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Worship—a choice of Gods

Worship is the defining act of religion. Doing theology or philosophy is like reading the recipe, but worshiping is cooking and eating the meal. Only one of these two approaches is nourishing. Worship has many grades and equivocations, but is really constituted by a simple idea, one that is very important for us to understand if we want to talk about doing religion, or for that matter spirituality. We are fortunate to speak English as our word here discloses the essence of the act: ‘worship’ is etymologically ‘worth-shaping’. To worship is to declare, espouse, inculcate and promote the value (worth) embodied in that which is being worshiped. What we worship is what we say is good. The ‘good’ constitutes the values by which we live our life, embodies the character or spirit which we make part of ourselves, and the values we want more prevalent in our world. This makes worship unavoidably political. It is also a reciprocal process in that what values we really have are what we worship by our daily actions. Therefore it is vitally important that we understand what it is we worship and how we worship. You have a choice of Gods. Pause a moment before reading more: What do you worship?

Christine Hoff Kraemer has given us a fine work of analytical Pagan theology in Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It would be the first book I would put into the hands of Pagan seminarians and I will be mining it for subjects for this blog. When she turns to the topic of worship Dr. Kraemer notes that, “Some Pagans prefer the word ‘devotion’ to ‘worship,’ feeling that ‘worship’ has inappropriate connotations of subservience, while ‘devotion’ might also be used of the feelings that one has toward a lover or a child (‘I am devoted to my family’).” [Kraemer, Christine Hoff (2012-11-28). Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies (Kindle Locations 1136-1138). Patheos Press. Kindle Edition. ] Her task and mine are quite different. Dr. Kraemer is doing the valuable work of telling us what ideas Pagan folk hold. In other, less precise words, she is telling us what Pagans believe. My task is not analytical but prescriptive. My job is to ask: are these good ideas for Pagans to hold?

The distinction being drawn by some folk in saying worship connotes subservience as opposed to devotion bespeaks the proud stance of contemporary Pagans who have an attitude towards the Gods like the ancient Romans or Greeks, who did not kneel in worship but stood. I applaud this. But unfortunately this distinction is word-play and tangential to the actual nature of worship. For instance, if you ask a Catholic, devotion is a more intensified, more submissive, kind of worship. So we need a more technical approach to this activity we call ‘worship’ to understand what we are doing and make good choices about it.

There are a number of ways of describing what goes on in worship. (For the interested, what follows is a de-jargonised presentation of process theology.) In the act of worship, the worshiper gives some degree of attention (anywhere from a handshake to profound concentration) to the object of worship. The means are fairly irrelevant to this discussion but could include prayer or invocation, ritual, ceremony or other symbolic actions, or be as simple as a gesture or gazing at the object, or even just mindful attention.

What happens to us when we attend to anything is that while we give it attention we receive some portion of its character, essence, or spirit (pick your language) and it affects us. This is how we know about and recognize ordinary objects. Worship is an intensification of this process with a focus on a value-laden object such as a Deity or, for many Pagans, Nature. Our focus in worship is intentional, often sustained and usually emotionally charged. With that attention the character or essence of the object of our worship is received by us from that ‘object’ and it affects us. This is commonly experienced as the presence of the Deity, or Their communication, or the change in consciousness that happens to us when we worship, often ecstasy. This effect is not transitory. It is enduring, becoming a causal, conditioning influence in our lives, making us more of the character of what we worship, even after the initial power fades.

The intensity of the focus determines the intensity of the power, but every degree of intensity from greater-than-zero to 100% all have the characteristic of absorbing some of the character/essence of that which is focused upon. Thus devotion may be a different degree of intensity, greater or lesser, than worship per se, but it still involves imbibing some of the Deity’s spirit.

{For the sake of the interested, here are the last three paragraphs in Process-speak: Worship is the intentional channelized prehension of a [Divine] Entity whereby the [complex] eternal object They embody is strongly integrated into the worshiper’s concrescence as a causal influence henceforth.}

From merely rendering honors to full union with a Deity, in each case we are performing worship and taking into ourselves the essence and character of the Deity: we become more like Them. It likewise means that we are supporting that Deity (or whatever) and making It more powerful in the world by making It more powerful, more determinant in ourselves. This makes the nature of worship extremely political. What you worship is what you are saying you want more of in the world. Fortunately, you have a choice of Gods.

The place where this all gets to be a problem with Paganism is where some continue to worship Jesus Christ while thinking they are Pagan. They aren’t, but that discussion will have to wait until my other blog comes out March 20th: “Why you can’t worship Jesus Christ and be Pagan”.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.


  • Editor B
    Editor B Wednesday, 13 March 2013

    I find this fascinating. Thanks for writing it up. Like the people Kraemer describes, I too tend to shy away from the word worship, but for a different reason. It's not so much a question of subservience or a "proud stance" but the very notion of subject-object relation. If we may speak of reverence for Nature, for example, I'm keen to erase any sense of distance or distinction between myself and Nature. Am I making sense here? Does the word "worship" still apply?

  • Editor B
    Editor B Wednesday, 13 March 2013

    (To further clarify: It's the phrase "object of worship" that confounds me. I want to emphasize my participation in process, and not objectify the divine.)

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Wednesday, 13 March 2013

    Thanks for your comment!

    Our language is a subject object language. I'll direct you to the full jargon description to move into process.

    However, to answer the immediate question, if your reverence for Nature is an action and not mere sentiment, yes, it is worship. When done at its 'fullest level' there is union and in union there is no distance.

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