Must We Worship God?
The philosophers Tim Bayne and Yujin Nagasawa (henceforth known as BN) state that philosophers have had little to say about the worship of God. Theologians, of course, have had a lot to say. Some modern theologians are of the opinion that God is totally incomprehensible. If that is the case, it is difficult to see why ‘he’ ought to be worshipped, since worship is stimulated by qualities that God is understood (to the extent that human minds can understand) uniquely to have. If God is described as totally incomprehensible because of his maximally excellent nature, such a proposition is self-defeating, for now God is understood in the sense of being maximally excellent.
Theism, on the other hand, contends that God’s attributes are to some extent comprehensible and that these attributes mean that he is worthy of obligatory worship. The Psalmist, for example, rejoices in God’s strength and his capacity to save his people from their enemies (18:1-3). God is understood in terms of who is he is with us in the sense of his being with us and for us. What else God is can be described without full understanding and is beyond description and understanding. Descriptions of God are therefore the beginnings of knowing who he is, but there is an openness of interpretation that goes beyond that description in that the description is not the last word on God. Therefore, if we say God is omnipotent, this is true, but what else he is in terms of omnipotence is not known. for here we meet the infinite of which our adjective omnipotent is the beginning but not by any means a full understanding of God’s power.
If our knowledge of God is sufficient to understand his ways with us, there arises the question of why theists regard the worship of God to be obligatory. God might be worthy of worship, but surely the worship of him ought to be a matter of choice? Moreover, there might be people who, despite the excellent attributes of God, believe they have good reasons not to worship God. BN conclude that there are no convincing grounds for the obligation to worship God. My response is not to create a full-blown apologetic of worship, but to demonstrate that BN’s problematizing of the grounds of the grounds are themselves problematic from both general theistic and specifically Christian theistic perspectives.
What is worship?
BN do not think a reductive analysis of worship is possible, and so content themselves with identifying in which conceptual locale worship fits and with which attitudes it relates.
They argue that worshipping God is not related to a proposition but to an object considered worthy of worship. Yet, that object is the object of propositional attitudes or beliefs which demonstrate why the worshipper worships it. BN give as an example the belief that God is morally superior to his worshippers. They give other examples: that God is awesome, more powerful than the worshippers and worthy of respect. BN settle on the definition of worship as a cluster concept which canonically involves moral, emotional, aesthetic and numinous attitudes towards an agent. What marks out the classical theist in their opinion is that she is most likely to hold to what they call the uniqueness thesis: that God is the only appropriate object of worship. BN assert that those who hold the uniqueness thesis have the obligation to explain what makes the worship of God different to such things as the veneration of saints and hero-worship.
What is a Christian definition of worship?
As I shall be defending the Christian obligation to worship God, I shall provide at this point a definition of Christian worship. What BN have said about the nature of worship as adumbrated above does not contradict how Christians understand worship. Christians agree: they have an object of worship, which is a divine Person whose maximal qualities mean he is uniquely worshipful.
It is the Bible which guides Christians in their understanding of worship. It is reasonable to work on the basis that Christians regard the Bible as a significant guide to their faith. The weighting given to the Bible may range from the reformed Protestants’ sola scriptura to the added emphasis on tradition by Roman Catholics to the added importance of personal, prophetic revelation among Pentecostals and Charismatics. Nevertheless, the Bible is a foundation to all Christians’ faith. Clearly, Christians differ in how much of the Bible they regard as literal and how much is metaphorical. Christians also disagree with regards to how they interpret the meaning of sections of the Bible, even if they agree that what they are debating is literal or metaphorical. However, though it might come as a surprise, all Christians ought to agree that the worship of God is nowhere singularly defined in Scripture. The variety of verbs that are translated as to worship in Scripture reveals that worship, as BN state, is a cluster concept. On the basis of an overview of the verbs translated as to worship, worship may be broadly defined as ‘the direct acknowledgement to God, of his nature, attributes, ways and claims’ through thanksgiving and actions done in such acknowledgement. Worship therefore is not only verbal acclamations of God’s superlative excellence, but lives lived in response to it. Regardless of doctrinal differences, it is fair to say that Christians of all denominations and theological persuasions can agree with this definition. It is this definition that will form the basis of my Christian critique of BN’s argument and a means of understanding worship that provides legitimate grounds for the obligation to worship.
