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Letters on Spiritual Christianity——WHAT IS WORSHIP?

My dear ——,

Admitting the doctrine of illusion, and dismissing all prejudice against what is new, you declare that still my position remains absolutely unintelligible to you. I will set down your objection in your own words: “Apparently you maintain that Christ is a mere man who came into the world, lived, worked, and died according to the laws of human nature; even His resurrection you apparently intend to explain away till it becomes a mere vision, and therefore not a sign of any other than a human existence. Now worship is a tribute conceded to God alone. To a mere man, who lived eighteen centuries ago, how can you force yourself, by any effort of the will, to pay worship simply because you have reason to believe that this individual was pre-eminently good”?

In reply, I ask you, “What else is more worthy of worship?” There is no question of “forcing myself” at all. I worship Christ naturally. That is to say I love, trust, and reverence Him more than I love, trust, and reverence any other person or thing or universe of things. This I do because I cannot help it; and if I have brought myself to do this naturally by fixing my thoughts on the power of Goodness, and on Christ as the incarnate representation of Goodness, this causes me no shame and involves me in no conflict with my Reason.

But you—have you not omitted some important features in the description of this “mere man”? Jesus was not only pre-eminently good, He was also pre-eminently powerful and wise for spiritual purposes. His influence regenerated the civilized world; it is manifest around us. He Himself spoke of Himself in language which shews that He believed Himself to be endowed with a divine authority over men, and to stand in a unique relation to God. In a fanatic or a fool that would mean nothing: in one so wise, so soberly wise, so utterly unselfish, so marvellously successful, it must needs count for much. Although I reject the miraculous, I do not reject—nor understand how any one can reject—the supernatural. I regard Jesus as being a “mere man” indeed, if by “mere man” you mean a “real man”; non-miraculous, subjected to all the material limitations of humanity; but still a man such as is described in the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel; the Word of God incarnate; the Man in whom was concentrated God’s expression of Himself; the Divine Perfection made humanly perceptible. This I believed once upon the authority of the Fourth Gospel; but I believe it now on the testimony of history and my own conscience.

Put yourself in my place. Suppose, as I suppose, that Christ was what He was, and did what He did, naturally and without miracles. Does not that make His personality in a certain sense more wonderful and certainly more lovable? It is comparatively easy, with miracles at command, to persuade men to anything; but, without miracles, to introduce a new religion, to bring in a new power of forgiving sins, to offer up one’s life, not for friends, nor for country, but for mankind, to manifest oneself so to one’s disciples during life that after your death they shall see you and shall be convinced that you have triumphed over death; to disarm an armed world by non-resistance, and to breathe a spirit of enthusiasm for righteousness and a passionate love of mankind into myriads of a remote posterity—these surely are feats which, if natural, should make us exclaim, “Verily we have here a divine nature.”

I trust I am not being goaded into any exaggeration of what I really feel, by the hope of inducing you to share my feelings. Perhaps it is not possible to worship any man, not even such a one as Jesus, as long as he remains in the flesh. Not till death takes a friend from us do we seem to know the real spirit that lay behind the flesh and blood; not till Jesus was taken from us could that Spirit come which was to reveal the real Being that underlay the humanity of the Nazarene. I will admit that I should not have worshipped Jesus of Nazareth on earth—in Peter’s house for example at Capernaum; for though love might have been present, the trust and awe that were to be developed by His resurrection would have been wanting. Jesus does not claim our worship nor even our recognition, as an isolated being, but as inseparably linked to One without whom He Himself said He could “do nothing”. It was not till He was removed from the visible world and enthroned in the hearts of men by the side of the Father, that men could perceive His real nature; and He is to be worshipped not by Himself, but as the Son of God, and one with God. Christ did not merely tell us about the Father; He revealed the Father in Himself; and, if we worship the Father as Christ revealed Him, we are, consciously or unconsciously, worshipping the Son.

Almost all language about all spiritual existences is necessarily metaphorical. What is “righteousness” except a straightness, and what is “excellence” except pre-eminence? The proposition “Christ is the Son of God” is a metaphor; it is a metaphor to say that “God is our Father in heaven,” and that “God is Love.” Perhaps even to say that “God is” is a metaphor, expressing a truth, but expressing it inadequately. But it would be the ignorance of a mere child to suppose that a metaphor means nothing. There is no deeper truth in heaven or earth than the metaphor that God is the Father of man, and that the Lord Jesus Christ is His Eternal Son. When I try to think of God and to pray to God as my Father, I can think of Him as being without the seas, without the stars, without the whole visible world; but I can never think of Him aright, nor ever conceive of Him as being Love, without conceiving also of One whom He loves, who is with Him from the beginning; whom when I try to realize, I can realize only in one shape; and hence it comes to pass that I find myself without any “effort of the will,” spontaneously worshipping God through, and in, and with, that one shape, I mean the Lord Jesus Christ. Worshipping the Father I find that I have been unconsciously worshipping, and must consciously continue to worship, the Eternal Son.

