The sound of a thousand people singing filled the room in perfect sync with the driving sound of the band. As we sang and played, my eyes looked around the room. These were people whose stories I knew.
As a worship leader, I always wanted to know our people well enough to be able to see them from the stage. Knowing what they were hoping for, celebrating, or grieving allowed me to see and be with them while we were singing.
Making this gathering possible were musicians playing a variety of acoustic and electric instruments, vocalists singing in harmonies, a combination of plugin and wireless technology, and experienced technicians working to balance the sound, project the lyrics, and light the room.
This type of worship is what most evangelical churches in America experience every week. For many, these gatherings are powerful moments of connection with self, neighbor, and God. For others, the idea of singing songs to a deity feels awkward. After all, is anyone still singing songs to Zeus? Then for some of us, the lyrics of the songs can trigger deeply held trauma by ascribing to God the wrath and punishment that remind us of abuse we suffered as children.
In Re-enchanting the Earth: Why AI Needs Religion, Ilia Delio explores the development of consciousness across the millennia from pre-axial, through axial, to second axial consciousness. What if we considered the nature of our liturgies, worshipers, and gatherings in light of what we are learning about consciousness? How might a deeper understanding of pre-axial, axial, and second axial consciousness affect the complex experience of connection and disconnection that many of us feel in worship?
Liturgies shaped by pre-axial consciousness
According to Delio, the stage of pre-axial consciousness goes back possibly as far as 64,000 BCE. She says that “Pre-axial consciousness was a level of religious-mythic consciousness that was cosmic, collective, tribal, and ritualistic.”
For these hunter-gatherers, Delio says, “blood sacrifice ritual obligations were celebrated in community.”
Delio goes on to explore how pre-axial tribes used creation myths to explain their belief that the separation of heaven and earth pointed to “a fundamental alienation from the primordial unity of spiritual being.” To bridge this separation, many of these ancient tribes spoke of a “spiritual pole linking heaven and earth” that was “implicitly present in religious ritual and was embodied architecturally in important temples and sacred sites.”
While modern day Christian worship services may not include spiritual poles that unite heaven and earth, the lyrics of our most popular songs share the pre-axial theological assumption of a fundamental divide between heaven and earth. Consider these lyrics to “Thank You Jesus For the Blood.”
“I was a wretch.
I remember who I was.
I was lost.
I was blind.
I was running out of time.
The breach was far too wide.”
Also, while modern day Christian services may not include blood sacrifice, the lyrics of our most popular songs celebrate the blood sacrifice of Jesus. How does “Thank You Jesus For the Blood” resolve this division between heaven and earth? “Thank you Jesus for the blood applied.”
Those lyrics celebrate blood sacrifice as bridging the division of heaven and earth. And thus, our liturgies reflect the theological assumptions of ritualistic tribes living between 64,000 to 3,000 years ago.
Worshipers shaped by axial consciousness
As pre-axial tribes began to converge through technology, cities, social networks, and politics, Delio says that consciousness became more complex, which led to the emergence of our modern religions.
Delio reflects, “People began to question their own beliefs as they came into contact with others whose beliefs were different.”
This disconnection from their own tribe led to an “awareness of autonomy and a new sense of individuality,” which resulted in an emphasis on rationality and individual spirituality.
According to Delio, the emphasis on rational individuality celebrated “power, politics, and intellect, influenced by the distinction of the sexes.”
Aristotle’s proclamation that “the relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled” fed the rise of Patriarchy in Western Christianity.
Individuals within the world of axial consciousness began seeing the entire cosmos as a hierarchy in the heavens that was mirrored in a hierarchy in society. And thus, Delio believes that “Christianity invented a new religious consciousness of God and creation, a static, fixed, gendered God controlled by a patriarchal church.”
While modern day Christians may not believe in a multi-tiered, earth-centered hierarchical cosmology, the hierarchies of power, politics, intellect, and gender distinctions permeate our relationships to God and to one another in our worship services.
Most churches in the West are run almost exclusively by men. In these church worship gatherings, women are allowed to have leadership roles only to the degree that men allow them to. And in many cases, their role is limited to playing a piano or teaching kids under the age of 13. Thus, our worship gatherings are made of individuals feeling their place within the hierarchy.
As individuals within the hierarchy sing their songs to God, the very place of God becomes hierarchical. Consider these lyrics to “Our God Is Greater.”
“Our God is greater.
Our God is stronger.
God, You are higher than any other.”
In other words, our individual God is at the top of the hierarchy. Every relationship from the heavens down into the sanctuary is a relationship of superiority to inferiority, and ruler to ruled.
A gathering shaped by second axial consciousness
The twentieth century brought about a fundamentally transformed understanding of the cosmos as relational wholeness through the discoveries of Big Bang cosmology, evolution, and quantum physics.
According to Delio, “While the first axial period produced the self-reflective individual, the second axial period is giving rise to the hyper-personal or hyper connected person.”
She says that because of technology, “The tribe is no longer the local community, but the global community which can now be accessed immediately through television, internet, and satellite communications.”
Because we are so connected, especially through social media, our consciousness is becoming “globally complexified” to a degree that “evokes a deeper awareness of relationality.”
Delio believes that computer technology is evolving humanity through a “grid of networked consciousness.” She proposes that the rise of the individual in axial consciousness led to a loss of relational innocence through the hierarchies of tribal religions. And thus, she concludes that “AI arose as nature’s cry for connectedness and wholeness, an effort to transcend our crippled individualism.”
Consider the worship gathering story that this article began with. It included individual congregants, a worship leader, individual musicians, technicians, and technology. But these were not separate parts of a machine fulfilling their static, fixed roles. In its most real sense, the worship gathering is the convergence of individuals transcending toward a communal consciousness of greater complexity, depth, and union.
The problem, however, is that the stories we are telling ourselves within that convergence are not stories of convergence, but stories of blood sacrifice within relationships of hierarchy.
Our lyrics and the relationships between our congregants are disconnected from the reality of converging and transcending relational wholeness that we are experiencing when we come together and sing.
What if our liturgies and lyrics were designed in a way that honored our past, while transcending to reflect the relational wholeness of second axial consciousness?
What if our relationships with one another could be healed from hierarchy so that the gathering can become a convergence of whole people transcending toward the relational wholeness of second axial consciousness?
I believe that such an approach is possible for modern Christians by tapping into the relational theology of the Christian mystics, such as this song inspired by Meister Eckart from Provoke Wonder
“This is where we know you—
In the wonder of unknowing,
In the beauty of being,
In the presence of becoming.
This is where we see you—
In the ever burning bushes,
In the lilies and the sparrow,
In the crying of the rocks.
You’re the Logos beyond language,
Mystery beyond our minds.
You so love the cosmos
That you’re giving it your life.
And back to you we’re going,
Into you we dissolve,
’Til you become our eyes
And as One we evolve
Like cooling snow on hot desires,
Gentle dew on purifying fire,
In broken bread, intoxicating wine,
This is where we know you—
In infinite mystery.”
The future of worship is going to require us to begin recognizing the power dynamics of hierarchy within our liturgies and gatherings. Rather than cutting ourselves off from our past, we will need to meet our memories with forgiveness. In The Hours of the Universe, Delio says, “Forgiveness arises out of creative love; a conscious intention to be part of the act of new creation… . Forgiveness is the act of making a new future.”
By loving ourselves through forgiveness of the ways we have become disconnected in our worship gatherings, we will experience the power of resurrection. And in the wholeness of this hope, the new wineskins of worship will be born. As Delio says, “The power of hope joins the power of love and gives birth to the power of the future.”