Saint Hilda's House

through the gates and into the city

It's All About Obedience: How What We Are Depends on What We Worship

One of the windows at Holy Cross Monastery. 

One of the windows at Holy Cross Monastery. 

One of the greatest gifts we're given at Saint Hilda's House is the opportunity to explore key aspects of Christian life with some of the best in the field.  The discussions we have on Friday mornings- ranging from spiritual approaches to mental health to the evolution of passion over Christian history- have been truly formative over the past two and a half years.  They have helped to connect up our heads and our hearts in faith, all in the context of a loving community which ensures nothing is abstracted away from the nuts and bolts of concrete reality.

A couple of Fridays ago we were lucky enough to have Andrew McGowan- Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale- lead a discussion on Christian worship across the ages.  He even wrote up some of his thoughts for this very blog, providing about as detailed, panoramic, and accessible account of the subject as one could ever hope to find.  So, never ones to pass up an opportunity, a few of us have decided to try and use Dean McGowan's post as a springboard for our further reflections- the ones there isn't time to develop in an hour long discussion.  A formational exercise in itself, we hope that doing so will prove of some small benefit to people outside of our own immediate community!

For my part, I'm going to explore how Dean McGowan's theme of worship as obedience can be understood through a particular philosophical lens.  Specifically, I'm going to look at how we can understand the practise of worship in terms of obedience as determining our essential natures, once we have slightly complicated our understanding of obedience.  My belief is that such an understanding can help us to bring certain aspects of Calvinist and catholic (small-c) theology together, uniting Dean McGowan's sense of the 'giving and receiving of orders' with his sense of 'notions of dependence and love'.  I also believe that such an account of worship could motivate a revisiting of Augustine's invectives against civic theology, as we begin to see secular existence as grounded in necessarily theological practise.  

This piece is quite (now very) long, and it definitely gets pretty abstract.  I hope it's worth the effort of reading, but there will absolutely be slightly more accessible posts coming up, from my far less long-winded housemates.  I hope the length is slightly excused by the fact that it is better not to rush important things.

(On another note: one of my main points of reference throughout is going to be the philosophy of Wittgenstein.  I promise I'm trying not to be pretentious or deliberately obscure when making use of his writing (even if I'm failing miserably).  First, I genuinely believe his thought has important implications for our understandings of worship and obedience, and that it is a great tragedy that it is more or less confined to academics (though it's fallen out of fashion of late, and may of course be completely wrong-headed!).  Second, it would disingenuous to claim the ideas as my own.  I'm going to try and present his relevant thoughts as clearly and accessibly as possible, then, in the hope that their relevance for our basic practises of worship and devotion speaks for itself.)

The (Complicated) Nature of Obedience

In his post, Dean McGowan writes that one way we can approach the nature of worship is to 'think about Christian life (including its communal and liturgical aspects) as a pattern of obedience and service'.  I think I whole heartedly embrace this statement.  What strikes me as most needing further exploration, however, is the precise nature of obedience.

'Obedience' has been doing the rounds a bit recently, what with Walter Brueggemman's recent interview promoted under the title It's Not A Matter of Obeying the Bible' (though his answers are much more nuanced than the title would suggest).  It's not, however, a concept we tend to spend that much time fleshing out.  I don't think we often tend to ask; what precisely does it mean to obey a command, or to obey a rule?  

The idea that obedience to a command or a rule is an uncomplicated affair is one of the central targets of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.  His line of thinking is more or less as follows. Correct obedience to a rule depends upon the meaning of the expression of that rule.  However, our understanding the meaning of that expression must itself depend upon a rule, which must then depend upon a further rule, and so on.  Whichever way we understand the expression of a particular rule, that understanding must function according to  another rule which itself stands in need of understanding.  

Now, this might not seem to be too much of a problem.  After all, we do understand the expressions of rules.  Wittgenstein's concern is where this understanding finds its feet; where the chain of interpretation finds solid ground.  And he thinks that our typical answers to these questions, in terms of argument and explanation, are unsatisfactory.

As he understands it, the problem arises in part because no understanding of a particular rule can be given by the rule itself: no expression of a rule can guarantee its own meaning; 'a rule stands there like a sign-post- does a sign post leave no doubt about the way I have to go?' (PI 85)  

The point is that something as simple as an arrow pointing right, like '->', can, in and of itself, be understood as pointing left by someone who had been trained to see it that way.  Similarly, a simple numerical series such as '1, 2, 3, 4...' can't on its own guarantee its own continuation.  There is nothing in the signs themselves to say that when we get to '10', we don't just always go back to '1' instead of continuing to '11'.  Rather, we have been taught to continue the series this way; we have been taught to understand the signs in this way.  

