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.