Monday, August 2

Mass Murder and the Incredible Shrinking God


OK … full disclosure … I don’t get it. I mean … I.   Just.   Don’t.   Get.   It. 

I am writing this on 3 December the day after 14 people were shot and killed in San Bernardino, CA, by two people whose motivation, as of this writing, is as yet unclear. Well … life is full of mysteries, isn’t it? But here is one more. In the wake of the shooting, various members of Congress – all Republican, as far as I know, though party affiliation is utterly beside the point, so please … save yourself the trouble of providing partisan counter-examples – various members of Congress issued public statements … actually publicity statements … piously assuring the victims’ families and friends that their (the Congress members’) “prayers are with you in this difficult time” (or words to that effect). To issue these statements, many of these same members of Congress had to interrupt their perpetual lubricious tryst in the incestuous bed where they had been cavorting with the NRA by repeatedly voting against enhanced gun control … and against funding for mental-health programs … go figure … as I said, mysteries abound. But even that is not the mystery I am referring to.

The real mystery is prayer itself. To wit … why bother?


 Now, I am realistic enough to know that some people, even gun-control supporters, will object that, in writing this way, I am critiquing others’ religious faith … which, as anyone knows who has been careful to not read the introduction / foreword to Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, absolutely, categorically must be accorded awed, reverent, and respectful silence, even in the face of patent absurdities … as in Bill Maher’s brilliant analogy about the guy in the waiting room who tells inquirers he is praying to his hair dryer. (One other document they have evidently neglected to peruse is the New Testament, in particular the genteel and tactful utterances of Jesus about “Scribes and Pharisees! Hypocrites!” and of John the Baptist's adroitly diplomatic language  about the Pharisees being a “generation of snakes”. But never mind now … ) When I was a student in the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University, I was taught that, while I need not necessarily or personally agree that, e.g., a hair dryer is an appropriate object of worship, I simply must, contra Sam Harris, treat such beliefs on the part of others with undifferentiated and uncritical deference and not wax overtly skeptical or disputatious. (This was a practice and a standard of behavior almost never observed toward very conservative / Pius X / sedevacantist Catholics regarding, e.g., artificial birth control and the ordination of women, of course.) But in any case, why I absolutely, categorically must do so was never explained, but ... not to cavil ... Mea maxima culpa! For whatever reason, that teaching never gained traction with me. So why object now?

Because, at least when uttered in the public square, most prayer rhetoric – like the vast, vast majority of religious rhetoric these days, especially during the Holidays – is intended to make us feel good by affording us the appearance of compassion and spirituality while dispensing with the substance. Thus it enables us to take refuge in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer so aptly called “cheap grace”. We talk in order to escape the burden of acting. But let’s pause momentarily so that we can be “fair and balanced” and thus give Fox News its due …

There is a perfectly valid – and, in my individual experience, quite effective – function for prayer in terms of “centering” the pray-er, keeping one’s head screwed on straight, observing a brief individual “Sabbath”, regaining incrementally eroded perspective, and, speaking generally, in promoting mental hygiene. The Jesus Prayer. Buddhist chants. Personally, I practice vipassana (“mindfulness”) meditation. (Again, full disclosure: I am not especially consistent – one day on, two days off – but then the idea is not to use prayer / meditation as an enabling vehicle for OCD.) Not only do my preceding remarks not apply to that type of prayer, I heartily recommend finding such a prayer tradition – Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim … matters not a whit – and practice it for the sake of one’s own, individual emotional and spiritual health. Or make up your own tradition / practice. (I find it personally salubrious to be connected with a tradition, the longer the better. But that’s me, not necessarily you.) The possibilities are endless. I remember how sheerly mega-healthy I felt after spending a half-hour silently chanting the Diamond Sutra at the wonderful old Tomyoji Temple at Sankien Gardens in Yokohama. Is this just a kind of DIY psychotherapy?  Maybe.  But even if it is ... so what? ... Anyway … not to belabor the point … peace … Dhatta! Dhayadvam! Damyata! Shantih! Shantih! Shantih! … Sei immer in Ruhe …


