Monday, September 22, 2008

On Worship in Spirit and in Truth

My earlier post on the hymn, "Crown Him with Many Crowns" elicited a question from my sister, Wendy, which in turn has stimulated further thinking on the subject from me.

It's especially urgent for us Westerners, raised in a culture that no longer even recognizes the human spirit, much less encourages spiritual development, to learn what we weren't taught, namely, how to distinguish the spirit from the emotions. Being unversed in the cultivation of the spirit within us, we tend to mistake our emotional life for spiritual life. But there's a big and extremely important difference.

One way to spot the difference between “emotional” and “spiritual” is to take some emotion-inducing song and re-write it. Take all the phrases that sound good but have little or no meaning, such as “Shine, Jesus, shine!” and re-write them to say what they mean, in prose. Or just delete them if no actual content, no real meaning, can be found. And then take whatever is left and say the new words rather than singing them. For example, if we take the first verse of “Crown Him with Many Crowns”, and if Pastor Weedon is correct that it is an exhortation for all of us to acknowledge Christ’s kingship, then we could capture this meaning by simply saying this well-known little prayer (a Christianized version of Psalm 95:6):

O come, let us worship God our King.
O come, let us worship and fall down before Christ our King and our God.
O come, let us worship and fall down before Christ Himself, our King and our God.

Here, we are bowing down instead of crowning. There’s no stately tune. Our anthem isn’t drowning out anybody else’s. There is no sensory arousal, no hoopla. The feelings derive from the spiritual experience of prostrating ones heart before his King and God, rather than from carnal things such as romantic or majestic imagery, or rhythm, or catchy tune or soaring melody. And of course, it’s a very different sort of feeling, prostrating and emptying ourselves before God, from the emotion we get out of imagining ourselves crowning Him.

Or here’s another example of simply and humbly acknowledging the King:

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who are everywhere and fill all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life - come and reside in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

Wonderful feelings there, if prayed with the whole heart, with attention! But it’s a sober prayer, devoid of bodily stimuli. No hype. It doesn't give you any urge to hold hands or start swaying. Your toes don't start tapping. Your chest doesn’t swell. Your spirit should, though, if you contemplate the meanings of those words! Those feelings are your spirit’s self-expression, rather than responses of your body/brain to external stimuli.

The trouble with the latter, with songs (or any other elements of worship) whose appeal is to emotions, is that these bypass anything truly spiritual. In this example, I can get rather a nice kick out of the imaginary (unbiblical) grand coronation scene, with myself crowning Christ - that part is really cool! - but to acknowledge Him King, well, isn't that to acknowledge myself the humble and unprofitable servant? "Crown Him with many Crowns" rather too conveniently skips over that uncool part. But that's precisely the spiritual point! That's an example of what I mean when I say if we lead with our emotions, we're just having fun instead of doing anything actually spiritual, such as renewing our unglamorous resolve to serve Him in our daily lives. Bodily things (especially emotional ones) are gigantic distractions. They distract us so thoroughly precisely because they are so highly enjoyable, while spiritual things - to pray, to repent, to forgive and love, to hope, to serve, to struggle against temptation, and so forth, are difficult. On the other hand, if we lead with the spirit, then appropriate feelings will follow and we shall be worshipping with our whole selves, body, mind, heart, and spirit. But spirit first.

6 comments:

Dixie said...

I had to laugh at this one. We read all the time of protestant traditionalists making the very same arguments against contemporary worship (and I surely would agree with most of their arguments) but you actually applied the same principle to one of the traditionalists' hymns!

I had the benefit of being raised Roman Catholic and also spending many years in Protestantism. I couldn't recall if this was a hymn the Catholics sang until I remembered the nuns trying to sing this hymn in the movie, Sister Act. Why does it matter? Because when I was a Roman Catholic there definitely was an emphasis on repentance and humility and "prostrating one's heart" before God...despite the criticism of emotionalism toward this song. However, that same sense of humility was absent from my Protestant days. I noticed this the first time I picked up the Jordanville prayer book to pray.

Nonetheless...interesting turn of the argument.

-C said...

There is much I would like to say about this, but haven't much time at the moment. But I think you are painting with much too broad a brush here. It's just not as black-and-white an issue as you make it out to be.

