In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul says this:
21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Here, Paul clearly states that man refuses to rightly worship the Creator in favor of the things God has created. In light of this foundational claim, one might ask, “what kinds of things could human beings actually worship?”
What Kinds of Things Could We Worship?
It seems that there are three kinds of things one could worship. But first, let me clarify what I mean by “worship.” For present purposes I will define worship as: the giving of a maximal kind and degree of love, attention, and adoration to an object for an extended period of time, regardless of variation in intensity at specific points in time, because one beholds that object to be a maximally good thing, a thing worthy of maximum love, maximum attention, and maximum adoration. That should suffice for now.
So, what are the three kinds of things we could worship? First, as noted above, we could worship an uncreated, personal Creator. This Creator of classical theism would be immaterial, eternal, very powerful, and utterly free (in that, at least at first glance, it would seem the Creator is not contingent upon anything created or any other potentially uncreated thing). Moreover, this Creator would possess vast knowledge, not just of propositions, but also of persons. So some personal, Creator-like being could be an object of worship.
A second kind of thing that could be worshiped would be a created, immaterial things. This kind of thing itself could fall into two categories: created, immaterial, and personal things, e.g. angels, demons or minds, or created, immaterial, and non-personal or abstract things, e.g. numbers, sets, propositions, maybe energy). Personal things would possess attributes that make them personal, attributes like intentionality, rationality or willfulness, and the kinds of faculties that would constitute a first-person subjective nature. Abstract things, be they created or not1 for an academic discussion on the nature of abstract objects see here, would not have these kinds of properties. They would have neither aboutness, nor causal capacity, nor will. They just exist.
Finally, one could worship created, material things. Again, two subcategories here, since one could worship material things that are personal, e.g. one’s self, other people, some animals; or material things that are impersonal, e.g. Hydrogen, or Gold, perhaps sound waves (especially ones arranged in musical forms). It seems to me that different people actually do worship at least one of these things, whether or not they would call it worship; their posture or mindset would reflect my definition of worship above.
Concrete Impersonal Objects: Worthy of Worship?
If we are creatures that are always seeking what we perceive as the maximum good for our lives, then I think we are perpetually looking to find an object of worship that is that maximum good. Therefore, one question we should ask is this: of all these kinds of things that could be worshiped, which one seems to be most worthy or most valuable in that it would necessitate our love, attention, and adoration?
Let’s go in reverse order and see if headway can be made. First, let’s look at created, impersonal, material objects. Things like chemical elements, e.g. the element Fe, or perhaps their aggregates, e.g. a mountain vista, oceans, or maybe the whole planet would be possible candidates. Certainly aggregates of chemical elements can be impressive. Even the Psalmist proclaims that the “The heavens declare the Glory of God” and “the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” Or, viewed more reductively, “Quantum gravitational fields and massive balls of hot plasma” and “the scattering of molecule-sized particles up to 50 km above the earth’s surface” declare the Glory of God. But, if there is no God, are they sufficiently capable of meeting our need for worship?
As pleasing to the senses as these aggregates of impersonal, material objects may be, and, as much as they have been seen as objects of worship in the past, especially by the like of the 19th-century Romantic thinkers, it seems they cannot fulfill many of the expectations we would want fulfilled in an object worthy of worship.
First, while we may be able to communicate about impersonal, natural objects, perhaps even praise them for their beauty, it seems that they cannot communicate to us in any objective way, i.e. the heavens do not “literally” speak to us. Nor can we communicate to them directly. We cannot tell atoms or their aggregates, in a way that they comprehend, that we think they are great, or beautiful, or neat-o. We do not think that impersonal objects can do the action of comprehension in the relative manner necessary to respond to us. Not only does it seem that impersonal, natural objects cannot receive our communications, neither does it seem that they can appreciate our communication about them. As non-agentive beings it is hard to say that they have any capacity to communicate relationally or intentionally to us as individual subjects.
Second, it also seems unlikely that a riverbed or a redwood can get to know us: know our thoughts, our emotions, or our personal histories. They cannot question or query us, nor can they make normative judgments about our behavior or offer advice concerning it. As impersonal beings they have no inner life to speak of and no capacity to interact with our inner lives, even if they indirectly evoke thoughts and feelings in us.
Most of all, while natural aggregates might provide certain useful things for us (nourishment, shelter, aesthetic inspiration, etc.), we recognize that they are clearly limited in their power and capacity to produce, provide, or create. We experience them as contingent things and infer rather naturally that neither did they make themselves, nor could they change anything about themselves apart from an external force or agent operating upon them. A molecule of water cannot choose to become a molecule of methane just as a spruce cannot decide to become an oak.
Thus, in the realms of both knowledge (both propositional and relational) and power, natural aggregates or their constituents, ultimately seem unworthy of our worship, even if they might be rightly considered beautiful and in some sense praiseworthy.
- 1for an academic discussion on the nature of abstract objects see here