The Obligation Thesis
According to BN, theists believe that it is obligatory to worship God. This they call the obligation thesis which they describe in this way:
‘Necessarily, it is obligatory for us to worship God.’
The attributes of God that are held to make his worship obligatory, BN call ‘worshipfulness’.
There is very good evidence that theists accept the obligation thesis. BN quote Thomas V. Morris and Richard Swinburne who regard worship respectively as a duty and as a proper response to God.
The question that now remains is what is the worshipfulness of God? In other words, what are the grounds for the obligatory worship of God and are they tenable?
The grounds of worship
- Creation-based accounts
Some theists contend that we ought to worship God because he created us. Richard Swinburne represents this point of view. According to Swinburne, people have a moral obligation to acknowledge other people with whom they come into contact. People have a duty to acknowledge their benefactors in a way that recognises the sort of people the benefactors are for them. People do not worship their benefactors, but if they are wise, show them respect. As God is the ultimate creator and the source of all being, he is deserving of the greatest recognition, which is worship. For Swinburne, this is the only appropriate response to God. Robert Merrihew Adams agrees. He understands worship to be thanking God for their existence as one does for an undeserved good turn.
The first objection to the creation-based obligation to worship God raised by BN is beings uncreated by God. If the sole ground for worshipping God is that he is the creator, such beings would have no obligation to worship God.
The flaw in this argument is that the creator attribute of God is not the only ground for worshipping God. As stated in the Christian definition of worship taken from Scripture and formulated by Vine et al, there is a multiplicity of attributes, properties and ways that God possesses that when taken singularly or together provide grounds for worshipping God. Take, for example, love. God is described as all-loving and perfectly loving by Christians (1 John 4: 7-21). Whatever exists, God loves. God therefore would love uncreated beings, if such beings exist, as much as he does those he has created. In response, uncreated beings (if they are capable) ought at least to acknowledge by speaking and acting in ways that respectfully and gratefully recognise that love; at best, they ought to reciprocate with love (again, if they are capable).
BN anticipate the following Christian response: beings uncreated by God are impossible. God is, to echo Paul Tillich, the ground of all possible and actual being. BN go on to point out that nevertheless, there is within theism an important recognition of uncreated objects besides God such as numbers. Of course, numbers cannot worship God because they are abstract, but if theists believe in numbers as uncreated objects, then they face the following question according to BN: if uncreated objects capable of worshipping God are impossible, why are uncreated objects incapable of worshipping God possible?
My response to this question is to point the reader back to what I averred earlier about uncreated objects nevertheless being capable of worship. This is the case because being created by God is not the only ground for obligatory worship: there are other divine qualities that are worshipful which uncreated objects are obliged to acknowledge, such as God’s perfect love for all that exists, including uncreated objects. Furthermore, according to Christian theism, God upholds the continued existence of all things. Uncreated beings, by definition, were not created by God, but they are obligated to worship God because his sustaining of their continued existence, which in itself is not a reason to be obligated to worship God, makes possible their purposes and flourishing, which does oblige their worship of God along with other obligatory reasons, such as God’s love for them. As it is conceivable that there are uncreated objects capable of worshipping God, then it is conceivable that there are uncreated objects incapable of worshipping God such as numbers.
Moreover, the theist need not accept that abstract objects such as numbers exist uncreated for that is one among a range of views that philosophers adopt.
Views of numbers’ reality split into three camps:
- Anti-realism, or numbers do not exist.
- A-realism, or the question of whether numbers exist or not is meaningless.
- Realism, or number do exist.
