lived. The devout participate in worship through corporate prayer, songs, service, recitation, reading, and more. Even apart from organized religion, humans naturally respond in reverence to outsized and dazzling phenomena: the ocean’s expanse, deep space, a soaring symphony. Given its centrality to human life, we might assume that worship is the subject of extensive study. But as it turns out, the topic is mysteriously absent in recent philosophical and theological inquiry.
To address this absence, two Jewish philosophers of religion led an international research project involving scholars from various religious traditions. Dr. Aaron Segal and Dr. Samuel Lebens invited philosophers to explore the role of worship in human life from both theistic and atheistic perspectives. They posed the questions: How does worship contribute to a good life? Can it promote human flourishing outside of religious traditions?
Across traditions and worldviews, philosophers agreed that worship can and does contribute to a meaningful life—both for the devout and the staunchly secular. Worship catalyzes human flourishing in profound ways, from increasing gratitude to promoting hope to forging friendship with the Divine.
Part I: A Theistic Account
“...to God a singular excellence is competent since He infinitely surpasses all things and exceeds them in every way. Wherefore to Him is special honour due.” - Thomas Aquinas
In the 13th Century, theologian Thomas Aquinas used the word religio to talk about a practice that looks much like our modern conception of worship. He defined religio as the offering of prayer, ritual, or service to God. This medieval definition continues to shape our ideas of worship today. While the Abrahamic religions use the term to speak about praise directed at the one true God, worship can also point to any act of veneration toward gods. In both contexts, we imagine a divine being on the receiving end of our worship.
Standing with the Good
Philosopher Robert Adams argues that one of the chief benefits of worship within monotheistic traditions is the opportunity to align ourselves with the Good. Whether we worship in a mosque on Friday, a synagogue on Saturday, or a church on Sunday, institutions of worship allow humans to participate in God’s goodness.
But worship is just symbolic, some might argue. What tangible difference does reciting the Torah or kneeling in prayer make? To which Adams points out, symbolic actions matter. Take the importance of symbolism when it comes to death and bereavement. Even people who are not traditionally religious feel an impulse to hold funerals, spread ashes, and honor the deceased. Funerals can’t enact change—death can’t be reversed—but they can symbolically affirm the meaning of the life that was lived, says Adams. “It is striking that in Jewish liturgy, the traditional prayer that is most strongly associated with mourning and commemorating the dead, the Kaddish, has relatively little to say about death or the deceased, but is largely devoted to praise of God,” he writes. “Precisely because there is nothing we can do to affect a death that has occurred, we may want to affirm the meaning of life in the face of it by expressing symbolically our allegiance to the supreme Good.”
We are helpless to prevent or reverse death. But at a funeral, we can still praise what is good. Similarly, worship offers us the chance to affirm our longings and concerns to God; they represent real opportunities to declare our moral and ethical positions. “Qualitatively limited as I inevitably am in the goodness of my life, and even in my conception of the Good, I can still name and praise a transcendent Good,” Adams writes. We may not be able to end war or prevent natural disasters, but we can stand against injustice through worship. In corporate lament, prayer, and petition, we can stand for what is good and against what is not.
This symbolic nature of worship is essential for a meaningful life, particularly because it’s impossible for us to act in all the ways we might want to. There’s only so much we can accomplish as individuals amidst the demands of our daily lives. Our best attempts at acting tangibly for peace and justice will always be partial and fragmentary–in many cases they will be frustrated. Therefore, symbolically being for good and against evil really does matter. “A genuine love for the Good can find in symbolic expression and integration and completion that would otherwise be impossible,” Adams writes. Worship provides an avenue for this symbolic integration. Of course, it can’t end there; symbolically standing for goodness shouldn’t replace concrete action. But worship allows us to go further than our best efforts by themselves. By standing with goodness symbolically, we come to participate more fully in God’s goodness in the world.
Intimacy with God
In monotheistic religious traditions, God is seen as deserving of worship because of God’s greatness. God is creator, omnipotent, perfect. At the same time, one of the gifts worship offers humans is the possibility of Divine union. We can, according to these same traditions, experience intimacy and even friendship with God through worship. At first glance, friendship might seem at odds with God’s holiness (a word that points to God’s set-apart-ness). But Maria Beer Vuco of University of Oxford argues that worship can encompass both “the distinctiveness of God’s majesty and the closeness of interpersonal relationships.”
How can divine worship be compatible with divine intimacy? The key to this paradox is what Vuco calls “joint attention.” In Christian theology, the Holy Spirit indwells believers with God’s own presence. In this way, even as God is set apart and worthy of worship because of God’s role as creator, God also offers union to believers. God can be a distant object because of God’s excellence and majesty. At the same time, God is closer to us than our own breath. One of worship’s gifts is offering believers a way to express and deepen this union in a personal way.
“Worship interactions shape us in various ways; with these practices, we participate in God’s stance and gradually align with God, a process of gradual harmonization that plausibly leads to friendship,”
“Worship does not merely prepare us to see God, as when a person learns Spanish in preparation to live in a Spanish speaking country,” she continues. Instead, it actually helps us to know God intimately, as in a close relationship. Worship offers believers both an experience of awe and companionship with God. If God is the greatest Good, the creator of us and every good thing, then union with God would naturally draw us closer to our truest selves. This kind of union with and adoration of our creator can only deepen our experience of the Good life. “The acts of religio,” as Vuco puts it, “play an integral role in the project of human flourishing with God.”
For those who believe humans are created in God’s image, these gifts of worship are essential to a life well lived. Friendship with God, participating in God’s goodness, and aligning ourselves with what is beautiful and true: all of these are possible when believers in God worship. But what about those who don’t believe in the divine? Could worship still have a place in their lives?
Stay tuned for Part II of this series later this month.
Annelise Jolley is a journalist and essayist who writes about place, food, ecology, and faith for outlets such as National Geographic, The Atavist, The Rumpus, and The Millions. Find her at annelisejolley.com.