The problem goes deeper in virtue of the fact that, so long as this teaching is itself understood as the giving of a rule, the teaching itself can also always be otherwise understood: if we teach with signs which must themselves be obeyed, and if we are taught to interpret these signs with signs which must themselves be interpreted, the question of what precisely we are being obedient to must always be raised when we justify our actions in terms of obedience to a command.  This is perhaps most especially the case when we claim we are acting out of obedience to a supposedly divine command, especially when that command is given in Scripture.

Now, Wittgenstein's goal here is not to motivate a sort of semantic nihilism, where all meaning is rootless and entirely down to individual interpretation- indeed, another target of his is the idea that one could ever follow a rule 'privately', with an individual being the absolute arbiter of meaning.  Rather, his conclusion is threefold.  First, he notes (in fragment 201 of the Philosophical Investigations) that obedience to a rule cannot ultimately be grounded in its being interpreted according to another rule; second, that no expression of a compelling ground can claim to be absolute; finally, that interpretation has to end in practise.

This practise can of course always be reinterpreted; all the same, at the most fundamental level we are taught to obey rules in ways which cannot be further justified, but instead provide the particular sense of what we mean by 'following this rule'.  For example (and contrary to certain aspects of the Common Core maths curriculum), if a child counts '1, 2, 3, 4...’ then just repeats the series, rather than continuing on to '5', we do not give them the concept of a number and then explain to them why they continue on to '5': instead, we tell them not to repeat the series but to continue, demonstrating perhaps by writing it out ourselves and telling them to do likewise.  This taught practise then serves to determine their abstract concept of number: the concept of number is constituted by the technique of counting.  They do not, therefore, obey the rule of counting because they interpret the series: they interpret the series because they have been taught to obey the rule in this way. 

This should be slightly terrifying.  Indeed, this is about where Wittgenstein meets Marx, insofar as this is a way of grounding the assertion that life determines consciousness, not vice versa (another corollary of this is that experience cannot ultimately be self-interpreting, and so empiricism cannot justify its own conclusions).  Terrifying or not, however, it strikes me as a powerful case.  Its conclusion is that obedience is both always eventually grounded in blind practise- not conscious interpretation- and arbitrary- insofar as we always can interpret and so obey a rule differently.  

In any case, if Wittgenstein's thought holds water, the mere fact of obedience is not, at its most fundamental level, a matter of hearing a command, understanding it, then acting.  It is a matter of acting, hearing, then understanding (without any possible guarantee that this understanding is either a best or a final one).  Because it is this way at its most fundamental, moreover, obedience is, in at least some sense, blind action before it is the result of interpretation all the way up.  Just as an argument can only be as strong as its premises, so too our understanding of a command can only be as solid as its ground.  And this, I think, is of supreme importance if we want to think of worship as a form of immediate obedience.

Worship and Grammar

What precisely might this importance be?  And what on this has this got to do with Dean McGowan's post on worship?  These would be fair questions to ask, after some pretty dense paragraphs. My hope is that it is important because, under Wittgenstein's view, the point at which interpretation ends and obedience begins marks the point at which worship begins as well.  I'm going to try and flesh this out through appeal to his unusual sense of grammar.

'Grammar' is perhaps the strangest word in Wittgenstein's writing.  More than any other, this is the one he seems to always want to go all Inigio Montoya on, saying to us 'you keep using that word- I do not think it means what you think it means.'  He and G.E. Moore at one point had an extended discussion over which of them was using the term 'grammatical rule' in the ordinary sense: I think the conclusion of the discussion can be that Moore was using it how we think we're using it, and Wittgenstein was using it as it both actually is and actually should be used.  

What, then, might it mean?  These are all guesses, from an amateur, so take them with a pinch of salt.  That said: first, I think Wittgenstein is indeed using 'grammar' in at least one sense we would recognise: that according to which things have meaning. All the same, I do not think that Wittgenstein uses 'grammar' to mean a corpus of explicit principles which can be used to systematise a language and ensure a degree of common sense across its utterances.  This is because the expression of these principles must, as above, still rely upon some other rule of interpretation, which would then give rise to the impression of a 'deeper' grammar.  For this reason, the grammatical rules of language cannot be absolutely expressed because their expressions cannot absolutely presuppose or guarantee their own application.  

