"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Efficacy Of Prayer–Illusion Or Reality?

The Bible is clear about prayer and why we should pray – not, in a predestined and predetermined universe, to ease our way to heaven; nor to gain divine favors which are bestowed by God alone; nor to assure secular outcomes over which only God has authority.

The purpose of prayer is to glorify God and most importantly to put us the right frame of mind to accept his grace. 

According to classical Lutheran theology, Jesus Christ alone will decide who is saved and who is not, and no manner or means of supplication will enhance our chances of salvation.  Prayer is the means of facilitating our appreciation of our absolute submission to God’s will and to his bestowal of grace and redemption.  We do not ask for divine favors, nor beseech Our Lord for petty favors.  We only wish to be more worthy in his eyes; and if he chooses to overlook us, then that is his prerogative, our fate, and human destiny.

Catholics hold a very different interpretation of the Bible, finding enough in James to support the argument that good works are indeed the path to heaven and salvation.  The Protestant-Catholic faith vs works debate has gone on for centuries.  Whichever theology appeals, the nature and purpose of prayer is clear.  God does not grant individual benediction in the hope of heavenly rewards.

Why, then, do so many priests and pastors ask God for special favors?  Why should God favor Americans, Africans, progressives, or Southerners? What faith leads sports teams to bow their heads in prayer for victory?  Yet prayers for divine intervention are heard from every pulpit, mosque, and temple.                          

Nowhere in the Bible, except for a few oblique reference in the letters of Paul, is found  any explicit reference to the power and efficacy of prayer.  Verse after verse exhort the importance of prayer, but none ascribe to it efficacy.

Muslims have understood the relationship between man and God much more accurately. Insha'Allah is a much more accurate and textually correct expression of faith in a supreme being.  No human action is initiated or completed without the will of God; and any prayer for divine intervention for a particular secular, personal cause or reason is apostasy.

Yet, Insha’Allah has been appropriated and distorted for secular political ends.   ISIS believes that God has willed the establishment of an Islamic caliphate, one which will finally and permanently establish a government of God and a citizenry of the faithful.  ISIS assumes and believes that such a theocracy will be a final statement of absolute obedience to God’s will.  Democracy and the febrile aspirations of the West have no relevance or salience.  Praying for a New Age Muslim hegemony is only right and expected.

Image result for isis flag

Conservatives believe that America is a country conceived in religious liberty, animated by the logical theology of the Enlightenment (itself a successor to Augustine and Aquinas, supreme intellectual theologians of the early Church), and under God's protection.

While progressives do not deny the religious origins of the country, they believe that human effort can execute God's will.  The communitarian teachings of Christ and his notions of charity, inclusiveness, and mutual respect can be followed only through determined, concerted secular investment.

Both conservatives and progressives are deceived.  Conservatives have distorted the Biblical purpose of prayer; and liberals have arrogated to themselves authority over moral and ethical decisions which no text or religious tradition has ever granted.

The twain will never meet; and assumptions about absolute, immanent authority will always exist.
A colleague related his experience in Poland shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.  The Polish Parliament was debating their Bill of Rights.  The Right to Work was  to be inscribed in the Constitution.  My colleague asked, “On whose authority?”.

His Polish contributors were for a moment flummoxed.  Never far from the Communist philosophy of only a few years previous, they assumed a ‘given’ right without questioning its origin.

“From God”, explained my friend, citing our own Bill of Rights and its origin in the philosophy of Locke and Rousseau. "Where do yours come from?"
Conservatives in America continue to believe in God-given rights, and thus have a strict constructionist view of the Constitution.  Our nation was not founded only on the secular, ethical principles of the French Revolution, but on the absolute authority of the Bible.

It is not surprising, therefore, that conservative Americans pray for the Republic.

And what about all the faithful who fill country churches throughout the South or those who cram store-front churches in the cities? Pastors invoke the spirit of Jesus Christ and invoke the power of prayer.  “Jesus can be your personal Savior”, they preach, “If only you accept him, pray to him, ask his forgiveness, beseech his favor.”

On the same Sundays the Eastern faithful of the United Church of Christ whose faith is rooted in principles of secular justice, righteousness, and worldly redemption, pray without praying.  They do not pray to God but to an idea of God – a universal goodness which will always prevail. 

Prayer, therefore, is as common and universal as it always has been – perhaps more so in an increasingly complex world with few if any secular answers.  People everywhere – from Syria to Columbus, Mississippi – pray for peace, harmony, and good will among nations; but the violence, killing, and depredation continue.

Their prayers will never be answered either because there is no God or because he wants no hand in the  Creation he has enabled.  Soul, free will, spiritual independence is what has been bestowed; and how humanity chooses to use them is their own business.

It is always touching – for lack of a better word – to see college athletes grouped in prayer before a game.  Such innocence, such naïveté, such young and beautiful but sorely misplaced faith.   Prayer is worth little unless – and only maybe – if it is completely selfless and said in obeisance and dutiful respect.

Religion provides comfort, solace, hope, and inspiration whether it is of divine or secular origin, received holy Word or elaborate myth.  All religions have been built on the premise of divine intervention, protection, and salvation.  They have established rules and protocols for interacting with God and seeking his intercession. All religions, despite the vanity of assuming God's personal interest in individual affairs, promote beseeching prayer.

Christian prayer, regardless of its selfless nature portrayed in the Bible - its fundamental role in establishing fidelity, honor, and respect for God - has been transformed into an instrument of particular interest.  It is not enough to believe in God, but to assume that he plays an active, interested, and particular role in human events.

Religion answers the most fundamental human anxiety - the fear that life is meaningless, purposeless, and random - and prayer, as the vehicle for communicating this fear and asking for resolution, is a logical expression of it.

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