Old Testament: Leviticus 26:13-20; 1 Kings 8:35-36
New Testament: James 5:14-18
has fascinated me all my life, one of the chiefest elements of religion,
prayer, has always been problematic for me. I could never quite believe in
the promises made in its behalf, nor could I satisfy myself with the
back-peddling rationalizations brought to bear when it seemed not to work.
And I have
never been comfortable with the notion that we ought to spend a long time
at prayer. Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Roman emperor, thought that four
hours of prayer a day ought to be about enough! Muslims prescribe five
separate times for prayer during the day. But I just can't seem to slam on
the brakes and quiet my mind down for any length of time.
And if those
weren't problems enough, here's another: what if there is nobody on the
other end of the phone? You know the old jokes, how when you call up the
Atheist Prayer Line, you just get a dial tone! Nobody picks up! But the
real pity is when you call up, and it's like trying to call the IRS: the
line's always busy! You can never get through!
Or how about
this: your call is answered by a machine! To tell you the truth, that's
what's always worried me. Maybe the voice I seem to hear, the
attentiveness of a listener that I imagine when I'm praying--is just a
fake. It's just an imaginary playmate. I finally decided that it is,
it has to be. What else could it be?
Karl Barth once
characterized the theology of the great liberal theologian Schleiermacher
in this way. Schleiermacher was, said Barth, like a man calling out across
a mountain chasm who hears the echo of his own voice and mistakes it for
the voice of another. He called out in a loud voice and took the echo for
the voice of God. Quite apt, I'd say, though Barth turns out to be no less
guilty. And so was I. The forgiving God was me. The judgmental God was my
own neurotic severity.
recognized the danger here. He advised us to pray to God, "not as I
imagine thee to be, but as thou knowest thyself to be." Pretty good. But
to make this work I found I had to purposely push away the feeling that
God was listening to me. And then I felt I was broadcasting into the Void,
just like those signals NASA sends out into space, hoping someone will
hear (and that it will be E.T. and not Darth Vader!).
Is anyone on the line?
In a moment I
want to venture my own ideas on what kind of prayer to pray in view of
this problem. But first let me note that the problem is the same whether
God exists or not! You may be a believer who secretly fears there may be
no God. Or the doubter who is unsure. Or the disbeliever who yet feels the
instinct to pray. If there is no God, or the possibility looms over us,
then obviously there is a problem. But the same problem plagues the
traditional theist, even if he is naively unaware of it.
For what sort
of God is it that he or she believes in? It is probably a perfect and
eternal God. But if you think God is perfect, then you have got yourself a
god who does not act. For, as Aquinas saw, a perfect God must be pure
actuality with no unused potentiality. He must already be whatever he
might be. If he acts to create, to save, to work a miracle, to answer a
prayer, then he has moved from potentially doing the thing to actually
having done it. And this cannot be! He is already perfect! Perfectly
And the same
problem comes up because of God's eternity. If he is free of the
constricting limits of temporal succession, if he does not exist in time
as we do, then how can he act at all? An act presupposes a temporal
And God is
self-sufficient. God needs nothing from us and cannot be affected by us.
But then how can he sympathize, be happy at our moral victories or sad at
our failures? How can he be angry with Jeff Dahmer or Bob Packwood? All
Aquinas had to say was that we can speak of God as acting, as happy, sad,
wrathful, or loving only by analogy, though we cannot know what it is in
God that our emotions and actions are analogous to.
thin gruel, I'd say. This God doesn't walk with you and talk with you and
tell you that you are his own, or give you his high school ring, as in
This kind of
chasm between piety's God, the God of prayer, and the God of philosophical
implication may seem unbridgeable. Pascal thought so. He said, "The God of
the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." But in his
little book Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality,
Paul Tillich says there may be a way to resolve this problem after all.
Tillich shows how repeatedly the Bible implicitly raises philosophical
questions which it does not follow up. Much as Socrates raised the
questions and Plato tried to fill in the answers.
And yet where
did Tillich wind up on the prayer question? You already know. He said, in
his Systematic Theology, that since God is not a being, but
rather Being-itself, not a discrete individual like us, then to actually
make requests of him, like a kid making a list for Santa Claus, is both
superstitious and blasphemous. It reduces God to a mere being.
So what did he
do himself, when his old heart yearned to open Godward, like a flower to
the sun? He said, "I don't pray, I meditate." Maybe that suffices. For me,
I think it does.
But let's see
what else we can find in the Bible. Let's see if prayer is one of those
places where the Bible does raise larger philosophical questions. That is,
maybe the Bible has already anticipated our difficulties and at least
planted the seeds of an answer. Let's look at some texts.
The first is 1
Kings 17:1, "Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab,
'As Yahve the god of Israel lives, in whose presence I stand at the ready,
there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, unless I say so.'"
Elijah, like Hermes rushing in with a message from the throne of Zeus, has
arrived to inform King Ahab that the verdict is famine. But notice how
James has embellished the story many centuries later. He has Elijah
initiating the famine, requesting it from God and getting it.
