Worship and Epistemology

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I am going to do a longer post (or two) on Poetic Knowledge by James S. Taylor (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), but I wanted to take a minute to touch on one issue he raises: how our worship reflects our epistemology.

Epistemology is a fancy word for the theory of knowing and asks questions like: What is knowledge? and How do we know? The overall thesis of Taylor’s book is that there is a way of knowing, which he calls poetic knowledge, which we have lost. I will do a longer post to explain it more fully, but, briefly put, poetic knowledge is intuitive knowledge that is obtained through one’s senses and emotions. It is distinct from scientific knowledge, the hallmark of our age, which uses experimentation and tends toward  deconstruction (breaking things down into their parts). Poetic knowledge is neither rational nor intellectual. It is pre-rational (p. 26), sensory-emotional (p. 5), passive (p. 10), and non-analytical (p. 5).  

Keeping this in the back of your mind, consider with me two worship experiences. In the first, you begin by entering a dimly lit sanctuary. The carpet is a deep red, the pews are dark brown. Up front is an altar above which hangs an ever-burning candle encased in gold. The lighting comes almost entirely from candles and the sunlight which filters through stained glass windows, casting weird colored bands on that red rug. The worship service involves all one’s senses. There is incense which both perfumes the air and creates some smoke in the sanctuary, giving it even more of an other-worldly feel. The Lord’s Supper is always celebrated. While the sanctuary is quiet when you first enter, the service itself has lots of sounds — people read or recite in unison; there are different kinds of music, some sung by a choir, some chanting; and there are even parts of the service in another language wich you don’t understand. Throughout the service, you do what those around you do — you recite in unison, you sing together, you stand and sit and kneel. Perhaps you even have some beads on a chain which you manipulate as you go through a series of pre-set prayers. The service takes about an hour and a half of which fifteen minutes are devoted to the sermon.

Now come with me to the second kind of service. This one takes place not in a sanctuary as such but in a hall which also serves other purposes (in fact you were there Wednesday night for a town meeting). There is no carpet here and no stained glass. The seating is not too comforatble — hard but serviceable wooden benches. Nothing is gold, there are no pictures on the walls, almost no decoration of any kind.  The service is in many ways less paticipatory. You sit and stand and sing with the congregation, but you do not kneel or recite. There is no choir and no incense. Everything is done in your native language. There might be some big words used but in theory at least you could understand it all. Here too the service is 1.5 hours but the sermon takes 45 to 60 minutes of that time. Unlike in the other service which began with a procession and has readers in one location and the choir in another, you notice that you don’t turn your head much during this service (except to bow it in prayer). Everything that happens happens up front at or near the pulpit.

These are extreme examples. I can tell you that I grew up in a Roman Catholic Church and now attend a Reformed Presbyterian one and neither exactly fits these descriptions.  Like caricatures I have drawn these pictures to highlight their features. The first service appeals to all one’s senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Even one’s vestibular sense is involved when one sits and stands and kneels. But this experience is not just ssnsory; it is also emotional. The combination of stimuli — the lighting, the smell and smoke of the incense, etc. — give it all an other-worldly aura. You are meant to feel that you have been temporarily transported to another kind of world. Like Isaiah before the throne of God (Isa. 6:1-7), you are meant to have a sense of the divine and holy.

In the second service, one’s senses do not come into play. In fact, it almost seems there is a deliberate effort to minimize sensory stimulation. The exception is hearing. The communication that happens here comes through prayer, singing, and especially the sermon.  Not only is only auditory; it happens through words. There were words in the first service but there were also other sounds as well including music without words, different kinds of singing, and languages you didn’t understand. The appeal in this service is to the intellect, not the emotions. You come out of the service being able to complete the sentence: “Today I learned that . . . ”

I hope you can see that there are different kinds of knowing at work here. The first service gives one a sensory-emotional experience. The second is rational and intellectual. In both there is a kind of knowing that happens. In the second you are able to put what you have learned into words more easily but there is still a kind of knowledge that is conveyed through the first. It aims to give an experience of the divine and you are meant to walk away feeling that you have experienced something beyond this physical world.

If you are like me, there is probably one of these services that appeals to you more than the other. As reformed people, we tend to like to live on the level of the rational. It may be easy for us to criticize the sensory-emotional service as being content-less and even manipulative in how it plays upon one’s emotions. It gives a sense of the divine, but is it a true sense?  We are made to feel something, but have we actually experienced something true? Because what one feels can’t easily be put into words, it is very hard to evaluate for truth-value.

On the other hand, if we prefer the very word-driven appeal to the intellect, we need to be careful that we are not exalting the intellect above the other parts of our nature. We remember that our emotions are fallen and easily manipulated, but do we think that our rational nature is also affected by the Fall? When we walk out of the second service, we have been given something to think about but we may not feel or do anything different. Much error has come into the church through the separating of our physical aspect from our rational or spiritual side. There is a principle behind the sensory-emotional approach which we may have forgotten: that beauty is akin to truth and that beautiful things can teach us (cf. Phil. 4:8). There is no doubt that Old Testament worship was much more like the first service than the second. Today we sing about beauty (Ps. 45) but we do not often incorporate it.

My goal today us not to argue for a particular approach to worship but to show how what we believe about knowledge — how our epistemology — has practical implications for the things we do. When the subject is worship, it is perhaps more natural to say that we need to return to the Scriptures to find principles which will guide what we do. I hope in the coming weeks to make a similar argument with regard to education. Our philosophy of education is also quite dependent on our epistemology so one of the building blocks of such a philosophy is going to be a solid, biblical theory of knowing.

I will leave you with a phrase from Taylor’s book which highlights the balance that is perhaps needed; he speaks of:

“the ability of beautiful things to ‘teach’ the observer religious truths through the sensory powers illuminated by the intellect” (p. 106).



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