Morality As Worship

Morality As Worship May 26, 2014


Why should Christians act morally?

Because if they do they will go to Heaven and if they don’t they will go to Hell? Surely that can’t be the answer. For as the New Atheists rightly point out, a morality based on self-interest is no morality at all.

It seems to me that the Biblical answer is that God demands worship and that acting morally is a form of worship.

As Joseph Ratzinger points out in The Spirit of the Liturgy, in the Book of Exodus the stated reason why the Israelites demand to be let out of Egypt is not so they can settle in a new land of milk and honey, it’s so they can worship their God. And once they do do so, they receive the Tables of the Law. Right worship and the Law are intimately bound together. And in turn the wrong worship of the Golden Calf is linked to immorality.

In the Old Testament, right worship is linked to morality, and wrong worship to immorality, over and over again. I believe (and I’m sure I’m not original in this) that this is not so much because one leads to the other, or because wrong worship is itself immoral, though these things are certainly true, but because the Bible tells us that acting morally is itself a form of worship of God.

This goes back to Adam. Adam was the first High Priest, tasked with divinizing the world through right worship, and his failure was a failure of worship.

We are all baptized as priests, and I believe this is the key thing: we are called to give God right worship through our entire lives, including through right living.

Why do I like this idea of morality as worship?

Immorality is wrong worship. Showing that doing the right thing is a form of worship is tricky; what’s not tricky is that showing that doing the wrong thing is a form of bad worship. All sin, fundamentally, is about idolatry. All sin is about valuing something more than God, whether it is money, or sex, or power, or vanity, or whatever. That is the definition of idolatry. And what is idolatry if not wrong worship? If immorality is wrong worship, then it must follow that morality is right worship.

It is gratuitous. This is key. If you’ve been following my writing, you’ll have noted that this is a theme I batten on quite regularly. But it’s really fundamental. God is a being of total generosity, and that means that the way we must relate to Him is total generosity. “Transaction” is alien to the mindset of God. Worship is gratuitous. Why did Eve eat the fruit? Because she wanted to get something. “Oh, if you eat this fruit, you will have knowledge of good and evil and you will be like God.” If you do this, you’ll get that. Why did God ask Adam and Eve to tend the garden? Because they would get a reward? No, just because he’s their Father and they’re his children–for no reason other than love. This is what God wants. Moral action is gratuitous, and so is right worship.

It gets us out of consequentialism. The industrial West is essentially consequentialist in its morality: you must avoid doing Bad Thing X because otherwise Bad Thing Y will happen. The problem with consequentialism (whole books could be and have been written about this so I am violently compressing) is that it makes the ends justify the means. If Bad Thing X leads to Good Thing Y, then you should do Bad Thing X. The other problem with consequentialism is that it (at least ostensibly) removes transcendence out of the moral equation, and turns us all into social engineers. Morality is judged by its social and human consequences. You don’t need a Biblical framework to see problems with that (*cough*Plato*cough*), but the problem is that we Christians do tend to fall in that trap. “If you let marriage culture whither, all sorts of bad social consequences will follow.” Now, there’s nothing wrong per se with saying that. Because Christians are called to care for the common good; because the natural law is discoverable through the use of reason; and so on. But that’s not the reason why we believe those things? Is it? Otherwise, what we’re saying to the social engineers isn’t that social engineering is wrong, it’s just that we’re better social engineers than them. Here’s a relevant quote from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters: “Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘Cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war effort or of pacifism.” In other words, when the Church or Christianity is seen as a vehicle for social reform, then you are committing idolatry. What you are worshipping is not God, it is your ideal of the social order, and you are then using God to suit your, Earthly purposes.

