Having the privilege for a few days of watching the sunrise over an ocean horizon has been a good reminder of the vastness of sea and sky and the beauty of nature’s artistry.
My normal surroundings of city, suburbs and trees offer their own views of the “garden” that is our home, but an out-of-the-ordinary view prompts a sense of awe that a routine can obscure.
There seems to be a connection between the kind of awe, wonder and humility such scenes inspire and the reverence we associate with worship, and it seems to be an experience that transcends ages and cultures.
Whether we understand a sunrise as the sun god beginning the daily journey across the sky in his fiery chariot or as the rotation of our planet on its axis as it orbits the sun, the sense of connection with the transcendent is rather consistent.
This experience reminded me of the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s oft-quoted observation: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe – the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
Something that is overwhelming in its vastness (the sea, the Grand Canyon, Alpine peaks) or in its intricate delicacy (a spider web, a nervous system, a microscopic cell structure) can easily lead to a sense of the holy, especially for one conditioned to see evidence of the divine in such things.
A sunrise at the beach makes the first part of Kant’s assertion easy to understand.
Then we come in from our sunrise walk and tune in to the news that this same world that provides such spectacular beauty is also “red in tooth and claw” with evidence of violent destructiveness: massacres in Syria, shootings in Colorado, systemic problems ignored that perpetuate poverty and disease – and on the list could go.
But wait – is there something in our response to blatant atrocities that also transcends time, space and creed? Is there not a near universal revulsion at things that are so clearly destructive of life?
Is there anything else that, temporarily at least, transforms a fractured society and world into a community of compassion and concern?
Kant found himself moved to awe and wonder (might we say worship?) by the vastness of the world outside him, but also by the sense of a moral framework within him that enabled him to discern good and bad, right and wrong, truth and untruth.
A connection between the vast mystery of the universe and the dimension of morality that makes human community possible seems to be woven into the biblical concept of creation and the prophetic call for justice.
From Moses’ burning bush to the call of various prophets to Jesus’ call of his first disciples, the point is clear: An experience with the holy and a commitment to the wholeness of the human family are companion components of the response of faith.
Robert Parham’s recent editorial calling for those in public life who “talk the talk” of faith to “act the acts” in ways that address concretely the specific problems, in spite of the risk of offending powerful vested interests, is a clear example of connecting the dots between worship and morality.
“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only…. Faith without works is dead,” says the epistle of James.
How is it so easy to divorce faith’s affirmations from its applications? How do we speak so easily of our Christian faith and our relationship and experiences with God while neglecting the problems that imperil, maim and imprison vast numbers of God’s family?
A friend who is a retired minister of music and worship responded to these questions in conversation with an apt diagnosis: “We are now stuck in a ‘heaven bound’ theology of personal salvation. … It’s all about believing instead of living.”
But the connection is hard to miss if we look and listen. A beautiful sunrise may well call forth awe and wonder and a sense of the holy; and the moral law within, mediated to us by prophets and Gospel, points to the agenda of that Holy One: the movement of the world toward wholeness by specific work of liberation, reconciliation and righting the wrongs of injustice.
In the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John have a worship experience where they encounter Jesus, Moses and Elijah together.
They are so moved by this experience that Peter responds that they should build three tabernacles to commemorate the occasion. A voice from above offers a different directive: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”
I wonder what the impact on the world would be if we worshippers did a little less tabernacle building and a little more Jesus listening.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).