Two Cheers for Prayer Shaming
My mentor at Fordham, the late Quentin Lauer, S.J., who helped introduce Husserl’s phenomenology to an American audience and was a Hegel scholar par excellence, liked to tell a story about his boyhood in Brooklyn, where he would go swimming off the docks adjacent to Upper New York bay with Jewish and Protestant friends. He wore a religious medal – the “Miraculous Medal” often worn by Catholic Christians, depicting Mary on one side and an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the other – on a chain around his neck. His friends would taunt him in a friendly way: “do you really think that medal would save you if you started to drown?” Lauer would reply: “no, but if I did drown, I would want those who recovered the body to know that I was a Catholic.”
I bring this up for two reasons. First of all, even though I have long described myself, unapologetically, as an agnostic, I had the good fortune – at least I take it to be good fortune – to have been educated by the Jesuits. They showed me very clearly not only that one could be a religious believer and dedicated to the life of the mind, but that there was a keen obligation on the part of believer and non-believer alike to observe the first commandment of Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of American Pragmatism: “do not block the way of inquiry.” And they were adamant that genuine religious conviction is something quite other than magic or benign sorcery – a talisman to control supernatural powers and forces – and that to view it as such is the vilest of idolatries. The Jesuits I knew believed in God, in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, and in the Trinity: they emphatically did not construe that Trinitarian deity as a Deus ex machina, a God of inconvenient gaps to be summoned to make our difficult life-crises easier to bear, our difficult questions easier to answer, our difficult choices easier to make (or avoid). There was nothing “easy” about Christianity as they construed it. Its point was to make things more difficult, but difficult in a unique way, the way of discipleship. God will see us all dead in the end, but the death, bearing the stamp of discipleship, might mean something different, something perhaps more radiant. That’s why my mentor wore that medal.
I also bring this up because, in the past days, our vocabularies have been enriched by a new description, “prayer shaming”, largely because of a memorable headline in the New York Daily News, “God Isn’t Fixing This,” referring to the outpouring of prayerful wishes from politicians who will continue to ignore the wider issues at stake, especially that of the ridiculous proliferation of guns and violence in the United States today, and will continue to do absolutely nothing about it. This has generated a very predictable backlash from our omnipresent right-wing noise machine, depicting it as an attack on faith itself, yet another salvo from the fortresses of liberal-lefty secularism. This misses the point – most Right-wing noise does – but in two very different ways, one frequently noted in the blogosphere, one not. I want to give brief mention to the first, while paying closer attention to the second.
First, although the term is, “prayer shaming” isn’t exactly new. It isn’t exactly anti-religious either. In fact, it used to be called “prophecy”, giving witness to the failures of the religious community itself. Just prior to giving voice to “The Lord’s Prayer” in Matthew 6, Jesus gives this instruction to his followers:
Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven . . . And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
And what follows next is the “Our Father.” If that’s not “prayer shaming” (by way of prayer itself!), I don’t know what is.
In other words, Jesus is saying: beware those quick to display piety in public. (Or on Twitter.) Why? The ulterior motives that are so prevalent among humans. Those of pharisaical bent always wish to seem good and pious and holy, and think that such seeming is equivalent to being good and pious and holy. But this is the original Monotheistic humblebrag: look and admire me, one and all, I am so very worthy because I am saying out loud and in public how unworthy I am! I humble myself before my God! Aren’t I great?!
This kind of falsely humble piety is not just a matter of praying as a feeble substitute for ethical action, for actually trying to do something about the epidemic of violence that has plagued the United States for ages, but has become especially acute in the last few years. That’s bad enough and deserves all the “prayer shaming” it can get. It is also about posturing. Posturing involves a kind of self-display and self-satisfaction that is actually antithetical to not just genuine religious faith but the sincere act of prayer itself. The quote – probably apocryphal – attributed to St. Francis of Assisi puts matters perfectly well: “Preach the gospel constantly. If necessary use words.” Unnecessary words tend to become mere platitudes, mere banalities. I think it safe to say that, on even a cursory serious reading of the Gospels, Jesus did not have much use for platitudes.
Grandiose displays of self-congratulatory posturing are not limited to theists, of course. I am reminded of the attempt of “new atheists” Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins to dub secularists, atheists, and humanists of all stripes “brights” – as if, by definition, those who do not fall neatly into those classifications, such as my Jesuit teachers, are “dims.” But there is something especially offensive about monotheistic Christians, Jews, and Muslims who wear their religious convictions as emblems of righteousness rather than reminders of human frailty and finitude. (This is true of both Islamic jihadists as their sanctimonious Christian foes.) There are times to pray and times to think. So, pray on your own time in that “secret place.” When you are a citizen, come into the agora, and make like Socrates. That is: think.