Worship is about humility. It’s kind of axiomatic, but it’s true. Worshipping is the act of putting oneself under God. It is the act of recognizing the Creator for Who He Is. It is to accept that God is God, which sounds straightforward enough, except that the nature of the Fall is man deciding to play God–and this, in turn, is the source of all immorality since then. Worship is the natural response of man who realizes the divinity of God–and therefore his own humanity.  Think of Moses taking off his sandals before the burning bush. Think of Peter falling on his face during the Transfiguration. Think of Thomas’s cry: “My Lord and my God!” Morality is about humility too; it is about recognizing a transcendent Good and serving it; that is also what worship is.

I also think of the life of the monks, which is the distillation of the Christian life. Ora et labora, Benedict says. Pray and work. But what this means is that the monk is someone who makes his entire life one continuous act of worship. To “work”–to do good works–is, along with prayer, another mode of worship.

Worship is also about humility in the sense that we have to accept what it says. If God says “The way I want you to worship Me is to do X, Y, Z”, that’s something you just have to accept. You can’t say “Uh, actually, God, the best way to worship you is to do A, B, C” That just doesn’t make any sense. If you worship God, of course you do what he wants, otherwise it wouldn’t even be bad worship, it wouldn’t be worship at all. “Not my will, but your will.” If we follow God’s morality because we have taken deep consideration of the ins and outs and, all things considered, we concur that it is right, then we are not really following God’s morality–we are following our God. We are reserving judgement. “God is so smart, He even agrees with me!” It’s a very subtle, but potentially real form of idolatry. Instead, the Israelites in the desert say “We will do and we will hear”; in other words, they are prepared to do God’s will whatever it is. Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac even though it is seemingly immoral–even though it is against God’s own stated will that Abraham have descendants. Now, it’s possible to go too far in that direction. God is logos, which means the divine law is rational, and through our gift of rational reason, we can understand it; and Catholic Tradition is unequivocal in stating that we have a duty to follow our own conscience. But it is also true that God’s law is something that, sometimes, we have to accept on, well, faith. God asks for the Ark of the Covenant to be precisely this size, not that size, to be made of these materials and not those materials, and so on. Well, you build the Ark of the Covenant according to the specifications, because that is the will of God. You are a man. You are humble. You worship God.

Worship is gratitude and self-giving. Under the New Covenant, worship is not transactional. Pagan worship is transactional: you give sacrifice in order to get, or coax, something out of the gods. Christian worship is non-transactional. Jesus achieved everything through his own sacrifice. The Mass is a sacrifice of gratitude, not a transactional sacrifice. And, if you follow, gratitude is the proper attitude of the Christian. As Karl Barth wrote, all sin is basically ingratitude–which is the other way of saying that all sin is idolatry. Sin is the misuse of God’s gifts (ingratitude). What is the right use of God’s gifts? Worship. Sacrificial worship. To give back to God what belongs to God–starting with ourselves. “I am the Way,” Jesus says. Not “following me is the Way.”  But “I am the Way.” “To be me is the Way.” Who is Jesus? He is the one who gives himself completely to the Father in sacrificial worship.



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  • Finally picking up some Lewis?

  • Kasoy

    [Because if they do they will go to Heaven and if they don’t they will go to Hell? Surely that can’t be the answer. For as the New Atheists rightly point out, a morality based on self-interest is no morality at all.]

    However, God, in His infinite Mercy and Wisdom, understands and tolerates imperfect love from man. Each level of love demands, in God’s Infinite Justice, different degrees of reward (or glories). As God revealed to Catherine of Siena, man may progress from servile love to mercenary love (both imperfect), and ultimately to filial love – the perfect love. Each level corresponds to different motivation to obey God – servile love on fear of punishment, mercenary love on desire for reward, and filial love on gratitude to God for His kindness.

    Not everyone can be a St Francis of Assisi or a Mother Teresa of Calcutta. One can still be moral when he tries his best to obey God and any such act is always an act of worship whether done perfectly or imperfectly. As God revealed to Sister Josefa Menendez, nothing great is required… a cordial smile, an impure look restrained, even a straw picked up… if done for the love of God can become a perfect form of worship to honor and glorify an infinitely good God.

