Of all the differences between people, belief in God is one area in which we are almost all in accord. Contrary to widespread perception, only 1.6% of Americans self-identify as atheists, and only 2.4% as agnostics. The remainder, 96%, believe in the existence of a higher power in some fashion or another. A full 78% self-identify as Christian. Belief in God is “absolutely certain” for 71%, religion is “very important” for 56%, and frequent participation in religious services–weekly worship–happens for 39%. (This all according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.)
Could it be that human beings have an intrinsic and enduring need for God, much like they need companionship, food, clothing, and meaningful work? For a field that has not been studied or promoted in public schools for over 50 years, clearly the subject matter of divinity remains important and relevant for the vast majority of Americans.
Yet in the diverse marketplace of religions available to Americans today, many remain dissatisfied: 28% of adults report having made a major change of religious affiliation since childhood, such as moving from atheism to Christianity or vice versa. Within the ranks of Christianity itself, a full 44% have jumped ship from the faith in which they were raised. What is triggering all this movement? Clearly some needs are unfulfilled. Is there an inherently correct way to worship that best fills the need, and incorrect ways that do not?
At Death to the World is an excellent piece entitled In Spirit and Truth which answers these vexing existential questions succinctly, by going back all the way to the common beginning shared by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. In today’s fast-moving society where the cycle of human technological obsolescence grows increasingly shorter, seeking guidance from old ways seems oddly counter-intuitive. Particularly to those whose religious focus has been on more modern religious practices, checking in with ancient history seems foolish, awkward, and irrelevant, the author writes.
“This seems like death to those who love toe-tapping worship, but in fact the Life of God is hidden in these ancient forms and they very much need to be brought back in our day.”
Speaking from personal experience, having been one of those dissatisfied seekers who searched far and wide over several decades for spiritual truth, embracing ancient ways has lead to fulfillment far exceeding anything I thought possible.
In exploring the story of Cain and Abel, as recorded by Moses in the book of Genesis, we see that the earliest humans understood that to worship is to give away something of value to God. Similarly, Indigenous Native Americans practice the Giveaway Ceremony, and the Potlatch Ceremony (from which our tradition of potluck dinners hails.) Giving things away brings us closer to a fulfilling our need for relationship with God.
But in the story of these two brothers, the first generation after entering the world to begin the long lesson of learning from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, one brother’s worship practice of giving away is done correctly, and other’s is not.
“If we understand that true worship is as much a correction of the worshipper as anything else, then what we see in this story is that Cain was not willing to be corrected. He stubbornly wanted God to accept what he thought was good enough, rather than to learn from God what would constitute true worship. Cain was therefore a false worshipper.
“Throughout the history of Israel, we see God being very specific about true worship, not only in terms of what makes a true offering, the construction of the altar it should be offered upon, the Temple in which it should be offered, but even right down to the details of which incense to burn before Him. Once again, these instructions are given for man’s benefit, not for God’s. He who owns the cattle on a thousand hills does not need the blood of bulls and calves to be offered to Him. But man needed to offer them in order to humble himself before God, recognize his own sinfulness, and to glorify God as the Maker of all things and man’s only Redeemer.”
Many thanks to Archpriest Micheal Reagan for this excellent homily exploring these questions, as well as to the monks who have recently given one of my favorite sites a new makeover. Death to the World began as an extraordinary print publication in the early 1990s. A lifesaving vehicle produced with great loving care using traditional paste-up, then photocopied and hand-distributed person-to-person throughout the Christian punk rock underground, its circulation amazingly reached a pinnacle of tens of thousands. It is truly a blessing to find Death to the World given new life today, online. I encourage all Truthseekers to explore it in depth.
In reading and study, may the Holy Spirit of Truth touch your heart. And may Death to the World continue helping bring about the precise type of death that is necessary in order to find true spiritual life and fulfillment.