Within anti-realism, there are eight schools of thought. A-realism is a singular school. Within realism, Platonism’s abstract view of numbers is one view among five which includes the opposing view that numbers are concrete objects and the belief in absolute creationism in which though numbers are defined as abstract, they are considered created. The theist therefore has plenty of philosophical resources to draw upon in defence of the notion that God is the ground of all being and that numbers either do not exist, or do exist, but are created either as abstract or as concrete in nature. It is therefore philosophically respectable to deny the existence of numbers, or to posit them as created objects. If numbers are created, God has created them without requiring their worship just as he does not expect animals and inanimate matter, both of which he has created, to worship him. It is no compromise of God’s status as worshipful that there are objects that have no obligation to worship him if that is how he has created them.
- Benefited by our creation?
BN argue that a person would only be obliged to worship God if her creation has benefited her. If by being created she is benefited, then she would have reason to bring as many people into existence through procreation, or by encouraging others to engage in as much procreation as they are capable. But this, claim BN, strikes us as odd at best and perverse at worst. Such a view is indeed odd and perverse. Yet, it is still possible to argue that our creation benefits us without drawing the conclusion that we ought to be maximally reproductive. Over-reproduction, of which this would be the superlative kind, reduces the quality of life for people because of the finite nature of resources which leads to poverty, overcrowding, the increased rapidity of diseases’ spread and damage to the eco-system with consequent problems such as climate change. Sustaining benefits from being created requires wise reproduction, not maximal levels of it.
BN anticipate the following argument: the proponent of the creation-based grounds for worship might accept that the claim that being created benefits the created is indefensible, but she could argue that it is an intelligible view and therefore this intelligibility supports the obligation thesis. Yet, BN regard the intelligibility of this assertion as possibly supporting the reasonableness thesis but insufficient to support the obligation thesis, which is the subject of their paper.
Theists need not concede that creation-based grounds for worship are indefensible. Theists do not conceive of God as a first cause that has no reasons for creating, but conceive of him as having revealed those reasons to a certain degree to humans. Therefore, if God ought to be worshipped for creating, it is impossible to separate, according to Christian thinking, his act of creation from his reasons for creating. It is not a theistic thing to worship God simply for our existence as I argued above in relation to uncreated beings. What is theistic is to worship God for creating us for the reasons that he has for creating us. From the Christian perspective, we see, according to the Shorter Catechism of the Assembly of the Divines (a fundamental document of the Reformed Protestant tradition), the most important purpose of human beings is ‘to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.’ A Christian theist therefore has good reason to thank God for his existence for it is a superlatively excellent prospect to enjoy relationship with God who perfectly loves humans. For that, God ought to be glorified.
- Not everyone benefits from their existence.
BN argue that there are individuals who are born into lives of such suffering that if their parents had known what sort of lives they were going to lead and created them anyway, they would be deemed callous in the extreme. The same must apply to God who because of his omniscience knows perfectly well what sort of lives those he creates will have. Therefore, such sufferers have no obligation to worship God their creator.
It is at this point in their analysis that BN see a connection to the problem of evil and pain. One response to the ‘lives-not-worth-living’ objection that they note is Marilyn McCord Adams’ proposition that communion with God in the afterlife, ceteris paribus, would make the lives of those who have horrendously suffered a benefit to them. However, Adams’ argument is unconvincing to those who do not see good reason to believe in an afterlife and to those who doubt if even communion with God can compensate for an horrendous life.
To argue that Adams’ response is inadequate because there is no evidence for an afterlife is to operate beyond the present debate’s framework. This analysis asks that if God exists, do we have an obligation to worship him? However, the second objection above, namely that it is doubtful whether even communion with God can compensate for a life of horrendous suffering, is within the debate’s framework. It is unlikely that a God of infinite, indiscriminate and perfect love, resources, and acting everlastingly, could fail to compensate for a finite life of great but finite suffering. Moreover, Nagasawa has advanced his conviction elsewhere that an afterlife with the theists’ God would be compensatory when presenting his view that theists have greater resources for meeting the existential problem of structural evil than atheists.
