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On Prayer

A couple of memorable quotes on prayer I came across today, from two very different sources:

We all pray whether we think of it as praying or not.  The odd silence we fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad….  The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain.  The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy.  Whatever words or sounds we use for sighing with over our own lives.  These are all prayers in their way.  These are all spoken not just to ourselves but to something even more familiar than ourselves and even more strange than the world.

Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking

And then what do you do—do you pray? What is prayer but a wish for the events in your life to string together to form a story—something that makes sense of events you know have meaning.
And so I pray.

“Harj,” in Douglas Coupland’s Generation A

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Are you a Coupland fan too? Excellent.

    March 22, 2010
    • I joined the Coupland train a little late, but I think I’m becoming a bit of a fan :).

      March 22, 2010
      • If you need suggestions of which novels to read, let me know.

        March 23, 2010
      • Well, I’ve gone through JPod, The Gum Thief, Generation A, and Hey Nostradamus! over the last little while. I suppose Generation X is a fairly big omission thus far! I may just keep picking away at whatever the library has :).

        March 23, 2010
      • I was never a big fan of Generation X. Girlfriend In A Coma is on the top of my list. Microserfs is fun too.

        March 23, 2010
  2. Ken #

    Buechner’s expression fits well with pantheism and religious naturalism, although I think he is actually speaking the liberal protestant language of his generation, alluding as many did in his generation to “mystery.” He associates prayer with wonder and feelings.

    Coupland’s expression fits well with emergent church language – sort of postmodern, but not quite. He thinks of prayer as a yearning for story, one that “makes sense of events you know have meaning.” Not existentialist, because an existentialist could not say, “makes sense of events you know have meaning.” An existentialist knows they have no meaning. Not Darwinian, because a Darwinian also knows they have no meaning. And not really someone who grasps the linguistic turn, because a prayer can seem like nothing more than a language game after that turn.

    I don’t think either expression matches the Psalms. They are more concrete than Buechner’s idea of prayer, unless one believes they reduce to his idea and really had nothing to do with the concrete matters that concerned ancient Israel. Similarly, unless one believes ancient Israel was really interested in having a narrative, or meaning, rather than a kingdom, Coupland’s expression does not fit.

    I also don’t think they match Jesus’ prayers – “take this cup away” was not a yearning for meaning nor a sigh in the presence of the ineffable.

    Perhaps the two expressions do reveal something about contemporary religion, about the way we say we believe when we don’t really. I think there is a parallel between Buechner and Coupland, even though they are ages, or generations, apart. I think they both think of religion, and prayer, reductively, as feelings or sentiment. It is a way of holding on to some belief in an age of disbelief.

    March 22, 2010
    • Your analysis here is probably more or less accurate, although I don’t think that existentialists or Darwinians know events have no meaning any more than I know they do. Of course the quotes above bear little resemblance to the Psalms or the prayers of Jesus, but I think prayer is inevitably contextual in nature. I think our task is to learn from and be challenged by the prayers of Scripture without feeling like we have to always imitate them. I think that prayer and how we think about it can and does go beyond the expressions we see in Scripture, even if Scripture does have a huge influence in how we think about and practice prayer.

      March 22, 2010
      • Ken #

        I also don’t think that existentialists or Darwinians know events have no meaning any more than you know they do, or I too know they do on my less Darwinian days.

        As you wrote, “prayer is inevitably contextual.” Without meaning to imply that I think either you or Bruechner is a pantheist or religious naturalist, nor that you are a liberal protestant, it strikes me that his view of prayer is one that pantheists and religious naturalists, who have no belief in God, could hold. I think the context in which Bruechner can plausibly write that view of prayer is the one in which pantheism and religious naturalism became plausible for so many. He was, perhaps, writing to appeal to such generations in the same way that emergents like McLaren appeal to some evangelicals today. Similarly I imagine Coupland appeals to emergents through his emphasis on narrative.

        I think of Bruechner and Coupland as offering a less supernatural version of prayer to generations that find the supernatural at least somewhat unbelievable and yet each holds on, and yet the language of each does not quite write off the supernatural. They are theologians who advance theistic evolution as an alternative to the Darwinian version.

        I think that the critical realism of Habermas kind of matches this approach or mirrors it from the atheist side. Although he is a materialist and Darwinian, and although his writing reflects to some extent all of the contemporary trends in philosophy, including the linguistic turn and Marxist analysis, he stops short of full acceptance and synthesizes a kind of middle way that appeals to our contemporary context, one that does not give up belief that reality is knowable, but qualifies it, and one that does not give up the paradigm Marx, but qualifies it in a way that is more comfortable for the middle class and that helps him, like it does emergents Christians, advance their political aims.

        To me, these syntheses are, in the end, less believable than the threads from which they are woven.

        March 23, 2010
      • Is there hope on offer in the more “believable” threads? I realize that “hope” is not exactly a common (or even a sound?) epistemological category, but I think it is an important one nonetheless. There is a reason we are incorrigible synthesizers.

        March 23, 2010
      • Ken #

        I don’t know. I guess we could say that Christianity in all its variations offers hope to at least some groups of people. And I guess we could say that atheism, combined with humanism, offers hope of another kind to some people.

        The syntheses seem less believable to me in the sense that they seem to involve irreconcilable contradictions. But synthesis or compromise (as Berger calls it) is a normal thing.

        I think that atheism, or religious naturalism, offers a substitute for hope rather than hope itself – wonder at life. I think religious naturalism tries to sustain joy through remembering the wonder of life, without sustaining the hope we might associate with the word “redemption.” Hope is an idea that does not fit well with chance and necessity.

        I think the syntheses embody hope and despair – they reassure one moment, and take it away in the next.

        March 23, 2010
      • Ken #

        I should have added that religious naturalism is a synthesis of religion and atheism, or religion and Darwinism. Similarly, I think this is what emergent Christianity is, and the theology of Buechner.

        March 23, 2010
      • James #

        Hi Ken
        I just finished meeting with the proto-typical “modern” couple [as part of marriage prep]. They are early 20s, have never been in a church before today, have no clue as to what faith constitutes and have made up a hodge-podge narrative that attempts to give meaning to a material world. [They came to me because I am a business associate with his father and he asked if I would do the wedding]. As I talked with them I thought how good it would have been if they could have been part of our conversations here, because not only do they not have any clue about the questions of faith- but because they are obviously not prepared for the shock that the implications of their default world-views leave them with. They are desperately craving meaning in a meaningless world. Even training in logical atheism would be better than what they have.

        March 23, 2010
      • Ken #

        James, yes, that makes sense. I think one of the benefits of theology, aside from the obvious one of knowing something about God, is that it helps one to understand the way we see the world and the implications.

        I have been to hodge-podge weddings, and will especially always remember one new-age, global, green, pagan, pseudo-multicultural ecumenical one. Amid the celebration was a feeling like vertigo.

        March 23, 2010

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