Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I want to start here:

And so we come to our last question. Is it possible to control man's mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called "intelligentsia" that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form--upon the printed page.--Albert Einstein in a letter to Sigmund Freud
And I want to end here:

And let no one be afraid to seek him or find him for fear of the loss of good company; faith is no sullen thing, it is not a melancholy, there is not so sociable a thing as the love of Christ Jesus.--John Donne 

Understanding all along that these are notes, a first draft at best, hardly a polished composition fit for publication and the ages.  So let's see what happens.

My actual starting point is here:

By common definition, prayer entails someone sitting for a quiet moment and beseeching his or her Lord for intervention in matters of grave import – that it rain on the crops or souls be saved, that gays be “healed” or atheists “see the light,” and so on. In objective terms, however, the supplicant is demanding improbable favors from an imaginary despot, and most likely doing so with lowered head and genuflections and other toadying gestures of obeisance — behavior that without faith’s halo would be classified as symptoms of mental derangement. (And all the more so if the petitioner claims to receive answers to the muttered incantations.) This debasing ritual, fruitless and foolish though it may be, is at least usually peaceful, but in some cases (notably in certain corners of the Middle East), rioting and rampaging follow, especially on Friday afternoons, when imams may deliver sermons exciting crowds to fury and frenzy. What’s not to like?
That is about the stupidest definition of prayer I've ever come across; but it is the very stupidity of the definition that I want to start with.   There are categories of prayer, beloved of those who are comfortable with pigeonholes and boxes (I type at a desk that would have pleased Dickens, or the narrator of the story of Bartleby.  It's a roll-top desk designed to hold a computer, and my pigeonholes are a mess, a nest of papers and stuff I either need to do or can't let go of.  It's an anti-filing system.).  I don't much care about them, because prayer is not poetry:  one does not compose prayer as one does a sonnet or a villanelle.  Prayer isn't even free verse, or prose:  prayer is words, but prayer may be deeper than words, deeper even than sighs.

So what is prayer?  Perhaps better to start with what prayer is for, and it is not for the deity addressed.  The God of Abraham is a much more active and engaged God than the Good of Plato or the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle.  The God of Abraham is a God seeking to be be engaged with humanity, a god who can even be moved to action by humanity; a god with a heart for humanity.  But that is not to say a God with a whim for humanity; or a capricious nature swayed by the pleas of any member of humanity.  Tayler touches on the crucial point when he describes prayer as "[t]his debasing ritual...."  That's what really bothers him about prayer:  the notion of humility.

Prayer is about addressing God.  I think everyone can agree on that.  I speak, of course, of prayer in the Judeo-Christian context.  Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels are another matter, and an interesting one.  I await the day when the Senate Chaplain stands in the Senate to open a session and spins a prayer wheel silently.  That doesn't fit any definition of prayer Tayler has in mind, even though it is still prayer.  Still, prayer is address; to whom it may concern, is a matter of personal preference.

Why pray?  Because the deity addressed will accede and deign to notice, perhaps even change conditions?  That's an old and venerable concept.  "Oedipus Rex" opens with the people of Thebes gathered in public prayer before the palace, beseeching the gods to end the drought and famine and plague of stillbirths that afflict the kingdom.  Oedipus commits his first act of hamartia by telling the chorus to pray to him for salvation, since he is their king, and he will save the kingdom (as he did from the Sphinx).  But is that the only possible concept of prayer?  In "Oedipus at Colonus," the blind exile returns to the environs of Thebes to pour out a libation at a shrine, and offer a prayer to the gods, this time to honor them, not to ask something of them.  This prayer is telling:  it is not for the gods so much as it is for Oedipus.  Humbled by his exile, by the tragedy which has ruined and reversed his life, he now recognizes his place before the gods.  Is this a debasing ritual?  Or an acknowledgment of humility and humanity?

