Christian worship is many things. It is an assertion—both inward and outward—of faith in Jesus Christ. It is an acknowledgment of the consequences and the implications of this faith, and it is a confession of failure to live up to these consequences and implications. Through worship the Holy Spirit increases the believer’s faith and commitment to Christ’s mission. Believers gather in public worship to strengthen and encourage one another and also to show concern for those outside the community of believers.

Worship is not limited to assertion and commitments. It also calls to mind and teaches the data of the faith. To borrow a term from the social sciences, the model of man’s predicament and God’s love presented in the Gospels and enlarged upon elsewhere is, Christians believe, the one most adequate to describe the world we know. This model consists of rational concepts, capable of being grasped intellectually. For example, God is characterized by such attributes as goodness, power, wisdom, immortality, justice, purpose. Because of this rationality, belief, as distinguished from feeling, is possible. Early Christian worship, by carrying over from the synagogue the reading and expounding of the Scriptures, recognized the importance of the educational element in worship. The emphasis on the Word in Scripture and sermon was renewed in the Reformation. We go to church not just to be reminded of what we were supposed to have learned in Sunday school, or to catch those odd bits and stories that somehow we have missed, or to hear a new angle on just how all of this can be applied in an ever-changing environment. Worship is not only a lecture or a seminar.

The bold, simple invitation in that marvelous opening “Let us worship God!” is to something more than a rally of the faithful. Man’s chief end may be to glorify God, but God provides the wherewithal for doing so. In worship, the primary action is God’s. A report in the Church of Scotland General Assembly puts it as follows:

Through the Holy Spirit God comes to meet us in worship, in the ministry of Words and Sacrament, and summons us to respond in faith and obedience and thanksgiving.… In our human, frail, broken, unworthy response, the Spirit helps us in our infirmities, lifting us up to Christ.… That is, the Spirit is not only speaking Spirit, but also interceding Spirit [“Report on the Doctrine and Practice of Public Worship in the Reformed Churches,” Blackwood, 1970, p. 8].

“We do not even know how we ought to pray,” writes Paul, “but through our inarticulate groans the Spirit himself is pleading for us, and God who searches our inmost being knows what the Spirit means” (Rom. 8:26, 27, NEB).

Article continues below

Rudolf Otto, in an attempt to explain these inarticulate groans, explored the importance of the non-rational in religion and attempted to analyze “the feeling which remains where the concept fails” (The Idea of the Holy, trans. by John W. Harvey, Oxford, 1950). Otto does not mean to suggest that religion is irrational, as that term is normally applied, nor does he wish to denigrate the rational component of religion. In his foreword to the first English edition (1923), he wrote, “The ‘irrational’ is today a favorite theme for all who are too lazy to think or too ready to evade the arduous duty of clarifying their ideas and grounding their convictions on a basis of coherent thought.” The feeling remains when the concept fails; it does not replace the concept.

Otto coined the word numinous to refer to that part of the holy which is left over when absolute goodness has explained as much as it can. The numinous cannot be taught; it can only be felt. It can be evoked or awakened only in the way in which anything that comes of the Spirit is awakened. Since it is the meaning left over when thought has gone as far as it can, it cannot be defined. It is inexpressible; Paul refers to it when he says, “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift” (1 Cor. 9:15). It is the part of the holy we try feebly to describe in the avalanche of adjectives of the hymn by Walter Chalmers Smith:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,

Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,

Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,

Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in might;

Thy justice like mountains high soaring above

Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

The numinous, wrote Otto, has a dual character encompassing both boundless awe and boundless wonder, both fear and fascination. The awesome aspect, the deepest and most fundamental element in all sincere religious emotion, found in outpourings of personal piety, in solemn rites and liturgies, and in “the atmosphere that clings to old religious monuments and buildings,” he called the mysterium tremendum (from tremo, tremble; also tremor, dread). The term, he insists, is an analogy or ideogram, since the dread expressed by tremor is not an ordinary dread. For primitive man, religious awe began in the feeling of something “uncanny,” “eerie,” or “weird,” and although numinous emotion in its fullest development is very different from mere “daemonic dread,” that feeling is part of its origin. The absolute unapproachability and absolute overpoweringness, which constitute the tremenda majestas or awe-inspiring majesty of God, form “the numinous raw material for the feeling of religious humility.” The wrath of God is “gravely disturbing to those persons who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love, and a sort of confidential intimacy, in a word, only those aspects of God which turn towards the world of men.” Nevertheless, insists Otto (and Kierkegaard), the disappearance of the uncanny and the awesome would be an essential loss.

Article continues below

But mysterium tremendum is more than tremor. The mysterious, itself also an ideogram, is denoted “the wholly other” or “that which is quite beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, and the familiar, which therefore falls quite outside the limits of the ‘canny,’ and is contrasted with it, filling the mind with blank wonder and astonishment.”

