Advancing Religious Liberty
1/18/13 at 10:23 AM 0 Comments

Worship Amidst the Athenians, Part 1

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Author: Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel John Scruggs

If educational institutions are primarily about worship, what do the activities of Christians, those protected by the First Amendment, have to offer these institutions? Quite a lot. I want to spend this post and a few others thinking out how a “worship paradigm” can illuminate the value of Christian practices in the educational environment and the need to protect these activities.

Let me first begin by explaining what I mean by a “worship paradigm.” In his interesting book Desiring the Kingdom, Professor James K.A. Smith draws on Augustinian anthropology to argue that humans are inherently and primarily worshiping, desiring creatures.[1] Our institutions reflect this nature, and so they too inherently involve worship. These institutions are constantly shaping our desires and prodding us to worship different things by engaging us in certain practices (or “liturgies”).

For example, Smith points us to the mall where mannequins (Smith calls them icons of a sort) frequently appear in store windows and thus subtly bombard us with a vision of the good life: buy this, look like this, value this, desire this, and you’ll be happy. The point is that the mall is structured in such a way to promote a practice (gazing upon the displays) that appeals to and shapes our desires. The same is true, Smith argues, about educational institutions. Schools are not simply communicating ideas and knowledge. They are forming the desires of students and prompting them to worship certain values through practices that occur in the classroom, in the dining hall, and in the dorm spaces. Thus, Smith claims, our educational institutions are not primarily about conveying information but about transforming our hearts and desires.

So this is what I mean by “worship paradigm”: it’s simply the idea that we can re-conceptualize the culture and institutions around us in terms of worship, rather than think in exclusively cognitive terms or limit the worship concept to stereotypical “religious” settings (e.g., a church building). Under this paradigm, we can, like the apostle Paul, tell the members of the Athenian Areopagus (the Academy) that they are in fact “religious” in every way.

Now, if we view educational institutions under this “worship paradigm,” the activities of Christians at educational institutions become vitally important, not simply because they communicate true ideas but because they are a set of practices (liturgies) that reshape the desires of those who participate in and observe them. Thus, by distributing literature on a university campus or by gathering to study the bible or by meeting to pray, Christian student groups conduct activities that others can see and/or participate in and in turn be shaped by. Somewhat like the window display in the mall, the Christian groups are encouraging others to value, desire, and worship certain things and worship in certain ways. And this witness is quite powerful because it arises in the context of a larger worshiping community (the university itself) that is engaged in an alternative set of liturgies — a worship of an alternative set of values.

Well, great. Christian practices are valuable in the educational context partly because they shape people’s desires and counter the worship promoted elsewhere in the educational system. But how does this idea relate to the legal context? Well, does this idea not suggest that it is extremely important to protect the ability of Christian groups to engage in these worship forming practices? — practices of gathering together, choosing their leaders, praying together, etc. And does it not suggest that we need to protect these activities even if others find no cognitive value in them? And does it not suggest that efforts to undermine the legal protection of these activities are a grave threat? Unfortunately, I will need another post to explore these ideas in the concrete legal context. But there is no better place to begin this exploration than New York City’s 18 year effort to prevent churches from “worshiping” in public school buildings after school, even though other “secular” groups can “worship” in these buildings.


[1] John Piper proposes similar ideas in his book Desiring God by drawing from Jonathan Edwards and C.S. Lewis. Piper also bolsters his analysis with scriptural support.

This post originally appeared here.

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