I was struck recently by this statement by Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann:
Our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.*
(Cue Beastie Boys.) This is very similar to what John Jefferson Davis was trying to point out in Worship and the Reality of God.** Sometimes we don’t realize how beholden we are to naturalism when we think about “reality.” We fail to grasp that our culture hands us an implicit taxonomy of “real-ness.”
Worship as a 4D Experience
Even if we don’t mean to we tend to think that things are more real if we can experience them with our five senses. Modern science has given us this grid. Think about this question for a moment: What’s more real, the memory about what you had for breakfast, or the chair you’re sitting on? I’m not interested in debating the answer to that question, but I am willing to say that 99% of us have a nearly instinctive reaction to answer the latter over the former, simply because it’s physical and able to be apprehended with our five senses. So we tend to have in our psyche a favoritism toward the physical and material in our concepts of what is real.
This has a big effect on how we view our relationship with God, in general, and how we experience worship, in particular. Think about it. Under the naturalistic scheme, no wonder we are able to relegate “spirituality” into a compartmentalized, relativistic activity. Suddenly, the “immortal, invisible God only wise” is moved out of the center (in our minds, not in reality, mind you) of what defines “reality.” Both Schmemann and Davis call us back to viewing reality on a spectrum, with God as the “heaviest,” most weighty reality, against Whom and through Whom all other less weightier realities are defined. If this is true, then our most clarifying and crystalizing experience of reality would be our experience of God Himself. This, in turn, ups the ante in terms of worship vis-à-vis reality.
Just like we’d say that three-dimensional animation appears to be more realistic than two-dimensional animation, so we can say that corporate worship, because God chooses to manifest Himself more deeply and more fully there, is a truer and deeper experience of reality than the rest of life. 3D is pretty cool, but Schmemann challenges us to view worship as dipping our toes in the shorebreak of the vast ocean of 4D reality.
My philosopher-friends will want to press the metaphysics all of this, but I simply want to funnel this all down into some points of application.
First, if this is what worship truly is, then why do we take attendance so flippantly? In the outdoorsy culture of Colorado, where I live and breathe, a sizeable amount of committed Christians view “regular” worship attendance as once or twice a month. In major football towns I often hear the same statistic. But if the deepest, most fulfilling reality is present in our experience of God in worship, suddenly our “skipping church” for these lesser things makes no sense.
Second, if this is what worship truly is, then why do we sometimes take our worship planning so playfully? Whew. I’ll just let this question sit and let the inferences flood the soul on their own.
Third, this helps us understand in part why we are so easily distracted in worship. People have often rightly pointed out that our ADD culture of quick-cut moving images, screened technologies, perpetual interruptions, and multitudinous simultaneous communications causes us to be easily distracted and unable to attend for more than twenty or thirty minutes. This has aided our level of distraction in worship. But have we ever thought about the fact that some of us may have a subconscious instinct to avoid the intensity and weightiness of the deep, rich reality of God in worship? Our distractibility is at least in part due to our limited capacity in handling the gravity of Reality. The presence, brilliance, and intensity of God is so much, that it becomes far easier to look at our phone, to suck on a mint, to count bricks or ceiling joists, or to judge, critique, and analyze the preacher and the music. If we didn’t succumb to these distractions, we would experience more of the discomfort of being immersed in the presence of the I AM, the Definition and Epitomy of Real. That’s just scary.
The Looming Question
Whenever we discuss high and lofty things like this, a very practical question comes up: If this is what happens in worship, why don’t I experience this? Why, more often, is worship a drag, a chore, dissatisfying? There are several answers to this line of questioning.
- We are broken, dull-headed, stiff-necked sinners. The presence of sin (not yet fully eradicated until our glorification) numbs our senses toward Reality. And then, when you put us all in a room together, we stack the odds even more against us!
- Preparing to encounter God is very much like training a muscle. You can’t just jump on a bench and expect to press 225 lbs. Its weight would crush you. Experiencing the reality of God in worship requires patient, steady, faithful “worship workouts.” It requires burning off the “fat” of our judgmentalism of the pastors and worship leaders. It requires breaking through the plateaus of our emotional and physical barriers and restraints. It requires retraining our spiritual muscles to move with the best economy of motion and greatest involvement of all the muscle groups. This all doesn’t happen overnight.
- Our experience of God in worship is directly proportional to our apprehension of the gospel. Because the Christian life isn’t just about starting with but progressively going deeper into the gospel, our growth in the faith, mortification of sin, and resulting experience of God is predicated upon how deeply the good news about Christ’s work has penetrated our souls. The more fully we get this, the greater our experience of God will be in worship.
If we get all this, worship forms us in such a way that we are able, as Schmemann says, to “see more deeply into the reality of the world.” In other words, the rest of life begins to make greater and greater sense. Everything fits into place. Truly experiencing God has that effect.
*Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 27.
**John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010), esp. Chapter 2.
(And, yes, I pulled a Tullian Tchividjian and used an album cover to, in a distantly third-hand way, point to the topic of this post. 🙂 )