Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Why bother to pray?
Tony Windross

Those of us who spend a lot of time hanging around churches may easily forget just how odd religion must seem to anyone who never goes near one. Baptisms, weddings and funerals are a bit like this. Many of the people who turn up look extremely uncomfortable, as we would if we were in what seemed an alien environment. 

Perhaps the oddest thing of all in the service is when people close their eyes and pray. What are they actually doing?

It might seem to someone who just happened to wander into a church during the prayers that here was a group of people who had taken leave of their senses. This shows just what an odd thing prayer actually is. It appears to be one side of a conversation with an invisible person whose replies, if any, are inaudible. We've all come across people who wander along the street talking to no-one in particular, and we find such a spectacle very sad. But this must be how we all look when we're praying.

Young children tend to join in with what grownups do and may quite happily copy their parents if they are in the habit of praying. The children put their hands together, close their eyes, and say the appropriate words. But what's going on inside their heads when they do this? Do they think that they're talking to someone a bit like the Invisible Man? Or perhaps it's someone like Father Christmas, who obviously is not invisible. We've seen enough pictures of him to know that, but he is nevertheless so far away that communication has to be rather different from normal. Perhaps God is thought of as a Father Christmas figure with very acute hearing - so acute that he can hear even when the prayers are only thought rather than said.

It's all very mysterious, but then prayer is very mysterious. It's also very troubling, in that lots of churchgoers feel like failures because they find prayer hard. Probably the main reason for this difficulty is that they wonder whether anything is actually happening when they pray. Or are they simply talking to themselves?

The way you understand prayer depends on the way you understand God. Perhaps you are a "theist" - that is, someone who thinks of God as a separate being existing in some sense independently of the world. Then you will probably think of prayer as a sort of conversation. 

Or you may be a "non-theist", someone who thinks of God in a very different way - perhaps as the "Ground of our Being", or as the "sum of our values", or as the creative and healing power of love. In that case, prayer may be more like an exploration into the mystery at the heart of human life.

Some people draw a rather unkind distinction between prayer and meditation on the grounds that the former is talking to someone else, while the latter is talking to oneself. In fact, unless someone is a theist, there is no need to make a distinction between them.

Many will find the idea that prayer does not have to be thought of as an internal conversation with an external but invisible person to be puzzling, even offensive. Many others, however, may find it supremely liberating, perhaps because they can make no sense of the idea of such a being.

There is no "correct way" to pray. Part of the problem of prayer is that people feel the need to try to do something that works for others but not for them. It has been well said that we should "pray as we can, not as we can't". In any congregation there are probably as many ways of understanding prayer as there are people.

Prayer clearly "works", but not in the sense of bringing measurable results. We hear about the few miraculous cures in response to prayer, but we hear nothing about the majority of times when no such result is forthcoming. Prayer works in the sense of helping people to find some sort of inner peace.

We live in a superficial, sound-bite age, when people's attention spans are supposedly at an all-time low, and getting lower. There has never been a greater need for times of reflection, when we can try to find a sense of perspective and sort out what matters from what doesn't. Prayer is a way of paying attention to life, a way of reverencing life, a way of enhancing life, a way of exploring life. It is so important that it's almost criminal that vast numbers of people feel unable to engage in it because they are unable, rather than unwilling, to adopt a theistic view of God.

Conservative religion is in danger of closing down and excluding people, rather than encouraging them to explore and grow. Trivial concerns can all too easily clog up our lives. Prayer can help us to see past the trivia and get a glimpse of the things that really matter.

Prayer is about being open to new possibilities, so that our souls grow wings like the wild geese who visit our skies. Lives without prayer condemn us to remain forever earthbound, unable to imagine doing or being anything else, grubbing around in the dirt rather than streaming down the wind.

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