  • mochalite

    Well done! Reactions:

    First: “New Atheists?” They’re splitting too? Can’t anybody stayed unified? Sigh.

    Second: “Idolatry/immorality is wrong worship.” Reminds me of Bob Dylan’s Christian years, when he wrote “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” Worship is not optional; it’s hard-wired into us. The only question is who or what we’ll worship, which really comes down to who or what is worthy to be given what we are hard-wired to give?

    Third: Worship is “To give back to God what belongs to God–starting with ourselves.” Which requires the humility you speak of. And love, “For I know Whom I have believed…” And trust “… and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve delivered unto him.”

    Then, if we’re acting in constant worship from a humble, trusting, and loving place, (like Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God) need we worry about producing anything other than something moral?

    • Wonderful comment, as always. Thank you.

    • Dan13

      Re: New Atheists,

      The only substantive difference between them and (old?) atheists is that they’ve redefined “atheism” to include what we’ve always called “agnosticism.” So there can be quite a bit of talking-past-each-other and quibbling over definitions. Just remember that a “New Atheist” may either be an atheist or an agnostic. They also tend to be more aggressive. Otherwise, they really aren’t introducing any new arguments.

      • mochalite

        Thanks for the clarification. I’m Presbyterian, so, to my very great sadness, I’m well familiar with the “quibbling over definitions.” Guess I just figured that a-theist was pretty inarguable.

        • Dan13

          You may be going by the definition they use: stating that “a-theist” or “atheist” simply means not a theist. When I was in college, we considered atheism to be a solid belief in the non-existence of God while agnosticism was the “don’t know either way and (possibly) don’t care” position–both of these definitions are incorporated into the “not-a-theist” definition.

          The main thing is to avoid arguing with someone over whether they are an “atheist” or an “agnostic” =D

          • mochalite

            I just hit the little up arrow, thinking it was a “like” button, but a flag came up. If that means I flagged your comment, I certainly didn’t mean to, but I now can’t make it go away. Ah, technology! Anyway, you’re correct … Those arguments are not worth the effort.

      • Also, the New Atheists are significantly less intelligent, and more apt to use appeal to authority.

    • DavidMHart

      Sorry to resurrect an old thread, but I just came across it and should try to answer your first reaction: I don’t think ‘New Atheist’ is a title any actual prominent atheist activist or writer ever set out to name themselves as; rather, it was a categorization used by the media to talk about authors such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins etc in response to their popular books explaining why there probably are no gods and why religions are on balance more harmful than beneficial. Insofar as it means anything at all, it just means ‘an atheist who has written a successful book criticising religion(s)’.

      Other than that, it’s a pretty silly term – there isn’t any need for a new sort of atheist, because it’s not as if any religions have produced any new evidence in favour of the existence of gods in the centuries since gods were first posited. But because it seems to be a very powerful human tendency to continue to believe in gods regardless of whether there is good evidence, and indeed to seek to influence public policy in various harmful ways that only make sense in the light of those beliefs, I guess there will continue to be a need for people who oppose those trends to emerge every generation to rebut claims of the supernatural, unless and until some religion can actually come up with sufficiently compelling evidence that at least one god exists, or until belief in gods dwindles to insignificance like belief in witchcraft, astrology, dragons and other mythical beings and phenomena has in large swathes of the industrialised world. Just like, if in every generation there was a significant percentage of people who believed in witchcraft, or astrology etc, and who sought to influence law and policy in ways that would be beneficial if witchcraft and/or astrology were true, but would be harmful if they were false, we would need an anti-belief-in-witchcraft/astrology movement as well.

