Thursday, April 12, 2007

Prayer Life of a Theology Student

The other day a dear friend of mine, a fellow student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary studying to be a Presbyterian (USA) minister, asked me about my prayer life. That's the sort of question that may be taboo in everyday conversation, but which is appropriate and even expected on a seminary campus. My answer, however, wasn't so expected.

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...]


Liam said...

Interesting post, Chris. In the Catholic church, with its heirarchy and well-defined liturgy, there is always a lot of back and forth about questions like that of gender-inclusive language. I think there is a reasonable argument that says using the traditional masculine language shows respect for tradition, but still if one goes down that path, one must always remember that it is a convention used to pray to a transcendent God. I have often said that any one who insists on a real "maleness" of God is practically committing blasphemy by trying to limit God through gender. For me, each church/parish should find its appropriate middle ground.

As far as a student's prayer life... well, we're very busy, aren't we? I do think that study in general, and theological study in particular, can be a form of prayer. My uncle, a de la Salle brother who teaches spirituality at an ecumenical institute in England, is very interested in the relationship of study and prayer. He said he began thinking about it when talking to a religious scholar who said she had two bibles -- one for study and one for prayer.

As for my prayer life, I wish it was more developed, but the dissertation (it's my wife and it's my life) is very demanding. I do get a lot out of liturgical prayer, so going to Mass helps me, and Easter week has been terrific. I also start and end the day with a "Glory Be." It's not much, but at least it shows I'm trying to be aware of it.

Patrik said...

I might give a more in depth answer at some point cause I think you are asking important questions here.

But for now, I once was asked the same thing by a fellow student. My answer? "None of you f**king business". He was quite shocked. But I still stand by that answer.

crystal said...

A very interesting post.

About the use of language in prayer, I think of it as traditional but it doesn't restrict my ideas of God ... I think the church does realize God's beyond gender.

I learned about prayer through the online retreat, from my spiritual director, and in books like God and You: Prayer As a Personal Relationship.

and my prayer life is very problematic - it's like a relationship and I'm really bad at relationships, so it's pretty messed up. Still, the one thing that matters to me and that will always attract me is that I hope/believe prayer is alive. It's not just me doing something, it's me encountering someone. No matter how bad I am at it, how utilitarian or disfunctional or skewed it seems from my pov, I'm not soley responcible for what will happen - the whole is more than the sum of it's parts and one of those parts is (I hope) someone who loves me.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

1st, I highly recommend Johnson's book.

2nd, I got to this kind of "dry period," shortly after finishing my Ph.D. It became extended. I think we analytical types are prone to it. I couldn't stop second guessing myself as I tried to pray. It became a real mess and led to depression. I was a visiting professor at a certain seminary at the time and I confessed my problem to a colleague. She told me, to my surprise, that she knew of 2 routes out of this difficulty: the route of contemplative/mystic prayer or seeking the gift of tongues. (This was a philosopher of religion known for her keen logic, so I was really surprised.)
Contemplative prayer was later helpful, but it required a discipline I couldn't attain during this depression. So, I swallowed my prejudices against Pentecostals and sought the gift of glossalalia. To my HUGE surprise, it came rushing through and God's PRESENCE was immediately real again!
We analytical/theological/intellectual types sometimes have trouble shutting out that side of our personality. It takes over EVERYTHING. But, glossalalic ecstatic speech bypasses that section of the brain. The Spirit prays through us "in groans too deep for words" as Paul says in Romans. We are given words not our own and our emotions and need/capacity for intimacy is renewed in I-Thou encounter.

I have not had too many experiences like this since and I do not claim (a) that this is the proof of "baptism in the Holy Spirit"--a term that I think is just another metaphor for salvation in Scripture, (b)that everyone needs this gift, (c) that this is the route that you should take, or (d) that this gift makes for superior Christians. But I do know that it saved my faith and possibly my sanity.

Sandalstraps said...

