When I was a Christian, I loved praising God through worship songs. It was when I felt most spiritual, felt that movement of the Holy Spirit through my body. I felt connected to a higher power, to my community, drunk on that heady “in love” feeling. While I still get those same experiences as an atheist with secular music, meditation or actually being in love with someone, I hadn’t thought about praising God in a long time.
However, in the shower this morning, I found myself humming a familiar melody from my past. I searched the back of my mind for the words:
…Holy, holy are you Lord God Almighty
Worthy is the Lamb, worthy is the Lamb
You are holy, holy…
The lyrics are nothing particularly interesting, a standard sample from the contemporary church services I’d been to. I stopped, suddenly struck by a question I’d never even bothered to ask myself — as a Christian or as an atheist: Why does God want to be worshiped?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand why Christians feel the need to worship God, especially through song. It’s that addictive endorphin rush, the sense of community, the validation of a familiar incantation. Some paleontologists and neuroscientists even believe language evolved from singing, so it’s deep in our DNA to want to do so. That makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense to me is why God wants us to take significant time out of our lives to tell Him how great He is. Why do we give praise to others in our everyday lives? To encourage them, to offer emotional support, to reinforce good behavior. None of these seem applicable to a relationship with God, unless we think he’s some kind of Trumpian buffoon whose friendship can be bought for a simpering Tweet.
Usually when I ask these kinds of questions, I can imagine how I’d respond back when I was a Christian. I found that I didn’t have an answer for myself this time, and I’m wondering if anyone else does?
Here’s the problem. Aren’t we weak, flawed, limited, broken creatures who could not possibly comprehend the greatness of God? If so, how are we equipped in any way to evaluate what holiness is, let alone who qualifies as holy or worthy or great. Wouldn’t desiring our input on the subject be kind of useless on His end? Like Leonardo da Vinci getting his worth from a critique by five-year-old Harold and his purple crayon?
In fact, come to think of it, can you worship anything with any logical honesty? Because the second you are able to evaluate something as divine and determine it to be worship-able, you have effectively placed yourself above that thing. In other words, those things that are worshiped are only worshiped because they are outside of our comprehension in some infinite way; if we can comprehend it enough to make an accurate value judgement about it, we have transcended our need to worship it in the first place.
Now, another possibility here is that Christians just trust God’s claims that He is holy and worthy of being worshiped. But if that’s the case, and we are just parroting back a statement we don’t really understand, where is the value in that kind of interaction? We’d call bullshit on anyone who constantly complimented us on something they didn’t have any frame of reference or understanding for. We’d call them a suck up and get a little grossed out. We certainly wouldn’t demand it as a tenet of the relationship. If we did, we’d be pretty authoritarian and ego-maniacal.
The only other possibility I can think of here is a “clap your hands if you believe” type situation, where God is a metaphysical Tinkerbell who will die without His existence being applauded. Which I’d imagine would put a strain on the willing suspension of disbelief, even for Christians.
So what gives? Why worship something if you don’t understand it? Why worship something if you do? To me, the whole concept of worship (of anything, not just the Christian God) seems illogical and instinctive, like a fear of the dark: something that once served our ancestors well but something we don’t realize we have outgrown.