      Though for those who are following these things, there has in recent years emerged a genuine split among what I guess we can call ‘movement atheists’: broadly, one camp which wants to make social justice campaigning, and the effort to be maximally welcoming to historically-excluded minorities, an explicit and central plank of the atheist movement, and one camp which doesn’t really care much about that, holding that atheism is only about debunking the supernatural – and, to quite a lot of people’s dismay, actively hostile to the project of making the atheist movement more welcoming to historically-excluded minorities. Google up on ‘Atheism plus’ if you’re interested.

  • Fascinating. Lots to think about here. Here’s my thought to this: “Why should Christians act morally? Because if they do they will go to Heaven and if they don’t they will go to Hell? Surely that can’t be the answer. For as the New Atheists rightly point out, a morality based on self-interest is no morality at all.” Because morality essentially consists of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself, and the moral law is a documentation of how to act. As I think about it, that is a form of worship. You are right on. You have taught me something today!

  • $102828240

    ”If we follow God’s morality because we have taken deep consideration of the ins and outs and, all things considered, we concur that it is right, then we are not really following God’s morality–we are following our God. We are reserving judgement. “God is so smart, He even agrees with me!” It’s a very subtle, but potentially real form of idolatry.

    I’m a little puzzled by this passage. Isn’t this just what the Church teaches: God has made it possible for us to know, by our rational faculties and by natural law, what is good. And of course it’s not God agreeing with me, but me agreeing with God.

    Another view on this would be voluntarism. Good is good because God says so. I don’t think that is the orthodox way to look at things. Anyway it’s not thomism. Maybe you could say that this is one of the things that changed from the Old to the New Testament. In the OT there are lots of incomprehensible precepts like the food laws. In the NT everything boils down to “loving God and your neighbor as yourself”.

  • Mike

    Another great post: if christian worship is consequential or transactional or selfish then to hell with it; if the host is just symbol then to hell with it. And great emphasis on gratitude as it is one of the keys to unlocking this conundrum of a relationship with God and his Son and the HSpirit. Rational inquiry and gratitude can tell you you were created and ought to be grateful for life but only revelation can tell you you were also created to be loved and to love.

    PS “For as the New Atheists rightly point out, a morality based on self-interest is no morality at all.”

    The IRONY of Atheists pointing out that morality that is inherently self centered is not True Mortality just hit me…and made me smile 😉

  • Yonah

    I would suggest a qualification on “right” and “wrong” here. I would disassociate them, in this context, from “correct” and “incorrect.” For “right” in the Hebrew use of the Hebrew word translated as “right” means “right with God”…as in “lined up with God”….which is a whole lot more than “correct”. So then, it follows that “wrong” here is a whole lot more than “incorrect”…”wrong” is opposed to God’s agenda (will).

  • paizlea

    Thanks for a great article. I’m one of those “New Atheists” (hate that term, btw) who has frequently argued with theists over whether their approach to morality is any different than a child doing what he’s told in order to get a reward. You have done a wonderful job clarifying that there are, in fact, non-rewards based reasons for moral behavior.

    But if Christian worship is non-transactional, and Jesus achieved everything through his sacrifice, is it possible that salvation can be granted without worship, or even conversion?

    • Kasoy

      Salvation granted without worship or conversion?

      Salvation is offered to all – theist or atheist. Salvation is based solely on how much one has shown love.

      Love has 3 levels: servile love (doing good for fear of punishment), mercenary love (doing good for want of rewards), and perfect love (filial love) – doing good out of gratitude for God’s goodness. Man who attains any level of love can be saved. Man is always led to perfect love by God which when achieved leads to worship and conversion. Can atheists be saved without conversion (eg, by simply doing what is good)? Yes.

      Each man (and soul) will be rewarded in the next life according to what level of love he achieved and how much good he did.

      • paizlea

        This is the Catholic teaching on salvation?

        • Kasoy

          From: Catechism of the Catholic Church (official document from its website – paragraphs 847-848

          847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

          Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.

          848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”

          The levels of love (see The Dialogue of Catherine of Siena – )

          Also, see The Way of Divine Love – chapter on The Response made by Mankind