First off, thanks to all four commenters so far. Your comments mean a great deal to me - especially on this issue. When I started writing this I was at least a little bit afraid that to admit this problem woulld amount to a confession of having in effect lost my faith. So to read such helpful and compassionate comments is quite encouraging.


I understand the need to balance contemporary problems against a respect for tradition, but I think given how prevalent and exclusive male images for God are, I have to make a more radical break than just understanding the masculine image of God in a less literal way.

In addition to Elizabeth Johnson's book - mentioned in the post - Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos has a very helpful book, Reimaging God: The Case for Scriptural Diversity. In it she brings out a more inclusive set of scriptural metaphors for God, including feminine ones. Her main contention, as I understand it, is that the God of the Bible is not refered to in exclusively male terms, and so the church tradition of rendering God that way does not do justice to the entirity of our scriptures.

I know Johanna well, and could not recommend her work more to someone who wants to understand our Holy Scriptures both within and apart from our systems of theological interpretation. Her work helps me remain faithful to our tradition while escaping from the use of images for God which both restrict God and deny woman participation in the Imago Dei.

As for prayer, I really appreciate your comments. I find that in myself as well. I have next to no private prayer life, but corporate worship sustains me for now. Thank God for the church, no?


Excellent response. I may never have the gumption to respond to anyone that way, but such a response seems perfectly appropriate and, in fact, more than a little bit admirable.

Fortunately for me, the person who inquired as to my prayer life is a close friend, and so his question came as a part of our relationship, and seemed natural. If someone who didn't know me as well, or someone with whom I had not already shared so much, were to ask about my prayer life, I would have found it a violation of my privacy. Good for you for being able to say that.


Thank you for your help. My problem, however, is that I am already drowning in theory about prayer, to the point that my ability to pray freely has all but disappeared.


You could probably guess that I am uncomfortable with glossalalia, but I think I understand what you mean. And, as I understand it, glossalalia and contemplative prayer have a great deal in common, including and especially freeing one's self from the conscious thought process.

I doubt that I could ever speak in tongues; that isn't a part of my tradition, and so would feel forced coming from me. But contemplative prayer is something I've tried before, and found quite helpful. And I'm glad that you were able to make glossalalia a vital part of your prayer life. There is a reason that practice has survived (and thrived!) for so long, even if up-tight white guys like me can't pull it off!

Sandalstraps said...

To all:

What about the experience of continuing one's prayer life in the midst of altering one's concept of God? That may be at the heart of the problem here. Michael has offered one way forward: to escape from any sort of conceptual framework by using non-rational prayer techniques.

Does anyone else care to comment on that?

crystal said...

There's an article I read once that I liked - don't know if you would find it helpful or not ... "Our Images Of God
Affect How We Relate To Prayer And Life" by John Veltri SJ - link

Liam said...

Perhaps breaking out of whatever habit one has is necessary. I don't know if any techniques of prayer are exactly rational -- I tend to find that in any moment I pray I have to try to quiet the over-analytical chattering in my brain.

PamBG said...

I feel like I have a lot of unrelated things to say none of which are helpful, but hopefully the unhelpfulness will be helpful!

I love crystal's comment about prayer being a relationship and relationships being difficult. I don't think that any of this is supposed to be easy.

My prayer life is and has been "messy" for a long time and I've learned to relax in the messiness. For me personally, saying the offices (I use Common Worship Daily Prayer) is helpful - it's a discipline when I can't summon up all the good old free church emotions and extempore prayer that we're "supposed" to have. I think that the catholics are on to something because you have structure you can pray even when you can't feel anything.

I'm hardly surprised that you're having a long dry spell when you're wrestling with your view of God; that wrestling seems to me to be a form of prayer.

And yes, absolutely, theology can be a form of prayer. It is only in Western Christianity that we think that "theology" and "spirituality" are separate. I don't know that much about the culture of the UMC but I'll say that the British Methodist attitude which often disparages theology as something that might make a person lose their faith and passion doesn't help in regarding theology as tied up with prayer.

