Is there a difference between what you say you worship and what you actually worship? If there’s a difference, most of us aren’t aware of it.

Some might even say they don’t worship anything, but that runs counter to what America’s greatest – or at least most original – thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote a century and a half ago: “A person will worship something. Have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

In the case of the person who says, “I worship nothing,” he or she may actually be worshipping self-sufficiency.

Protestant theologian Paul Tillich defined “God” as a person’s “ultimate concern.” What concerns us most is what we “worship.” Is your ultimate concern safety, security, material possessions, perfection, your family’s well-being, education, romance, the common good, love, your alma mater, sexual intimacy, physical pleasure, competition, winning, comfort, excitement, community, individualism, danger, patriotism, national superiority, a more perfect society, knowledge, health, wealth, power, justice, free-thinking, orthodoxy, beauty, control, drugs, life, death, the afterlife, discipline, status, career, professional or personal triumph, fame, wisdom, the fortunes of your local professional sports teams, immortality, work, nature, your hobby, your children’s accomplishments, honesty, heroism, celebrity, truth, reputation, your own ego? What do you put most of your time, energy and effort into? Is it something noble or are you just saying that because it makes you feel better about yourself?

For how many does the vaguely defined notion of a “supreme being” top the list of actual ultimate concerns? I’ve only met a few people for whom that seems true.

If Emerson was right, conscious or not, what we actually worship will to a large extent determine the outcome of our lives and shape our characters. Which is why it’s important to be honest and determine what it is you really worship.

Here’s how David Foster Wallace, who clearly agreed with Emerson, described it in his terrific commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005:

“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. … Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

I’m guessing a lot of people bristle at the notion that they don’t really worship what they say they worship – that it isn’t, in fact, their “ultimate concern.”

To be honest, I’m not sure what I worship, but I’m trying to figure it out. All I know is that when I’m in church on a Sunday, I often feel as if I’m worshiping someone else’s God, and I don’t much care for the feeling.

What I worship, I suspect, varies from day to day, year to year, life chapter to life chapter. Does worship help us achieve union with what we worship or does it just get in the way? Has all your church-going brought you any closer to whatever it is you call God?

Do you worship the questions or the answers?

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