When we read
the two versions intertextually, we get an interesting metonymy. An
implicit bit of figural language in which cause and effect are switched.
Elijah prays and the heavens become as impenetrable metal. Rain will not
emerge from it to refresh the earth. The earth itself becomes as brass,
equally impervious to any rain that should chance to fall upon it.
But really it
is just the reverse. The real drought implied here is that the heavens are
fortified against our prayers, invulnerable to our supplications. The
rains fall upward from us to God but they cannot pass. Like the
sacrificial smoke held up at a toll booth in Aristophanes' The Birds,
prayer does not make it to its intended destination. The problem is that
the fervent prayers of the righteous seem to effect nothing at all. Or do
they? What effect is it that they are supposed to have? What effect can
they have if there is no God to listen to us, or if God is too great, like
Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, to take notice of our prayers?
does the Bible lead us to expect? Perhaps not what you think. Let's look
carefully, though briefly, at three New Testament passages. First, Matthew
6:7-8: "And in praying do not rattle on like the pagans; they must think
they will be heard for the sheer volume of their words. Do not be like
them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." What
question comes to your mind at this point? Right! "Then why are we asking
him at all?" Does Matthew mean it's all some sort of formality? Yes, it
appears so. After all, he says "Keep it short and sweet. He already knows
the whole story." So you are by no means informing God of something
he does not know.
I think it is
something like the paradox of sacred space and sacred time. Why do we come
together in a special place and at a special time to think of God and to
worship him? We say we are coming into God's presence. But even a Sunday
School child will know it can't be so simple. Isn't God everywhere? You
can't "come" into his presence. The trick would be getting away
from him! Right. Of course. So why do we do it?
The answer is
simple. God is always about us. "In him we live and move and have our
being." But, as Schleiermacher knew, mundane pressures cause us to forget
that most of the time. So we set aside a particular time and place to
remind ourselves of the Holy, a place to pause and sensitize ourselves to
what is always true but usually ignored.
It is the same
with prayer, I think. It cannot be meant to influence God's decisions, as
if that were possible anyway. It is rather an exercise, a device, to
sensitize, to remind ourselves. When we pray that God will give us our
daily bread we are really in that moment reminding ourselves that he does,
that our being is contingent on a million other factors (such as there
being no famine!). It is sheer grace that we are alive at all! If you want
to call it luck, be my guest. I see no difference. When you pause and see
how lucky you are, you are counting your blessings, even if you don't
believe in God. (I am speaking theistically simply to pursue the logic of
these New Testament passages.)
The same thing
applies to the paradox of asking God for things to be a certain way,
assuming he is in charge. But again, why bother? Doesn't he see more of
the picture than we do? Hasn't he already planned the best thing anyway?
And aren't we really trying to tamper with it? Like arrogant technology
tampering with the delicate ecological balance? Well, no. We're not. And
Look at the
second New Testament text, 1 John 5:14, "And this is the confidence which
we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears
us." Uh, wait a minute there. I didn't quite get the fine print. It went
by like the quick, inaudible muttering of the announcer on those radio car
ads. If you played it back loud and at a low speed you'd find they have
placed all sorts of provisos, restrictions, and stipulations on the offer
that pretty much cancel it. And the promise of 1 John seems to do the same
thing. "Oh, now I get it! God will 'answer' my prayer if it's
something he was already planning to do anyway, is that it?"
Yeah, that's it
all right! And you'd better be glad! Otherwise, prayer would be like "The
Monkey's Paw," where your wishes are granted with terrible irony. You
could never foresee the consequences, and believe me you would live to rue
said we should not presume to tell God his business. Paul Simon said why:
"God only knows. God makes his plans. The information's not available to
the mortal man." Eckhart said the only prayer we should ever pray is the
prayer that we be aligned with the will of God, and of course that is just
what we are doing when we pray that prayer. God need not answer it for us,
for we have answered it ourselves as soon as we say, "Thy will be done,
Phillips goes beyond Eckhart. Phillips writes in his book The Concept
of Prayer that the only prayer we do ever pray is "Thy will be
done." How is that? It is implicit in the very act of prayer itself. You
may ask for something very specific. And you may omit the phrase "Thy will
be done." But you are saying nothing else. Because look what you are
doing! You are asking. It ought to be obvious. You know the
decision finally lies with God. The whole thing is contingent on his will.
Otherwise you might "order" or "command" the desired result, but then we
would be talking about magic pure and simple, with God as the genie of the
lamp. And only a handful of TV evangelists will go so far.
A request is by
nature an admission that all finally rests with the will of the one you
are asking. So the mere fact that you are asking God in the first
place means you are presupposing "Thy will be done." Again, we have to
ask the question: in that case, why do we bother praying? And the answer
is the same. Prayer is an expressive action, not an action seeking
to gain some result, not really an attempt to control fate at all. It is a
way of, as Paul says, "letting your requests be known to God." Not
"requesting from God," but "letting your requests be known."
already knows them, remember? Maybe it is you who needs to see them. To
admit to yourself your need, your vulnerability, your desire that you have
denied until now. The Bible is well aware of this paradox. The Psalmist
prays, "Search me O God and know my heart; see whether there is any wicked
way in me." But of course what he means is that he wants God, who already
knows the Psalmist's heart, to reveal it to him. You are revealing
yourself to yourself when you pray.
