Once, as an impecunious PhD student, I decided I had to forgo my weekly Hill Street Blues in the interests of eating or paying rent to my brother. I put my TV up for sale. A simple soul arrived ready to offer a tenner for the set. “Does it have an antenna?” he naïvely inquired. My brother took control of the situation: “It’s an all-in-one,” he assured the poor rube, making a hand-gesture which spoke of integration. “Built into it.” Readers are right to condemn my complicity in this deceit. Even though, in those antediluvian times, there was no such thing as a “built-in antenna,” the TV did do its job of picking up the three or four channels that existed then.
The human soul is an embodied religious sense. That doesn’t mean it’s inherently “religious,” any more than your nose is smelly or your eyes are especially visible. The human soul is a religious sensor, an antenna which is constantly on the lookout for objects to worship. Even before Noah built his Ark, and right back to the Garden, our sensors had to figure out who or what was worth the price of worship.
To be a human soul is to be an embodied soul, and that featherless, biped condition is the best equipment for worship. The quadruped cannot kneel or prostrate itself so easily as the two-footed, upright creature. Only the legged creature, which does not lie flat on the ground like a snake, can meaningfully prostrate itself; when the two-legged creature gets down on its knees, it uses the full resources of its body to express self-offering. When we worship, we offer not a token piece of our munificence, but our whole selves. Acknowledging whom we will worship is the great, deciding question for the soul, so we do it with our entire bodies. It decides the bent of our souls.
To be religious is not to feel syrupy feelings of dependency—that’s all about me in the end. Religion is an intentional act, a relating of the self to something. Religious acts are acts of worship of someone. In religious acts we devote ourselves, give ourselves wholly and integrally, to someone or something. We pay obeisance; we bend the knee; we genuflect, or at least doff our cap. The human soul wants to worship—that is the underlying draw in all its varied actions. It is a built-in antenna for the adorandum, the one who is to be adored.
To define religiosity in terms of feelings of dependency alone misses the target, because religiosity is not simply “in” me. Rather, religiosity takes place between an embodied soul and its “adored one.” In defining religious feeling as our deepest sense of dependency, Schleiermacher was getting at half a truth, namely, the sense of creatureliness. The other half, which his definition elides, is the Creator. It’s true that the worshipping soul acknowledges its creatureliness—but that’s because it senses its Creator. Worshipping is not about “OMG I’m a creature!” It’s about “OMG you are the Creator!” “Creature-to-Creator” feelings are not the whole of the “sense for worship” in which the human soul consists. But they are a stand-out feature and not a bug.
The most recent Dylan bootleg, Trouble No More, carries some excellent performances of “Gotta Serve Somebody.” The injunction is in the somebody, not the gotta. The human soul is a walking religious sense, and it serves alright! But to whom will the walking sense for Holiness bend the knee? To whom offer its trembling awe? The created soul is itself the stage of endless decision about whom it shall worship. What makes human history a drama, and even a conflict of forces and powers, is that every human soul spends its waking and dreaming moments searching, wavering, flickering, oscillating, feeling out infinitesimal waves and far-flung channels through which to offer service. Every human soul must decide day by day whom and what to worship.
One hesitates to reveal oneself as a child of an antediluvian era, but though the channels are multiple, the objects of worship come down to two. One may worship oneself, and thus make oneself a slave of the Lord of Darkness, or one may freely worship the Creator and Lord of Light. Our acts of worship either imprison us or free us. “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” Our worship either hands us over to servility or liberates us to be children of God. God is no despot: Worship of him is love and even friendship. The devil has worshippers, but no friends or lovers. The first and primal choice laid before each created soul is not primarily a moral decision, but the acknowledging of a holy of holies. Every created soul makes of itself a shrine for its God.
Many people I know are in recovery from their latest bout of Netflix binging on Stranger Things. Where narrative realism, like my beloved Hill Street Blues, agonizes over the problem of good and evil, exemplified in “gray” moral choices, horror movies place their protagonists squarely in a cosmos in which evil is so monstrous that there is no choice but to struggle against it. The Monster makes little effort to disguise itself: It matter-of-factly desires the enslavement and consumption of its prey. The generic “horror” cosmos is one in which confrontation with an overarching predator, like the Shadow Monster, is inescapable. It’s a straightforward allegory of the life of the soul, desirous of offering itself, and always desiring, at its deepest level, the ultimate adorandum, but continuously tempted by the one who was a Liar and a deceiver from the beginning. The Deceiver abides in the upside-down world, offering us the double false promise of empowerment to stand on our own two feet.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion.