As Christmas is celebrated this year, thousands of Christians over the world will be offering praise to Christ. But the act of ‘praise’ or ‘worship’, so central to all religions, is something which can make modern, Western minds extremely uncomfortable. There are probably several reasons for this, but one of the central ones is that we feel that any god who demands praise must be a narcissistic tool. In 2009, Catherine Deveny wrote this (pretty entertaining) piece of New Atheist rhetoric where she suggested that the God of ‘monotheistic religion’ suffers from an acute case of narcissistic personality disorder: “a condition in which people have an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with themselves (source).” Deveny argues that God’s behaviour is typical of an NPD sufferer (NPD for short):
“[NPDs] expect the best but give very little. They cannot love and have no empathy. But they are emotionally needy and crave attention so hone their skills to attract love, admiration and attention to fill a hole inside them that will never be filled. NPDs don’t feel they exist without an adoring fan club …”
An NPD’s chief fault is that he has a pathological need for praise, because it temporarily numbs a (false and rather tragic) sense of inferiority. So they amass wealth and resources (e.g. political or military power, wealth, fame) and then share out benefits in small amounts to anyone willing to exchange them for some praise or adoration. The practice is distasteful because it’s all entirely self-serving on both sides; the NPD cares nothing for the people around them in themselves because he only wants their adoration. And his followers provide him with praise, not because he deserves it, but because they want what he can give them. Both sides are ultimately in it for themselves and neither of them are being honest about their motivations.
So is this rather sad situation analogous to Christians and their worship of God? Regardless of what some individual Christians think in their private prayer lives, Christianity’s early history reveals a very explicit rejection of the idea that God needs our praise, or that we could receive benefits from Him in return for the praise we offer Him. Why? Because both those ideas were central beliefs of paganism. Pagans, unlike Christians, believed the gods had no innate care for the human race; they were certainly not gods of ‘love’ in the Christian sense of giving without expecting to receive in return. Historian Everett Ferguson says, “There was a common idea in the ancient world that the deities needed the food and drink sacrificed to them. This was especially so in Rome. Sacrifice was thought of as increasing their supply of numen, which would be used up in helping people.” In other words, the pagan gods would (and could) only give you something if you gave them something in return. Pagan prayers were very explicitly aimed at ‘sealing the deal’; a pagan called Valerius Maximus (1st century CE) described the basic principle behind pagan prayers as follows: “By ancient practice, attention is paid to the divine: through prayer when anything requires entrusting to the gods; through a vow when a favour is requested; through a ceremony of thanksgiving when a vow is to be paid …” All pagan prayer is offered with reference to some favour the god has performed.
Christians though, from the very beginning, rejected these notions entirely and very explicitly. When he was preaching at the temple in Athens, St. Paul said that the Christians’ God is not “worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath and all things.” (Acts 17:25) In other words, unlike the pagan gods who were merely a part of the natural order, the Christian God was the very source and sustainer of that order, which meant that He had an unlimited and endless supply of ‘numen’ (power to perform good works). He doesn’t depend on us for anything, and so everything that He does for us (including both creation and salvation) is an act of selfless grace, performed entirely for our benefit. St. Gregory’s Coptic Anaphora expresses this notion beautifully:
“… No manner of speech can measure the depth of Your love towards mankind. You, as a Lover of Humanity have created me, as a human. You had no need of my servitude, but rather I had need of Your lordship ….”
Unlike the pagan gods, who had no reason to help anyone who didn’t sacrifice to them, the Christian God pours out His grace on all people at all times, regardless of their ability to praise Him in return. St. Paul reflects on the wondrous novelty of this fact in his letter to the Romans:
“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:6-8)
But if God doesn’t need our praise, why do Christians praise Him? It’s certainly not because we hope to win favour by doing so. As St. Paul points out above, the salvation which we desire is a free gift (Rom 5:18), not earned by us, but lovingly given to us in spite of our failings. The reason we praise God, simply put, is that He is worthy of praise. The chief motivation for Christian praise is that humility, love, charity, self-sacrifice, compassion, justice, mercy and forgiveness are so beautiful and so true that they deserve praise. The praise that Christians offer to God is not compelled by any selfish desire for divine favour, not is it given in order to fill some hunger in God Himself; true Christian praise is the fruit of infatuation: we praise Him because we have fallen in love with who He is.
And who He is, is love; “we love Him because He first loved us.” The sort of Being who would sacrifice Himself to save beings incomparably inferior to Him deserves praise and glory and honour. In a very important sense, by offering praise to Christ, we are defying the fallen natural order which tells us to worship strength and ruthless self-preservation. We’re defying the fallen tendency to despise weakness and self-sacrifice as pitiable and stupid (and as a consequence, we come to see an inherent value in the ‘least of these’ which pagan culture never could). We’re boldly declaring that we worship the God who made Himself a curse and a laughing stock, and what’s more, that we embrace this foolishness with Him. The Christian liturgy, centred around the broken body and spilt blood of the defeated and humiliated Christ, is probably the most audacious religious ritual in history. Without batting an eyelid, we call upon angels, archangels, seraphim, cherubim and all the hosts of heaven to witness the shameful death of a Jewish carpenter as though it were something glorious; we act as though this Man whom natural reason views as a fool and a weakling, were actually the gate to the glories of Heaven itself and the throne of God. It’s not until His Resurrection that His true power is revealed publicly. But that’s precisely the great, mystical secret of Christianity: that love and humility will win in the end. That humility is the power which, in the end, will defeat death itself.
And nowhere is this sort of defiant praise for humility and self-sacrifice more evident than in the Christian praises surrounding the Nativity.
“But You alone, descended from Your Father’s bosom to the womb of the Virgin and became as the despised, and walked upon the earth as a man; and this is the wonder of Your humility. The manger carried You like a poor person, and the swaddling clothes wrapped You; the arms carried You, and the knees of the Virgin exalted You; the mouth kissed You, and the milk nourished You, O You who nourish the whole creation with Your grace.” ~ Fraction to the Son
So Merry Christmas all! Let this be a time where we remember that humility and love will always defeat selfishness and injustice. Let’s try (by His grace) to do all that He did for us, so that through us, He can spread His love to all those who need it.