Sunday, August 1

Ain’t Got A Prayer

If there were more Christians and Christian ministers like the Rev. Terri Stewart, there is a pretty good chance -- who knows for sure?  -- that I would still be one, too. And if there were more monotheists like Terri, it is a pretty safe bet that -- while there no guarantees -- I most likely would not, as I presently do, regard monotheistic religion as a malignant canker on the arse of human spirituality. (For the record:  I do have deep and abiding respect for non-theistic religions, e.g., Buddhism and Taoism, where One Big Guy does not run Everything.) We do have our differences, e.g., Terri is much more reluctant than I to offend people. But let's not quibble. Most of all, let's not quibble, given that Terri recently wrote and published what I regard as the most realistic, level-headed, clear-eyed, sane, thoroughly healthy, and completely non-toxic discussion of prayer I have ever read anywhere in any medium, print or electronic. I only ask that you grant to me the same indulgence she requested in the third paragraph of her article.

All through the time I was reading Terri's reflection, I ached with envy for people who had been raised on Terri's "human flourishing" model of prayer. If I had been raised on that conception of prayer, I might -- again, no guarantees -- still be a Christian, or at least someone who does not consider monotheism poisonous.  Unfortunately, I was not raised on that model of prayer, nor were hundreds of generations of people -- Christian and otherwise -- for Terri's "human flourishing" model is -- and I do not mean this in the least pejoratively, quite the contrary -- historically abnormal in the highest degree. I mean "historically abnormal" in the good sense, e.g., societies that never practiced some form of slavery and that granted women full equality are, in the same sense, "historically abnormal". The preponderating model of prayer, historically, has been some form of prayer-as-petition, prayer-as-"getting stuff from God" ... God, as I say below, as Cosmic ATM.  In large measure, this is a consequence, logically as well as theologically, of monotheism, of One Big Guy -- it's always male -- Who Is In Charge. Think of God as Don Corleone / Godfather writ large. That has been the rule rather than the exception, not just for Christianity, but for monotheism per se.

For most of Christian history, the concept of prayer, at least within the context of Christianity (and I would argue, monotheism generally, though I will hereafter only reference Christianity), is inseparable from Christianity being a monotheistic, historical, ethical religion: monotheistic in the sense of believing in only one God ("One Big Guy"); historical in the sense of believing that God has, at certain critical junctures, intervened so as to change human history (most notably in the Incarnation); and ethical in the sense that such interventions have been undertaken with a view toward reshaping both human moral discourse and human moral behavior ... in other words, conversion / metanoia.  (That previous sentence should not be taken to imply that Terri herself assents to every doctrinal jot and tittle of monotheism. I'm referring to the overall development of monotheistic doctrine within Christianity generally. Terri is a grown woman and can nuance or reject altogether that generalization however she wishes.) That rather long-winded description can be condensed to just three words: God Does Stuff. (Please excuse the imposing technical academic jargon.) Or at least, by the time the belief filters down from the rarefied echelons of professional theology to the pews, the belief boils down to God Does Stuff. Paul Tillich may launch into disquisitions about God as the "Ground Of Being" -- whatever that means -- but "Ground Of Being" rings hollow to, e.g., parents who pray that their little girl's third chemotherapy session may again result in a long-term remission of her leukemia. (In what follows, I am not picking on Dr. Tillich, whom I greatly admire, but on all professional theologians who emphasize an other-than-petitionary conception of prayer. Analogous remarks apply to them, also.) So they pray, not to the "Ground Of Being', but to the One Big Guy Who Does Stuff. (Granted, there is a long tradition of "non-request-centric" prayer that is purely contemplative in nature. But that latter tradition is most usually associated with contemplative religious orders, e.g., the Desert Fathers, et al. But even within the New Testament canon, there is an affirmation that God does stuff, and so it is quite OK to ask for "stuff", e.g., James 4:3.) The logic is impeccable, in that it draws its conclusion rigorously from monotheism: if there is One Big Guy, and if that Guy is not the pristinely detached God of classical English deism, then one may reasonably expect such outcomes. God does stuff, and God therefore takes requests that He do stuff. Such is (much of) prayer.

