Here’s something of a theological thought experiment: What would it mean to “worship God” without religion? Or more specifically, what would it mean to worship God without some of the usual language, symbols, and trappings of religion? And could it be that some atheists worship God more fully than some Christians?
I slowly stumbled upon this issue because the more I studied and reflected on the nature of God from a Christian perspective, the more I came to see that the religious language and symbolism used in Christian theology can sometimes become a barrier to a deeper understanding of God, ironically enough. The theological language and symbols can sometimes act like obstacles for some people—Christians and non-Christians included—that prevent them from seeing how they point towards greater things beyond themselves. Instead of being transparent windows through which we can perceive divine realities, the symbols become too opaque, making it difficult if not impossible to see anything through them. The symbols themselves then end up blocking any light of the living God from shining through, which can leave the viewer with nothing more to see than dead and lifeless symbols as a result. No longer functioning properly as analogies, they have become dead ends instead.
Now in order to get to the experiment, we need to first review some of the traditional understandings of God in Christianity to set things up. “God” happens to be represented by a constellation of interrelated images and ideas that point towards a reality that both combines and exceeds each individual image (hence why Christians always affirm God is “transcendent”). Here are five important ways God is understood in Christian theology:
1) The Son/Word (or Logos) of God is associated with the powers of logic, intelligence, wisdom, reason, awareness, and consciousness, as well as the activities of creativity, integration, and transformation. The Son/Word is also not an ethereal force, but rather a personal power that is to be fully embodied in human life, as represented by the incarnation of the Son/Word in the person of Jesus. Furthermore, disciples of Christ are called to embody the example and pattern of life exhibited by the incarnate Son/Logos for the purpose of becoming “the Body of Christ” themselves.
2) The Spirit (Ruach/Pnuema) of God is associated with breath, vitality, and the principle of life itself, as well as the activities of spiritual rebirth and regeneration.
3) God is associated with the perfection of goodness, beauty, and truth (which also parallel the pinnacles of three main branches of classical philosophy: ethics, aesthetics, and logic).
4) God is associated with the best possible future goal and state of affairs we can pursue. This is dramatically depicted in the biblical narrative as a “new heaven and new earth” where humanity and God are fully reunited as one, which is accompanied by the absence of suffering, evil, and death, as well as the presence of thriving, harmony, peace, and the fullness of life to be enjoyed and shared together.
5) And then, of course, we can’t forget the Christian affirmation that God is love. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
The main altar in the Dominican Church
in the city of Cracow in Poland.
Okay, so now for the thought experiment. If we set aside the more explicitly theological/religious language and symbolism surrounding the nature of God and Christian worship, what are we left with?
It seems to me that we’re left with something like this: that the best way to live is to consciously, intelligently, and actively strive to embody reason, awareness, love, and vitality of life in a creative, integrative, and transformative pursuit of bringing about more goodness, beauty, and truth to be enjoyed and shared in an expanding environment of thriving, harmony, and peace with everyone and everything that exists. And to do all of this in such a way where we trust (that is, have faith) that this is indeed the best way to live, while also hoping that living in this way will create the best possible future for ourselves, others, and the world over the longterm.
I dare say a more extraordinary and noble vision of the purpose of human life could hardly be imagined! And as far as I can tell, whatever it may fully mean to “worship God” from the perspective of Christianity, it at least means this.
Some Christians may protest against this kind of “Godless theology.” I would push back and ask, is it really Godless? Or is it just presented in terms that just lack the typical God-language we’re used to? I wonder if it even brings us closer to a true understanding of God.
I’m reminded here of Meister Eckhart’s apparently paradoxical saying: “The highest and loftiest thing that one can let go of is to let go of God for the sake of God.” What I take from this saying is that it is possible for words/concepts/ideas/symbols/etc of God to obscure and block one from encountering the reality of God if they are not properly seen as limited mediators of a limitless reality that transcends their finite forms.
Any abstract idea, improperly held in ultimate regard as a substitute for God, can become just as much of an “idol” as a physical icon that takes God’s place. Hence why letting go of our ideas of God can paradoxically be one of the best things we can do to advance our pursuit of God, at least when our ideas have become barriers instead of bridges between us and the divine. In the evolving journey towards God, perhaps some even need to let go of God entirely—to become atheist—in order to actually come closer to knowing and discovering the reality of God.
Conceptions of God can become overly rigid and small and restrictive. Atheism, for some, appears to me to be partly motivated by a rejection of such restrictive theological abstractions, of religious symbols that have lost their meaning, rather than a rejection of goodness, beauty, truth, and the other things of God identified here. I’ve come to believe this is a crucial distinction. In fact, some of my friends who are atheists left behind the conventional understandings of God precisely because they were motivated to intelligently seek more goodness, beauty, truth, and so forth beyond what they had found in the traditional Christian theology and worship presented to them. Although as far as I can tell, atheists who take this path haven’t necessarily left God behind—it’s possible they’ve just left some of God’s conventional packaging behind. It seems to me they may remain highly committed to seeking God, in fact.
Personally I don’t have an issue with traditional God-language/symbols/concepts/etc, but that’s probably because I see that stuff as inherently limited and not identical with what it’s supposed to represent. That said, since God-language can be misunderstood to be equivalent with that which it represents and misused as a result, it can be a very useful, albeit potentially discomforting, exercise to remove it and see what we’re left with. Perhaps we’re actually left with a purer theology and not a Godless theology.
By doing this kind of theological exercise, I also do not mean to suggest worshipping God must only be this. This isn’t meant to be some kind of hard reductionism. Worshipping God could certainly involve more than just what is presented here. However, what I do mean to suggest is that, even if worshipping God involves more than just this, it certainly does not involve less than this.
One thing I’m doing with this experiment is questioning whether the ways we typically group and categorize and label and simplify and divide ourselves up (into groupings like Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, etc) provides a reliable indication of who does and who doesn’t “worship God,” even by the understandings of traditional Christian theology. Wrestling with this sort of thing should create some cognitive dissonance for anyone, religious or nonreligious, who unquestioningly assumes the validity of the typical group categories. Maybe the categories oversimplify a much more complex reality. Maybe belonging to a particular group or accepting a certain label isn’t enough to know if someone does or doesn’t “worship God.” Maybe a better way of thinking about this issue is to see that we’re all imperfectly worshipping God to varying degrees. And maybe a better indication of whether or not a person “worships God” is the degree to which he or she actively believes that “the best way to live” is what is roughly presented here in the stripped down version of what it means to worship God. Just maybe.
Another thing I’m questioning is whether “worshipping god” is strictly a result of what a person says he believes. “Belief,” in this way of thinking, is reducible to the abstract intellectual propositions he holds and the verbal confessions he makes. But what about how he acts? Because actions speak louder than words. And actions, some would say, are even better indicators of what he actually believes than the words he may use. So is it possible for, say, a self-described atheist to “worship God” more fully than a self-described Christian? While only God ultimately knows, I believe it’s certainly possible, that is if the atheist consciously, intelligently, and actively strives to embody reason, awareness, love, and vitality of life in pursuit of the aforementioned goals more fully and authentically than the Christian does. “For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. For every tree is known by his own fruit.”
Labels can be one thing and action that produces results can be another. In my experience, it appears to me that some atheists can be rather godly people and some Christians can be rather godless people. So could it be that the impulse to seek and worship God is more universal than sectarian religion or nonreligion sometimes makes it out to be? Could it be that some atheists worship God more fully than some Christians? Could it be that the presence of God is available to everyone, always calling and drawing us closer if we are willing to seek, despite the labels we may ascribe to ourselves? I believe so.