Since I am presently taking classes in Advanced Greek and Hebrew 2, which does not afford me as much time to research and exploring a wide array of topics, most blogs that I write over the next few months will be brief, but I still want to record for future usage ideas for me to come back to in the future, along with any benefit it could provide to anyone who happens upon my blog.
Today, during worship in Estes Chapel, we heard from Dr. Constance Cherry, Professor of Worship and Pastoral Ministry at Indiana Wesleyan University. She provided some interesting thoughts on the nature of worship, including the way that liturgy impacts belief, using the familiar three-fold categorization of the Christian life according to lex orandi, lex credendi, and lex vividendio (the way of prayer, the way of belief, and the way of life for those not familiar with them or Latin).
In reflecting on the sermon/talk, a thought stirred up within me from my research at the University of St. Andrews that delved into epistemology. In what way can we consider worship and epistemology to overlap? The polymath Michael Polanyi write a little bit about worship in Personal Knowledge. He says
Religion, considered as an act of worship, is an indwelling rather than an affirmation. God cannot be observed, any more than truth or beauty can be observed. He exists in the sense that He is to be worshipped and obeyed, but not otherwise; not as a fact—any more than truth, beauty or justice exist as facts. All these, like God, are things which can be apprehended only in serving them. The words ‘God exists’ are not, therefore, a statement of fact, such as ‘snow is white’, but an accreditive statement, such as ‘“snow is white” is true’, and this determines the kind of doubt to which the statement ‘God exists’ can be subjected.1
Now, Polanyi was no theologian, so these reflections certainly don’t merit being decisive in drawing and connection between worship and epistemology, but I want to highlight something that is significant in what Polanyi says: he says that religion is an ‘indwelling.’
However, before trying to ascribe explicit Christian theological significance to what Polayni says, it is important to note that he is using the word to describe a more general phenomenon of human knowledge than any sort of Pneumatological experience. He uses the term to describe the way people relate to the object of investigation and its knowledge base, such as the way astronomers make observations by “dwelling in astronomic theory.” 2 Polanyi’s usage of indwelling may at best be consider analogical to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but these two concepts are profile different phenomenon and ontological schemes.3
What I want to draw from Polayni’s reflection on worship and knowledge is this: worship is the place in which we simultaneously engage in the ‘theology’ of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, both in its explicit, articulated forms and its implicit nature built into the liturgy, that makes sense of the observations and experiences of our life in relation to God. While theology is not a theory, or at least it should not be, there is the sense in which theology provides the lens to make ‘observations’ about our lives as it pertains to the will of God.
Now, if this seems vaguely familiar to you who are philosophically trained, there is a good reason for it: it sounds a lot like Thomas Kuhn’s understanding of paradigms, to whom Kuhn acknowledged influenced from. The exact relationship isn’t important, but I point it out to draw a critical distinction between the idea of indwelling and the idea of paradigm. In the former, the theory impacts the cognitive action of making observation. In the latter, the theory determines the cognitive action of how people make sense of the observations. While these two acts are related, they are critical distinctive in that indwelling is pushed more towards perceptual whereas paradigms lean more towards analysis.
It is important to understand the role of theology in worship more in terms of influencing the perceptual apparatus by which we make sense of experience.4 Theology in this sense provides us a sense of what we believe to be the purpose and significance of what God has done in Christ and through the Spirit in human history and our lives.
Allow me to give a specific example. Tuesday I had the chance to take part in a communion service in which the speaker taught us briefly on the idea of anamnesis. While it can be used in a few different settings, in Christian circles, it is primarily used to refer to the remembrance we make of the Lord’s death. In taking part of communion, it was seemingly like most any other communion service I had been to in which we set our eyes to the life and death of Jesus Christ. However, something interesting happened that afternoon. For those of you who don’t know, I have struggled with deeply embedded trauma over the years and and that afternoon and evening I had one of the strongest, most distinctive remembering of events of trauma in the past. Trauma, for those who don’t know, is essentially memories that have been so ‘powerfully’ encoded that it has been stored even in our bodies and the way the mind interacts with the body, even if our minds are not always aware of it. As the discussion on anamnesis brought us into a deeper focus on the death of Christ, it eventually ‘transferred’ to my own recollection of some of the deep traumatized pains of the past.
In this case, the theology of remembrance was a way of making sense of the experience of remembering my own past traumas. It wasn’t, however, that I simply had my mind cognitively primed toward remembering, though that may have been a factor, but that there was a conscious identification of my trauma with Christ’s suffering, or to be more precise, in Christ I perceived my own trauma and remembrance of it in the manner that I did. My indwelling (in the way Polanyi means it) in the act of worship through communion with an understanding of anamnesis, in obedience to Christ’s own to “do this in remembrance of me,” providing the ‘perceptual frame’ to experience, engage with, and understood my remembering of my past traumas in a particularly fresher manner.
Now, there is a certain assumption implicit in this way of understanding worship and knowledge. That theological knowledge delivers to us not deeper understanding about theological ontology, as if theology gives us a knowledge of God’s nature abstracted from creation, but that theological knowledge provides us insight (a) into God’s will for human life and creation in terms of redemption and new creation and (b) how we can receive that insight in Christ and the Holy Spirit. By suggesting that the remembrance of Christ’s own enables a particular form of perception of my own trauma, I am not reducing theology to an abstraction emerged from projected anthropology that then becomes reified in human experience, but rather I am suggesting that theology reframes and reforms anthropology, both in an understanding of anthropology in an abstract sense but also in the concrete sense of human experience. My own narrative understand of the death of Christ has formed and continues to form the way I relate to my own experiences of trauma, pain, suffering, etc.
This brings me to the seminal idea for understanding the relationship between worship and epistemology. Worship provides the theological apparatus as embedded in worship and liturgy that allows us to make sense of the work of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit in human lives and in all creation. To be clear, the reality of the cognitive indwelling of Polanyi is not by itself sufficient to deliver this statement as it also entails God’s action. Otherwise, we would simply be lost in a Feuerbachian project. However, assuming that in faith we have good warrants for believing in the power of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, we can see how the indwelling of the Holy Spirit engages with our cognitive indwelling in the theology embedded in worship to provide to make sense of human redemption and transform and the emergence of new creation. Worship whose theology has been properly ‘aligned’ to the God’s redemptive act in Jesus Christ enables, but does not deliver on its own terms, the capacity to perceive and understand the will and work of God. There is, of course, the potential for false-positives, where we see the work of God where it isn’t, but that is another thread for another time that I would simply respond to by saying that if God is real and actively in work in creation, God’s work is not contingent on our understanding it for it to occur.
There is much more to flesh out and think through, but it is a reflection from the blessing that came from the past couple days.
- Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge. (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2015) 293.
- Ibid., 206ff.
- Polanyi’s usage focuses on the way the person actively engages with a specific set of experiences and knowledge base, whereas the Christian usage is focused on the way the Spirit engages and interacts with us in our embodied life.
- This is something close to saying the “eyes to see” and “ears to hear,” although I would put forward that such a type of spiritual perception is more a consequence of the gift of God’s grace through the Spirit than emerged from the cognitive habit that emerges from liturgy and ritual.