Thursday, December 18, 2008

Update on Prayer

I don't often write about prayer here - and I write about my own prayer life even less often than that. However, in light of my last post on the topic, Abstaining From Prayer, I thought I'd provide an update for those who are interested.

I've been mired in a relentless bout of depression and anxiety, which has challenged what Paul Tillich might call my "courage to be." That courage is not the courage to avoid suicide, but rather the courage to affirm life in the face of apparent meaninglessness. As Tillich puts it

Courage is the self-affirmation of being on spite of the fact of nonbeing. It is the act of the individual self in taking the anxiety of nonbeing upon itself by affirming itself either as part of an embracing whole or in its individual selfhood.

This courage, Tillich rightly notes, is always risky, because it is always being threatened by nonbeing. This nonbeing is the opposite of his understanding of God as the Ground of Being, and, as importantly, as "being-itself". Because courage is the affirmation of being in the face of nonbeing, for Tillich it always has what he calls a "religious root."

For religion is the state of being grasped by the power of being-itself. In some cases the religious root is carefully covered, in others it is passionately denied; in some it is deeply hidden and in others superficially. But it is never completely absent. For everything that is participates in being-itself, and everybody has some awareness of this participation, especially in the moments in which [she] experiences the threat of nonbeing.

When my depression emerges in full force from its usual recession - that is, when my anxiety goes from a baseline level to a perpetual state of "all hands on deck"; I am acutely aware of the threat of nonbeing.

My abstention from prayer, in Tillichian terms, was a less-than-careful covering of the religious root of my existential courage. If that sounds like a mouthful, that's because it is. What I mean by that is this: it was an act of courage in the strongest sense of the word, to refrain from, to abstain from, prayer. It was an affirmation of self. The concept of God that dominated my prayer life from the moment I became conscious of being a Christian (I say it that way now, because in retrospect I see that even before I consciously converted to the Christian faith, I had already begun to pray to a God in whom I did not yet even confess belief) no longer connected me to God as God, or, as Tillich puts it "the God above God." For reasons outlined in painstaking detail at various points at this blog, that concept of God connected to my former evangelical faith, is seriously flawed.

God as omnipotent - especially where such power is understood as a kind of divine irresistibility - is both logically and ethically flawed. The logical flaw, that such a concept of God, when coupled with claims of divine omniscience and benevolence, is incompatible with the fact of suffering, is obvious. The ethical flaw is more subtle. Here is how I summarized that ethical flaw in my paper dryly titled "Ethical Problems With the God of Traditional/Supernatural Theism":

The traditional theistic understanding of divine power – in articulating and affirming divine omnipotence – depicts divine power as, roughly, that which can be neither effectively resisted nor restrained. This understanding thus equips God with an special kind of absolute power. God is a being such that, if God wills something, it happens of necessity. Power is here, then, a coercive force which can always, at least in potential, impose itself on others. This concept of power, coupled with both the way in which our ideas about God function as the highest ideals of a community and our naturally limited spheres of moral concern (which are often aided and abetted by our God concepts), can serve as theological cover for any number of atrocities.

The imitation of God, an important part of religious life, can – when coupled with an ethically flawed concept of God – lead to gross injustice. When, for instance, God is a being apart from, over and above creation, sitting at the top of a divinely ordained hierarchical system of power differentials, damage is done not only to the ecosystem (as noted above), but also to human communities. It is within human communities that attention to divine power and its human corollaries must be paid. And if divine power is conceived of as the ability to impose on others without restraint, it should be no surprise that humans – whose concept of God participates in, shaping and being shaped by, their own values – aim for that same unrestrained coercive power found in divine omnipotence.

The result of this raw appeal to and exercise of power can be found throughout human history not only in our exploitation of the natural environment for economic benefit, but also and especially in our economic exploitation of other humans, robbed of personhood and moral standing. Historically this has taken its most painful form in chattel slavery. This violent form of slavery, which reduced human beings to property, is not accidentally connected to certain expressions of Christianity.

When God is a tyrant, those who view themselves as created in the image of God, those who view the imitation of God as their highest calling, have theological cover for their natural bent toward tyranny. The raw exercise of power finds divine mandate in God's own power.

