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Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 2)

Human beings, since the earliest stages of its history, has always participated in a world of prayer. The English word “prayer” derives from the Middle English preiere, which derives from Medieval Latin precāria, from feminine of Latin precārius, “obtained by entreaty.” In the last posting, we briefly talked about some of the difficulties modern people experience with prayer.

One of the most intriguing critiques regarding prayer expressed in Late Antiquity, comes from one of the most famous and brilliant of the Early Church Fathers–Origen (c. 185-254). Deeply influenced by Hellenistic thought, Origen felt that the idea of asking God for things seemed absurd, for if God is omniscient, He knows what we need without us having to tell Him so. Furthermore, if God is good, He will give us want we need without being asked. He writes:

God knows all things before they come into being and there is no nothing becomes known to him from the fact of its beginning for the first time when it begins, as though it were not previously known. What need then is there to send up prayer  to him who knows what we need even before we pray? For the Heavenly Father knows what things we need of before we ask him (Matthew 2 6:8). And it is fitting that he, being Father and Maker of all who loves all things that are, and abhors nothing which he has made (Wisdom 11:24), should order in safety all that has to do with each one, even without  prayer, like a father provides for his little children, and does not wait for them to ask, either because they are quite unable to ask, or because through ignorance they often want to receive the opposite of what is of use and help to them. And we fall short of God more than those who are quiet children fall short of mind of those who begot them.” [1]

Among modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant wrote nothing about the efficacy about petitional prayer in any of his three great critiques, but in his  philosophic classic, Religion Within the Limits of Reason, Kant  blasted petitionary prayer much in the style of Origen and Maimonides:

“Praying, thought of as an inner formal service of God and [183] hence as a means of grace, is a superstitious illusion (a fetish-making); for it is no more than a stated wish directed to a Being who needs no such information regarding the inner disposition of the wisher; therefore nothing is accomplished by it, and it discharges none of the duties to which, as commands of God, we are obligated; hence God is not really served. A heart-felt wish to be well-pleasing to God in our every act and abstention, or in other words, the disposition, accompanying all our actions, to perform these as though they were being executed in the service of God, is the spirit of prayer which can, and should, be present in us ‘without ceasing.’ But to clothe this wish (even though it be but inwardly) in words . . . “

He notes, “It is no more than a stated wish directed to a Being who needs no such information regarding the inner dispositions of the wisher; therefore nothing, is accomplished by it, and it discharges none of the duties to which, as commanded of God, we are obligated, hence God is not really served.” [2]

As we mentioned above, Maimonides probably would have agreed.

However, not every modern Jewish thinker thinks so critically about prayer. Rabbi Eliahau Dessler, one of the 20th century’s greatest  Judaic teachers of  the Mussar Movement, takes a different tact. According to Rav Dessler, utilizing prayer as a means for obtaining goods is nothing more than spiritual consumerism; such religious devotion cheapens the very act of worship.

Once this happens, the worshiper becomes what he terms as “a spiritual taker” and that all his/her prayers will  inevitably be by definition, devoid of sincerity. True prayer must divest itself from any tinge of selfish interest for profit. Every worshiper should specifically pray that, “May God’s Name be sanctified through me.” He adds, “If we are to be solicitous of anything, we should pray our prayers should enable us to pursue our ultimate goal and concern: to increase the light of God’s Presence in the world.

The goal of all worship should not be aimed at taking from God whatever we want but instead ought to be dedicated towards giving, for it is by giving we can discover Transcendence. We become most like God only when we give of ourselves. Rav Dessler’s point reminds me of a well known aphorism of the 20th century preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, who  often said, “God is not a cosmic bellboy for whom we can press a button to get things done.”

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Notes:

[1] Origen and Eric George Day (trans), Treatise on Prayer (London: SPCK, 1954), 94.

[2] Immanuel Kant and Stephen R. Palmquist (trans.), Kant’s Critical Religion (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Pub Ltd, 2000), 456.



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