The Babel About Prayer

Prayer can and does mean different things in different contexts and to different people.

Rick Perry’s “The Response” has brought about predictable reactions from the left and right.

On the left hand, there is Frank Bruni’s characterization of the event and prayer itself as a form of magical thinking practiced by wide-eyed evangelicals, full of fire and brimstone but lacking common sense.

On the right hand, there is On Faith’s Jordan Sekulow’s vigorous defense of prayer and equally conscientious effort to correct Bruni’s understanding of Christianity.

Take either the left or the right, but realize that never the twain shall meet.

Both these perspectives on prayer show us the blinkered nature of much of our discourse about religion. Instead of talking to God, or to one another, we’re babbling on to our own constituencies.

Let’s begin on the left with Frank Bruni’s characterization of prayer as an “obstacle.” The way Bruni diagrams the dynamic, prayer is something exclusively other wordly. It promotes passivity by seeking divine intervention for problems that should, and can, be addressed through human action. Indeed, prayer is essentially a return to magic that people in the media just “don’t get.”

Magical thinking, of course, is not limited to those religiously inclined, as Bruni quite wisely points out. For example, the idea of a the market as a living breathing entity — something that “wants” in the words of so many commentators — has more than a tincture of magic. In response, some might say that economics is based upon something that religion lacks: empirical evidence. But the weight of “facts” is often measured on a shifting scale. In any case, hope, faith, and other inclinations that inform prayer, are not alien even within the most resolutely atheistic view of things.

But Bruni does miss the horizontal aspect of prayer: it’s sociological dynamics and significance. In “The Response,” thirty thousand people affirmed a common Biblical narrative and a common critique of contemporary America. Precisely for this reason, I called “The Response” “political three-card monte” since what was going on in the stadium mattered much more than what was presumably taking place in the heavens. “The Response,” like other forms of communal prayer, weaves together individual dispositions with a collective will. The result is not simplistic and rigid; it’s complex and adaptable. This is what makes prayer so personally transformative and politically effective.

Coming in from the right, Jordan Sekulow picks up on the horizontal aspect of prayer when he takes Bruni to task. Sekulow draws attention to the connection between faith and works within Christianity. While the proper ordering of “faith” and “works” has been a point of contention in Christianity, there is no question that prayer, as an expression of faith, is quite active indeed.

Sekulow goes further, however, in presenting a full-bodied Biblical framework for explaining how and why Christian evangelicals think and act they way they do when it comes to prayer.

As helpful Sekulow’s explanation is, it does not specifically address the question of the rationality of prayer that Bruni raises. For example, when we Christians pray, are we essentially persuading God to act differently than would otherwise be the case? This raises the question whether God is changeable: a question with important, and potentially troubling, ramifications for conventional Christian understandings of divinity. Another way to look at things is to say that prayer doesn’t change God, but prayer does change us. Questions can be posed to this position as well: how does this transformation happen? Are only Christians, or Christians of a specific kind, the recipients of this power? Does God help only if we ask for help?

The problem with much of Christian discussion of prayer is that it leads to a feed back loop based upon theological or metaphysical assumptions whose implications are never fully examined. That very well may be the result of “faith,” but it does make prayer harder to explain to those who find the whole concept irrational.

The crucial point is the most obvious one: prayer can and does mean different things in different contexts. Whether it is a help or hindrance depends not just on reaching a verdict regarding the vertical dimensions of prayer as communion with God but also on appreciating the horizontal dynamics of prayer as a communion of people. Our Babel about prayer shows that what is eminently comprehensible to one group is simply incomprehensible to another.

Image courtesy of Tico.

Mathew N. Schmalz
Written by