We understand how relationships work. We have varied relationships with lots of people. But is a God relationship with praise and worship like any healthy human relationship?
Why is praise and worship a thing within Christianity? What god would need or want praise? God demanding worship is like Kim Il Sung (or Donald Trump) demanding worship.
Let’s continue with Christian apologists’ justifications for praise and worship of God (part 1 here).
2. Because God’s relationship to us is analogous to those of other people whom we praise
Many Christians point to people we praise—our parents or our children, for example—and then imagine an analogy with God. Let’s look at these human relationships to see if the analogy holds up. Pay close attention to the verbs used in these relationships.
Your relationship can be to someone typically lower in status—your children, your employee, or someone serving you (like a flight attendant, wait person, or barista). You might praise, love, or congratulate your child. You might praise or thank your employee or server. But this has nothing to do with worship.
Your relationship can be to someone typically equal in status—like your neighbor or romantic partner. You might love or adore your spouse (and obviously, that’s romantic love). You might respect, appreciate, or thank your neighbor. Praise might fit in, but it does have a hint of superiority. If I’m praising you, I’ve put myself in the role of a judge, and I’ve judged your behavior to be noteworthy. Here again, we see a poor fit to one’s relationship with God in that there is no worship.
Finally, your relationship can be to someone typically higher in status—your parents, your boss, or a celebrity (like a well-known actor, politician, or scientist). You might honor, respect, or even revere your parents. You might celebrate or congratulate a politician or scientist. Here, again, praise has its place, but it’s used sparingly. “Jim, I’m impressed by how quickly you finished up that last job” works if Jim is your employee or son. But if Jim is your boss, this might sound like flattery.
The best case for praise might be with a celebrity who doesn’t know you (“Senator, your getting that bill out of committee for a vote was brilliantly handled!”). Flattery wouldn’t be a risk if they were in no position to benefit you. Worship is possible with those higher in status more so than any other relationship, but we universally see this as a dysfunctional relationship. This is the domain of dictators or cult leaders.
Consider the relationship between a bully and their victim. The victim might search for ways to compliment the bully, preferring the role of ass kisser to punching bag (though neither is healthy). Now we’re getting closer to the relationship between God and believer. Stoked by the fear of hell, many Christians are eager to tell God how great he is and how much they love him. (h/t commenter Michael Neville)
Look at the verbs used in healthy human relationships. Not only is worship not one of them, but praise is primarily used when talking to a subordinate—your child or employee, for example. Inverting that relationship can be weird. As noted above, you can praise your boss, but that’s tricky. A heartfelt paragraph with sincere praise every now and then would probably be well received. Much more, however, and it sounds like fawning. And if it’s weird praising up in the domain of human relationships, imagine praising God.
One response might be that “praise” isn’t really the precise word for whatever it is you’re supposed to do to God, but if not “praise,” then what? You wouldn’t know it’s a poor fit by looking at church signs and Christian parlance.
A Christian defense of praise
Let’s return to the Christian defense of the idea that God is way, way higher than any person and so deserves or demands way, way more praise:
God is inherently infinitely greater than we are. He created the universe. He gave us life (as parents also do in a lesser sense). He loves us and blesses us in so many ways. So we praise Him and worship Him for Who He is….
[We can agree] that respect would be appropriate…. I don’t think it’s inconceivably far from that to conceptualize worship, in proportion to how great a Being is. (Source)
So we start with human relationships but then crank the dial to infinity. It’s like the relationship of you to your father (or spouse or employee) except infinitely more so.
But “more so” how? Take your relationship with your father, then imagine your father becoming more sage-like so that human failings fall away. He’s now very wise, very patient, very knowledgeable, and so on. Now make him more sage-like than any person. Now more than any sage of fiction. Now make him perfect, godlike.
We’ve stretched the you/father relationship to its limit, and it could change in two ways. First, your praise and adulation could expand to fill the gap. You go from giving your father appreciation, respect, and thanks to giving him praise, adoration, and worship. This is the Christian logic in defense of worship.
But it could happen another way, a more reasonable way. An ordinary father might like a little adulation now and then, but as he travels this progression from ordinary person to sage to god, those human desires fall away. Donald Trump might say, “I liked that; tell me again how great I am!” but no sage worthy of the label would, and no perfect god would tolerate praise and worship. Instead, they’d coach humanity into a more mature relationship. They’d leave behind a static relationship built on worship, as summarized by the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Instead, it would be a dynamic relationship focused on human society learning and growing.
The Christian response will be that, like it or not, worship is central to humanity’s relationship to God and that the Bible and tradition confirm this. But they are convicted by their own analogy. That Christians see their god as a petty Bronze Age tyrant rather than a wise sage is more evidence that Christianity is manmade.
the most inconsistent, the most monstrous
and blasphemous representations of God
that can possibly be conceived by the human mind
— deist Minister Joseph Barker,
referring to the Bible (1854)