This daunting aspect of the numinous is balanced by the attractive and fascinating. The other side of God’s wrath is his love that gave the world “his only begotten son” (John 3:16). Without this side, worship would be only “expiation and propitiation, the averting or the appeasement of the ‘wrath’ of the numen.” With only the daunting, it would be impossible to understand why the numinous is sought after and yearned for, why it is desired for its own sake and not just for the aid it can give to other activities. Love, mercy, pity, comfort are the concepts on the rational side of this non-rational element of fascination, but, as in all of the numinous, the concepts cannot exhaust it (Otto, pp. 5–40, esp. pp. 12, 14, 19, 20, 26, 32).

In worship, how do we know we have experienced the numinous and not simply joy or aesthetic rapture or moral uplifting? Otto’s answer that one simply knows seems not entirely satisfactory. He distinguishes among these states, but since he is dealing with undefinable feelings, his distinctions are essentially ones of assertion. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, has given the answer that the test of meditation is its effect on us when we are alone in an unchristian environment. Surely worship, like faith, without works is dead. Yet, as the previously quoted Church of Scotland report warns,

To stress mission at the expense of worship, or to subordinate worship to mission in the interest of a “relevant liturgy,” may be to fail to bring our missionary witness under the scrutiny of the Gospel. This could lead to a dangerous reductionism, where our message is more the reflection of contemporary secularism than faithful witness to the Word of the Cross [p. 12].

Article continues below

The numinous must inform mission.

On the other hand, mission may aid in evoking the numinous. To respond to a child in need can awaken a deeply moving religious experience. Likewise, participation in the fellowship of the community of believers can help in our search for the holy. The old example of the single coal whose fire dies versus the bed of coals whose warmth continues is no less true for its frequent telling. The educational-rational element of worship may also give rise to an experience of the numinous. In the human reading of the Scriptures or the preaching of the sermon, God may speak his Logos-revealing truth of his unknown, inscrutable Self. In music, nature, architecture, and prayer, feelings associated with the numinous may call it into consciousness. At other times such an experience may come not in the earthquake, wind, and fire, but in the still, small voice of silent worship.

One suspects that for most twentieth-century men and women, the numinous does not come often in strength. The secular world, for one thing, mitigates it. “Both imaginative ‘myth,’ when developed into a system, and intellectualist Scholasticism, when worked out to its completion,” writes Otto, “are methods by which the fundamental fact of religious experience is, as it were, simply rolled out so thin and flat as to be finally eliminated altogether” (p. 28). Through one way or another, most of us attempt to domesticate the holy, and this leads quickly to the transformation of our solemn assemblies into social gatherings, our communion with God into nothing more than friendliness with one another. Moreover, it is very difficult for us to distinguish the numinous from its associated feelings.

Nevertheless, it is important for the religious man to expect a Pentecost and to attend worship regularly not only for assertion and reminding but also because traces of the numinous are cumulative and its coming is unpredictable. Worship, therefore, is not optional; it is at the very center of the religious life. Reverence is not optional; it is essential for the expectation.

Men are not alike, and their worship could hardly be expected to remain the same from place to place and from time to time. The feelings associated with the numinous vary as the rest of life varies. Faith is possible for all stations of life; both the shepherds and the magi came to the Christ child. The numinous can be experienced by all. On the day of Pentecost the apostles spoke with tongues and every man heard in his own language: Parthians and Medes, Elamites and Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Romans, Jews and proselytes. Today the apostles’ descendants speak with tongues and men hear in their own language: the Jesus people and the suburban churches, the agape groups and the crusades, the God squad and the new Catholics, the university community and the country church.

Article continues below

The numinous may be awakened in any of these environments, but also in any the seeking can easily go astray. It can become no more than, for the highbrow, a search for the aesthetic, and for the holy-roller, wild emotionalism. Forms can ossify; practices that were meaningful at some earlier time may be maintained for sentiment or from habit or because there clings to them the memory that they once evoked the numinous. Neo-frontiersmen and neo-medieval men alike run the risk of making no distinction between tastes and values and, in the defense of the former, may lose the latter. Our poverty of worship may well be due to the desperate holding by many people to the superficial and the rejection by even more people of these same superficialities as nothing more than silly pomposity.

The constant search for the meaningful is not the constant search for the new, of course. It is just as easy to be busy changing the superficial as it is to be diligent in maintaining it. If religious language must of necessity be poetic or symbolic language, then why throw over a history rich in symbols? The Sanctus can take on meaning far beyond its mere words for the person familiar with only a bit of its history. And if the symbols are not very meaningful for modern man, there is always a remedy for ignorance. The church can lose its own soul in an age of secularization if it makes too many compromises with the culture.

The forms, whatever they are, must speak both to the real-life experiences of the worshipers and to the truths of the Gospel. They must remind us of the love and mercy of God and also of his majesty and awesomeness. They must be of the sort that will awaken within us that essential religious experience which is beyond rational concept.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.