Even prayer for intercession is ultimately an act for us, the ones who pray.  We pray for ourselves.  No, not that the deity addressed will give us something; we pray for ourselves.  We are why we pray.  To limit this to a Christian context (the one I know best), we do not pray for God's sake, not even to ask God not to strike us.  We have no such concept of a relationship with God akin to the one assumed by the Greek audience of "Oedipus Rex."  Ab initio our idea of our relationship to God is one of a caring relationship, even if we understand God to be Wholly Other.  We do not understand God to be hostile to our interests.  We don't imagine we must appease God (although some of us imagine God is angry with others, God is never angry with us.  "Gott Mit Uns," the Nazi slogan famously had it, applies to us all in our groups and communities.  It is those "others" God wants to smite for "their" apostasy.  But that's another matter.).  We only imagine we need to invoke God's interests on our behalf, even if that behalf is for the health of a friend or family member.  When we pray "for" someone, we are better off understanding that prayer is for us.  Ideally, it puts us in a position of greater compassion and understanding for the person prayed for.  At least it makes us thing we have done something, in a situation where we can't really do anything.

The most frustrating thing about ministry, and the hardest, is learning that there is little you can do for others.  You can pray for them, and with them; and they can imagine your prayer is more efficacious because you are somehow more holy, closer to God, than the average person.  But prayer is not direct action; it isn't really action at all.  You want to be effective, but you don't have the tools of modern medicine, or psychology; you don't wield the instruments of law to protect someone with legal barriers, or punish the guilty and avenge the innocent with the police power of the state.  You have words.  You have prayer.

And what is "prayer"?

It is for the pray-er.  It is for the person who prays.  Perhaps it makes you spend a moment truly thinking of another instead of yourself.  Perhaps it allows you to experience a deep sense of the ineffable which you may label "God."  I have discovered in my itinerant prayer life (the discipline of a Jesuit, or even a Franciscan, I just do not have) a real sense of the presence of God which, once opened, I find I can access with some regularity.  It is not, thanks be to God, the overwhelming sense that Mother Teresa sought for the rest of her life after she moved to Bombay; it is not the sense that Doris Grumbach felt once, and never again.  It is not the mystical union of the great Christian mystics, or the vision of Julian or Margery Kempe.  But I find it only when I engage in prayer.  I try to humble myself before it, so it will reshape me.  So far it hasn't; which may mean it is a false sense of God; or I'm too far gone, too old to change my ways.  Or it may be my prayer life is still too itinerant, that I use it too little to let myself be changed by it, and the fault is mine.  But if prayer is about us, and about changing us, then it is a dangerous and difficult thing indeed; and no surprise that people like Jeffery Tayler want to denigrate it as severely as they can.  That kind of self-examination is something the Taylers and Dawkins and Harrises of this modern age seem to despise more than anything.  Their self contentment would be disturbed by such examination, and that is something up with which they will not put!

Consider, briefly, the example of the Our Father, the Lord's Prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
your name be revered.
Impose your imperial rule,
enact your will on earth as you have in heaven.
Provide us with the bread we need for the day
Forgive our debts
to the extent that we have forgiven those in debt to us.
And please don't subject us to test after test,
but rescue us from the evil one.  (Matthew 6: 9b-13, SV)

Nothing in it is directed to God; it is all directed at the one who prays.  Who can revere God's name, if not us?  God can impose God's imperial rule and enact God's will on earth as in heaven; but we are directed to ask for that, to seek that, to work to make that happen by directing our prayers toward it.  We ask only that God the Creator, the source of life and blessing, take care of us for today; tomorrow is another day.  And we ask God to forgive us, only so far as we are willing to forgive others.  And the only compassion we ask from God is that we not be tested again and again, but that we be rescued from the evil one.  Nothing there about a Mercedes-Benz, or a color TV, or a night on the town; nothing about a miracle, or a cure, or salvation, or happiness.  This prayer doesn't ask from God, it directs us toward God.  It realigns our thinking.  It redirects our attention, away from us and toward the world, through God.

