Automatic Spirituality


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 often.

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 superstition.

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.

Robert M. Price
April 2009


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