But there is another difference between us, besides your failure to recognise the spiritual power and spiritual wisdom of Christ. You do not know what you mean by worship; you do not know what you ought to worship; and you do not know how little you know of God.

You tell me that “worship is a tribute conceded to God alone.” But what is God? The absolute God no one knows. Our most perfect conception of Him is only a conception of a Mediator of some kind by which we approach Him. To each man, that which he worships, and that alone, is God. I worship Christ, therefore to me Christ is God. What will you say to that? I suppose you will say “A non-miraculous Christ ought not to be God to you”? Why not? How does He differ from your conception of God? Is He less loving, less merciful, less just? “No,” you reply, “but He is less powerful.” “How is He less powerful? Has He less power of pitying, loving, forgiving, raising men from sin to righteousness? Is He less powerful in the spiritual world?” “Perhaps not; but He is less powerful in the material world. He never, according to your account, rose above, never even for a moment suspended the laws of nature.” Indeed? And God, the Maker of the world—did He ever rise above, or suspend the laws of nature? When? “Well, He is said to have done so frequently in the records of the Bible”. But many men deny that, and you yourself are disposed to agree with them. “At all events He did so when He made the world.”

Here at last we can come to an understanding. You look up to God as to the Maker of the world, and are more ready to worship Him, as such, than to worship a non-miraculous Christ. If by “the Maker of the world” you mean—as I am quite sure many mean—“the Maker of the mere material forces of Nature,” or even “the Maker of all things apart from Christ,” then words fail me to express how entirely I differ from you. But let me try to put your view into my own language, in order to shew you that I do not condemn it without understanding it. “We cannot,” you say, “worship a mere non-miraculous man, who did nothing but talk and lead a good life, and perhaps perform a few acts of faith-healing, however beneficial may have been his influence on posterity. The fact that, after his death, visions of him were seen by excited and enthusiastic followers, and in one case by an enemy of highly emotional tendencies, cannot alter this decision. It is impossible to worship a being so helpless, so limited, so aweless as this. What is such a creature in comparison with the mysterious Maker of the stars or Ruler of the ocean? Surely the sight of a storm at sea ought to suffice to turn any one from the imaginary and self-deceiving worship of the merely human Jesus of Nazareth to the worship of One whose greatness and glory and terror surround us on every side with 116material witnesses, One in comparison with whom no mere man may be mentioned.”

Natural as such an argument may seem to you and to many others who call themselves Christians, it is in reality based upon a diabolical prejudice in favour of power. I can understand our forefathers, worshippers of Thor and Odin, arguing thus; and so great is our own inherited and inbred admiration of mere force, that even to us Christians the temptation is still very strong to bow down before the whirlwind and the fire, rather than before the still small voice. But it is a temptation to be resisted and overcome. You call upon me to worship the Ruler of the waves. Now the sea is full of the gifts of God to men; yet if I knew nothing more of the Creator than that He had made and rules the sea, then—with all the knowledge of the death and destruction that reign beneath the depths of ocean among its non-human tenants, and of the destruction that reigns on its surface when it wages war against man and conquers—I should say, “So far as the sea alone reveals the nature of Him who made it, I would a thousand times sooner worship Jesus of Nazareth, the non-miraculous man, than the Maker of the ocean.” It is the most vulgar and contemptible cowardice to cringe before the Maker of the destroying ocean—who might be the Devil and not a good God, so far as the ocean’s destructive power reveals its Maker—rather than to do homage to the best of men. I grant that in a storm at sea, with the lightning blinding my eyes, and the pitiless waters tearing my companions from my side and threatening every instant to devour me—I grant that I might, and should, feel tempted to exclaim, “A mightier than Christ is here.” But if I did, I should be ashamed of it. It would be a traitorous tendering of allegiance to Satan. When force and terror and death come shrieking on the wave-crests, and proclaiming that “Power after 117all is Lord of the world,” then is our faith tested; it is “the victory of our faith” to overcome that lie and to make answer thus: “No, Goodness is Lord over the world; Love is Lord over the world; and therefore He who is one with Love and Goodness, the Lord Jesus Christ, He is Lord over the world. Do with me as thou wilt, thou Mighty Maker of all things! If Christ was not deceived, thou art His Father and I can trust thee. But if Christ was deceived, then art thou Satan and I defy thee, be thou the Maker of a world of worlds. Better to perish and be deceived with Christ, than to be saved and caressed by a Maker who made Christ to perish and to be deceived! If there be in truth any opposition of will between the Maker and the Lord Jesus Christ, then is the Lord Jesus the superior of the two; and in the Lord Jesus alone will I put my trust, and to Him alone will I cleave as my Lord and my Saviour and my God.”