This brings us, abruptly I think, to Einstein's observation about the intellectual who has no contact with life "in the raw," but knows it only from the printed page.  It's easy to dismiss Tayler's description of prayer as a straw man argument, but it's worse than that.  It's a description based on no understanding at all, which is the same place Richard Dawkins starts from:  he doesn't understand religion because he declares it nonsense ab initio, and he has no need to learn nonsense.  I don't actually find virulence of opinion among most people I know.  They don't care who is a Christian or an atheist, even who is gay or straight or lesbian.  The Gov. and Attorney General of Texas just now insist state law cannot recognize even the court ordered marriage of a lesbian couple; but I don't think the majority of Texans really care.  I suspect they are like my parents, and far more tolerant of the issue than once they were; or, if they know friends and family who are homosexual, they are even more inclined to allow them to live and let live.  I recall, vaguely, a story from D/FW airport where a man in a terminal accosted another man for wearing a pink shirt (!; apparently it meant the shirt-wearer was gay), and a man in cowboy boots and hat, with a Texas drawl, was the first to confront the belligerent and tell him to stop.  I can't imagine a Texas public official doing that, or even a prominent Texas preacher; but the people who live life "in the raw" are far more aware of our humanity than the people who think of us in groups and blocs and affiliations.

I know atheists I consider more Christian than Christians.  I know church going Christians who are models of humility and hospitality.  They are, as Einstein observed, far less easily swayed by "disastrous collective suggestions" than their political and social and religious leaders are.  They are far more inclined to see people as individuals rather than as things.  And that, I think it can be fairly said, is what Donne was getting at:  "there is not so sociable a thing as the love of Christ Jesus."

Yes, plenty of people who profess Christianity seem to do it for the sake of distinguishing themselves from everybody else, or at least from those who are not "true" believers in what they believe.  But Christianity teaches tolerance and even love for others; it's central teaching, according to Paul (often denigrated by know-nothings as the failure of Christianity), is love of one's enemies.  If you can do that, you can love all of humankind, just as God loves all of humankind.   I think Jeffrey Tayler's ideas are foolish, but I would not on that account brand him as outcast.  He might scream in my face, either rhetorically or literally; I would be failing in my confession of Christ as Lord to scream back at him.  Mind you, I might do it; but the failing would be mine, not Christianity's.  I would urge Messrs. Tayler and Dawkins and Harris to self-examination; but I would not condemn them for refusing to engage in it.  I am not superior to someone else because of what I believe; if anything, my proper belief makes me even more humble.  If that brings out someone's inner Nietzsche, I don't get to enjoy some schadenfreude at their expense.  Because religion, like prayer, is for me; it is directed at me examining myself, improving myself, tailoring myself, placing myself not at the center, but in the lives of the other.  I am called by Christ to see him in others; I don't get to choose who those others are.  The moment I start choosing, I am at the center again.

It's an act of great humility, and I'm not very good at it.  But that is why religion and religious faith is about changing me, not changing thee.


  1. Lovely words on prayer. True confession: I sometimes enjoy schadenfreude. Not Christ-like, but true.

  2. I enjoy schadenfreude a lot. Blame my Inner Light.

  3. "I know atheists I consider more Christian than Christians."

    Atheists, definitely, but anti-theists, doubtful. An anti-theist may occasionally be moved to compassion, but do they give in any organized way their time/treasure to charity, except in the RARE situation they want to make an anti-theist point ("See, we can give too, just like those idiot theists!") And at that, do they give "the widow's mite"---till it hurts? I'm in NO way boasting of myself in this respect, but the fact remains that POOR theists are some of The Most Generous People on the face of the Earth. There's a deep Truth there, that the anti-theists (and wealthier theists, for that matter) don't see.

  4. JCF--I'm not sure how I'd classify him (atheist or anti-theist), but I was thinking of Einstein's distinction between abstract and concrete: he was (is) simply the most generous man I've ever known: generous with his time, compassionate to everyone, a jack of all trades who used his talents to build, repair, replace, and maintain the houses of those who needed the help (including me, when I lived next door to him and had, at best, a meager income). He did far more than the most generous Christians I know who drop money in a plate and call it done (while simultaneously damning the homeless on the streets as people who make "a good living" panhandling, which is why they don't "get jobs" and don't deserve our Christian compassion).

    He is not a representative of a class of such people, but it is certainly true that religion doesn't create compassion in the heart all by itself. By his actions I actually still consider him as Christian as anyone I know.