From a Christian perspective, there is no obligation on the one who has suffered horrendously to worship God if she is incapable of it. God is love as was noted earlier. Therefore, he acts in the best interests of all unceasingly. The Christian God is not a tyrant who demands worship regardless of his people’s circumstances. There are many examples in Scripture of people who are suffering and voice not worship but their demands for help from God. Take, for example, a man called Jairus. He is described by Luke as a synagogue ruler whose only child, a twelve-year-old girl, is dying. He comes to Jesus, falls at his feet, not in worship, but to beg that Jesus comes to his house and heals his daughter (Luke 8:41, 42). Jesus, who is God the Son as a human being, does not demand that Jairus worships him first, for Jairus is in great despair and is desperate. Rather, Jesus goes to Jairus’ house immediately to heal his daughter (v.42). Even when God does something miraculously good for people, he knows their first reaction might not be to worship, and again this is no problem to him. Luke merely reports that Jairus and his wife (whom Luke does not name) are ‘astonished’ at their daughter’s resurrection; there is no censure of them for not immediately worshipping Jesus (v. 56). Jesus is more concerned that the parents do not tell anyone what has just happened than receiving their worship (v. 56).
It appears that the worship of God is obligatory under certain conditions. A person who has or is suffering horrors is not required by God to worship him. God’s priority for such a person is that she seeks his help. Therefore, the fact that there are people not obliged to worship God does not undermine the obligation to worship, for such obligation only holds for those capable of it.
4. ‘Domesticated’ Worship
According to BN, the fourth problem they identify with the creation-based reason for worshipping God is that it ‘domesticates’ worship. By this term, they mean that that the worship of God is continuous with attitudes that are appropriate to show to commonplace entities. For example, if it is obligatory to worship God because of our dependence on him, it is also obligatory to worship our parents and our society on whom we depend for our existence. The theist who holds to the ‘uniqueness thesis’ will refuse this conclusion. Such a theist, BN anticipate, could propose that our dependence on God is qualitatively and quantitatively different to our dependence on finite, natural entities. God is the ultimate and sole ground of being, whereas dependence on such entities as parents is causal. If this is the case, then the level of thanksgiving for God must be of a far higher order than the thankfulness owed to finite beings and society.
BN state that this does not assuage their initial worry, which is that worship has been reduced to thankfulness and gratefulness and has been evacuated of its moral, aesthetic and noumenal elements. They conclude that creation-based reasons can, at most, provide partial grounds for the supposed obligation to worship God.
Thankfulness to God for creating us is not, however, devoid of the noumenal which is an essential part of worship. When we think of our parents’ creating us and our societies’ sustaining us, we understand very much how they have done this. We may, for instance, understand the facts of human attraction and reproduction and the instinct to preserve a baby and a child’s life. We may also understand the civilised values of our society that work towards preserving life and ensuring a good standard of living. On the other hand, reflecting on God’s act of creation brings us into the realm of the numinous. From the Christian perspective, God created the world ex nihilo, an idea that became Christian doctrine by the end of the third century. This is profoundly mysterious, even inexplicable. Therefore, the worship of God takes the Christian worshipper in her gratitude out of her domesticated dimension and into a mystical realm.
BN’s worry is legitimate only if the theist is advancing creation-based reasons as the sole set of reasons for obligatory worship. In the case of Christianity, as noted in the earlier section where the Christian definition of worship was presented, Christians do not narrow their worship down to creation-based reasons. Christian worship combines gratefulness and thankfulness to worship God not for singular reasons but for a range of qualities that God possesses. One of those qualities is God’s creatorship.
The maximal-excellence approach
This approach appeals to God’s intrinsic nature rather than his relation to humans. BN identify Robert Merrihew Adams as representative of this view, for he regards not only God’s benefits to people, but also God’s maximal intrinsic excellence that needs to be acknowledged. This approach BN identify as Anselmian theology according to which God is a maximally excellent being characterised by a set of properties. This set of properties BN call M and the properties that constitute this set they call M-properties.
BN are sceptical that M-properties, whether singly or in combination, can ground worshipfulness. Theists describe God’s M-properties as such things as perfect moral goodness, knowledge and power, BN say we can imagine a being who is more of these things than we are, and though it might be reasonable to worship such a being, these qualities do not mandate the worship of this being. They think that worshipping God for his power and knowledge is fascistic. Few people, they opine, feel the obligation to worship those who are morally superior to them. If God possesses greater a degree of being, BN cannot see how that would be a ground of worshipfulness.
