The television evangelist and the self-proclaimed shepherd announce the great benefit of prayer; ‘Ask and you shall receive,’ and ‘reap what you have sown.’ These lights of the faith forever make prayer sound easy; like some sort of magic that will line our pockets and guarantee health and wealth, and for so many this temporal success is the hallmark of a Spirit-filled life. Maybe we are all from time to time seduced by such simplicity; as Lisa Simpson once remarked of her brother’s earnest prayer, “the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Indeed young Bartholomew JoJo Simpson is, as we all can be, quite the little scoundrel, who when all else fails turns in plight to the unseen listener in the sky. What Lisa knows, however, is the proclamation of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra that ‘God is dead!’ No sooner than the philosopher utters these words than the religious and the theologian recoil in disgust; without understanding they darken the counsel of the sage with ignorance and pietism – they ‘have ears but do not hear.’ Our religious landscape is one in which we may hear even the pastors offer thanksgiving for an answer to their prayers for a good winter jacket. What foolishness! So if this is their proof of the efficacy of their oblations, then let us leave them to their baubles. Millions suffer and die, even of the most atrocious suffering, to the profound silence of God. We are left then only to rejoice with the hermit descending that God is dead.
To think, let alone speak, of prayer we enter into ascendance; a going up out of the mundane and temporal and into a place that transcends understanding. We cannot comprehend, not even in the least, what prayer is; that is to say that we cannot speak positively of the nature of Audio ut Divinus. What is left to us then is a discussion of prayer in the negative; that which prayer is not. Mothers and fathers for countless generations have taught their children to pray; they pray for the people they love and care about, for good weather and a restful night’s sleep. These are the prayers of children, which for the intellect of the infant, are no bad thing; yet, so many people of faith fail to move beyond this infantile appreciation of prayer and so erroneously come to a positivist understanding of its nature. Thus knowing what prayer is it is reduced to the absurdity of a quid pro quo or a bargaining with the Almighty. Moving beyond this impasse one is forced to make a decision, either accept that there is no God or step courageously into a mystical relationship with the Author of Life; both of which are infinitely preferable to bargaining with a God who does not negotiate. It is at this moment of conversion that the Atheist and the mystic have more in common with the Islamic notion of submission to God than they do with the preacher of prosperity. For only once the die has been cast do Atheists and mystics realise that God is dead.
Submission or complete and unconditional surrender to God does not require an understanding of the nature of the god to whom one surrenders. In fact the will to know presupposes a condition, and is then no submission at all. For the Atheist this submission takes for form of an acceptance that the god of childhood is little more than an imaginative construct, passed mimetically from one generation to the next as a Deus ex machina cure-all for the presently unfathomable. Atheism, as philosophical materialism, rejects the supernatural; the inherent contradiction of an unmoved mover who without recourse to the laws of nature establishes the cosmos, only to enforce such laws thereafter with periodic suspensions of the same for the purposes of miracles and other conjuring tricks. The Atheist abhors the god who parts the sea whilst unmoved by an HIV and AIDS pandemic, in the same manner that he or she scoffs at a creator who arbitrarily decrees laws and punishes offenders with suffering eternal in the ceaselessly burning pits of hell – as though life was not suffering enough. The god identified by many and rejected by the Atheist is not altogether dissimilar from the Uncle George of Gerard W. Hughes,
After many conversations, an identikit image of God formed in my imagination. God was a family relative, much admired by mum and dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in all of us. Eventually we were taken to visit ‘Good Old Uncle George.’ He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. We cannot share our parents’ professed admiration for this jewel in the family. At the end of the visit, Uncle George turns to address us. ‘Now listen dear,’ he begins, looking very severe, ‘I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.’ He then leads us down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend, and we begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one. ‘Now look in there, dear,’ he says. We see a nightmare vision, an array of burning furnaces with little demons in attendance, who throw into the blaze those men, women and children who failed to visit Uncle George or to act in a way he approved. ‘And if you don’t come visit me, dear, that is where you most certainly will go,’ says Uncle George. He then takes us upstairs again to meet mum and dad. As we go home, tightly clutching dad with one hand and mum with the other, mum leans over us and says, ‘And now don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And we, loathing the monster, say, ‘Yes I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace (God of Surprises, 1985).
In short, the truly prayerful must agree with the Atheist in the rejection of such a devil. What then of the God of the mystic? How does the mystic pray? This is not altogether an easy question to answer, for it demands the simultaneous assent to the underpinning of everything and acceptance of nothing at all. In an earlier article on the subject of prayer our colleague and friend Anupadin wrote of his own tradition of prayer as ‘fundamentally different [to theistic religions]’ in that to the Buddhist prayer is ‘communication to the inner self’ rather than ‘to an external being.’ This, and with no slight toward Anupadin, is vexing in the extreme. It is vexing, not from the Buddhist point of view, but precisely in that Christianity has almost completely bought this construct notion of an objective God; the very entity rejected by the Atheist and the mystic ([this] God is dead!). From the standpoint of the Christian mystic the objectification of God as ‘an exterior being’ is the most profound misunderstanding of Incarnational religion; it is idolatry. The awe-inspiring prologue of Saint John’s Gospel announces that the Word (the Logos as word and wisdom of God and the greatest of all abstractions) became flesh and lived among us (John 1:11 NRSV). This very One, who assumes all humanity in himself so as to redeem it all (Saint Athanasius), is the same Christ who lives in all who have been crucified with him (Galatians 2:20) as Immanuel; God with us (Matthew 1:23). So we Christians may begin to answer the question of prayer by first declaring that which it is not, and by recognising that it is not altogether unlike the Buddhist philosophy of prayer as communication to the inner self. To be sure this is most certainly the philosophy of prayer at work when we encounter our Lord (who himself is inseparable from the Father as we are from the Son) in the garden of his passion: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done (Luke 22:42 NRSV).’
The dubious and whimsical god of our infancy and ignorance is truly dead, and may he rest in peace. All of the laws of physics and nature, the laws of causality, still exist and are immovable. No amount of bribery, pleading or bargaining will move the unmoved, and so all thoughts of prayer orientated to bending the will of God are in vain. At best these are no more sophisticated than magical thinking, and at worst manipulative and dangerous. Our God, the Almighty Creator who is the very seedbed of reality, will not suspend the governance of space and time in their proper order to ensure fine weather for a sailing or safe delivery from a catastrophe. God will be God as reality continues unmoved in its perpetual motion of the real. Goodness and badness (as we might understand such temporalities) will continue as surely as seedtime follows harvest (Genesis 8:22), living and dying the same. Yet this is not nihilism, but rather it is hope. The purpose of prayer is not to convince some capricious deity to amuse us with another trick, but to affect the miracle of transforming us, through submission, to the will of God. Such a miracle empowers each one of us to see in the suffering of others an opportunity to help and not merely hope for divine intervention.
© 2012 homophilosophicus