What Is Worship?


What follows was originally intended to be shared with a small circle of fellow Quakers. But as the writing unfolded, it took on a more general relevance, which is why it’s now appearing here. An earlier post, Two Roads, traces the ongoing influence of my Quaker family background. Another post, Medicine Wheels for Story Orphans, explores the evocative similarities between the lives of George Fox (who founded the Religious Society of Friends), J.R.R. Tolkien (who wrote The Lord of the Rings), and Carl Jung (whose Red Book is discussed below).

For those unfamiliar with Quaker ways, and especially with the unprogrammed branch of the Quaker family tree, meetings for worship last about an hour and are mostly silent. Now and then a Friend may offer a brief inspirational message. These sharings are often called vocal ministry.

Meeting For Worship

I rarely offer vocal ministry. But several Sundays ago I was moved to say, “During meetings for worship, I sometimes wonder who or what I’m worshiping.” As the silence of the meeting resumed, I continued to wonder, “Why is it called a meeting for worship? What does it mean to worship someone or something?”

Having no easy answers to these questions, I first consulted the dictionary. Then I turned to two books I’m currently re-reading, Unmasking the Powers and Lament of the Dead. Perhaps they could offer some answers or insights.

The dictionary says worship is “a religious practice with its creed and ritual.” Quakers aren’t merely a Society of Friends; we’re a Religious Society of Friends. But for Friends whose prior experiences with organized religion were challenging, or who grew up (as I did) in a secular household, or who identify as being atheist or agnostic, hearing that a Friends Meeting for Worship is defined as a religious practice might stir up feelings.

Worship is also a practice: something done over and over again in order to develop skills and become proficient — like practicing basketball, or learning to play the piano. Practice is closely related to ritual. Both are routine patterns of behavior performed in a certain way. But any habitual activity, whether it’s preparing a meal or meeting for worship, can eventually become mechanical and lose its efficacy.

Finally, if worship is “a religious practice with its creed and ritual,” what is a creed? Basically, a creed is a set of fundamental beliefs that a group of people hold to be true. We frequently assume that beliefs are intellectual concepts. Yet foundational beliefs aren’t simply abstract ideas; they’re ideas enlivened by emotion and imagination. Was the last election fraudulent? Should Covid vaccinations be mandatory? Is there a benevolent god? Creeds, being deeply held beliefs, can often be passionate, partisan, and polarizing.

The dictionary also says that worship is “reverence offered to a divine being or a supernatural power.” Is this what we’re mostly doing during our Sunday morning time together — revering a divine being or a supernatural power? Is this what worship is?

Then I playfully bypassed the monotheistic creed of the dictionary-makers by changing two words from singular to plural: Worship is reverence offered to divine beings and supernatural powers. This new interpretation of worship took me to the books I’m re-reading: Unmasking the Powers and Lament of the Dead.

Unmasking the Powers

Walter Wink is a professor of biblical theology who wrote five books on what the bible says about angels and demons, powers and principalities, gods and spirits and Satan. He came to believe that these antiquated terms refer to interior realities beneath the surface appearances of individuals, groups, and nations; realities that are hard to recognize and dangerous to ignore.

Walter Wink

The second volume in this series is Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence. Chapter Three, “The Angels of the Churches,” was assigned reading for our fifth residency at the School of the Spirit. The author tells of a time when he was studying the Book of Revelation with a group of his teenage parishioners. He happened to notice that John’s letters to the churches were not written to the congregations or to the leaders of those churches, but were instead addressed to the angels of the churches. Walter Wink eventually became convinced that each collective entity — be it a family, a church, a corporation, or a nation — has a unique character, an abiding presence that earlier traditions called an angel.

“Far from being perfect heavenly beings,” he writes, “these angels encompass every aspect of a church’s current reality, good and bad alike. In the same way that I’m at every moment simultaneously who I am and who I might become, the angel encompasses both what the church is and what it might be called to be.”1 The angel therefore represents the personality of a church or meetinghouse, and also its vocation.

