Is worship a kind of primitive barbarism?

Some kind of worship can be found in the archaeological history of virtually all cultures. People have always been religious and have always believed that the gods demanded something of them. Some believed they demanded human sacrifice. Some believed they required food. Some believed they required elaborate and ecstatic rituals. Some believed they required esteem and reputation. We now consider this a primitive notion, foolish and ignorant. But if Christians accept that the ancient barbaric view of worship was more insightful than today’s snide rejection, we can see how big a job it was for God to enlighten us through the progressive revelation of Scripture, especially in the special Revelation of himself in the God-man Jesus Christ.

Looking back to some of the sacrifices of the old world – whether the blood or animal sacrifices, or the even more barbaric human sacrifices – we find it preposterous that God could require blood sacrifices in the Old Testament or the best of our time and money now. People can easily think that Christians simply offer a more modernized form of this primitive barbarism when they worship, whether expressing devotion through singing and attending public worship, or whether through the giving of significant financial resources. Most people don’t realize this view completely depends on atheism, or a very cynical agnosticism. And almost as importantly, people do not seem to realize that this whole line of thought depends on the presumptions of the Enlightenment.


The Man that Emerged from the Enlightenment

Many of the assumptions of the Enlightenment are good ones and are really the assumptions of the Scientific Revolution, or the religious Reformation, or the artistic and literary Renaissance. But many of the Enlightenment’s assumptions around today come from the Enlightenment’s ugly underbelly of the Philosophes – people like Voltaire, and even to some extent Kant. Now if that statement already bores you, it is important to recognize how much these people control your thinking. If you think that statement is wrong, then I think it should be considered more clearly.

The insights of the scientific revolution, the Reformation and the Renaissance were not dependent on the diminishing of God in the human view of the world. In some ways they did depend on increasing our view of man, but most truly enlightened thinkers understood that this meant that our view of God got bigger – not smaller. There are two ways to think about the cultural emergence of man in the Enlightenment:

  1. we needed to think more of humanity because all along we had thought too little of God, 
  2. we needed to think more of humanity because all along we had thought too much of God.

People like Voltaire believed the latter, people like Pascal believed the former.

The reformers saw that the real religious problem was different from how Voltaire saw it. People like Voltaire saw, and still do see, the problem as religion – believing something about God and having a communal institution that lives out those beliefs. But others recognize that there was something right in the primitive actions of the ancient peoples. Sacrificing animals and even people is certainly barbaric and morally abhorrent, but why did they do in the first place? Was it really just fear of the elements, or some superstition about the cycle of crops? Or was it a very primitive, morally abhorrent solution to a very real problem and a very real God?


God had to show us how it’s really done

This is precisely why Christians believe in Revelation – God had to prescribe and reveal the appropriate solution to the problem created by his true greatness and holiness, and our sinfulness, separateness and brokenness. He began to reveal this in the sacrificial system. But that sacrificial system was profoundly different from surrounding cultures’, pointing ahead to something completely unlike anything man would ever make up – the cross of Christ.

Humans were instinctively right and somehow knew that there was a God who had demands, and that we didn’t meet them naturally. But there was always a huge problem in the specifics of that knowledge – humans could derive some of the attributes of God but could never get a good sense of God’s true characteristics. For example, the Greeks imagined Zeus, a virtually all-powerful yet morally bankrupt god. The Norse people imagined the god Odin, a morally praiseworthy and brave, but not all-powerful, god. And this is precisely why the Christian story about God’s progressive revelation makes sense. How would you expect God to take a people full of barbaric ignorance to a place of worship that he actually approves of and joyfully receives from us? God would have to correct and rehabilitate everything we know about him.

And this is precisely what Christians believe he did, over time and in a process specifically leading up to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – the best and clearest revelation of God’s perfection and holiness, yet loving compassion and humility. Only in him do we get everything. We walk out of the ancient barbarism of our forefather’s misunderstanding of God’s nature. Our view of God increases our view of mankind, allowing us to seek truth in science, faith, art and humanities. We can become fully human because we more fully and accurately recognize the divinity of God. True faith in the self-revealed God can bring true enlightenment, true rebirth and true reformation.

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