But such a conception of prayer, prayer-as-request, prayer-as-petition, seductive though it is, is essentially a wickedly effective set-up for disappointment, potentially catastrophic, life-destroying -- certainly life-changing -- disappointment. To undertake petitionary prayer a la James 4:3, at least regarding critical life-issues, is to wager your house, both cars, your savings, your stock portfolio, your and your spouse's salaries in perpetuity, and your children's college funds on a single throw of the dice at a Vegas craps table. Especially on critical, life-or-death issues, petitionary / "request-centric" prayer -- asking the One Big Guy to "do stuff" -- is a form of Russian roulette. What if your little girl, despite the third chemotherapy regimen, does not go into remission? Suppose she dies. God could do stuff. But He declined to do stuff. What if, despite your having prayed for your parish and for its priest-pastor for the last five years, your son ends up being sexually molested on, say, a youth retreat coordinated by the very priest for whom you prayed? In this latter case, God not only declined to do stuff, He did evil stuff, by calling to the priestly vocation a man with obviously diseased propensities -- and thereby, to compound the pathology, gave that man access to a position of unique trust where he had unique access to the uniquely vulnerable.  Maybe, at least on occasion, God really is as described by Prof. / Rabbi David Blumenthal in Facing the Abusing God. (Here's a question, implicit in Rabbi Blumenthal's book, that should keep you awake nights:  if God calls to the ministry a man so diseased, what does that say about the character of God?) In my own particular case, my wife and I, as believing, observant, faithful Christians, and after two years of intense reflection and prayer, became convinced that I had a vocation to pursue a teaching ministry. So we moved to Boston, I began work on a PhD, and later an MDiv at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry -- only to find out when done that, apparently, the Church needs neither lay teachers nor lay homilists. Our marriage survived, but I almost did not, because the disappointment induced extended periods of utterly black clinical depression. (Terri saved my sanity, quite possibly my life, when she asked me to participate in Beguine Again, later the BeZine -- for the latter of which I also thank Jamie Dedes -- by writing these "Skeptic's" columns. But that was Terri's and Jamie's goodness, not the One Big Guy's capriciousness.) The point of all such stories, both hypothetical and factual, is that the combination of monotheism and a God Who Does Stuff with petitionary prayer is about as hazardous as juggling bottles of nitroglycerin instead of tennis balls:  it is almost guaranteed that, at some point, the former will blow up on you. Prayer conceived of as petition transforms prayer from religious / spiritual practice into a purely clinical exercise in expectations-management: being careful to pray in such a way that your own expectations do not turn and rend you. Does the Russian-roulette analogy seem more apt now?

So, with all the above in mind, here are my answers to the latter two questions in the title of Terri's article:  Why pray? What is a Humanist or Christian to do?

o Why pray?

My answer:  don't. That is to say: if by "prayer" you mean requesting that the One Big Guy Do Stuff for you, then don't. Meditate? Sure. Reflect? Sure. Read? Sure. Discuss with trusted friends and a trusted community? Sure. Undertake deep psychoanalysis? Sure. Explore with a spiritual director? Sure. Not only yes, hell-yes. But don't pray. Not. Ever. The only people to whom that advice does not apply are certified Michael-Phelps-caliber spiritual Olympians, like St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Clare.  They can probably get away with it. (However, please be advised that even St. John of the Cross talks about the Dark Night of the Soul, and nothing says such experiences are necessarily survivable.) And I'll go one step farther:  the more energy surrounding the issue you are concerned about (sick kids, total career change, etc.), the less eager you should be to pray. Your eagerness to pray should be inversely proportional to the criticality of the issue about which you are praying. For most of us, it's just too seductive:  all the energy encompassed by prayer can be turned against you. Under that previous "utilitarian" understanding of prayer, trying to "pray sensibly" is like trying to be a "sensible" user of crack cocaine. (If you want to read a gut-wrenching, and thinly-veiled autobiographical, novel of someone who ignored this advice, you can do no better than Peter DeVries's harrowing The Blood of the Lamb, a cautionary tale of what can happen when one undertakes petitionary prayer regarding a life-and-death-critical issue without restraining one's expectations.) To quote Nancy Reagan:  Just Say No. Prayer-as-doing-stuff adds gratuitous stress and complication, but -- again, unless you are a spiritual Marshawn Lynch in perpetual "Beast Mode" -- not clarity.