Of course this bent toward power is challenged by the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, God's willing abandonment of power. But too often this challenge to the claims of power is overlooked in communities where divine omnipotence is a vital part of the understanding of God. God's incarnation is seen as a one-time aberration, a unique event in the past that tells us less about divine power than it does about God's love. It, in other words, reveals not the nature of God, but instead the concerns of God. That becomes a back door through which tyranny may be baptized by the Christian community, those within the concern of God, for whom God was voluntarily humbled, and temporarily laid down divine power and dignity. Those, however, who stand outside the Christian community stand too often outside the concern of God, and thus toward them God remains a tyrant, baptizing the tyrannical exercise of power by the faithful community.

So, you might ask, if you survived all the nonsense above, What does this have to do with prayer?

I'm glad you asked.

For me the abstention from prayer was an act of existential courage, because it rejected this tyrant of a God-concept, and faced the absurdity of living without God while believing in "God above God," God beyond all God-concepts. In the midst of depression and anxiety, however, this is not sustainable.

So last week, to my great shock, I found myself praying again. Just as I never made a conscious decision to abandon prayer, I never made a conscious decision to begin praying. I just found myself - in the midst of my depression - confessing my fears, my anxieties, my doubts, aloud. To God, I suppose, though I don't know I would have said that at the time. Confessing them not as sins - I did not believe they represented moral failings - but rather in the same way one confesses faith. Confession as an act of self-location.

It was an act of prayer because it was predicated on being heard, even though there was no listener. It was a moment of absurdity. But the absurdity has thus far held up.

Since then I have continued to confess myself to the God above God, in the faith that beyond all flawed God-concepts there is a reality to which they all imperfectly point.

To that act of prayer as self-confession (the confession of self rather than the confession of sin) I have also now added meditation. I now kneel on the hardwood floor of my living room at various points throughout the day, just listening, just breathing, just be-ing. This meditation is also, in the midst of severe depression and anxiety, an affirmation of being in the face of the reality of nonbeing.

It is not enough. It is never enough. But, right now, it is what I have.


Liam said...

Confessions like Augustine's?

Prayer for me is often a quieting, though it may take place in the typical liturgical context of my tradition (the Mass, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the rosary even). Much of the power of these contexts is the feeling I'm participating in something that reaches across borders of both time and space. When I do voice internally or externally my prayers, they take the usual forms -- praise, thanksgiving, petition -- because it makes sense to me that God is the natural object of those actions. Petitionary prayer, in particular, involves no commitment on my part to one model of God as omnipotent or interventionist (I actually feel that the models are too finite and limited to describe God anyway). Rather, it seems to me that real hope ultimately should be directed towards God (where else, if not?).

I don't know if any of this makes sense, but for the most part it works for me.

Aspirant said...


not a day has gone by since I read your last post on prayer, probably, that I have not thought about you and about what you said. What did I want to say that I didn't?

That somehow, someway, God has left the Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, with us. I don't even know what that means or how that works, but it seems God has not left us utterly alone. I used to wonder, when I was newly back to the faith, if I had to pray out loud or could pray silently. That's not as dumb a question as it sounds! (If a tree falls in the woods, it still makes sound waves, no sound, but a metaphysical record of the event does occur). I simply decided that somehow, the HS is like the ear of God. How does that work? I laugh even at the question.

I only say it because of things Jesus himself said about the HS, in different ways in different gospels.

But to the meat of this post: brother, my heart is with you. You know I know depression and anxiety well, well. I could have a Ph.D. in terror, depression and dread. And now that I've entered discernment (and there must be some funny word I could use in its place that sounds like "discernment" but takes some of the serious edge off...I'll work on that) I have found myself anxious, though not depression level anxious. Just scared, tense in the deep down, about all the uncertainty and possible change. What saved me and healed me was talking about it as you do here. I want you to know you are heard and I am always available. I assure you, I do exist and I will listen :) Perhaps community is the other ear of God.

