Thursday, 18 January 2018

"WHAT Do You Worship?": Worship as an Intransitive Verb

One fairly common response I've come across, when someone has heard an explanation of the silent Quaker Meeting for Worship, has been to ask “but what are you worshipping?” Well, some people phrase it as who, rather than what, but I tend to see it as essentially the same question.
Now, for some Friends, the answer is easy. They believe in a deity that they feel warrants veneration, and so they can say that is what they worship. And yet, they cannot say that and speak for all unprogrammed Quakers. While some may adore and venerate in the silence, not all do – and even for those that do, that is not all they do in the silence.
In this post, then, I shall look at this question, and how the Quaker usage of the word “worship” perhaps challenges received wisdom in terms of English grammar.
In case some of you aren't up on grammatical terminology, we'll have a quick introduction to the terms we're using here. But first, we'll have a disclaimer. I am not a linguist, though it is one of the many things in life that interest me and thus I learn about. It is likely that an actual linguist reading this will take issue with some of my definitions or examples. In the former case, it's possible that I've simplified deliberately in order to be more accessible. In either case, it's possible that I'm just wrong. I hope you will cope with either, and if you want to correct me, please do so politely. Now, on with that introduction…
Let's start with the most basic – a verb is a “doing” word, a word describing some sort of action. Thus verbs include run, fight, hold, think, like, love, play, be, have, and so on. Every very represents something doing. The thing doing whatever is called the subject. Sometimes, whatever is being done is being done to something, and that is called the object. In English, the general arrangement is subject-verb-object, but in other languages it can be quite different.
Where a verb takes an object, it is called transitive; when it does not take an object, it is called intransitive. Some take two objects, as in “he gave the book to her”, in which case they are called ditransitive (one of the objects is the direct object, and the other the indirect object), but that's more complexity than we need right now.
Some verbs are absolutely always intransitive – to sneeze, for instance – and some can be either intransitive or transitive. However, some cases where a verb looks intransitive are actually cases of an implicit object. For example, if we were to say “Doris worked”, the verb is truly intransitive – there is meaning without there having to be something that Doris worked. If we say “Doris worked the computer”, that is transitive. If, however, we were to say “Matthew ate”, we know that Matthew ate something. We may be aware from context what Matthew was eating, and if we are not, we simply mentally insert the word “food” as the object, even without realising we do so. Thus, the object is implicit.
A quick skim of the literature suggests that a long-standing theory around implicit object in English was simply that some verb had generally understood implicit object – that it was a feature of the verb itself. In this theory, “to eat” is simply known as a verb that has an implicit object, while its synonym “to devour” does not; this is purely a matter of convention within the language, as even where there is an obvious object in the context, we would say “devour it”, rather than just “devour”, while “to eat” could be used either way. This is referred to as the indirect object being based on lexical factors, which depend upon the language being used (a verb might take an indirect object in Chinese, for instance, but require an explicit object in English).
Another theory, one that makes more sense to me yet is apparently more recent, is that implicit objects are recoverable, that is we can work out what they are when we read/hear them, based on context as well as convention. Thus, devour would remain free of implicit objects, due to convention, but the specificity of the implicit object for eat would depend on context. Such context can be in the text itself, in the situation in which the text occurs, or cultural. For instance, “let's eat” when you're all sat around a table with food in front of you has a very specific implicit object, a situational context, while lift gains an implicit object of weights (as in “do you even lift, bro?”) in certain subcultures or conversational contexts.
I think perhaps you might see where I'm going with this, but let's continue being vaguely systematic about it. Let's look at the verb “to worship”.
It's a very interesting word. It comes from the same root as worth (meaning worthy or honourable), with the suffic -ship, indicating the state of being or having a role. Thus, it refers – if we look strictly at etymology – to the state of have worth. However, looking strictly at etymology is a very very bad idea if you're interested in what a word means today. A popular theory as to the reason for worship to come to what it means today, given its roots, is that it came by way of “indicating that which we consider worthy”. It's certainly plausible. Some Friends argue that we should understand the word in that sense today, that worship is to indicate what we consider to be worthy, and that is, to me, less sensible. It is a word that has a deeply ingrained meaning in the modern English corpus, and trying to shift it even for a small in-group is a difficult task. Moreover, shifting it just for an in-group further separates that in-group from the wider language using community, and I don't think we wish to separate Quakers further from our wider community at this time. Those points are not decisive, and indeed I shall be disregarding them somewhat in my eventual conclusion, but they are still important. More important is that the argument from etymology is a really poor argument if you're talking about anything other than, well, etymology.