So, we have 'grammar' as that which determines meaning, but which cannot be properly meaningfully expressed in a logically systematic fashion.  We could, then, use the above to argue for a sense of grammar which reduces to practise (and so a form of behaviourism, of which Wittgenstein has from time to time been accused): after all, if obeying a rule is first a matter of action, which then leads to understanding, isn't it therefore practise which grounds sense?  Whilst not entirely false, this is not a satisfactory picture of Wittgenstein's thought: for him, even though it is indeed practise and use which gives many (not all!) utterances their meaning, they do so first because we are compelled to understand this word in this way.  And the point of this compulsion is not to be found in the bare practise as it is taught, because that bare practise can itself be interpreted other than it normally is.  In this, we find the grounds for the idea that obedience is always a matter of decision, not principle. 

Where, then, is 'grammar' to be found?  I think Wittgenstein gave several answers to this question over the last 20 years of his life, changing as his thought developed.  I also think it would be a major disservice to his thought to try and provide one single reductive answer.  A first response is thus that the grammar according to which things makes sense to us is to be found a number of different places, dependent upon contextual factors such as purpose, history, and desire.

The more interesting question, to my mind, is what precisely we find when we do stumble upon the grammar of our lives; the factors of our existence which are not and cannot be questioned; the factors against which we measure all other value; the factors which are so bound into our world view that they make up the frame of reference within which all other judgements are formulated. And I would guess that, in a very real sense, when we stumble upon these things, we stumble upon the point of worship.  That is to say, the things which we take to be most fundamental are almost necessarily the things we worship, as we order our lives around them.  Here, grammar plays a materially divine role by determining meaning within our lives- it conditions our understanding of both commands given and what constitutes correct obedience.  

In this, meanwhile, even if it cannot be properly expressed, grammar can be observed in what drives us to decision.  In more Wittgensteinian terminology, grammatical rules cannot be said: they can only be shown by the pattern of our lives in both its psychological and physiological aspects (though they cannot be reduced to descriptions of these aspects).  Similarly, what we worship is not a matter of what we describe as the object of our worship; rather, the meanings of those very descriptions are conditioned by what we accept as ultimate justification for action.  What we worship is belied by what we do, not what we say, and the meaning of what we say depends on what we worship.  

Bringing this back round to obedience: I think that worship is obedience.  But I don't think this obedience can be expressed in terms of hearing a command and then acting.  Nor do I think it can be expressed in terms of our acting and so understanding a certain command.  Rather, it is to expressed in terms of the force which drives us from interpretation to action (a force which cannot be expressed in the description of either learning a technique or interpreting a command).  It is to be understood in terms of ineffable compulsion.  And this ineffable compulsion is, I think, the point of worship, with the action following from it (which is, ultimately, all action) serving as worship's visible manifestation.

'I Believe in God, Creator of Heaven and Earth'

Here's where we've gone so far: beginning with the idea of worship as obedience, we first tried to complicate our understanding of obedience through a Wittgensteinian lens.  We then looked to grammar, understood in this strange sense, as that which conditions the meaning of things.  Meaning is not, however, finally conditioned by either understanding or action.  Rather, it is conditioned by whatever it is that compels us to action in a given moment.  That which compels us, that which plays a grammatical role in our lives, is both that which we obey and that which determines what it is for us to obey.  It is, moreover, that which is worshipped.  We can thus say that to worship something is to have it play a grammatical role in your life, such that it both compels you to action and conditions your understanding of what right action is.  It both compels you to obey and determines your understanding of the command to which you submit.  I'm now going to try and make good on my promise that I would try and connect Dean McGowan's sense of the 'giving and receiving of orders' with his sense of 'notions of dependence and love'. 

Worship has been cast as more than both words and practise.  We might think that it must therefore play a fairly important part in our lives.  According to Wittgenstein, however, we'd only be half-right: we haven't gone far enough.  Worship doesn't just determine what a sentence means or how we're to act.  It is in fact determinative of existence as a whole.  In what I think are the most important lines he ever wrote, Wittgenstein claims that 'essence is expressed in grammar...  Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar.)' (PI 371/373)  And if we are correct in understanding worship in terms of grammar, what we worship in fact tells us what we are as creatures.  Let no-one try and separate doing and being, even as a provisional exercise- both are entirely dependent upon each other, and in turn dependent upon the object of our worship.  

Now, there are two things to say here.  I am going to go through the more comforting first (then qualify it with the second): it is that, if all this is true, then worship of God through obedience in fact creates us.  It is in fact how God makes us anew in the image of Christ.  

