Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Ritual and Validation

There is an idea in circulation that has become increasingly popular, and it is that God needs or is somehow validated by our attention, our acts of worship or our fawning, groveling subservience.

In this view, man speaks well of God or prostrates himself before him because God has a well-developed taste for burnt offerings and ritual; because he wants to rub in our faces how magnificent he is and how horrible human beings are by comparison.

A Terrible Character

American physicist Steven Weinberg puts it this way:
“He’s a god ... obsessed [with] the degree to which people worship him and anxious to punish with the most awful torments those who don’t worship him in the right way … that is the traditional God and he’s a terrible character. I don’t like him.”
Perhaps the reason this “traditional God” makes such a terrible character is because he is fictional. But the late Christopher Hitchens felt much the same as Professor Weinberg. He asked:
“How much self-respect must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin?”
Agreed. If self-respect is the be-all and end-all, then Ezekiel, for example, certainly failed to display any.

Ezekiel and Self-Respect

Confronted with the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord, Ezekiel fell on his face. But Ezekiel’s prostration was a by-product of overwhelming awe, not some contrived religious display designed to placate his deity.

This was not a mere gesture of respect. It was not something he did ritualistically, as Muslims do; he did not ease himself down to his knees, then bend forward to touch his forehead to the ground. If his experience was anything like that of John the apostle, all the strength went out of his muscles and he fell like a puppet with its strings cut.

Notice that the Lord didn’t hurl Ezekiel to the ground; that’s not the way he deals with his servants. But the overwhelming splendor of his glory produced in Ezekiel a very natural (though rather drastic) physical response. If we fail to do likewise when we worship, it is only because we have not seen what Ezekiel saw. Sometimes, sadly, we fail to see anything at all. But if the Lord were to suddenly appear in the middle of our workday, with or without cherubim, I guarantee you there would be an epidemic of bruised foreheads — or worse.

Who is this Character the Atheists Don’t Like?

Mr. Hitchens may have felt that the traditional weekly religious rituals with which he was brought up are more than a little contrived and that they rob the worshiper of self-respect. But when we read the accounts of men who encountered the Living God — Ezekiel, John, Paul, Peter, Moses or Abraham, among others — we find nothing contrived about their responses and little or nothing imposed on them. Rather, confronted with the sudden vision of Perfection, they respond spontaneously and appropriately.

And Professor Weinberg? Well, he paints the picture of a fussy, anxious and obsessive God micromanaging the offerings of men. But this is not the God we find in the Old Testament. The God who gave Israel the specifics of how he was to be approached did not do it in a vacuum. For centuries he kept his distance from humanity, leaving mankind minimally obligated to heaven and intervening only when their actions became intolerably wicked: the Tower of Babel, the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah. In the absence of God, man found less worthy things to worship and it was in their acts of devotion to these figments that a peculiar and distinctive evil evolved.

Worship and Sacrifice

Child sacrifice is not a human evil limited in time, place or even scale. The Carthaginians did it. The Incas, Aztecs and pre-Islamic Arabs did it, as did Ugandans and South Africans at various points in history. The Canaanites definitely did it. And of course child sacrifice is not limited to so-called primitive man: having done away with the notion of God, our present social order tops them all by sacrificing its children on the altar of self.

Weinberg’s and Hitchens’ pseudo-deities have emotional problems or want to make a point at the expense of man’s ego. But the God of Israel gave his Law (with all the details and specifics Professor Weinberg so dislikes) to a people seemingly compelled by their own natures to engage in worship, and frequently disposed to do it in the vilest of possible ways.

Let me say this again: God did not force a nation of amiable agnostics into the ritualized worship of Jehovah. He gave curatives and directives to keep his people from worshiping false gods. At its best, such worship is vain; at its worst, it was a recipe for a public horror show. This is a people who, by the way, chose of their own volition to make a covenant with God and to enter into a relationship with him. Every single “torment” that Israel endured was a product of their own repeated and deliberate choices, with every consequence of failure to live up to the covenant spelled out clearly up front.

Even with the Law that God had given, Israel drifted again and again into imitation of the practices of the nations they had displaced in Canaan.

Try to imagine how bad they would have been without it.

Ritual and Relationship

Does God need our groveling devotion or the food provided by burnt offerings to feel good about himself? “If I were hungry, I would not tell you,” the psalmist says, “for the world and its fullness are mine”.

Do ritual and even repeated sacrifices on his behalf please God in and of themselves? Not without the correct attitude of heart. Isaiah says:
“When you come to appear before me,
       who has required of you this trampling of my courts?
  Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.
       New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations —
  I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.”
Human beings have always worshiped. They have always sacrificed. It is in our DNA, apparently: take away deity and we worship ourselves. In contrast, God needs no validation from us, but is gracious in allowing us to have fellowship with him provided we approach him on his terms and in accordance with his nature. If coming face to face with the glory of God knocks us off our feet occasionally, that is the peculiar dynamic of a relationship between Creator and created. We are not equals and never will be, no matter how highly man likes to think of himself.

And yet God still desires to fellowship with us. Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Weinberg would not notice this or care, but when Ezekiel fell on his face in the presence of God, the Spirit actually set him back on his feet. More than once. When John passed out, the Son of God gently laid a hand on him and said, “Fear not”. And then they had a conversation.

Keeling over in awe is not the worst place to start, but God is looking for worshipers who worship in spirit and in truth, not those merely engaged in obsequious, fetishistic ritualism.

If the worship that atheists mock and deplore is encrusted with ritual, it is not God who first introduced ritual, nor is it he who perpetuates it.

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