Friday, October 3, 2014

Further Thoughts On Prayer: A Weekday Rumination

I was going to write about Islamic threats to life and freedom this morning, but as I was outlining the essay my thoughts veered onto another this case explicably, for the divergence occurred as I was praying. Please consider the following a sequel to this piece from just a few weeks ago.

One of the salient differences that distinguishes Christianity from other faiths is its attitude toward prayer. Most other faiths mandate prayer, whether in a certain form, at certain times, or a certain number of instances per day or week. The Christian take on prayer is that:

  • It's good for you;
  • God listens.

That's all. The longstanding contention over the idea that God "answers" prayers is likely not to be settled on this side of the grave, but as a character of mine would tell you, it's meaningless in any case:

    “What makes it hard for most people,” Ray said, “is that we tend to think of God as just a very powerful temporal entity, like some sort of super-magician. But He’s not. He created time. He looks down on it from above, the way you or I would read a map. He knows the path we follow because He knows all the paths we might follow, and what might flow from every one of them.” He sat back and reflected for a moment. “So our time-dependent language about ‘choosing’ and ‘knowing’ gets us into trouble when we try to apply it to God.”

If we follow that line of thought into the question of whether God answers petitionary prayer, we arrive at a curious, and curiously satisfying conclusion:

  1. Inasmuch as we, temporal beings all, freely choose to pray or not to pray,
  2. And inasmuch as God's divine Will operates supra-temporally (rather than in consequence of developments, as our wills do);
  3. Whatever God does that's germane to Man is predetermined by Man's aggregate choice of paths under the veil of Time.
  4. Therefore:
    1. Whether God nudges persons or events in the temporal realm after one prays is "because" one has chosen to pray, whereas if one had chosen otherwise, God's interaction with the temporal realm might also have been otherwise.
    2. Therefore, it is one's decision to choose the path of prayer, when aggregated with all the contemporaneous decisions of others, that brings about God's "response." But God's response is a function of the aggregate choice of path, rather than a quirky "Should I or shouldn't I?" decision on God's part, as if He were as temporal a being as we!

The idea behind Laurie Kendrick's famous "God Calling" piece is in a sense a parallel approach to this exegesis. It employs the idea of God continuously servicing human "needs" rather than a cause-and-effect notion of prayer evoking a particular Divine "response," but the seed of the thing is there nonetheless.

Which leaves me thinking that the proper reply to "Does God really answer our prayers?" might just be "Does it matter?"

I have a Catholic friend, an Army veteran near to my age who strikes most people who know him as having more rough edges than smooth ones, who's endured a spate of very ill health for some time. It's got him down in the dumps, impeded his productive efforts and his general enjoyment of life. I don't know if he prays for the restoration of his health; that's a question far too personal even for a Catholic friend to ask. But I pray for it -- not in expectation that my prayers will "cause" God to heal him, but because it's a good thing to do. Jesus Himself counseled us to pray for such things, both for ourselves and for those we love.

I'm not going to go all Wilford Brimley on you. Everything about prayer is a personal matter: whether or not to pray, when to pray, what to pray about, and so forth. But despite the little chain of implications in the previous segment, we humans, trapped in Time and limited in our comprehension of matters beyond it, cannot escape the sense that prayer does have causative power. I pray for the restoration of my friend's health because I want him to get better, and I sense that my prayers will somehow assist in bringing that about. The supra-temporal complexities of the matter, entangling Man's freedom of the will with God's infinitely higher and broader view of Man's existence as spread through Time, are irrelevant to a human soul. I want this outcome; therefore I pray for it.

And I know with absolute certainty that whatever the "effect" on his corporal health, my prayers for him are good -- for me.

This is an important, perhaps a critically important aspect of prayer. No matter what your "purpose" is in offering it, sincere prayer cannot help but be good for you:

  • It reaffirms your faith, and the values you associate with it.
  • It reinforces your consciousness of your soul, and (of course) of God.
  • It expresses your love of those for whom you pray -- and yes, that includes yourself.
  • And for a brief time, it lifts from your frail, fallible shoulders the responsibility for "fixing things."

Can you feel those things when you pray? Assuming you pray, that is -- but if youdon't pray, whatever the reason, doesn't the availability of those benisons tempt you to try it on, at least a little?

Adult converts to a religious faith tend to be more outspoken about it than those who've held that faith lifelong. In some cases, it's out of defensiveness about a significant shift in perspective that others might find incomprehensible, even absurd. In others, it's an expression of need to find others similarly touched, that one might protect and reinforce one's conversion by surrounding oneself with other believers. And in still others, it's because adult converts have reasons for their conversion that might never occur to persons whose faith is rooted in childhood instruction and indoctrination.

I'm in that last category. I rejected the indoctrination I received as a child, shortly after I went out on my own. It wasn't a reasoned development; it had much more to do with the milieu I entered and the prevalent anti-religious attitudes of the times. A great many other adult returnees to Christian faith could say much the same.

As I left youth behind and entered what might euphemistically be called my "mature years," I felt a powerful urge to reconnect with God. However, I had a significant barrier to overcome before I could embrace faith once again: I had to satisfy my intellect, my greatest asset and proudest jewel, that there was nothing whatsoever about Christianity that's "fantastic" or "silly." Once I'd done that, I could return to Christ.

Needless to say, I managed it eventually. There was intellectual work involved, some of it strenuous beyond what others would find agreeable...or possible. But the sense at the conclusion that it all makes sense, is wholly beneficial to Man, and is beautiful beyond words besides, was and remains a powerful motivator toward pieces such as these. It's why I write them despite a great volume of discouragements and derisions of several kinds.

You could say I'm doing this for myself. That's certainly true. But I'm also doing it for any others who might need reassurance in their faith, or who feel the pull but are disturbed by the powerful anti-religious and anti-clerical currents in contemporary Western culture. I hope any Gentle Reader who fits either of those descriptions derives some benefit from these Ruminations.

Indeed, I pray that you do.

May God bless and keep you all.


Anonymous said...

As a non-believer, I assure you that I do indeed derive benefit from your Ruminations.

Anonymous said...

Well done sir.