Of course, from a relatively Protestant view (and I do consider myself Protestant in this way), we cannot create this obedience in ourselves: we cannot choose our own compulsions, because even that decision to choose must on some level follow from our being compelled.  Instead we have to pray, listen, and look to the Incarnation of Christ on the cross, who guarantees the grace of God's presence.  We have to read Scripture, and we have to take it seriously.  We have to obey it, especially those commands to give up all our possessions to follow Christ, to welcome the stranger in His name, to allow ourselves to be welcomed by the stranger too, to pray the Lord's Prayer.  We must recognise that this is all impossible for us to do on our own, but that all things are possible through God and so we can always pray.  

If, then, we are blessed with obedience, even if just for a second, even if just for a moment, even if just for one deed- if we are blessed to worship- we can see this as the ultimate gift of love.  We can see it as God creating us afresh in the image of His son, still human, yet free from the wages of sin.  And we can see our prayer for this moment, though not necessarily worship, as an expression of dependence: 'not through our wills, but yours.'  In all this, we can see God as Creator- for by inspiring worship He does not just lead us into obedience; He forms us as His children, right down to the very core of what we are.

Now, these words are exceedingly dangerous. It is an easy, easy step from here to a form of Pietistic Pharisaism which becomes both legalistic and arrogant.  It is easy to say that if we obey, or think we obey, we are therefore made divine.  There are too many, far too many, who have in this way proclaimed a doctrine of pre-destination then identified themselves as the elect.  This we must not do: we must instead return to our original complication of obedience, reminding ourselves that the expression of a rule does not guarantee its own application, and our reading of Scripture is only as good as the grammar that compels us.  We must remind ourselves that worship of God in obedience relies upon God as grammar, and never our own interpretations of His command.  And in this we must remember that we can never declare ourselves obedient, that we must always pray, and that this obedience always requires a decision to be made once, and then once again- never once and for all.  Worship as obedience is thus again always a matter of particular decision, not eternal principle.  

Within these qualifications, however, I think that we can offer these provisional statements: Dean McGowan's sense of worship as obedience is consistent with a Wittgensteinian understanding of obedience and grammar.  Under this view, worship is indeed obedience, but obedience depends upon God playing a grammatical role in our lives.  We cannot ourselves effect or guarantee this role, but we can always pray in the name of Christ and turn to Scripture.  The promise of Christ is that He does grace us with obedience by His Spirit, and that in doing this He does not just tell us what to do: He in fact creates us in the moment with His presence.  Thus the possibility of obedience depends upon the possibility of the gift of grace; and so neither worship nor obedience can be understood as bare practice, but must always be understood as utterly dependent upon the concrete gift of God's love.  

Lest we ever try to take the good of this from God onto ourselves, meanwhile, we must always remember the contingency of grace, and so the ineffability of grammar.  We cannot even mark off its boundaries from the inside.  We must instead always pray anew, knowing our words are not enough, but also knowing that they need not be any more than they are.

Next: Civic Theology

This is more than enough for now.  If you've read this far, thank you.  I apologise for my verbosity, obscurity, and general self indulgence.  I hope it has been worth reading (even if the conclusions are more or less just a restatement of fairly orthodox thoughts).

All I want to do now is point forward to a point of further inquiry.  If the above is true, then our lives are always worship, one way or another.  Our gods might not be immaterial or even strange, but by the mere act of worship we treat them as gods.  It will not have escaped you, however, that no one thing plays the role of 'grammar' in our daily lives.  Insofar as we are all conflicted at some point or another, and insofar as we love and worship equally competing goods, there are multiple grammars in our lives.  We, all of us, worship more than one thing.  We are compelled by multiple and contradictory forces, many of which we designate as material gods by the sway they hold over our lives.

Now, I do not believe we can ever attain to Kierkegaard's notion of purity of heart, exercising our wills from all compulsion apart from God.  I do, however, think that we could use an analysis of how we implicitly deify that which compels us in the modern day.  And I think the pattern for such an analysis has been set by Augustine in the first two-hundred or so pages of the City of God.  I think it would be of great benefit if we revisited his criticisms of Roman Civic theology and applied them to modern day America, not scoffing at his detailed criticisms of Roman polytheism, but recognising that our own polytheism is structurally similar.  I think the benefit would be a thorough analysis of secular religion, one based on rigorous and traditional philosophical analysis.  And I think such an analysis could in fact strengthen our notion of what the Christian religion could be: not just Church Sunday, but the constant prayer that the God revealed in Christ might forever determine the meaning and essence of our basic existence as worship.