Am I saying
prayer is not what it seems to be? It really isn't a matter of asking God
for things? Even the Bible hints as much. That the whole thing's in some
measure a pretense. And that knowing it is a pretense, we ought to go
ahead anyway. I am thinking of a third New Testament text, Mark 11:24, "I
tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it,
and you will receive it."
again? Isn't there some temporal confusion there? You usually think of
asking for something in the present in hopes that in the future you will
receive it. That is the inevitable order of things in the sequence of
asking and getting, isn't it? The one must follow the other. Isn't that
the whole idea? And yet here we have the strange statement that the one
who asks is to believe that he has already received it--or he will not
receive it! So we are being told to look to both the future and the past
for the answer to our prayer! Neat trick!
If you know
that you have yet to receive your answer, which you do, since you are
following Jesus' instructions, doing what he says to do to get the answer,
you know very well that you have not in fact received it yet. So in what
sense can you be believing that you have? You are kidding yourself. You
are pretending. Again, there is a sense in which, though you are quite
sincere, you are simply going through the motions, acting and speaking as
if you were asking God for things, when you know that you are not.
You know good
and well, as Matthew says, that God already knows what you need and will
provide it as he provides for the birds who, as Jesus might have added, do
not pray any more than they toil or spin, and yet your heavenly Father
takes care of them. But you go through the motions of asking nonetheless.
And since it is essentially a kind of sham, you need not waste many words
You know good
and well that God has already planned things better than you, with your
worm's eye view, could ever hope to arrange them. So that your desire will
be accomplished only if God already wants it to be. So asking him is a
kind of play acting, yet 1 John says you ought to do it. It is doing some
other kind of good. It cannot be changing God since God cannot change.
There is no shadow of turning with him. So it must effect a change on
someone who can be changed--you!
So you are,
Mark says, to believe that your prayers have been answered when you know
quite well that they haven't been. And then, paradoxically, your prayers
will have been answered! How? In other words, the real good that
prayer does for you will have been accomplished. And that good is not
requisitioning things from God and getting them. It is something else.
It is a change
in the soul, one brought about by the opening of the soul, the mind, the
emotions, the widening of the horizon that happens when you open your
desire to be seen and known by another. It might happen if you bared your
soul to another person. Here you are doing it in your imagination, and yet
you are doing it. And it will have its effect.
It is much like
the therapeutic fantasy of visualization. You suffer from bitterness
against someone who is now dead. Reconciliation is forever impossible. Or
is it? Suppose you imagine you are meeting them again and unburdening your
conscience, that they forgive you. You may find your soul freed of its
burden. You realize that what you needed to do all along was to confess
and ask forgiveness, not so much to receive their absolution. You needed
to forgive yourself. Like if you had confessed to a real person and they
had refused. At least you would have unburdened yourself. You could be at
And so with
God. In both cases, reconciling with an absent other in your imagination,
or praying to an absent, or nonexistent, or unhearing God, you are doing a
bit of Doublethink. You are going through the mental motions of having a
two-sided conversation, even though you know you aren't having one.
It is the same
thing you do when you act as you feel the way you ought to feel about
someone instead of the way you do in fact feel. There is a bit of play
acting, but the feigned feeling gets done what the real feeling would be
doing, making you get along with someone, giving him the benefit of the
What you are
doing is poetic. There is even a technical name for it: apostrophe. You
are speaking as if to address one who is either not present at the moment
or who is not an individual at all. "O death, where is thy sting?" Why
address it? It is something you must say that cannot be said any other
way. You address the unreal, the imaginary, the abstract. And it doesn't
matter that there is no actual listener.
You are kidding
yourself: playing, and indeed feeling, as if you were speaking to someone.
But that pretense, too, is poetic. It is Coleridge's "poetic faith," "the
temporary willing suspension of disbelief" that you allow yourself when
you become absorbed in a novel, a play, a movie that your mind knows is
not literally real.
thing's a sham, isn't it? Yes, but this capacity for willing, temporary
self-deception, acting, feeling, speaking in the "as-if" mode, is a
wonderful capacity of human beings. It is a way to transcend the prison of
the mundane for a needful vacation. And that's what prayer is. To pray is
to play. To play is to act. Prayer is drama. It's obvious enough that
liturgy is drama. Prayer is no different.
So now, in
conclusion, let us play.
Our Father in
earth and heaven, sacred is Thy name.
Thy will be done with us, even as in space.
Give us of Thy bread sufficient for the day.
In Thy compassion forgive us and enlarge us to forgive one another.
Guide us towards Thee and stretch down Thy hand to us in darkness.
For thine is the kingdom, and in Thee is our power and our fulfillment.
version of the Lord's Prayer]
Copyright©2009 by Robert
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