Man and Worship
Human beings were created to run on transcendence in the same way that cars were first designed to run on gasoline. Pouring other liquids into the gas tank (such as lemonade), while it might be cheaper than gasoline and thus tempting to use as a substitute, would not work, because its use would be contrary to the way the car was designed to function.
To say that human beings were designed to live transcendently means that we were created to be worshippers. This is one of the things which separates human beings from the animals—animals do not worship as human beings do. That is not to say that animals have no relationship with God. The psalmist tells us that the lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God (Psalm 104:21), but this relationship does not include voluntary acts of worship, acts which can be given or withheld. Human beings, alone in the visible creation, were created to offer free and voluntary worship to the Creator.
It is when human beings reach up to God in worship, gratitude, supplication, and love that the rest of our lives can exist in harmony. We were created to be upwardly and dynamically open to God, open to the constant infusion of his life within us, participating in his power and energies. This happens when we turn to him in worship. When we do not do this, He cannot pour his life into us, and we wither up and die. Turning from God and refusing to worship results in our death—not because God will kill us if we refuse to worship, but because it is only through worship that his life is continuously given to us. A flower only lives when it is rooted in the soil and open to the sun. If it pulled up its roots or refused the sunlight, it would wither and die. It is the same with us.
This has always been the teaching of the Church. St. Augustine once wrote in his Confessions that “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”1 Rather more recently Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in his For the Life of the World that “All rational, spiritual, and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God… “Homo sapiens”, “homo faber” …yes, but first of all, “homo adorans”.”2
This means that the refusal to put God in the center of our life by worshipping him can only lead to inauthentic human life and ultimately, spiritual death. Man as homo sapiens, who puts the search for wisdom and knowledge at the center of his existence, man as rationalist, cannot satisfy the human heart or lead to life. Man as homo faber, the builder, the manufacturer, who puts the building of monuments, tools, technology at the center of his existence, man as empire-builder, cannot satisfy. It is only when man knows himself to be homo adorans, the worshipper, the creature that finds its freedom and joy in God, that true peace and true life can be found and the world experience harmony.
It is because the human race has turned from the living and true God and, as a race, has refused to worship him that troubles befall us. Being created for transcendence, we will worship something, even if not the true and living God. We will not live like the animals, eating, breeding, and dying, worshipping nothing at all. If we refuse to worship the living God, we will find other substitutes for him.
This is why St. Paul spoke at length about the fundamental problem in the Gentile world being one of idolatry (e.g., Rom 1:18–23). Mankind is a race of idolaters, and therefore we experience spiritual death. We refuse to worship the true God and exchange his glory for the fading glory of something else, anything else, things that cannot save or give life. That is the ultimate and true cause of the wars and the crime that constantly afflict our planet. We are at war with the true God, and therefore are at war within ourselves and with one another. Having refused to worship God, nothing else in our existence works as it was designed to.
The idols currently worshipped in the secular West are not the physical idols worshipped in the religious society of (say) ancient Rome—or present-day India. Whatever we choose to make ultimate in our life is our idol, which is why St. Paul defined covetousness as idolatry (Col 3:5). The most favoured idols worshipped in the secular West today are wealth, health, and sexual pleasure. In the tradition of the Bible, worshipping the true God involves renouncing and shunning all idols, and turning to find our true life, peace, and joy in God alone.
That is, worshipping God involves constant repentance, and continually turning away from the idols that lay claim to our affections and priorities and clinging to God as our only source of life. In this fallen world, false idols clamour for our attention and devotion, and true spirituality consists of continually turning away from their siren call and turning again and again to the true God. Man must worship this true and living God if he is to find life and live in harmony with himself, with others, and with the world around him. True worship is thus built upon the foundation of repentance and inner vigilance.
St. Augustine, Confessions, 1.1, see https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/110101.htm (opens in a new tab) ↩
Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 15. ↩