Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Prayer and Atheism

Listening to Peter Rollins' session on the Pete Holmes podcast last month, I came across an interesting idea. It was a throw-away line, really, from Rollins, but caused some mild joy in my heart. He said, "You have to be a little bit atheist to pray. If you REALLY believed in God you wouldn't need to."

I know I've written here before about my journeys with prayer. I'm not the kind of guy who can sit still and (mentally or physically) say words as if there were a conversation happening. It's easy enough in a corporate setting, where we're composing a prayer from a group of people, we're expressing our collective thoughts and desires. It makes much more sense there. In a personal vein, though, it's always seemed strange to me.

There's the childhood question, "If God knows what we're thinking, why do we have to say it or even direct it intentionally towards God?" I'm not sure how some strong Calvinist would answer that question, but having grown up in a free-will tradition I was always told that our requests can influence God's actions. It was also sort of a warning not to ask for the wrong things since God might choose to give them to you.

I don't know if there's time or if my brain has enough capacity to properly discuss the theological problems with that particular exchange, but I'm finding myself more and more in agreement with my childhood self.

As I said, I've never been that kind of pray-er. Perhaps if I find myself in a particular difficult mental or emotional spot, that kind of prayer can be cathartic or provide enough rest and/or perspective to stabilize a person for functional life tasks. But that is ultimately was Rollins was getting at, right? He was saying people pray because they can't entirely believe God knows everything and acts lovingly all the time.

It should be said he's not at all critical of this - and neither am I. Doubt is an important part of faith and the ability to express our doubts in prayer can be vital for us. It's reaching out a hand during a scary movie, just some gesture to remind ourselves there's someone else out there. We're not in this alone.

I've been mulling, though, if some of my personal peculiarities make belief an easier challenge than it is for other people. I really don't feel the need to pray - at least in the way Rollins refers to it here. I commune with God. I spend time in silence or contemplation and, from time to time, I'd eve claim God has spoken to me. I find moments of great spiritual connection that seem entirely in line with the broader view of prayer we find in scripture and Christian tradition.

I don't do a lot of praying, though, in the typical sense. I wonder if that's because I really don't have a bit of atheism in me. There's lots of things I question, things I hold at an intellectual arms length for whatever reason, but I don't doubt God.

I'm not saying this to prove some superiority. On the contrary, I'm saying this to sort of confess some of my failings.

Apparently, the typical person is very in touch with their own feelings, but struggles to translate those feelings into deep belief. This is generally the purpose of counseling or psychotherapy, to sort through the feelings and figure out what's true. Recently I've discovered I may be the (surprise, surprise) opposite, functioning on some odd plane where I reason out core beliefs, determining what's truth without feeling anything at all.

People who know me well have often joked I have Asperger's or some unspecified developmental disorder because of my intense inability to understand how other people think (and often how to relate with them). I've never been officially diagnosed or anything, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me. I do have what seems to be an uncanny ability to act based on beliefs I've worked out nowhere else besides my own head.

I believe all people are good and valuable, that everyone deserves the same treatment without priority or other attachment. It's not difficult for me to treat my family the same way I try to treat everyone or vice versa. (Now there is some difference in terms of responsibility - I have to be a parent and feed and clothe my child, I made promises to my wife - those are different than simply treating people a certain way.) Let's say my brother had some disease that would likely lead to a kidney transplant down the road, but some stranger needed one immediately; I'm pretty sure my only internal conflict would be over the social convention of prioritizing family, not the actual core rightness of the decision.

I'm not saying I can operate completely devoid of emotion, but I certainly seem a lot better at it than most people. This, of course, often makes things difficult. I make choices that seem logical and right to me, which seem to annoy or offend and definitely puzzle those around me. I've sort of gotten used to it by now. As much as it makes some things difficult, it certainly makes others much easier.

I believe God exists. I believe God is at work to bring about the redemption and fulfillment of all that exists and that God will act in perfect love to accomplish this inevitability. Even if this doesn't seem like what's happening in the world around us, I believe it indeed is happening.

Because of that, it doesn't make a lot of sense to ask God for anything. God certainly knows what bothers me. I can express frustration for injustice and impatience in seeing it rectified; I often do. Ultimately, those things will not help change much, since God is doing as much as God can or will do at all times.

I certainly believe God can, does, and will change, based on circumstances and the choices of we humans with whom God interacts. I'm not at all saying things are necessarily determined (shoot, I don't even believe the specifics of the future are knowable, by God or anyone else), I just recognize that God knows and understands the intricacies of my mind and actions regardless of whether I communicate them or not. Whatever God will take into account from me, is happening, whether I say it or not.

Ultimately, what I'm saying is what I think Peter Rollins was getting at - we pray for ourselves. I pause to pray before meals and have taught my daughter to do the same, not because God needs this, but because that pause helps us reflect on where this food comes from and all the way's we're provided for outside our own capacity to survive.

It's not that those words need to be said or that if I don't say them - or even think them - God will some how act differently towards me. I don't believe that at all. I do believe that perhaps I'll act differently towards the world, I may stop believing those things, if I don't pray. Intellectually, practically, those prayers are entirely for me.

This is why there was some joy in hearing Rollins talk this way about prayer being for atheists. It does come at the moment of our weakness, specifically for our personal formation. Prayer can change things - it changes us, based on how we do it and what we believe. If you're never thinking about a larger reality and the way you're supposed to act in the world (and how your beliefs influence those actions), then, yes, you may have a problem. Prayer might be a good thing for you. But if you are taking that time to implement practices of evaluation and formation, working to live rightly in the world, you probably shouldn't feel guilty about your lack of prayer - you may, in fact, really be praying far more than you ever suspect.

*As I was looking for the right image to put with the post above, I discovered this interesting one: 

This is what I mean when I tell some of my atheist friends they might be Christian and not know it. I've got no problem with this at all - you could replace the word "Atheist" with "Christian" and be just as accurate. Life is all about what we believe to be the best way to act in the world and why.

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