Second: those in politics and otherwise in the public eye who promiscuously tweeted their prayers for the victims in San Bernardino and Colorado Springs presumably did so, in part, because their prayers were meant to accomplish something. That is what “petitionary” prayer is: asking God for something – for mercy, for guidance, and so on. I do not see anything inherently offensive or irrational in that (which is why I can only summon up two cheers for prayer shaming). It is a key part of a religious form-of-life that, as Wittgenstein often reminded us, needs to be understood (and accepted or rejected) on its own terms. But often enough, alas, petitionary prayer (or Tweeting) is offensive and irrational, offensive because irrational – and idolatrous, on the very grounds established by the Western monotheistic religions that gave rise to and support it.
The God – and although it’s not what our right-wing Christians want to hear, it is the same God – of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is creator ex nihilo and, as such, not literally like anything in the natural world. Analogies can be drawn, metaphors created, which give meaningful semantic content to this creator-God, but these are understood as analogies and metaphors, not straightforward literal descriptions. The God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is not, as Terry Eagleton put it, akin to “a very large and powerful creature.” That would be sheer idolatry. The creator-God of Genesis, the Gospels, and the Koran is the “condition of the possibility of any kind of entity whatsoever,” or why there is something rather than nothing, and not first among equals in the class of finite entities. The God of the Western Monotheistic traditions is thus not Zeus hurling thunderbolts from Olympus at hubristic offenses, nor is he Ra riding his sun-chariot from east to west. Any attempt to de-analogize the divine analogies or de-metaphorize religious metaphor, by assimilating God to human vehicles of comprehensibility, is idolatry. Full stop.
And yet, and yet….. Isn’t this object of idolatry the very picture of God that emerges from so much of the petitionary Tweeting that goes on in the wake of recent tragedy? God, as Eagleton quips, as “cosmic Chief executive officer”, reading the emails, maybe being persuaded to say “yes, by gum, maybe it’s time for me to help these poor souls out down there.” Petitionary prayer becomes a kind of incantation, a magic chant that, if repeated long enough and sincerely enough, will provoke a cause to bring about the desired effect. A cure for my cancer. A much-needed raise. An end to war. An end to mass shootings (preferably without impacting my Second Amendment right to buy assault weapons without a background check). The mass conversion of Muslims to Christianity (or the mass conversion of Christians and Jews to Islam). And so on.
Prayer thus becomes a form of gnostic manipulation: get the hang of the secret Tweet, and maybe you will get results. It is bad enough that this idolatrous conflation of prayer with magic turns us all into Hamlets who stop thinking and “lose the name of action.” What is worse is that this is a self-consuming form of piety, one which easily turns into its opposite: the pretense of knowledge, the conceit of having the inside-track on The Holy, the false confidence that maybe we are not so finite and tragic a bunch of creatures after all.
I am not admonishing religious believers to stop praying altogether, or to cease asking their God for mercy or respite. I am merely asking them to be faithful to the core of their tradition, which centers on the transcending non-comprehensibility of their God, and to draw the right conclusions from the rejecting of idolatry when they pray. In other words: stop twisting your God’s arm, and maybe do something yourself about important matters.
Wouldn’t it be unbearably smug for one who prayed for a remission from a virulent form of cancer, say, and who actually got the remission asked for, to think “well God did that especially for me!” That is cold comfort for those who prayed and died from their cancer. Was their prayer pointless? Or did it fulfill a different purpose than asking the cosmic CEO for a favor? Why do you presume to know what your God is up to all the time? Or that he is on “our” side (and who do you suppose “our” means)? When I hear insipid clichés like “God makes sure everything happens for a higher purpose”, “God answers all prayers but sometimes the answer is ‘no’”, I stifle a scream. It makes the “God” in question an arbitrary jerk, and the advocate of this cracker-barrel wisdom an even bigger one. Saul Bellow once quipped – crudely but justly – that these banalities are akin to saying “every gas chamber has a silver lining.” (Him With the Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories, p.17) And that is as repulsive a sentiment as one could possibly imagine. If this if what your prayer implies, well, shame on it. And shame on you.
Any God worthy of the name is not the kind of being – not a being at all, when you get down to it – that does good stuff for you if he has time to fit you in on his Outlook calendar. That kind of cause-and-effect is not on the menu. If your petition is more of a cry in the wilderness hanging from a torture device – Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”) – then I suspect you get the point.
Most of our right-wing religious noisemakers, I fear, miss that point. Their God is nicely contained and constrained in a box of dogma and ersatz “civil religion”, partially theological but mostly political, that is actually quite at odds with the traditions they claim to endorse. And this leads to all sorts of mischief, mostly violent and hateful mischief: as per Goya, the sleep of reason produces monsters. The reason I persist in my agnosticism is that I doubt whether one can rest in one’s theism without allowing one’s reason to fall asleep at times, and possibly the wrong times. It is why I doubt that one can live a truly philosophical life and a genuinely religious life simultaneously. I fully admit I might be wrong about that, and that my former Jesuit teachers provide perhaps the best flesh-and-blood counterexamples. But if one takes religious faith both seriously and as it is, as did my teachers and mentors, one should be quick to renounce the myriad ways its distortion by cant and banality can lead to not only superstition and violence, but damaging self-importance and self-satisfaction as well. It can lead you just as easily to forget why you wear that medal as to remember. If your prayer can save you, it can destroy you as well.