Finally, I think Michael's professor was really wise in her advice. For me personally, the solution was not "tongues" but actually contemplative prayer. I've never met anyone who practiced both of these with equal frequency, but I think that there is actually great commonality between the two practices.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I am as uptight about glossalalia as anyone. It is NOT regular with me. It freaks me out when I hear it and even more when I am part of it. I find contemplative practices more helpful on a regular basis--but my situation was too far gone for that when I got my advice. I had no discipline left.

Incidentally, before I could learn what I really needed to from Christian contemplatives and mystics, I got help from Buddhist. One of the great things about Zen meditation, whether walking meditation or breathing meditation, is that it works with any metaphysics. One need not have a Buddhist framework or whatever. It is not prayer. But concetrating on my breath every morning puts me in a better frame of mind for prayer--especially listening prayer, which is what I call the contemplative "prayer of silence."

As for praying when one's image of God is changing, I remember reading years ago the autobiography of the old-time liberal preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Living of These Days. Fosdick described having a situation much like yours, Chris, or mine. He eventually said that he turned to prayer NOT because he had worked out a theology of prayer (he hadn't--had more questions than answers), but because his need was simply too great for anything else.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

BTW, Pam, the philosopher of religion who advised me to try either contemplative prayer or glossalalia wasn't one of my professors. She was a colleague at a seminary where I was a guest professor for a year. I am keeping the school and her anonymous because glossalalia is frowned on by both her denomination and that (multi-denominational) seminary--at least, it is looked on askance as something "primitive" and anti-intellectual.
I don't know that this would cause trouble for my friend and former colleague, but I don't want to chance it.

Sandalstraps said...

One of the great things about Zen meditation, whether walking meditation or breathing meditation, is that it works with any metaphysics.

Amen to that!

I've found zazen to be most helpful, though I hesitate to call it a form of prayer, perhaps because I have such a bias towards rational, cognitive, verbal communication. Perhaps that is my biggest hang-up - my failure to realize not just in my mind but also in my gut that prayer is not just (or even primarily) interpersonal communication.

mrieder said...

Hi Sandalstraps,

I fear that I have little helpful other than I can relate to your post. My concept of God is in flux and as a result my old forms of prayer are changing as well. I can second what Westmoreland said about tongues. I am still very uncomfortable with it despite the fact I have experienced it.

Although this is a rather ironic thing to say, considering the topic, but I will pray that you find what you are looking for.

In Christ,


PamBG said...

Michael - Sorry for my misunderstanding and I appreciate your reasons for keeping your colleague's name and seminary out of the public domain.

I don't actually have a problem with "tongues" (other than when people say one isn't a Christian if one doesn't speak in tongues). But I've prayed for the gift and, as far I can reckon, I wasn't given the gift. I've heard people say "Just pray for the gift and believe you've received it and start talking." Well, my experience was not the way that you described your experience and I'm convinced I was just blathering and it didn't seem prayerful at all; I may be a messy pray-er, but I think I know when I'm praying!

I do wonder about Christianity in the US sometimes (it's a long time since I've been away). I don't think any theology tutor at my theology college (read "professor at my seminary") would feel ashamed in the slightest to recommend what your colleague recommended to you. I'm glad for your sake that she had the courage to say it!

redsu said...

I'm leading 'worship' for a little group called Ecofaith tomorrow morning. I decided to do something on prayer and went surfing. I came upon your blog and this entry and found myself cutting and pasting to quote you.
I'm a minister and haven't "prayed" for years! Since theological college probably. But... I do paint and dance and sing and talk to nature and be overcome by beauty and tragedy and so on. For me - that IS prayer. I can't tell you who/what I'm praying to or even what my theology of prayer actually is. I just know that traditional forms of prayer leave me cold... Divine Mystery is domesticated.
I think prayer for me is simply responding to life, living the questions and putting stuff "out there" in some way... I think.

Sandalstraps said...


Thank you for your interest. My policy is, whatever anyone finds useful here, they may use in whatever way they wish, so long as they don't plagarize me.