Where the wheels come off the bus for me, rather, is when people say something like “I will pray for you” or “Let’s pray for them” or “Let’s pray for [insert some desired future event or condition] “. To me, the arrant nonsense – and no, I will not back away from that description in the name of respecting blatant absurdities … I have a conscience, too, you see – lies in the expectation that prayer can be the efficient or instrumental cause in effecting some kind of change in either external circumstances in the “world out there” or in effecting similar changes, not in my emotional / psychological state, but in someone else’s emotional / psychological stateAnd. Then. Doing. Nothing. Nothing to effect the change we apparently expect prayer alone to make. Perhaps it was to something like this belief that the writer of the book of James was referring in James 2:16:  "If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?" -- a pattern conservatives have, in the last few days since the shooting, come to refer to as "prayer-shaming" ... which makes the author of James the original "prayer-shamer".

At any rate, to a large extent, this is in slavish conformity to culture. I remember a few years ago, Ann Druyan, the late Carl Sagan’s widow, appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, and in the course of the ensuing panel discussion, which centered on the rise of anti-scientific, anti-rational attitudes in Western culture at large, she remarked on a certain attitude or strand of thought that advocated simply “wishing real hard” for something to happen and then expecting it to happen, a practice often described more faux-mystically as “sending positive energy” to achieve thus-and-so. If this sounds like a New-Age-esque conception of prayer-as-efficient-cause, the similarity is not merely coincidental. In fact, in the long view of history, it is almost inevitable, given the West’s ingrained and persistent nostalgia for a God Who actually … well … “does stuff”.


And yet … and yet … as Daffy Duck said to Nasty Canasta in the saloon, “Listen, hombre!” I’m afraid it isn’t quite that simple. Expecting nothing of the Judaeo-Christian God in terms of being an efficient Cause is something foreign to the biblical text which – presumably – has historically been accorded such a place of privilege in Christianity. The God of the Bible does most emphatically, often violently, “do stuff”. Sometimes in answer to prayer.  Not that every single, solitary, discrete event need be taken as literal and historical. Not that any of it does.  One need no more ascribe historicity to every -- or any -- biblical narrative in order to derive a theology, than one need accept the story of the young George Washington confessing to chopping down his father’s cherry tree as factually historical in order to assess Washington's character. The purpose of both is not necessarily to describe an actual event but to inculcate a general principle: to teach a certain theology of a God active in history, in the former case, and to teach about George Washington’s well-attested exceptional personal integrity, in the latter. Moby Dick is not less as a novel because there probably never was a Great White Whale or an Ahab or a Pequod.

Of course, you are free to reject the biblical text, even on catechetical / theological grounds. As an atheist and skeptic, as my maternal Arkansas grandfather used to say, “I ain’t got no dawg in ‘at ‘ere fight”. But if you are a monotheistically religious person … yea and verily! if you are a highly non-fundamentalist, progressive Christian … consider the ultimate consequences of continually, over time, trimming back your expectations of God to fit the Procrustean bed provided by the customary and conventional categories of causality and of human rationality -- a process technically known as "demythologizing". A strong case can be made that with successive waves of demythologization, the Judaeo-Christian God simply fades away like the Cheshire Cat, leaving, like the Cheshire Cat's grin, only a purely human residue, albeit a human residue purified, idealized, and writ large. (I may be misattributing, but I seem to recall that Samuel Taylor Coleridge said the average Englishman's conception of God was "as of an immense Clergyman". At the end of demythologizing lies "an immense Human Being".) Hence the Incredible Shrinking God, Who cannot disappoint, Who cannot frustrate because of such a God one can expect nothing – at least nothing one cannot equally expect, and with a lot less extraneous metaphysical scaffolding, of rational and enlightened human action. Demythologizing is merely atheism in slow motion, not because it proves that God does not exist, but because it proves that only human beings do. (Now, please understand:  I have no problem whatsoever with that. I am neither advocating nor engaging in partisan theological polemics, but simply tracing out the logical consequences:  "If I postulate A, B, and C, then X, Y, and Z necessarily follow". That's all.) Then along comes Ockham’s Razor, whereupon Voltaire is vindicated: God created humans and humans returned the favor. I will not presume to tell you whether this is progress or not.  Your call.

The point is ... aside from personal mental and spiritual health, I guess I have come full circle, like the worm OuroborosThe real mystery is prayer itself. To wit … why bother?

 James R. Cowles


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