For the last month, I’ve been reading David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite, which is one of the most profound and difficult texts I’ve read. Hart uses the theology of Gregory of Nyssa and other sources to talk about the relationship between our desire and God’s beauty. On the first weekend in December, Rachel Held Evans spoke to our annual Virginia United Methodist youth retreat about “living in the questions” as a way of understanding our faith. The Saturday morning talk was about seeing the Bible as a “conversation-starter not a conversation-stopper.” Rachel questioned whether the Bible should be viewed as a self-evident “blueprint” for every aspect of life. Weaving her talk together with Hart’s book left me with the thought that reducing God’s word to a finite blueprint not only snuffs out the conversation and fellowship that are supposed to emerge out of our sacred canon; it also kills the worship of our infinite Creator.
Let me first explain what I mean by worship. It’s not just saying really complimentary things about God because we think it’s pious to do that. If there is a “should” behind what we’re doing, it’s performance, not worship, even if we’re performing for an “audience of one” rather than “doing everything for other people to see,” like the Pharisees. Performance is a form of the works-righteousness Jesus died to deliver us from. God wants our worship, not our performance. This distinction only makes sense if you understand that God is infinite goodness and beauty and truth and the underlying object of every desire that we naturally have. When we exhaust our desires in created things, it’s idolatry; when we encounter created things as God’s blessing and delight in them eucharistically, that’s worship.
People who are trapped in performance treat God like a fascist fuehrer examining the ranks to make sure that all His people are executing a flawless sieg heil salute. They say worship isn’t about “our feelings” but about giving God “what He deserves,” which means that its measure is its correct performance rather than the delight that God wants us to experience. True worship is “not about us” in the sense that it’s supposed to liberate us from self-consciousness, but too often “putting the focus on God” subtly puts our focus on the correct performance of our speech about God. God has absolutely no need for our flattery. He might say that He’s a “jealous God” but the only reason He gets “mad” when we worship idols instead of Him is because it makes us miserable to do so. We get trapped in a meaningless desperate existence. God wants us to worship Him “in spirit and truth” because He wants us to discover the infinite beauty and goodness and truth that gives us perfect freedom, peace, and joy.
The beauty of worshiping an infinite Creator is that our desire is never exhausted, since our questions about our forever indescribable God are never fully answered. You can only desire that which is beyond you in some kind of sense. We may want a practical tool to accomplish some kind of task but once we have it in our hands, it’s no longer an object of desire; it’s simply something we use. The same thing happens when we desire the physical feeling we get from food or sex or drugs. The desire disappears as soon as we have the thing we wanted, which is part of how addiction works. When we desire what other people can do for us, we treat them contemptuously, throwing them away when they’ve outlived their purpose. When we have a relationship with another person that is “centered in Christ,” we are able to desire the infinite within them as creatures who radiate God’s image rather than wanting them for their utility to us, which is why those relationships actually sustain perpetual desire.
All right so let me link this back to how we understand the Bible, the subject of Rachel’s talk this morning. When the Bible is a “conversation-starter” about a God whose infinite goodness, beauty, and truth is way more than a finite flat blueprint, then the Bible is a catalyst for worship. If the Bible is a blueprint that tells us exactly what to do in every circumstance, it is a manual for performance. There’s an excellent metaphor for this in John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness could not seize it.” God’s light is both always present and always out of reach. When we desire a final clarity in our discourse about God, what that really amounts to is a desire to stop worshiping Him. You can point to His light; you can touch it and dance in it; but if you try to close your hand around it, you will only have a fistful of darkness. Those who have appointed themselves to be custodians of God’s sovereignty live in darkness as a result of their need to control a light that cannot be seized.
Questions are indispensable to worshiping God in spirit and truth as long as they’re genuine questions motivated by a desire to know more and not intended to dismiss and deflect further meditation. I think many critics of postmodernity look at words like “conversation” with a lot of suspicion because “conversation” suggests to them a lack of commitment to truth or respect for God, which is legitimately the case for some people. But this suspicion often arises from a misunderstanding about the nature of truth.
If God’s truth is infinite, it is symphonic in nature, not univocal. To use music as a metaphor, truth is a pattern with infinite harmonic possibilities; this is different from both unison and chaos. The conversation of Biblical hermeneutics is the improvisational process by which we move from the horrendous cacophony of a brand-new middle school orchestra to the perfect soundscape of the London Philharmonic. Imagine how empty songs would be if every member of an orchestra played the same notes on the same instruments in complete unison. Jesus doesn’t want performers seeking unison; He wants worshipers seeking harmony. Leave behind the fear that dreads the lack of control in not having every answer. Let God’s perfect love drive it out. Live in the questions born of the fear of The Lord that wonders at His infinite beauty, for that is the beginning of wisdom.