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Is All Worship the Religion of Cain?

By August 1, 2009 No Comments

The judgment spoken by the prophet
Amos sets the stage for Matthew
Boulton’s provocative theological
study of worship
. God’s exhortation, “Take
away from me the noise of your songs; to
the melody of your harps I will not listen”
(Amos 5:23) lays bare the spiritually dangerous
character of worship, for all too often
religious acts are nothing more than
prideful acts of self-justification. While it is
certainly true that faith presumes a loving commitment to God before it undertakes
critical analysis, Christians ought not
grant “diplomatic immunity” to the subject
of worship, cutting it off from serious inquiry.

On this score, we owe Matthew Boulton
a considerable debt. Casting his lot with
Karl Barth, Boulton argues that “Christian
worship, in all its various and shifting
forms and reforms–is the fundamental
venue for humanity’s ‘terrible and presumptuous’
work of separation from God”
(201). Given this statement, one should not
be too shocked by the central thesis of this
book: the God of the gospel opposes the practices
of religion, thereby calling into question
Christian worship.
God Against Religion
While it may still be a
significant challenge for this work
to gain traction among a class of
earnest Christians at home in the
prayer and praise of the Church, the
quality of Boulton’s prose and interaction
with the work of John Calvin,
Martin Luther, and Karl Barth
may mitigate the apparent offense
of his argument. While swinging
for the fence, Boulton exerts considerable
effort in the service of effectively
clearing away the “pious haze
that clouds much Christian writing
about worship” (4).

Boulton has learned much from
Barth’s theology and has paid special
attention to the stern warning
that human acts–particularly religious
ones–are all too often fraught with
self-interest. Taking this lesson to heart,
Boulton resists the temptation to blunt
the edge of Barth’s critique. Accordingly,
Boulton claims that worship is “the alleged
height of piety, the most exalted religious
activity [and] the epitome of Christian good
manners” (15). In no small measure, the
success of Boulton’s analysis follows from
the care with which he has employed the
critique of religion found in Barth’s Epistle
to the Romans

Reflecting upon the theological significance
of Michelangelo’s fresco of the “Creation
of Eve” in the Sistine Chapel, Barth
writes: “in the fullness of her charm and
beauty she rises slowly, posing herself in
the fatal attitude of–worship. Notice the
Creator’s warning arm and careworn, saddened
eyes, as He replies to Eve’s gesture
of adoration” (Epistle to the Romans, 247).
Claiming that Eve is the first “religious personality”
Barth maintains that she was the
first to “set herself over against God, the
first to worship Him” (247).

This line of argument leaves a deep impression
upon Boulton who sees in Barth’s
language of God’s “careworn, saddened
eyes,” a tragic portrait of what the fall will
occasion. Boulton writes, “bowing their
heads and closing their eyes, liturgists
retreat from divine intimacy and instead
take up the work of obeisance, praise and
supplication” with the effect of constituting
a “consummate breach of confidence, a
preeminent talking out of turn.” (43) Notwithstanding
the beauty of this writing, we
are still left wondering if Boulton has made
something of a category error here. Is worship
per se the issue, or does the real problem
lie with Eve’s presumptuous and finally
abortive attempt to secure intimacy with
God through worship? If it is the latter,
then the debate shifts from a condemnation
of worship to the question of the context in
which relation to God can be properly established.
For Boulton, liturgy constitutes
a failure to grasp that fellowship and life
with God cannot be established from our
side of the divide between God and humanity.

By turning to the work of Luther, Boulton
underscores the hidden ambiguity in
practices often deemed worthy of Christian
approval. As we know, “righteousness” is
a fundamentally alien reality that is only
“ours” in Christ. Notably, Boulton moves beyond a consideration of the external or
alien character of righteousness to consider
ways in which the Holy Spirit works in
effecting green shoots of “imperfect”
faith. Luther’s own qualifications here
have not eluded Boulton. In fact, he wisely
exploits them in order to more accurately
explain why we are nothing if not penitents
before God. Accordingly, Boulton
argues that repentance–as the ongoing
practice of rejecting any and all attempts
at self-justification–constitutes the defining
character of the Christian life. Given
the scope of his examination, it is equally
significant that the prominence of repentance
demands a reconsideration of the
place of worship, furthering the case that
religious acts may have their use only as
a fitting response to the right order of divine
and human fellowship established
by the triune God.

The key to understanding God
Against Religion
lies in granting that
Christian worship, left to its own (that is
practiced uncritically), is truly an ambitious
exercise in self-righteousness. Refusing
to close off the argument in a minor
key, Boulton has sought to show the
positive dimension of Barth’s dialectical
critique of religion. Seeing the connection
between Barth’s account of sin as an
ontological possibility and the reconciling
work of God in Christ, Boulton aims
to show that once worship has been taken
up by God (cf. §17 of Barth’s Church
, I/2, where the title, “Gottes
Offenbarung als Auf hebung der Religion

is properly translated as “The Revelation
of God as the Sublimation of Religion”) it
is set on a new and salutary foundation.
The existence of a “postlude” entitled “Reforming
Worship,” with its accompanying
suggestions for liturgical reform, indicates
the degree to which Boulton has a
constructive goal in view.

A problem arises at precisely this
juncture. In the course of depicting the
inherent ambiguity of Christian worship,
Boulton has so emphasized liturgy as
vain self-justification that it is difficult to
see the ways in which he has cleared the
ground for the construction of a genuinely
positive view of worship. Perhaps this is
too much to ask of a singularly impressive
indictment of a subject that is commonly shrouded in ironically self-assured rhetoric
of spirituality and piety.
Even if the necessary resources for
such a positive proposal are not quite effectively
marshaled here, Boulton is to be
credited with identifying a number of the
most important moves that must be undertaken.
Just as it was necessary for Barth
to shift the weight of his proposal towards
a much stronger account of God’s reconciliation,
so to is it necessary for Boulton to
show how worship is redeemed by God. He
strives to do this by (1) recovering a properly
trinitarian doctrine of reconciliation
and redemption; (2) rehearsing the broad
outlines of Barth’s theology of prayer;
and (3) attending to Barth’s account of
the Aufhebung of religion. Consequently,
it is entirely fitting for Boulton to locate
a positive doctrine of worship within the
context of a covenant of grace for only in
this setting may worship be regarded as
an act of participation in Christ’s own petition
to the Father.

Without fully establishing the case,
Boulton succeeds in claiming that “God
created humans in order to live with them
as intimate friends” (191). This allows for a
stronger purchase on Barth’s constructive
account of prayer as the joyous activity of
the people of God–those who know themselves
to have been restored to a relationship
of intimacy and friendship with God.
In the end, readers unfamiliar with Barth’s
critically realistic dialectical theology might
falsely imagine that God Against Religion is
intent upon casting aside Christian worship.
This is not the case. Boulton shows
an adept hand at drawing the connection
between worship and God’s work of reconciliation.
His timely and sophisticated critique
of worship has, as its goal, the demand
that we recognize that the religion of Cain is
presumptuous and harrowing in order that
we might yearn to become the objects of
God’s grace. Boulton is correct about much
of our language and understanding of worship.
Even more importantly, he is right to
point us towards the promise of the gospel;
that our liturgy and praise is deeply in need
of disruptive grace and work of the Word
and Spirit. We owe Boulton a considerable
debt for bringing to our attention the
fact worship itself remains in constant
need of the holiness of God.

Mark Husbands teaches Reformed theology at Hope
College in Holland, Michigan.