I Worship, Therefore I Know
In his book, The Last Word, NYU philosophy professor Thomas Nagel writes,
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
This problem of willful, self-inflicted blindness is not a new one, of course. The Apostle Paul gives us a theological take in Romans 1:18-22 on the propensity of the human heart to deny what it “can’t not know.” We will not tolerate the violation of our perceived autonomy and so we insist that we will not ever allow ourselves to meet a created fact. Though Paul insists that every fact points to God; we insist that no fact can or ever will.
J. Budziszewski, a professor at the University of Texas, calls this problem the stupidity of the intelligent. As he relates the story of his own journey to faith in Christ, he says,
“The problem is that a strong mind that refuses the call of God has its own way of going wrong. When some people flee from God they rob and kill. When others flee from God they do a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex. When I fled from God I didn’t do any of those things; my way of fleeing was to get stupid. Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent to commit. God keeps them in his arsenal to pull down mulish pride, and I discovered them all. That is how I ended up doing a doctoral dissertation to prove that we make up the difference between good and evil and that we aren’t responsible for what we do. I remember now that I even taught these things to students; now that’s sin.”
Getting Past Stupid
Jesus’ preaching gives us insight into this uniquely human problem in the parable of the sower and the explanation of it he provides for the disciples (Mt. 13:1-23). In each case the seed is the same; what varies is the soils. The Word of God is preached but the response is different in each case. One implication of Jesus’ teaching is that the perception of truth is “soil-dependent.” Knowing is, in part, dependent on the moral and spiritual disposition of the person. This is utterly alien to the Enlightenment sense of knowing, which sees the knower as possessing a detached neutrality. Sinner and saint, we are told, can each clearly see the fact that two plus two equals four, that the earth revolves around the sun, and that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Jesus insists, however, that knowing is never a neutral act stripped of human subjectivity. Key to knowing is the knower. What kind of soil are you? It really matters with regard to what you know and don’t know. More surprising still is Jesus’ insistence (vv. 13-17) that the effect of willful blindness is more blindness. The way past this dilemma is the new birth; by the Spirit’s working, we become a new kind of soil (John 3:3). The epistemic paralysis due to sin is relieved by God’s gracious work of redemption. Only those who have been born again, Jesus reminds Nicodemus, can truly see (or know) the truth about God, the world and ourselves in that world.
Moving Toward Worship
A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, “Make Time for Awe,” describes awe “as an experience of such perceptual expansion that you need new mental maps to deal with the incomprehensibility of it all...the experience of awe is one where you are temporarily off-kilter in terms of your understanding of the world.” Locked into our assumptions about what we think we know, awe puts us off balance and opens us to seeing and understanding in new ways.
If willful epistemic blindness is rooted in the false worship Paul describes in Romans ch.1 (exchanging the truth of God for a lie and worshiping the created thing rather than the Creator), then isn’t part of the answer to epistemic blindness – perhaps the biggest part of the answer – true worship? Is it the case that in worship we experience awe, awe that puts off-kilter and leads to a kind of perceptual expansion that requires new mental maps?
Certainly this describes Isaiah’s experience. The prophet is radically thrown off balance in his temple encounter with the God of Israel. The result is a new seeing, a new way of knowing (Isa. 6:1-8). Think of Job’s encounter with God at the end of the book that bears his name. Puzzled, grieved, confused, and stricken, he wrestles with ultimate questions of meaning. Life in the world with God was not making sense. But then comes the great moment of transition. God speaks out of the storm (Chs. 38-41) and reveals his majesty. Job then replies,
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.” (42:4-6)
For Job, awe in the presence of God gives rise to a new understanding that gives birth to a radical new ability to trust.
We could multiply these kinds of examples at length. Think of how many scenes in the Bible start with awe, lead to worship, and transform the understanding of the worshiper. But let’s wind up where the Bible does with the book of Revelation. If any book of the Bible is about worship, it’s John’s over-the-top missive to these seven ancient churches. As a pastor, John knows well what we often won’t admit to ourselves. We’re all pretty much status-quo types. We think we understand the world; we have our assumptions and our categories; we spend a lot of time trying to confirm what we already think. John knows that for these brothers and sisters who are trying to make their way forward as new Jesus followers in a world that can be hostile to their faith. It’s time for an epistemic shake-up; new categories are needed. Assumptions have to be challenged. Air-tight thinking needs to be broken open to new possibilities. This exiled pastor knows that awe is the great game changer that is at the heart of worship and so he leads them to adore the Lamb seated on the throne.
Again, key to knowing is the knower. Who I am is most fundamentally shaped by who or what I worship. My sense of the world and everything in it is profoundly fashioned by who or what I worship. False worship fuels false knowing; true worship fuels true knowing. Logic, debate, argument and reason all have their place in shaping minds and even changing them. But what we can never forget is that the best thinking begins in the sanctuary.
 Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p.130.
 For a fuller discussion of this problem see, J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2003).
 See Escape from Nihilism, http://www.undergroundthomist.org/sites/default/files/EscapeFromNihilism.pdf
 Cayte Bwosler, Make Time for Awe, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/12/make-time-for-awe/282245/
Have you ever thought of worship as shaping your mind? Next time you attend, ask God to open your mind so it conforms to the mind of Christ.
For a related article from the Colson Center Library, why not try “The Mind of Christ.” If you’d like to recover a sense of awe in worship, you can purchase With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship from the online store.