The Ancient Greeks Meet Worship Today: The Split of Head and Heart

Zac HicksUncategorizedLeave a Comment

My former colleague and now President of Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Don Sweeting, is married to a Greek woman.  Frequently, he would share stories about how his in-laws were quick to point out all the benefits we modern Westerners enjoy because of the Greeks (not unlike the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding).  And they’re right.  We owe a lot to the Greeks.  So much of modern civilization—everything from philosophy to science to engineering—is built on the backs of the mighty ancients of the Aegean. 

However, no culture is perfect.  And I do believe that when we worship leaders struggle with either seeing our theologically-minded worship become more passionately expressive or our exuberant worship become more grounded in the intellect, we have the Greeks to blame, in part.  For from the Greeks, we stepped away a bit from that ancient Hebrew notion of the wholeness of the self.  Greek philosophy gave us important reflections on (and perhaps opened up for philosophy) the classic “mind-body problem”—the mystery of how the immaterial and the material self intersect.  And, to be fair, it’s not just a Greek thing.  The Scriptures clearly indicate that God created humanity body and soul, material and immaterial.  It seems, though, that Greek thought and culture exploited this dichotomy, even in some instances to the point of excess and heresy like Gnosticism, which advocated (interestingly similar to Buddhist thought) that the material was essentially evil and that the immaterial was essentially good. 

Such thought had its effect on church music, as well, such that exciting “the heart” or “the passions” was something that the early church wrestled with allowing as it sought to find musical expression in worship (Calvin Stapert’s A New Song for an Old World and Jeremy Begbie’s Resounding Truth help explain some of this).  Ultimately, exciting the passions was suspect, whereas worship was a more “spiritual” enterprise, perhaps best disconnected from outward, physical expression.  Even reformer John Calvin, as a student and admirer of Aristotle, rehearsed some of these concerns as he sought to re-shape worship in the Reformational churches.  The church, therefore, has always had various versions of the head-versus-heart debate percolating in our worship psyche. 

Today, in many churches, the struggle is with whether our worship is too “heady” and “intellectual” or too “emotional” and “expressive.”  It is interesting to talk to folks from various worship traditions that swing one way or the other, because often times, when they speak of worship, they articulate values associated with one or the other, often to the denigration of the other side.  I talk to people from charismatic traditions who might step into a worship context like mine and find it incredibly “stifling” or devoid of “true worship.”  I might also talk to folks from high liturgical traditions who would join our service only to be surprised by the emotionalism and feel as though it’s a step down from the type of worship which pleases God.

But we are whole individuals.  And a necessary derivative of this “shalom”-focused anthropology is that we are meant to worship with the totality of our selves.  That means that my spirit is engaged as well as my body.  My head is engaged as well as my heart.  What I’m feeling on the inside should show up on my face and in my posture.  If I raise my hands, it’s because my heart is being truly lifted up to God.  (Psalm 95 is a great Scriptural one-stop shop which reflects this balance well.)

When I talk to individuals who tell me that they “worship from the heart” and that is why one does not see much visible recognition of what is happening in their interior, I wonder whether the negative excess of Greek dichotomy is rearing its ugly head once again (and again, it’s the excess which has erred, not the dichotomist thought itself, which is entirely biblical).  I wonder whether it is not a diluted form of Gnostic anthropology—God likes the inside, and that’s all that matters.  I certainly wouldn’t want to press this too far, but I do believe that we in the West have inherited some of the polarization of the material and immaterial from our Greek cultural ancestors.

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