The final chapter of Unmasking the Powers is called “The Angels of Nature.” Here the theologian says that the word angel is “a code name for the numinous interiority of created things,”2 and suggests that when angels are taken in this way, “they can both broaden and deepen our sense of worship.”3

One of the primary reasons he gives for approaching old symbols such as angels, demons, and spirits with new respect is that “true individuation seems to take place only when thoughts, feelings, and behavior are integrated around a central myth-system at the core of the self.”4

Carl Jung’s Red Book

Walter Wink’s understanding of individuation is taken from the pioneering work of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. The other book I’m re-reading is Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book. It’s a series of conversations between James Hillman, who once led studies at the C.G. Institute in Zurich and later developed archetypal psychology, and Sonu Shamdasani, who was primarily responsible for shepherding Jung’s legendary Red Book into print.

Carl Jung showed his magnum opus to only a few people during his lifetime. The Red Book was finally published in 2009, nearly fifty years after his death. Written in the author’s own calligraphic hand and with his own striking illustrations, the Red Book is a meticulous account of Carl Jung’s perilous journeys through a psychic underworld teeming with mythical figures. His first visions began shortly before the onset of World War I.

Carl Jung

Jung was driven to explore this treacherous inner terrain because although he was already a renowned psychiatrist, he had lost his own psyche, his own soul. And while he had just published a book about the world’s mythologies, he himself had no viable mythology. Jung intuited that if his soul and a vibrant personal mythology remained inaccessible, then he could never lead a truly meaningful life.

So night after night, once his professional and family responsibilities had been attended to, Carl Jung set aside his analytical mind and taught himself to descend into those murky psychic depths. The Red Book tells what he found there. It’s a fascinating and often disturbing story about his experiences with the denizens of a shadowy and seemingly autonomous world. At times, Jung feared that he might be opening himself to a psychosis and that he would have to be institutionalized, like some of the hapless patients he was treating during the day.

His visionary experiences continued for several years, and it took many more years to process them and craft them into a literary and artistic masterpiece. Eventually, Jung did rediscover his soul and gestated a numinous personal mythology. He also founded a new school of psychology. Concepts that he formulated, such as individuation, active imagination, archetypes, and the collective unconscious, became guiding principles of Jungian psychology. But until the posthumous publication of the Red Book, very few Jungian scholars and therapists knew that these foundational concepts were birthed out of Jung’s searing experiences in a turbulent subterranean realm.

Lament of the Dead

Sonu Shamdasani

In the conversations that comprise Lament of the Dead, James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani say that Carl Jung’s strange imaginal encounters were not merely cathartic, they were religious. This circles back around to my uncertainty about what a Quaker meeting for worship is, and to the dictionary saying that worship is “a religious practice with its creed and ritual.”

“How are religions made?” Shamdasani asks. “[Jung’s] view is that religions are built up from an initial experience of a stream of images, and then only subsequently formalized into creeds, dogmas, and institutions.”5 Hillman agrees, saying that Jung’s own religion was taking shape in the Red Book. “His old religion was being destroyed, meaning the inherited Christianity that he felt was oppressive… and at the same time a new vision, or a new understanding of religion… is being given to him, or he’s struggling with it in the Red Book.”6 Not a religious practice, then, but a religious struggle.

What about a creed? In his early life, Shamdasani became interested in dreams; his own dreams, and dreams in general. He still considers it to be “an open challenge, to understand life without appeal to transcendence, without starting from an axiomatic basis.”7 Without starting, in other words, from a creed. This prompts Hillman to say that, “The only axiomatic basis I have [and here he borrows a line from the poet W.H. Auden] is that ‘we are lived by powers we pretend to understand.’ So the axiomatic basis [i.e. the creed] are these powers. They’re our mysteries, they’re our figures, they are occasions of invasion, and they are our lives, or at least determine our lives in strong ways.”8

James Hillman

The Prophetic Imagination

With the primal encounters that Carl Jung both invited and endured, we move away from worship being “a religious practice with its creed and rituals.” Instead of religious practice, there’s religious gestation; instead of creeds and rituals, there’s cultivated trust in a highly unusual inward journey; instead of worship, there’s voluntary descent into another world.

As James Hillman asserts, “The great discovery in the depths is imagination… What [Jung] discovered was that the psyche is a living world of the imagination and that any person can descend into that world. That’s your truth; that’s what you are; that’s what your soul is. You’re in search of a soul, and your soul is imagination.”9

Not imagination as a mishmash of vain and fanciful notions, but the prophetic imagination. For it was the prophetic imagination that Carl Jung explored. And like many who went that way before him, he returned bearing gifts.

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