07 December 2009

Why Bother to Praise? What's That About?

“When I first began to draw near to belief in God…I found a stumbling block in the demand… made by all religious peple that we should “praise” God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it.
We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Thus, a picture, ludicrous and horrible, both of God and His worshippers, began to appear in my mind. The Psalms were especially troublesome this way, “Praise the Lord,” “O praise the Lord with me,” “Praise Him.” (why…did praising God so often consist of telling others to praise Him?)
…Worse still was putting the statement into God’s own mouth, “whoso offers me thanks and praise, he honors me.” [Psalm 50:23] …
And mere quantity of praise seemed to count “seven times a day do I praise Thee.” (Psalm 119:164). It was extremely distressing. It made one think what one least wanted to think.
Gratitude to Him, reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; [but] not this perpetual eulogy. Nor were matters mended by a modern author who talked of God’s “right” to be praised. I…think “right” is a bad way of expressing it…but…I see what the author meant. …[Let’s] begin with inanimate objects which can have no rights. What do we mean when we say a picture is “admirable”? ..The sense in which the picture “deserves” or “demands” admiration is that…admiration is the correct, adequate or appropriate response to it…and that if we do not admire it, we shall be stupid, insensible and great losers, we shall have missed something.
But the most obvious fact about praise-whether of God or anything-strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or giving of honour. I never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it.
The world rings with praise-lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, cars, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, even sometimes politicians or scholars.
I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. The good critics found something to praise in many imperfect works; the bad ones continually narrowed the list of books we might be allowed to read. The healthy and unaffected man, even if luxuriously brought up and widely experienced in good cookery, could praise a very modest meal: the dyspeptic and the snob found fault with all.
Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. Nor does it cease to be so when, through lack of skill, the forms of its expression are very uncouth or even ridiculous…
I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling men to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.
My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what we indeed can’t help doing, about everything else we value.
I think we delight to praise [in general] what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.
It is not out of compliment that lovers keep telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete until it is expressed.
[to be continued]
  • CS Lewis Reflections on the Psalms