In response, we can say that theists do not worship God simpliciter because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. An evil god might be all-powerful and all-knowing and no theist would say such a being possesses worshipfulness. As with God’s roles as a creator, theists worship because of how he deploys his power and knowledge and the reasons he does not use his power and knowledge. For example, the Christian God sovereignly sent his Son Jesus to die for humanity’s sin (John 3:16, 17). No power in the world could have prevented this for God was acting omnipotently. He is rightly worshipped for this. God knows wholly people’s sinfulness, yet he chooses not to condemn humanity but to offer salvation first. Again, this is reason to worship him.
For BN’s part, holiness is the most attractive maximal excellence reason or grounding for God’s worshipfulness. The problem they see with this is that holiness appears to be a property that God shares or potentially can share with other beings. Certain people are called holy such as saints. This undermines the uniqueness principle for if holiness is the ground of worship, these people would deserve to be worshipped also.
However, Christianity, for example, declares all people not to be holy for all have sinned. No one can be worshipped therefore for no one is holy (Romans 3:23). When the redeemed enter the kingdom of God at the end of time, they will be made morally perfect by God (1 Corinthians 15:54), but they nevertheless do not deserve worship for their holiness is the work of God who has always been holy and who alone therefore deserves worship.
Someone might ask about the angels. Surely, they deserve worship because they are holy; if they were not, they would not be able to serve God and stand in his presence. But, there is a qualitative difference between God and his angels. God is incapable of doing wrong whereas his angels have that ability, hence the rebellion of a third of the angels under the leadership of Lucifer or Satan as it he better known (Revelation 12:7-10). It is this inability to do evil that reveals a unique quality possessed by God and demonstrates that God is worshipful for what he does and for what he is.
BN identify another problem which is the possibility of multiple maximally excellent beings. It seems possible for a world to contain two beings, each of whom possesses M properties. BN call one of these beings ‘God’ and the other ‘God*’. If worshipfulness is the consequence of the possession of M-properties, then both God and God* are worthy of worship and are obliged to worship one another! This contradicts the uniqueness thesis. If the theist denies that God* ought not to be worshipped, then this casts doubt on whether worshipfulness is grounded in God’s intrinsic maximal excellence.
BN anticipate one theistic response: God* ought to be worshipped because the uniqueness thesis can be restricted to worlds in which God is the only maximally excellent being. This is a solution, but not one that most theists would favour. God is for them the maximal being and to be maximal, God would need to be maximal in all possible worlds. For God* to be a maximal being, he too would have to be maximal in all possible worlds. Thus the problem of the uniqueness thesis returns.
However, ought the theist to grant that it is possible for God and God* to co-exist in any possible world? The theist asserts that two of the necessary properties of a maximal being is his omnipotence and his perfect moral goodness. Without those two properties, the being is not God. God would exert his will in accordance with what is perfectly, morally good. If there were God* also, he too would exert his will to achieve the same objectives as God, for their perfect moral natures would mean they had exactly the same objectives. However, if God and God* sought to achieve the same objective, who would achieve the objective? If God deferred to God*, that would be a limitation on his power. If they took it in turns or worked together, those conditions would also constitute a limitation on both Gods’ respective powers. Therefore, neither God would be omnipotent. It seems coherent to assert that there is one maximal being who is maximal in all possible worlds if by that maximal being we mean one who has the properties of omnipotence and perfect moral goodness which is exactly what theists do assert.
Additionally, theism teaches that God is the ultimate basic fact which explains everything else. This is part of God’s maximal nature. It is impossible for there to be more than one such God. If God and God* are separate beings, they cannot both be the ultimate basic fact which explains everything else. Let us say that God is the ultimate brute fact. God* might be maximal in other ways such as moral perfection and beauty, but he cannot be the ultimate source of all, and therefore, he is not the absolute God of theism.
