Just this morning
I awoke to the glad tidings that spirituality has been automated, saving the
would-be sanctified soul all the trouble of doing his or her own praying.
(The TV told me so.) What an advance! You can go on-line to any one of
several websites promising to do your praying for you while you are up to,
one supposes, more urgent, secular matters, like doing the laundry. You see,
you just log in, fill in some abbreviated prayer concern, and the machine
itself will bombard the Pearly Gates with your requests, though without
knowing it is doing so. The on-line prayer computer knows it is praying no
more than the dishwasher knows it is washing last night’s dishes. Who do you
suppose benefits from these so-called prayers? My first guess would be the
machines. At least it would be if I knew what it could mean to say that. Who
hears such prayers? Some years ago Toho Studios did a movie which opposed
the dragon Godzilla against a robot avenger, the saurian-shaped behemoth
Mecha-Godzilla. Witness, now, the advent of Mecha-God! Who else might
be imagined as hearing the prayers of a computer?
Kierkegaard would have had endless fun with this! If
subjectivity is the essence of prayer, so much so that the painted fetishist
mumbling petitions to his idol in all sincerity of heart reaches God’s ears
while the poetical liturgies of orchestrated Christendom, devoid of
existential investment, do not, then how far can the automatic prayers of
on-line scanners possibly ascend? The pious believer may enlist another’s
efforts for prayer on his behalf, naively believing that God may be won over
by a list of names on a petition. But deeper down he or she knows well
enough that it is emotional solidarity he is seeking from the other, not one
more vote. A network of people praying for you is a network of support, who
will also express their concerns in more concrete ways. But “asking” a
machine to say prayers for you? It is like the old-fashioned Dial-A-Prayer,
only perhaps not quite as bad, since Dial-A-Prayer suggested that God could
not be reached but had left his answering machine on to take your call—which
he would never return.
It is certainly exciting to see modern technology
catching up with the New Testament, even if it is doing so ass-first.
Remember a Saturday Night Live skit a few years ago, set in a
research lab buzzing with experimentation? Seems that they were trying
avidly to find some way of squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle. If
they could only find a way of forcing the beast’s hairy, knob-kneed bulk
through the tiny aperture! Then there would be new hope for the rich
entering heaven! Yeah, someone had failed to get the point. Not the writers:
they simply meant to spoof the thick-headedness of those who misunderstood
the metaphor as a challenge rather than a verdict. Well, perhaps even more
stupidly, these on-line prayer-generators have furnished new, unprecedented
opportunities for what the Sermon on the Mount calls “vain repetition.” In
other words, parroting the outward form of prayer by rote, voting early and
Automatic prayer reduces the practice to the act of
texting your vote in to American Idol. It distances you from the God you
believe you are praying to, and in the name of connecting you to him! It is
like birthday greetings generated by a computer to a Face book friend. Does
it mean you remembered and cared enough to send greetings? Or does it not
rather denote that you did not remember and knew you wouldn’t,
which is why you programmed the date into the memory bank ahead of time?
What is the good that prayer does, even ostensibly?
Some would admit, with Tillich, that petitioning God to rearrange things for
you is blasphemous and superstitious. The pious soul trusting himself or
herself to the will of God will see no need to pray any words save, “Thy
will be done,” and this in order to align himself with whatever God already
decrees, since we cannot possibly know better than the All-Wise, to tell him
his business. Prayer, then, would in a very clear sense be inward-pointing,
a spiritual exercise, exposing oneself and one’s tiny concerns to a vastly
wider perspective, an imagined God’s eye view. Such prayer humbles and
sobers us as well as possibly showing us that we have less to worry about in
the vast scheme of things than we thought we did. But it is hard to see how
on-line prayers, clicking a few words into an electronic basket, could begin
to have such an effect.
As soon as I heard the news report about electro-prayer
I could not help thinking of Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels and prayer
flags. Tibetans like to string up colorful squares and triangles of cloth,
each stamped with a prayer text, to flap in the wind like a clothes line.
Each gust-driven flap, they say, is a prayer to the Buddhas and
Bodhisattvas. Likewise with prayer wheels. The big ones look kind of like
huge barrels or drums. The small ones have a handle which one twirls to spin
a larger cup or drum on top of it. Either way, when one gives them a spin,
one is automatically setting prayers in motion. I have to admit that the
prayer wheels make me think of a spiritual slot machine. And indeed I used
to regard the whole idea of prayer flags and wheels as the crudest
superstition, an utter reduction to empty, mechanical formalism—exactly my
gripe against on-line automatic prayer.
But then I saw there was something else to it. It was
only stupid if you took it literally. Stupid only if you actually thought,
for instance, that you could calculate the number of “prayers” prayed with
this method, like buying a whole bunch of lottery tickets to increase your
chances for the Big Win. But now I rather doubt that Tibetans look at it
that way. The symbolism of the prayer flag now strikes me as profoundly
beautiful. It is a gesture toward sanctifying all the moments and
circumstances of life, rendering the so-called “profane” as sacred--which it
really is if one possesses the eyes to see it. One finds blessed Nirvana not
by fleeing from profane Samsara, but by learning to look deeper into it.
Like one of those strange canvasses where changing the focus reveals a
hitherto hidden image within it. The prayer flag marks the Spirit in the
wind. The prayer flag really means to show that the wind is, so to speak,
already a prayer. It is a prayer of universal divinity rejoicing in itself.
My complaint about automatic computo-prayer, then, is
that it operates on no level deeper than the surface level of bald-faced
Am I preaching some sort of religious mysticism here?
No, even to put it that way shows the same superficiality. This is why, as a
non-theist, I love Spinoza and Zen so much. Spinoza was regarded, from one
standpoint, as an atheist since he regarded nothing as more sacred than
anything else. In other words, no God above the rest of reality. But from a
different angle, he was called a pantheist: nothing is less sacred
than anything else because all of reality has the value of God. Francis
Schaeffer was quite astute when he ridiculed pantheism as boiling down to
“pan-everything-ism,” since for everything to be sacred means there
is no sacred. Exactly, only it is no reductio ad absurdum.
This only makes the Zen point: “the Sacred” is to be spoken only “under
erasure” (Derrida) since it presupposes the very dichotomy Zen overcomes.
There is no more “sacred and profane.” The Sacred reveals itself as “mere”
Suchness. And that is sufficiently wonderful. I hope that if you
identify as a “secularist” it does not mean you are blind to that.
So says Zarathustra.