What follows is the first of a series of three collaborative posts that address some of the most fundamental questions of our religious experience as Mormons. We’ll begin with two very basic, and closely related maxims of our faith and work from there:
1) We worship God the Father
2) We worship (in perhaps a slightly different sense?) Jesus Christ
Parts 2 and 3 of this series will deal with some problematic issues associated with the identity and character of these two Divine Beings we profess to worship. For this first installment, I’d like to tackle the issue of worship itself. My collaborators for the series are former T&S blogger Adam Greenwood (currently blogging here) and Neal Kramer, whose guest contributions have occasionally elevated the standards of discourse here at BCC.
What is worship? What are some possible meanings assignable to the claim to worship someone or something? Specifically, what do we, as Mormons, mean when we say we worship Heavenly Father and/or Jesus Christ? And, for that matter, what do we mean when we say, alternatively, that we do not worship Joseph Smith, Adam, Mary, or Thomas S. Monson? Sociological and anthropological approaches to and definitions of worship abound. Those might be helpful, but they tend to focus on systematically laying out common features among disparate forms of worship – they seek to be totalizing or universalizing in some sense (which creates analytical and even ethical problems of its own, but that’s another subject entirely…). I’m really interested in trying to collectively pin down what we, as LDS, mean when we claim to worship God. Does it mean we acknowledge His supremacy, however and to whatever extent construed? That we venerate Him? That we pay homage to Him in some way – by offering gifts or sacrifices or prayers? That we do things in His name (whatever that means)?
Adam Greenwood’s Reply:
My reply will basically be of anthropological interest (i.e., a reality show for smart people): what happens when a reasonably intelligent but totally unqualified dilettante is forced to answer questions on arcane subjects about which he knows nothing? Read on.
All right, enough throat clearing. Let’s get to it.
Worship does not really differ from veneration or admiration or whatever other name you would want to give to the underlying emotional and spiritual experience. What I’ve felt towards my wife and George Washington and the Father and the Son–that reverential, awed, heart-exploding, desiring, humbling, the very stones would cry out if I held my peace feeling–that feeling is fundamentally the same. That’s my experience. I think the doctrine fits with it. Everyone is in the image of God.
Just as clearly, though, we Mormons are clear that its OK to worship the Father and the Son but that we can only venerate or admire or respect everyone else. What’s the difference? I’d argue that the difference isn’t the underlying attitude or feeling, but only in how its expressed. Veneration is a proper orientation towards those who are superior to us in some way and worship is the name we give to those rituals and observances that accompany our veneration when we wish to show our recognition that the subject of our veneration is not only superior to ourselves, but to everybody. These can be anything that have come to have this meaning over time, which means that they will vary by culture.
Kneeling is a sign of worship in the West. You bend both knees only before God (interesting that it can also be done in proposing marriage, though).
Prayer is worship for Mormons. Distinctive actions associated with prayer, like speaking with the eyes closed and the head folded, you’d only ever do when addressing God. In Mormonism, at least, you’d also hardly ever address a request to another unseen supernatural being, though I’d argue that there’s nothing inherently wrong with this (provided the supernatural being isn’t the devil) but its still not done because we associate this with worship. There is an aspect of prayer that is fundamentally worshipful, however, and not just cultural. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, which means in some sense we pray as if we were Jesus Christ or as if we were acting as his agents. This means that the veneration we feel in prayer is in some sense supposed to be the veneration Christ feels. But the only being he can venerate is the Father, so venerating in the name of Christ is inherently worshipful.
Neal Kramer’s Reply:
Worship is an accumulation of many things for Latter-day Saints. It encompasses at least dozens of specific words and concepts that help define worship for individuals, families, wards, stakes, and the whole church. I think a crucial term to many Latter-day Saints is edify. That is, they want to become part of the symbolic structure that is the church and kingdom of God. They know this means developing spiritual strength through feasting on the word and then believing they become stronger by practicing the principles of the gospel. They experience something they can’t always define, but they want to be strengthened. They like to hear sermons from their friends that both substantiate what they already know and do and encourage them to do better. This is a form of practical worship whereby we believe we emulate the Savior and the Father. They make us firm and we become a part of the foundation of the edifice that is the kingdom.
A term we use less often is adore. Latter-day Saints don’t use images in their chapels on which to focus in acts of spiritual ecstasy we typically might call adoration. But we nevertheless admit and respect the awesome majesty, power, and glory of God. At the same time we love the Father for sending the Son, and we love the Son for condescending to become man through the incarnation and then descending below all things in order to redeem us from our sins. Adoration is contemplation of the greatness of God and simultaneously feeling the intimacy of his love. Adoration expresses our love and admits that we are nothing in his presence. Those who adore the Father and the Son will fall down before Them and bathe Their feet in tears of joy and gratitude.
Weekly worship for Latter-day Saints, the act of attending sacrament meeting, is also sacramental. That is, we go to participate in a holy ordinance whose purpose is memory and re-commitment. At its very heart is covenant. For Latter-day Saints making covenants and worship are synonymous. Each covenant we make expresses our faith in the living Christ and our redemption. The covenant that binds us to Christ, our new birth in his death, is baptism. At that moment we become new persons in Christ. Our lives and direction change. We become His because we want to be His. We desire Him to be our Savior and our Example. And we commit to Him that we will. Because this is fundamental to our new lives, the Lord allows Latter-day Saints to renew the covenant through the sacred symbolic ordinance of the sacrament. We attend each week specifically to take full advantage of this ordinance of renewal. We clean up our yards, our houses, and our bodies in preparation for this moment of presenting ourselves before him.
At the appointed time, young men stand before the sacrament table, the symbol of the table on which our Master’s body lay while in the tomb. These young men stand as witnesses of his resurrection. They are symbolic of the angels who announced, “He is not here. He is risen.” In sober respect, these young men remove the symbolic burial clothes. The clothes reveal the Lord’s absence and His presence in the emblems. Other young men, members of a quorum of as many as twelve members, represent the disciples, emissaries, yes the Apostles, of the Lord. They bring us the holy, blessed emblems of His death and invite us to partake. As we accept the emblems and partake, we bear witness to all present that we desire to remain bound to Christ, in reverence of that sacred holy offering. The symbols bring us in spirit before the angels and disciples. We accept their news and their gifts, in remembrance of Him. Our hearts are filled with sober joy and the hope of peace.
So our worship freely binds us to the Lord. We humbly present ourselves before him and in silent adoration, awe, and love partake. Our worship at least begins and renews itself this way each week. It is simple and profound. We are cleansed. We love him with all our hearts, which He has made clean and pure.
I think Adam’s comments speak to one of the key issues here: how our relationship to God (Father and Son) is different from our relationship to others whom we respect and/or venerate. Worship, in this light, is comprised of those formalized and (at least partly) ritualized aspects of our behavior that convey that the object of our worship is not just superior in some way to us individually but to all. There is another component involved — namely, that the performed actions under discussion are done in the name of Jesus Christ. This typifies our veneration of Christ while simultaneously identifying ourselves with Him. This leads nicely into an important insight from Neal: that worship is at its core about making covenants. Making and keeping covenants with God alter one’s relationship to God. At its core, I think, worship is about constructing and enacting relationships with God that have the power to exalt us, i.e. to make us more like Him. Jesus Christ is a mediating figure in that process — one who embodies the fullness of what it means to be a human being and to be a God. Thus, we worship the Father in the name of the Son, altering in the process the nature of our relationship with both divine beings and the very nature of who we are.
What, if any, thoughts do BCC readers have about this question? What does it mean when we say we worship God?