It's tempting to read this moment of disappointment, this moment when worship fails and transcendence collapses back into distraction, as cause for either condemnation or vindication. As grounds for condemnation, the moment of disappointment can be taken as more good evidence that the religious project is pointless. Worship doesn't work. It never has before and now, despite whatever local heights you may have reached, it has definitely failed again. But the opposite verdict is also possible. This disappointment can be read as a vindication of religion, as good evidence that worshiping anything other than the one true God will cannibalize you every time. You weren't wrong to worship, you just aimed at the wrong thing. Pick the right thing next time. The failure of a false god vindicates your hunger for the true one.
This polemic can go either way but, in the end, both readings seem thin. They both think worship is about finding an object that won't disappoint. And as polemic, they both miss something vital about the character of this disappointment, about the curvature of the arc that worship describes. Cribbing from David Foster Wallace, this book argues for a third reading. This third way doesn't see the moment of disappointment as a failure of religion or as a failure to be religious. Rather, it reads the moment of disappointment as pivotal to the character of worship. It reads this failure of transcendence as a feature (not a bug) of religion itself. In fact, it holds that one main goal of religion is to induce this disappointment.
This third reading offers a contemporary version of a very old religious idea. This old idea has the shape of a paradox: to save God you must lose God. This idea claims that there is a moment of inversion at the heart of worship, a twist in the loop of transcenderce that renders it, Möbius-like, continuous with immanence. This twist joins both sides—transcendence and immanence—as a single surface. If, with dogged persistence, you rise along the the line of transcendence you will reach a point of inversion in your ascent that will, without ceremony or explanation, return you to immanence. This homecoming will hurt a bit. It will feel like failure. It will disappoint.
[...] This sadness [...] threatens to obscure the urgent revelation at the heart of your loss: the revelation that the end of worship was, all along, immanence and that, though your head may invent a thousand ways of escaping this world, the point of religion is to return you to it.
There are two elements at play in worship: the aiming at the aimed at. The aiming itself is hungry but unstable. The aimed at is nameable but evasive. Invested by your aiming with the hope of satisfaction, with the hope of escape and transcendence, the aimed at becomes an idol. [...]
But, again, your idol can't meet this expectation. No idol can. The hope that it could is a mirage. And when that idol fails--when it disappoints your aiming and shows itself without transcendence: immanent, disheveled, disenchanted--there will be a moment, perhaps quite brief, when all that remains of worship is a pang of raw aiming. This moment when it looks like your worship has failed is the religious moment. This is the revelation. This moment allows the aiming itself to appear. And it is in the aiming itself, not in the object aimed at, that God is most clearly manifest. This is the epiphany. [...]
the quote comprises most of the chapter tbh but i thought it was really really good, even if we clearly have different conceptions of what "God" means