Is the God the object or subject of our worship?
This question might strike you as odd. It certainly did me when I first heard it in connection with the work of Robert Webber.1 When object and subject are used in the process of definition, I tend to default to grammar. In the sentence, “We worship God,” we is the subject of the verb worship whose direct object is God. The LORD God of Israel could not possibly be the subject of any sentence containing the verb worship, and the four heroes of Daniel would rather be burned alive or eaten by lions than agree that anything else in all creation could be the object of the verb worship. Indeed, what an odd question.
But before his passing to glory, Webber like our heroes of Daniel was a champion of the worship of God and grew increasingly concerned with the breakdown he perceived in contemporary Christian worship. He described this breakdown in various ways, including “me-oriented worship” and “narcissistic worship.” His concern was that the story of God was being ignored or even replaced by a self-oriented, self-serving worship in which God was wrapped up in our stories. While many church doctrinal statements remained orthodox, the rich theological heritage of Christian worship was being replaced in practice by ill-defined conceptions of God and troubling views of his relation to us.
Webber worked tirelessly to define his “fundamental dis-ease... with I-Me-My worship.” He came to conceive of it as a distinction between God as object and subject of worship. Contemporary worship had adopted a Greek conception of God as spatially separated from us, sitting “up there” in heaven, above and beyond us, “out there.” This was a three-tiered view of the world, with God up in heaven surrounded by angels, reigning over us down here on earth, and banishing evil to a place of torment “below” us. Art took up this conception and portrayed it frequently in works such as paintings, stained glass, and altar pieces. In his words,
This spatial and visual view of God results in a human language that expresses worship to God as the object of praise. I am the subject who worships God. God is the recipient of my efforts on his behalf.2
This distant God who “sits out there” as an “object” and receives our praise stands in stark contrast to the God of Scripture. God is active. He creates; he redeems. He calls out his people and works all things together for their good, moving them inexorably toward glory. He defeats evil and rescues the righteous. He is the great actor in the drama of history who reveals himself in the person of Jesus Christ as the Triune God. This story is the subject of Christian worship. And where this story is richly recalled and celebrated, as it is the ancient traditions of Christian worship, the true worship of God flourishes. Thus, God is the “subject” of Christian worship.
Such is my understanding of Webber, and he is to be lauded. Defining forms of idolatry is an exercise in unmasking deception, and that is never easy and rarely clear-cut. His concern that worship center on the story of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is exactly right. His focus on God as active in worship, saving and enabling us to worship by his grace, touches deep themes in Scripture. He convictions are true that God has revealed himself in creation and in redemption, that this story of God is recorded and clarified in Scripture, and that this story should by the subject of Christian worship. Laudable also is his concern for the heritage of Christian worship.3
But I am not sold on the language of object and subject, nor am I convinced that God as the object of worship is Greek and unbiblical. Consider Daniel 2. God is going to turn Nebuchadnezzar into a true worshiper. He gives him a troubling dream that requires divine interpretation. He wants a true explanation and will not settle for the dubious methods of his counselors – he demands that they prove their interpretation by telling him the content of his dream. They famously respond,
There is no one on earth who can reveal what the king demands! In fact no king, however great and powerful, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. The thing that the king is asking is too difficult, and no one can reveal it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with mortals. (Daniel 2:10-11, NRSV)
The problem is the distance of the gods. They are “up there,” or “out there,” but they certainly do not “dwell” here with us. That distance has allowed the priests and counselors of Babylon to fashion the gods according their own designs and worship the work of their hands, to echo the words of Isaiah. It has allowed them space to “lie” and “deceive” (Daniel 2:9) and worship what they do not know (John 4:22). In other words, this problem of God being removed from us is fundamental to the human condition in a fallen world. Greek thought developed that distance in a unique way, but every culture wrestles with the absence of communication with God and is left open to every kind of idolatry.
The “object” of worship takes center stage in Daniel 3 when Nebuchadnezzar erects the golden image. He wants the world to worship his image. The three Hebrews will not worship that image. They (subject) will only worship (verb) the God of Israel (object), and they will die before they worship an idol. God and God alone is the true object of worship, as is the contention of Scripture everywhere. Webber's concept that Greek thought allows God to be made an object of worship, while biblical thought maintains he is the subject and not the object, can be confusing.
Daniel 2 can make sense of this, and highlight the concerns so important for Webber in worship. The interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream comes by divine inspiration through a member of the royal house of Israel, the house of David. Daniel is a type of Christ, bringing the knowledge of God to those darkness so that they might worship God. This is the heart of historic Christianity: the divinely inspired Word of God comes through Israel, focused on Jesus Christ, the perfect revelation of God.
At the heart of the revelation is the story of God. Nebuchnezzar is given a picture and a story. It is a picture of humanity standing in defiant idolatry, the kingdoms of this world in rebellion against the kingdom of God. It is a giant human statue, because “humanism” has ever been at the core of idolatry, from the garden of Eden onward. This “humanism” can be individualistic, as with Adam and Eve's faith in their own wisdom, or communal as represented here in Daniel. The story develops simply: human kingdoms rise in challenge to God, setting themselves up as the object of worship, but descend in quality as the end of the age draws near. God watches and in his time crushes this idolatry, filling the world with his kingdom. This is the “story of God” in basic form.
Nebuchadnezzar reacts to the story with an act of worship. The knowledge of the divine, the power of genuine prophetic insight, is so overwhelming that Nebuchadnezzar falls before Daniel, ordering offering and incense to be made to him. As Rashi points out in his commentary, he is attempting to deify Daniel. The object of his worship is wrong, but his desire to respond to revelation is proper. It is the desire of the nations for the word and law of God that draws them into worship, connecting worship most directly with the mission of God.4
The remedy for the illegitimate worship of Nebuchadnezzar is a proper definition of God and his relationship to Daniel in particular. This will come over the next chapters of Daniel. Daniel will play his part in defining God as Creator and Redeemer. I will argue in my next blogs that God is indeed “above” and “beyond” us, yet he is active in history. He is both “object” and “subject” of our worship.
1 See for example, “God Is Not the Object of Our Worship,” ChristianityToday.com, accessed February 16, 2015, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/aprilweb-only/118-13.0.html.
3 For a fuller treatment, see Webber's Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2008), and Worship Old and New, Revised edition (Zondervan, 2009).
4 See the vision recorded in Isaiah 2:1-5 and Micah 4:1-5. I will take this up in a later blog.