The last few weeks have been very busy—too busy, actually. Hopefully things will settle into a more sustainable rhythm in the next week or so. So apologies for fewer posts than usual, especially on Sundays, which typically have been the backbone of the blog.
On Saturday morning just past, I was privileged to speak at one session of the Worship for the Rest of Us conference, sponsored by the church I attend. It was a very positive morning with between 70-80 people present, including pastors, worship leaders, worship team members, etc. My role was to speak to the theology of worship and relate it somewhat to practice. As part of my presentation I provided my easy definition of worship: All that we are responding to all that God is, as well as a classic “definition” provided by William Temple. I first heard this definition many years ago and have always loved the holistic sense of it:
To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.
I appreciate the God-centredness of the definition, as well as the incorporation of a range of different elements in any given service of worship. I also appreciate the various aspects of the human personality touched and shaped by holistic worship: the conscience, mind, imagination, heart and will. It would be possible to extend the definition to include the affections, and even the body, since so much testimony concerning worship in the Old Testament includes a physicality often missing in contemporary worship.
The definition tempts me to ask, “What part of myself might I have left home today?” Did the worship of God challenge my will? Did I need to bring my mind, or was the worship mindless? Was my heart stirred by a vision of God and God’s grace, power, wisdom and love?
All of Temple’s points are important, though I wonder if his phrase “to purge the imagination by the beauty of God” is perhaps the most under-rated and therefore perhaps the most necessary in the contemporary church? In his Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson includes a profound section on the “conversion of the imagination.” In some sense, we are not truly, at least not fully, converted if our imaginations are still captive to the ways and mores of the world. If our identity and way of being in the world is captive to an imagination trained in greed, violence, self-centredness, and impurity, it is very unlikely we can truly live in and represent the way of the kingdom of God.
That Temple wants our imaginations filled with the beauty of God is telling. The Bible speaks of the beauty of holiness. Beauty is considered one of three “transcendental properties of being,” along with truth and goodness. A function of Christian worship, according to Temple, is to fill our minds and imaginations with a vision of the infinite beauty of God. It may be that this is one reason why the church in ages past sought to incorporate architectural and liturgical beauty into its services of worship.
But there is also paradox here: how does one view communicate the “beauty” of the cross, which in itself, was an event of abject horror and abuse? At times, human sinfulness turns beauty into degradation, ugliness and shame. Conversely, the Saviour enters into the depths of our degradation and shame in order to redeem us, that beauty may be truly restored yet not idolised. Finding beauty in God, however, means we may legitimately be drawn to and worship beauty without falling into idolatry. And perhaps, by worshipping the source and measure of all beauty, we might even reflect and pursue that beauty in the world that God has made.