It sounds, though, that God has met you in your pain, at least somewhat. As you know, God is not enough. I pray you have friends you can talk with. I hope you still have my phone number, because you can call me ANYTIME DAY OR NIGHT and I will listen, brother. I know what you are feeling.

What do you think triggered it, or can you say?

You are such a marvelous work of God, a marvelous gift to his church. You may been sold into Egypt by your last congregation, but you're not in prison anymore.

I think I told you, a couple of years ago, my neighbor, an older man I consider a genuine friend, found your blog for a sermon he was going to do. Your reflections here reach many people. Your transparency is a Godly example.

So, if you've lost the number email me. And hey, are you on facebook? That would be one way to keep in touch.

And now for a blessing, friend :) I fear this Episcopal thing is rubbing off on me, but this comes from the heart:

May the Peace and Love of God, which go beyond all human reason or understanding, comfort your heart-in-pain and your mind-in-fear through Jesus Christ our Lord.

That said, call me if you wish or need.


Sandalstraps said...

Liam and Aspirant,

Friends are a great blessing, and I consider you my friends. Thank you for that.


Yes! Confessions like Augustine's! How did I miss that?!? Excellent!

As for prayer, what you wrote makes a great deal of sense to me. Thank you. And as far as I am concerned, all models are too limited to describe God. They are each flawed in unique ways. For me the path to God as God, or, as Tillich put it, God above God, is to use each of the available models as limited metaphors pointing imperfectly to the reality behind all metaphors for God. They serve a function, then, and a prayerful one. They may be used in prayer to connect with God. But it is not helpful to cling too tightly to any model or set of models.


As for triggers, my Mom asked me the same question just a few minutes ago, and I'm sad to say that, until she asked me, I couldn't name one beyond the obvious biochemical ones. But, when she asked me, it occurred to me that this may have all started when we lost the baby this summer, just before my brother's wedding. Not only did that rob me of a child I eagerly anticipated meeting (though we are blessed to anticipate a new baby, a girl, who we're naming Rachael Elizabeth!) but also of being able to rejoice with my brother at his wedding. As I wrote at the time, that was one hell of a week, and I'm not sure I ever dealt with it.

But by and large my experience of depression is of a disease that needs not presenting issue, no external trigger. It comes and goes as it will, with little consent from me.

I have, in fact, lost your number, and will be emailing you shortly (perhaps before you even read this) to get it again.


Aspirant said...


after posting here and emailing you, I found myself in a bit of depression last night, over what priests are supposed to be and do, over discernment, and the issues in these posts (took me a bit to uncover that core, but I did). Not just a low mood, but a mild spat of the real deal. And while I feel better today, while I prayed in my own pain, took a long walk, etc., that experience reminded me (and made me angry over; my anger and depression skip rope together) the problem of suffering in a theist world. I need to write about this on my own blog before we head out of town, but reflecting back it is comforting, actually, to have been where you are even for a bit.

I have been out of blog for so long, including yours, that I have not read the story about the lost baby, the wedding, etc. I will though. My heart goes out to you. That is a very traumatic event and worth processing. (I think it's great you can talk to your mom about your depression, btw. If I tried that, my mom would light two smokes, begin pacing and twirling her hair, and tell me to avoid exploring my pain at all costs. Right now she'd probably tell me it's because I am considering ministry, an idea she finds disastrous.)

On another note, I read the piece from your essay just now, the one in this post. Sorry I skipped it the first time, but you know I read so many this time of year. It is an interesting thesis. I wonder, as you may too, if the depiction of God as a power which cannot be resisted comes from our own human-animal need to accrue and wield power. But I'd also say, quite a bit of orthodox theology sees God as self limiting his power in his interaction with human beings who have been given free will. In fact, I'd say that thread is just as dominant as the Augustinian/Calvinist one. But maybe cause I just read Milton. So I would look closely at that first premise: that conventionally we view God as irresistable and all powerful. I'd add, I think the doctrine of omnipotence derives from an ontological application of Platonism to God: He MUST have all positive attributes in limitless quantity. But now I'm probably saying things you have long considered. And from a human point of view, God's power must be so great as to appear limitless.

I plan to shoot another email your way too before we blow town.

Love and peace.