o What is a Humanist or Christian to do?

Would I put you into a deep coma if I were to describe the Aristotelian concept of efficient causality? Yeah probably, but I'm gonna do it, anyway. There are four types of causality, said Aristotle:  material, formal, efficient, and final. The material cause of a house is wood; the formal cause, the blueprint / floor plan; the efficient cause, the building contractor / carpenter; the final cause (telos), a place to live. Under the sub-heading of efficient cause, Scholastic philosophers / theologians, most notably Aquinas, added instrumental causality. The carpenter is the efficient cause of the house, but to actually build the house, the carpenter uses various instruments:  hammers, saws, drills, levels, rulers, etc.  The various tools the carpenter uses are the instrumental causes, all of which are subordinate to the carpenter. ("Beer is always an instrumental cause, no matter the final-cause end-in-view" -- Cowles' Law) To pray in order to induce God-as-One-Big-Guy to accomplish some human purpose is to treat God, not merely as an efficient cause, which would be problematical enough, but as an instrumental cause subordinate to human desires and goals. You are trying to use God the way a carpenter uses a hammer. This is explicitly blasphemous, according to any orthodox Christian theology with which I am acquainted. If you believe in any cognate of such a theology, this alone should suffice to stop you in your tracks.

But there are more existentially significant reasons that are probably more compelling. The concept of prayer as inducing the One Big Guy to do humans' bidding is especially, though not uniquely, insidious to people who already suffer from an impaired sense of agency -- that is, of competence to accomplish any kind of change in their life -- and a deficient sense of personal significance and self-hood. I am much better in this regard than I used to be, but I have dealt with this much of my life, so I know somewhat whereof I speak. This is one reason why the concept of vocation has been so problematical, even destructive, in my life:  I was jonesin' to be noticed and commissioned to do Something by the One Big Guy. I would have loved to get a call from President Obama -- not Trump; I have no deficiency of good taste -- asking me to serve on a NASA committee to develop a working warp drive for the space program. Believing that you have been called by God to accomplish some bodacious task or mission is a heady experience, really, for anyone, but most especially for someone who, most of her life, has believed she was nothing, just part of the Universe's ontological wallpaper. Problem is, Maureen McGovern was dead-bang right:  "There's got to be a morning after".  And when it comes -- not "if," but "when" -- you may find yourself in a deeper hole than the one you believed your ersatz "Divine commission" enabled you to climb out of.

So ... "what is a humanist or Christian to do?" Well, God or Allah or YHVH or Odin or Quetzalcoatl or Great Cthulhu or ... etc. ... is in the details, but in general I have come to believe you make your purpose as you go along. You improvise. You act. (You can't steer a parked car.) You pay attention to the percolations of your own feelings, intuitions, and promptings, the "still small voice," even if that means that, concurrently, for a time you have to pull fraps at Starbucks or flip burgers at McD's. But in any case, you do not pray your way into purpose. You don't find it. You make it. (All due credit to Albert Camus here.) The only absolutely non-negotiable restriction is "First, do no harm".

