The commencement address at New College Franklin’s graduation was divided into three parts: Man as Thinker; Man as Maker; Man as Worshipper. I was blessed to be able to speak to what it means for man to be a worshipper, particularly in the context of worship.
Who am I? Why am I here? What is my destiny? What am I supposed to do?
These are some of the most fundamental and philosophical questions people through history have asked.
The answers to the last ones all flow from that first question of identity. Who am I?
But the most fundamental question of our identity isn’t firstly who am I? But whom do I worship? This defines both who we are and who we will become. For we become what we behold.
So what are we beholding?
We are at a Christian institution because we embrace the centrality of worship as an outgrowth of what it means to be human.
We believe that education begins and ends in worship because the history of mankind begins and ends in worship.
As Scripture tells us, the Garden of Eden was the first temple and Adam and Eve were the first priests, tasked with leading the cosmic liturgy of all creation. Christ’s first coming was a means of beginning the task of cleansing that cosmic temple and restoring it to its liturgical song. And we know that Christ will come again, that the whole earth will be made into the holy temple-city of our God, and we will behold God in the light of Christ’s glory for all eternity. And in beholding, we will become like him.
This defines what it means to be human, for who we worship tells us who we are and who we will become.
But although this is true, we must continually be recalibrated to this higher calling. Just as we all think, but do not all think well; and we all act, but do not all act well; so we all worship, but who are we worshipping?
In a simplistic sense, we could say that the fundamental task of education is to help us know who we worship; and, in worshipping, to become like him.
We study the liberal arts to equip the mind with the tools to explore the depths of philosophy and theology; and philosophy and theology use those tools to explore the deepest and most fundamental realities of this world, finding its way to the center: the Triune God. And as we contemplate the mysteries of the Divine, we engage in worship and are enabled to worship.
We study to cleanse the temples of our minds so that they might be turned away from the myriad distractions of self-worship and material idolatry to the one thing needful. Falsehoods abound, but truth is one. Idols proliferate, but the Lord our God is One.
We study so that we might awaken “our wonder at the mystery of being.” As David Bentley Hart says at the end of his magnificent book of philosophical theology The Experience of God, study gives us eyes so that we might “arrive at a way of seeing that sees God in all things, a joy that encounters God in the encounter with all reality.” Or, as Hopkins says, “Christ plays in ten thousand places” and he invites us to join him on the other side of wonder.
Worship is the end of study, but worship must be the beginning of study as well, or our mind and our actions will be directed toward idols. When our study is not defined by our worship, we will be like Eliot’s Hollow Men, with minds stuffed with straw without substance. When our actions do not flow out of our worship, our acts will be merely redundant attempts to move without the Source of motion.
So what is worship? Greg Wilbur says that worship is “a response to the love of God that brings us out of darkness into his light.”
If this is so–and I think it is–then worship begins in the dark. When we worship in the dark, we can move into the light. Worship is our way of beholding God in the dark. We are reminded of Job, who in the darkest day of his life, fell down and worshipped. In the darkness of our experiences when all other actions fail, we worship God in the dark. In the darkness of our ignorance when we fail to find intellectual illumination, we worship God in the dark. Every endeavor of man is, in some sense, an act in the dark, and when we embrace this worship in the dark, we are moved into the light.
Before we see the face of God in glorious resplendence, we must learn to worship the back of God. And as we worship in faith, even in the dark, in ignorance, in fear; and as our worship guides our intellectual life and active life, we are then given eyes to behold the beautiful mysteries of God, in part now and in full in the New Jerusalem. As we move from worship to worship, we will be moving toward our telos. And one day we will become like him, for we will behold him as he is.
I want to end with a beautiful quote from the end of Dante’s Paradiso. More than any other, I think Dante’s Divine Comedy captures this vision, for in it we see all the wisdom and imagery of the liberal arts, philosophy, and ancient literature moving toward the inexpressible light of the Divine.
“Before the Light one’s will to turn is spent: one is so changed, it is impossible to shift the glance, for one would not consent, Because all good—the object of the will—is summed in it, for it alone is best. . . O Light that dwell within Thyself alone, who alone know Thyself, are known, and smile with Love upon the Knowing and the Known. . .the truth that I longed for came to me, smiting my mind like lightening flashing bright. Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy. Already were all my will and my desires turned—as a wheel in equal balance—by The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
This is our end, as we behold God in the light and, in beholding, become like him.
But for now–we worship God in the dark.