Magazine article The Christian Century

A Missing Presence

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Missing Presence

Article excerpt

To attend the typical Protestant Sunday morning worship service is to experience something odd, something like a charade. The discourse (invocation, praises, hymns, confessions, sacred texts) indicates that the event celebrates a sacred presence. But this discourse is neutralized by the prevailing mood, which is casual, comfortable, chatty, busy, humorous, pleasant and at times even cute. This mood is a sign not of a sacred reality but of various congregational self-preoccupations.

The sacred is not so much a presence as a theme and content of the ritual activity. Lacking is a sense of the terrible mystery of God, which sets language atremble and silences facile chattiness. (One has only to attend or even read about the ritual activity that goes on in a Hopi kiva to sense the difference.) If the seraphim assumed this Sunday morning mood, they would be addressing God not as "holy, holy, holy" but as "nice, nice, nice."

We can deflect this criticism by assuring ourselves that many good things are in evidence on Sunday morning: skillful and serious preaching, well-performed music, the presence of children, expressions of mutual compassion. To be sure, such things are mixed with elements of inauthenticity: a bibliolatry that displaces gospel, moral provincialism that excludes and oppresses, generalizing discourse that evades reality. Such mixes have always been part of the Christian movement. But the lack of worshipfulness is a different problem.

Another evasion appears in the claim that worship is simply a posture that properly attends all the things Christians do; thus, Brother Lawrence worshiped while scrubbing floors. Worship takes place when we work or play golf. Thus, Sunday morning is no different from any other time.

The greatest obstacle to becoming aware of the oddity of our Sunday worship, however, is our difficulty in properly defining the term. "Worship" can, of course, be a synonym for the ritual activities of Sunday morning. To participate in these activities is, then, to worship.

But if we allow the referent of worship to set the definition, then we must conclude that worship is an engagement with the sacred. In corporate worship, this engagement moves through a variety of acts: confession of sin, praise, celebrative remembrance and gratitude. If the sacred is both the ineffably mysterious (the very creativity of things) and the self-expressively gracious or loving (the redemptive power in human history), then every genuine act of worship mill direct itself or open itself to this Mystery of ultimate love. So directed, worship combines awe before Mystery and deep reverence for the Good.

The term "adoration" expresses this double act. And it is just this paradoxical act that the idol competes for. Adore me, it says. Treat me as the Mysterious Good of all things. But the act of adoration, the worship of the creative and redemptive Mystery of things, always takes place by way of interpretive metaphors.

According to some traditional paradigms, absolute and all-determinative power is what evokes the act of worship; power is the central and all-inclusive metaphor for designating the divine Mystery. I myself see nothing worshipful about determinative power. The holy itself, the merger of ultimate Mystery and ultimate Goodness, underlies power. …

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