Have I made my meaning clear to you? I do not say, Have I persuaded you that I am right? But have I made you understand that it really is possible for one who has apprehended even imperfectly the illimitable extent of the goodness of Christ and the divine nature of that goodness, to feel heartily and sincerely that, of all things in heaven and earth and in the waters under the earth, the goodness and power and wisdom of God in Christ are the fittest objects for our love, our trust and our reverence, in other words, for our worship? Can you name any fitter object? If you will not worship God in the man Jesus, you will hardly worship Him in Socrates, or Paul, or any other specimen of humanity. Will you then turn to inanimate nature, and worship him in that? Then you will be turning from the higher to the lower conception of God. Before I knew Christ, I might perhaps have worshipped God the Maker, being led to him, so to speak, by the world as Mediator. Inspired by awe for the Creator of so vast and orderly a machine, I might have adored Him as the artificer of the stars and this terrestrial globe. But now, Christ has made this kind of “natural religion” impossible. He, the ideal Man, has revealed to me depths of love, pity, mercy, self-sacrifice, in comparison with which the ocean is but the “water in a bucket,” and the stars of heaven are as “a very little thing.” If therefore I try to conceive of God as alien and apart from Christ, God becomes at once degraded and inferior to man.

How shall I try to express myself more clearly? Let me use words not my own, in which a man of recognized ability once summed up for me my own conceptions; “I see,” he said, “you do not, as most do, worship Christ out of compliment to God; you worship God out of compliment to Christ.” The words then sounded to me a little profane, though they were not meant to be so; but I had to confess that they exactly expressed my meaning. Since then, it has seemed to me that these words were but an incisive way of saying, what every one says and few realize, that Christ is the Mediator between us and God: we worship God the Father because we attribute to Him the character that we adore in God the Son.

By this time you will have seen that while answering the question, “Whom, or what, ought we to worship?” I have indirectly answered a preliminary question, “What do we mean by worship?” You have also probably noticed what answer I have given to this question: worship appears to me a combination of love, trust, and awe. Do you accept this? I have never seen any serious objection taken to this definition except by those who refuse practically to define it at all and who would simply say “Worship is the homage paid by man to the Creator: and it has nothing to do with, and cannot be explained by, the feelings with which we regard man.” If I had not seen this in the columns of a theological journal, I should not have believed it possible that modern superficiality and conventionalism could achieve quite so transparent a shallowness. The sum total of our feelings towards God—more especially our awe for Him—cannot indeed be adequately expressed in the same language which expresses our feelings for men: but that is a very different thing from saying that the former “have nothing to do with” the latter. I believe that a large part of most men’s worship consists of a shrinking from an Unknown, the sort of dread that children feel for “the dark.” But righteous worship must imply other feelings; and these feelings—some of them at all events—must have names; and whence are the names to be derived but from our feelings towards men and things—towards men, surely, as well as towards things? We must either love God, or hate Him, or be indifferent to Him; we must either trust, or distrust Him. I do not see how the people who would sever worship from all reference to human relations can look upon it as other than a mere homage of the lips or knees, a going to church, and attendance at religious services. Need I say that, when I define worship, I am defining the worship of the heart, not the attitude of those who honour God with their lips but whose heart is far from Him?

Now the attitude of man to God has varied greatly in accordance with their conception of God, according as they have conceived Him to be Moloch, or Apollo, or Jehovah, or the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. In some men worship has been mere terror; in some, it has been a desire to bribe; in some it has been faint gratitude and strong admiration; in some it has been intense awe and reverence. All such forms of worship have been imperfect, and some have been very bad. At the best, none of them have combined all the best and noblest feelings of aspiration which Nature tends to develop in us by means of human and non-human agencies. Human nature—acting through the relations of the family—should elicit love and loving trust; non-human nature—acting through the seas and skies, with their suggestions of vastness and power—should elicit awe and awful trust; and the combination of these two natural influences should elicit love, trust and awe, which three-fold result constitutes worship.

Has the worship of God through the mediation of Christ entirely superseded—was it intended to supersede—the worship of God through the mediation of the visible World? I think not yet. It will in the end but not now. There may come a time, in some future existence, when we shall see righteousness like the sun, when we shall have visions of the beauty and order of holiness like the stars, and behold the glory of sacrifice spread out before our eyes like the firmament of heaven; and then the revelation of God through visible Nature will be swallowed up in the revelation of God through invisible Nature. But now, not many of us can pretend to such a power of spiritual insight. We feel that, if we learned the story of Christ without the help of the commentary of the awful powers of material nature, we might be in danger of repeating it with a glib familiarity which would hinder us from penetrating its meaning. Those who live in the stir of cities where they are doomed never to be alone, never to realize perfect silence, never to see more than a few square feet of sky, are living as the Word of God did not intend them to live; they may have—they often have—great spiritual compensations; they certainly have some spiritual disadvantage in these unnatural negations. As long as we have eyes and ears and the faculties of wonder and admiration, so long must we suppose that the revelation of the Word of God through Jesus of Nazareth has not dispensed with the revelation of the Word of God through the forces of material nature. If we wish to approach God we should not despise the Mediation of the Word of God in its entirety, that is to say, the mediation of “the World with Christ.”