Worship has a well-understood meaning to most people speaking English, though they might struggle to articulate it. It means to revere or venerate some figure or entity, generally religious, though colloquial usages to indicate adoration for other people have developed. It also refers to taking part in the rituals or other activities involved in such veneration. In such usage, it is generally transitive. Some common usage lacks an explicit object, such as “we worship at St Thomas's”, and of course the noun forms used to refer to the act – “come join us in worship” – don't take objects, as nouns generally don't. When it comes to the question this post seeks to answer, however, we can see that this is a case of an implicit object. When a person says “I worship in church”, we have no need to be explicitly told what they worship. There is a strong lexical connection in modern English between the verb “to worship” and the implicit object being a deity. Indeed, the Christianity-as-default situation in most of the English speaking world means that it is the Christian God that is implied – and more precise context, such as the mention of church, can confirm this.
It is for this reason that, when confronted with the idea of non-theist Quakers, some people – Friends and others – can't help but ask “but, what do you worship?”. Worship is working, in this context, as a transitive verb with an implicit object. Even where the audience or context means that the Christian God is not assumed, the deeply ingrained assumption is that there is a god being worshipped, or possibly several. In a polytheistic society, I think it likely that worship would still largely be a transitive verb with an implicit object – just a much more open and vague one, much as in the context-free case off “to eat”.
It is in this context that the argument of indicating worth tends to come up. What we worship is whatever we indicate, by our actions in Meeting for Worship, are things we consider to have worth. Peace, love, community, that sort of thing. It's an attractive argument, attempting to cut through the difficulty with an appeal to authority. However, that authority is really no authority at all, as etymology says nothing for what words mean today. Skirts, shirts and kirtles are very different garments, despite their shared etymology. Furthermore, it takes away the fundamentally religious nature of the word used in this sense, while arguably claiming to subsume the every day meaning – as one would generally assume God to be worthy. If we are to see a difference in meaning that takes away the divisive possibilities of “what do you worship”, it should be clearly related, clearly still religious, but actually distinct. If it encompasses the everyday meaning, it should be by way of looking at it differently, rather than being a broader meaning that obviously includes it.
In fact, I think that we, Quakers, have already found this other meaning. We don't articulate it very often, but it is there. We start committee meetings with a period of worship, even when that meeting is not to be conducted in full, sober discernment. What is this period of worship?
In Meeting for Worship, there is something all of us are doing, whatever our views on God or the lack thereof – lacking views or lacking God, as the case may be. Some are adoring and venerating and praising one God or another, certainly, and some aren't – but even so, there is something that I believe we are all doing.
In Meeting for Worship for Business, as we grapple with complex issues though the time-tested mechanism of Quaker discernment, we should be doing something. We remind ourselves that it is a Meeting for Worship for Business in order to remind ourselves of discipline and speaking only as led, but that could be made even clearer with just an emphasis on worship, if we understand it a certain way. With the right understanding, the differences in our understandings of the Divine, and in our approaches to the fine details of worship, become less significant given the proper focus on our truly shared objective.
In all of these cases, we are seeking – by one method or another – to be open to the promptings of the Spirit. We try to awaken our inner, hidden selves. We are seeking to better know the Divine and its guidance. We wish to make contact with God. We seek to enhance our spiritual state and become better people. We do all these things at once, in our different ways and by our different understandings, and it is all one task.
In its purest sense, this is what I consider worship is to Quakers, and it needs no object.

While I reviewed several sources in writing this post, I have drawn particularly on explanation and exploration of implicit objects in Glass, Leila. "What Does It Mean for an Implicit Object to be Recoverable?." University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 20.1 (2014): 14. The paper is available from Scholarly Commons.
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