Worship, Pagan and Otherwise

A friend forwarded an excerpt of an e-mail Q&A; with Bishop John Shelby Spong. The excerpt dealt with worship – in particular, the questioner felt like the word “worship” was an inappropriate label for their church services. He recommended calling them “celebrations” instead.

In his response, Bishop Spong pointed out that changing what you call the service won’t matter if you still approach God as some great disconnected Other out there. He said:

If worship is to have meaning, it will be found in asserting the ultimate worth of life, love and being that are to me the primary way in which human beings experience God. If celebration is to be used, it needs to refer to the celebration of life, love and being through which people experience the Holy.

Western monotheism teaches the total otherness of God. In contrast, modern Paganism teaches the interconnectedness of all things. The gods and goddesses of our ancestors were (and are) mighty, but they are quite human in their shortcomings. Even if you see the Goddess and/or God as One, as The All, she isn’t wholly other – we are a part of her, and she a part of us.

Ultimately, worship is about establishing, strengthening, and maintaining relationships. Pagan worship is based on the principle of hospitality: we invite our deities to join our circle. We welcome them with glad words, and we offer them food and drink. We keep their images on our altars and shrines, to remind us of their presence – much as we keep family pictures on our desks at work. We speak to them, and we listen for their response.

Author Isaac Bonewits has said that our gods and goddesses are like favorite aunts and uncles. If we’re nice to them when times are good, they’re more likely to help us out when times are bad. If we ignore them on a day to day basis, they’re likely to ignore us when we ask them to get our butts out of trouble.

And like our human relatives, there are some we’re nice to because we’re supposed to be nice or because we hope to end up in their will, and there are others we genuinely like and enjoy spending time with whether they ever give us anything tangible or not.

If the act of worship denotes what we value most, there is much to be said for valuing hospitality and good manners, no matter who or what you’re dealing with.

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