Emotions are not necessairly a bad thing. Love is an emotion and love is of God. If the singing of ANY hymnody (even western hymnody) leads one - whoever it is! - to a deeper love of God, then it is not "carnal" but good. (If it brings about carnal feelings for you, then you'd best avoid it - but as a former Protestant church musician, I can honestly say that no hymnody ever evoked that sort of feeling for me, personally ... but many western hymns have helped to deepen my love for God).

I am also reminded as I read this post of last Pascha - how moved I was as I observed by own godmother (a cradle Orthodox Christian) weep tears of joy as she sang, "The Angel Cried."

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Oh, thank you, -c, for giving me the chance to clear up a few misimpressions I've left here.

Of course emotions are not necessarily a bad thing! Full agreement. What I meant is that our emotions are not the same thing as our spirit. They shouldn't be confused. And it's to the spirit that worship should be primarily addressed.

My sister Barbara cried her way through Divine Liturgy every time, and hoped those tears would never stop, and I hoped the same with her. But those were not tears elicited from outside herself by artificial means (hype); they were tears of repentance -- and the sure knowledge of forgiveness, imparting gratitude and joy. Nothing to do with tunes or rhythms or grandiose fantasies.

I am also writing here about one particular hymn, not all Protestant hymns. (However, my guess is that a high percentage of them will fall short when examined for spiritual content, rather than emotional.)

Third point: love indeed involves emotions. I cannot be said truly, fully to love my "enemy" until I also have tender feelings toward him.

Yet Christian love, agape, is much more than feeling. It is the sacrificial gift of oneself to another, a gift offered in freedom and without expecting anything in return. That is a spiritual act.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

I know I'm late to the conversation but: Crown him with many crowns is a wonderful Scripture-saturated hymn which does much for heart, soul, mind, and strength. The main Scriptures that it echoes are in Revelation. The crown-imagery in particular are from Rev 4:10-11, also Rev 19:12 and neighboring. The anthems and such are also largely Revelation-based imagery.

I understand the concern about empty and shallow things; "Shine, Jesus, Shine" makes me cringe. But I think "Crown Him" is a full and deep hymn, and (as a second point) I find it positively good that this particular hymn is so visceral. God made the physical world good; I would hate to despise the physical because some divide is erected between the physical and the spiritual, with physical being cheap and spiritual alone being good, or the spiritual being somehow better when it's devoid of the physical. I think the visceral aspects of the hymn add to, rather than subtract from, its value.

Fwiw, that's one of my favorite things about Eastern Orthodox festivals: a full affirmation that the goodness of God can be seen in humble physical things like baklava. (I'm serious, though joyfully serious rather than Somberly Serious.) I think the Eastern Orthodox do "spiritually visceral" -- honoring the incarnation and the creation and re-creation -- very well, though perhaps are at their best in visual art / iconography.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Hi, Anne, and thanks for chiming in.

I fully agree with this much of your comment: "God made the physical world good; I would hate to despise the physical because some divide is erected between the physical and the spiritual, with physical being cheap and spiritual alone being good, or the spiritual being somehow better when it's devoid of the physical."

Nevertheless, living just at the physical, fleshly plain, IS bad. In fact, St. Paul says it's deadly. "For if ye live according the flesh, ye shall die." (Romans 8:13)

Neither should we worship "according to the flesh," but as Jesus tells us to, in spirit and in truth.

Emotions are fine; the saints display a rich emotional range. But these emotions should originate from something spiritual rather than something physical. That is, they should result from our repentance or gratitude or from our love (self-giving) or from our hope or from having forgiven others, or some other work of the spirit.

Visceral responses are invariably the wrong sort. They even come from a different part of the brain than spiritual responses. Worse, they compete in our awareness with spiritual responses. Worse still, visceral responses tend to be addictive, because we enjoy them so much.

I just keep thinking of the young woman who visited Frederica Matthewes-Green's parish, who told her, "This is so not about me!" We both know how true that is. It just isn't about how we feel, even if we "feel" closer to God; as you Lutherans frequently remind us, feelings are not to be trusted. It's about the hard struggle of becoming conformed to the image of the Son. It's about pleasing God.

William Weedon said...

Just to make the point one more time. This hymn that you are objecting to is included in the St. Ambrose Hymnal of the Western Rite Vicariate. It is also included in the Roman Catholic hymnals. It is in fact, then, a pan-Christian hymn being sung in parishes that are Orthodox, Roman, Lutheran, Episocpalian, and pretty much everyone else under the sun. I wonder if there are other hymns that you'd find objectionable in the St. Ambrose Hymnal?