As you might imagine, I've developed a reputation among some of my fellow students for my theological depth. However, theological depth is all-too-often mistaken for spiritual depth, despite the fact that the two have little in common. My friend, in inquiring about my prayer life, may have expected some discourse on mystical prayer, but my answer was more frank, honest, and depressed.
"I don't really pray any more," I told him.
"What do you mean you don't really pray any more?" he asked, with more curiosity than judgment in his voice.
"I mean, I don't really pray any more. I don't really have a prayer life. I try to pray from time to time, but I simply can't do it."
My answer surprised even me, because it was one of the first times I'd admitted out loud what I'd long been keeping to myself. In my day-to-day life, prayer simply doesn't make sense any more. I'm more than a little bit troubled by this, in part because I still give at least lip service to the power of prayer and the authenticity of religious experience. I still can point to times in my life when I've prayed and found it quite helpful, or when I've experienced the presence and reality of God. But prayer is no longer a real factor, a live practice, in my life.
I've been reading Elizabeth Johnson's She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse in my spare time. (Yes, for the moment I'm off my Cone kick, though I'm sure I'll come back to Cone!) I guess I'm a little embarrassed that when my friend Amy nominated it for the Contemporary Theology Meme, I didn't know what it was. The problem with being mostly self-educated is that there are some gaping holes in my theological education, and so in what free time I get from the rigors of seminary, I try to fill those holes. So, I've been studying black theology and feminist theology of late, trying to add the voices of other traditions to my own, lest I think that my approach is the normative one.
Long before I picked up Johnson's classic work (winner of the 1993 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion!) I had been exposed to enough of the feminist theological critique to stop using exclusively masculine images of God. As such, Johnson has in me a fairly receptive and even friendly audience. So far I haven't seen anything in her work that condemns me and forces me to reconsider my stated positions and theological commitments. But her work has still encouraged me to look deep inside myself and consider how I approach my beliefs about and interactions with God. A particular passage, which I read just after my seminary friend inquired about my prayer life, helped me see why I might have trouble praying:
Feminist theological analysis makes clear that exclusive, literal, patriarchal speech about God has a twofold negative effect. It fails both human beings and divine mystery. In stereotyping and then banning female reality as suitable metaphor for Good, such speech justifies the dominance of men while denigrating the human dignity of women. Simultaneously this discourse so reduces divine mystery to the single, reified metaphor of the ruling man that the symbol itself loses its religious significance and the ability to point to ultimate truth. It becomes, in a word, an idol. These two effects are inseparable for damage to the Imago Dei in the creature inevitably shortchanges knowledge of the Creator in whose image she is made. Inauthentic ways of treating other human beings go hand-in-glove with falsifications of the idea of God.
I already understood that exclusively masculine images of and language about God denied females participation in the Imago Dei, the image of God, and as such denied full humanity and dignity to women. What I had not realized - or, at least, had not yet articulated to myself - before reading this is that exclusively male symbols for God also degrade the idea of God.
But, according to Johnson, identifying God exclusively as a "He" (or with other masculine images, such as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, etc.) in fact "has a twofold negative effect." It is not only a pastoral issue, harming women by denying them participation in the divine, and as such in effect placing men always and everywhere as in authority over them by virtue of their more complete participation in the nature of God. It is also a theological issue, confining God to a limited and inadequate set of symbols, thus limiting our concept of the divine and holy mystery.
While it is the first concern that caused me to stop using exclusive language to refer to God, it is the second concern that may be at the root of my impoverish prayer life. All my life, you see, I've interacted with a God who is unconsciously conceived of as a big, powerful, and wise man, standing outside, over and above the created order. It is this concept of God that was embedded in each of my religious experiences, and which has always been a part of my prayer life. But I no longer believe in, and so can no longer pray to, a Big Guy in the Sky. However, while my theology has developed some concepts of God to replace the inadequate one, my prayer life has not. As such, I can write about a more mature and better thought out concept of God, but that God exists only conceptually, not experientially. That God is a part of my developing theology, but not a part of my religious experience or practice.
Does anyone else out there in the Blogosphere share a similar problem?
Or, to put it another way:
How is your prayer life? How does it relate to your theology?
[Note: The long promised post on Marcus Borg's understanding of Jesus as a Spirit Person still sits unfinished in my hard drive, waiting for this most recent batch of papers to be written. I haven't forgotten it. I simply haven't had the time to finish it. I will post it as soon as I catch up on seminary work. I promise...]