The Prudential-Reasons Account
BN define the prudential-reasons account of worshipfulness as one which says in a variety of ways that it is to our benefit to worship God, therefore we ought to worship God. They ask us to consider first what they call the ‘big-stick strategy’. Some theists say that we ought to worship God because the failure to worship God is a sin and sin is punishable with spiritual death in hell. BN think that this prudential-reasons account does not explain the connection between worship and our well-being and demands an explanation as to why God is justified in punishing those who do not worship him.
It could be objected that to avoid punishment fulfilling our worship obligations is a very good way of preserving our well-being! But for Christians it is not the failure to worship that is the cause of spiritual death, but is a symptom of it. Spiritual death, or separation from God, is a consequence of the failure to repent of sin and being born again (Ephesians 4:18). Worship is therefore not obliged as a prudential means of avoiding spiritual death.
BN find a more appealing approach in the obligations that we have to take care of our health and attend to our education. They refer to the theistic view that humans are designed to be worshippers and adduce Augustine’s statement that humans are dissatisfied until they find God’s rest. BN argue, however, that though it is perhaps true that humans need to worship something to achieve satisfaction, worship does not need to be worship of God. The prudential reasons for worshipping God therefore ostensibly cannot establish that God-worship is compulsory.
However, Christians can argue, from the basis of a prudential-reason account, that there is a certain gain that the worship of God confers which cannot be acquired by worshipping any other. The worship of God for this prudential reason is a unique obligation. This worship is obligated by the fact that the gain acquired is for the sake of others and not for those worshipping. It is therefore a prudential-reason account with the moral obligation of doing others good.
According to Wayne Grudem, when God’s people worship, God’s enemies flee. These he calls demonic forces that oppose the Gospel. If such forces are driven away and the Gospel’s proclamation is not hindered, then that is a benefit for those who have not heard the Gospel and who will respond to it. Grudem describes another benefit: people who are not Christians who witness Christian worship can come to recognise that God is really among them (1 Cor. 14:25).
BN find the agent-centred approach of the prudential-reasons account very unsatisfying and in so doing reveal how theistic, even Christian, their view of worship is at this point. It may be the case that worship serves our interests, but authentic worship is not motivated by self-interest. To support this, they present the analogy of apologising to Sarah. If I offend Sarah and apologise to her, my apology ought to be motivated to repair the relationship with her rather than to make myself feel better. Similarly, worshipping God ought not to be motivated by the desire to attain rewards. Theists can agree with this. So worthy is God because of his intrinsic maximal excellence as discussed earlier, worship of him is an obligation regardless of whether there are benefits or not to doing so (though worship would not be obligated if it was destructive somehow to the worshipper).
Is Worship Groundless?
BN, concluding that theists have difficulties in finding adequate grounds for worship, consider whether we have obligations to worship God even though God has no intrinsic or relational property that obligates worship. They ask whether God’s worshipfulness is not a brute fact? If theists believe rightly, and I think I have shown they do, that the worship of God is obligatory and unique to him on the basis of intrinsic qualities of maximal excellence and for the benefit of those who do not know God, then the issue of worship as brute does not arise.
Furthermore, it is the case that theists believe that God has endowed humans with more capacities to reason than other species. It is very natural for humans to ask why and this applies to worship and this essay and BN’s essay are examples of course of that question. It would be insufficient on the part of the God who created that propensity for reason not to supply the grounds for his worship when clearly the question of why can and has been asked.
This is a point with which BN agree. They rightly state that the question of why God must be worshipped deserves an answer. The same thing holds true in terms of praising and thanking people. These actions requires reasons such as properties that deserve praise and thanksgiving. As theists maintain, God possesses in maximal abundance these properties.
BN conclude that they have problematized the theistic notion of the obligation to worship God and God alone by questioning whether there are adequate grounds for worship. BN believe that their approach threatens the existence of God, for if there are no grounds to worship God, then God in the way conceived by theists becomes impossible. I have argued that the theistic obligation thesis and the uniqueness thesis are reasonable theses to maintain through an understanding of what theism generally and Christian theism specifically state about worship. Therefore, it is not reasonable to doubt the existence of the God of theism because of BN’s critique of worship’s grounds. Where I agree with BN is their call for more attention to be given by philosophers to worship, though much of the work has been done for them by theologians who have considered this issue for millennia.