All of which is inseparable from the collective life of a Church / religious community. I notice today, on those rare occasions when I attend a church service, irrespective of denomination, that the prayer of the faithful, or whatever the communal prayer liturgy is called, usually consists of asking God to perform various specific, discrete, empirically observable, denumerable tasks on behalf of the community and of various individual members thereof. "Please help the unemployed find work"; "please expedite Ms. Blagovitch's recovery from varicose vein surgery"; "please cause the building fund to prosper"; etc., etc., etc., etc. Now, just so there is no misunderstanding:  I am not poking fun at, much less making fun of, Ms. Blagovitch's varicose veins. If I had varicose veins, I'd want to be cured of them, too. If the church building is too small, a building program is a rational response, and that takes money. Human life is mostly a concatenation of such mundane practicalities. It's rational to want to be cured of disease. It's rational to want to be financially solvent.  Also, it is comforting to know that other people are praying for you, provided you keep your expectations as to results on a very short leash. So this practice is harmless most of the time.

Great Sphinx of Giza

Rather, the point is this:   the ministerial staff, all of whom have presumably been trained in contemporary theology, are well aware of, e.g., the Tillichian language and perspective of God-as-Ground-Of-Being.  (Tillich himself once famously said "I don't pray, I meditate." Exactly!) But somehow, by the time the ministering seeps down to the Sunday-morning routine, "Ground Of Being" has often (usually?) morphed into "One Big Guy doing something 'way cool for us":  God as Celestial ATM, if you will.  The result is that, at least in a de facto sense, members of the community are incrementally re-indoctrinated, Sunday to Sunday, in the theology of God as the One Big Guy Who Does Stuff (for us). So, understandably, the membership are encouraged to keep on asking God to Do Stuff ... and the beat goes on. (Granted, I have not visited or joined every single church in Christendom, but over high-50s years of joining and visiting, I have seen this pattern repeated time and again, Taize being the only conspicuous exception. That and the recitation of the Rosary in the Chapel of St. Francis Medical Center, in Wichita, KS, by the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, where I used to occasionally visit and join in.) Might I make bold to suggest that one particular place to start in changing this behavior, which has consequences both personal and ecclesial, is to change liturgical prayer from "request-centric" to "meditation-centric"? You don't have to buy into all the theological metaphysics to be concerned about the effect the practice of "request-centric" prayer has on people. As my old Arkansas grand-daddy used to say, "I ain't  got no dawg in 'at 'ere fight," but it matters to me what harm toxic levels of disappointed prayer can wreak on religiously devout people -- as it did on me. Changes to a contemplative paradigm would go a long way toward tempering expectations, and thereby defusing the disappointment potential of "request-centric" / petitionary / James 4:3-type prayer. Something like Taize. Other than that, out of respect for the diversity of religious communities, I leave this as an EFR: exercise for reader.

Finally remember:  legend has it that, in 5,000+ years, the Great Sphinx of Giza has only uttered four words:  Don't Expect Very Much.

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Man greeting the dawn ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Praying hands ... Albrecht Durer ... Public domain
Muslims at prayer ... Jean-Leon Gerome ... Public domain
Hindu beggar ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Buddha figure ... Photographer unknown ... Public domain
Great Sphinx of Giza ... Photographer unknown ... CC by SA 3.0



  • Wow! You are a true intellectual. How do I know? Hah! I am going to have to look up a couple of words. I have read this twice and must go back again before I can really comment – but, I will say we do have some things in common regarding views on spirit.

    I was very impressed with your opening words about Terri, whom I do not know, but, whom I have seen around. Those words are indicative of humility and great humanity. I will read this again, later when I truly have time. I must get ready for company. I will just place a little piece of information in here about myself, well to make you go OMG! I am a “born again Christian” but don’r get your ire up now for although that is true, let me state one of my beliefs. I believe that all of the great religions are merely languages that G-d (whomever one believes G-d to be) gave to different cultures so G-d and the culture could communicate. Now I believe also that these languages have all been bastardized by men, and utilized to acquire “power over” others as opposed to be used to “empower others.”

    Thank you for accepting my request.

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