Now what practical inferences follow from our definition of worship, if we are satisfied that it is roughly true? Here let me put in a caution. Our definition cannot be exactly true; for, in its exactness, worship means the sum total of all the feelings that should be felt by the mind of man, when he contemplates God through the mediation of “the World with Christ.” Who can enumerate these without confessing that he may have passed over some so subtle and so deep that language itself has left them unnamed? We must therefore be content with a rough definition. But if it be roughly true that worship means love, trust and awe, what practical inferences may we thence deduce as regards our own conduct?

First, then, worship is not the formal thing it is generally supposed to be. It is not a mere smoothness of the hinges of the knees, or a readiness to take the name of God within one’s lips. It is a natural going forth of the heart to that which one loves, trusts, and reverences most. Some men have little power of reverencing; others, of trusting; others, of loving; such men’s worship must necessarily be maimed and imperfect. If a man who is destitute of reverence loves and trusts money more than anything else, money really is that man’s God; it is no hyperbole, it is the fact; the man does actually worship money; he does not say prayers to it, does not go down on his knees to it, but he loves it and trusts it more than anything else; therefore, so far as he can worship anything, he worships money. Similarly another man worships pleasure; another, his children; another, power. We are accustomed to apologize for such expressions as if they were metaphors or exaggerations; but they are not; they are plain statements of spiritual realities. Thousands of men who say they worship Christ, and who honestly suppose they worship Christ, do nothing of the kind. This is the dark side of the self-delusion of worship, but there is a brighter. There are many men at the present day who call themselves agnostics, but who would hardly deny that they love and reverence Jesus of Nazareth more than any other being. They worship Him then. Their worship is tinged with hopelessness, and therefore imperfect; but so far as it goes, it is a genuine worship of Christ. Perhaps, too, some who profess mere Theism feel, in their hearts, that though they dislike to say they worship Christ, they love Christ more than they love their conception of “God without Christ;” if so, may we not say that, so far as that element of love goes, they worship Christ? Thousands of thousands of people, before Christ was born, worshipped Goodness and a good God in their lives and hearts, though they were, in name, worshippers of Apollo or Moloch. Thousands of people in the same unconscious way have been, and still are, worshipping the Incarnate Christ. They may not acknowledge this, they may not even know it: but their hearts have gone out to Him in love and trust and awe, more than to any other person or thing in heaven or earth.[8]

Search your own soul and acknowledge how little you know of God; I do not mean how little you profess to know, but how little you really know; how very much of what you think you know, is but second-hand knowledge, scraps of sayings repeated on authority, but not representing any heartfelt faith. Then—after deducting all the verbiage that you once esteemed a part of your own belief—take the poor residuum of your conception of the Godhead, and put it by the side of your conception of the Word of God incarnate in Christ, making some faint attempt at the same time to realize the stupendous life and character of Jesus. Then ask yourself in what respects the former conception differs from the latter for the better. Lastly ask yourself what you mean by worship—not lip-worship, or knee-worship, but the worship of the heart; and whether your heart does not go out in heart-worship as much towards the latter as to the former of these two conceptions. If you will do this fairly and honestly, my only fear would be that you might find that your conception of God Himself was too weak to retain its grasp on you; but if God still held His place in your heart, then I should feel confident that Christ would sit enthroned by His side, as being the Son without whom the Father could not be known, worshipped in virtue of a claim which no mere performance of miracles could establish, and which no mere non-performance of miracles could invalidate.

The sum is this. In Nature there is evil as well as good. I cannot therefore worship the Author of all Nature, but must worship the Author of Nature-minus the evil. Where is He to be found? He is revealed in what we recognize to be good, true, and beautiful. Now no one man can include in his life all that we mean by scientific truth, and artistic beauty, as well as moral goodness. But, truth being a harmony, there is no deeper and nobler truth than the harmony of a human will with the will of the Supreme; and, beneath perishable artistic beauty, there is an eternal beauty to be discerned in righteousness. It ought not therefore to surprise us that the Eternal Word, after endeavouring for thousands of years to lead creation up from the worship of Power to the worship of Goodness, should at last take upon Himself the form of a creature, conspicuously powerless from the world’s point of view, ignorant of science, and destitute of outward beauty, but of a goodness so divinely beautiful and so true to the Underlying Laws of spiritual Nature, that when He held out His arms and called upon wandering mankind to come to Him, the enlightened conscience of humanity sought refuge in His embrace.

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