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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If any activity is universally prescribed by Christian churches it is prayer. Many sermons are preached about it. A growing practice of spiritual guidance aims to assist people in prayer. But thinking about the subject turns up some intractable difficulties as well as valuable opportunities. Here Mick and Rick debate some aspects of prayer.

Mick: Paul Walker elsewhere on this site describes how he once thought of prayer as "the oxygen of faith". It was touted to him as "a two-way conversation with the Almighty, a massive privilege". The trouble was, he writes, "I could never really manage it myself".

My experience over 40 years of being a Christian has been similar. I have spent many, many hours dutifully praying to God and Jesus. But all the while I wondered why I heard only my own voice. If God and Jesus did speak to me in response, why couldn't I hear them?

Similarly, a mentor once advised me to practice what he called an "arrow prayer". "When you see a tramp or alcoholic on the street, or meet someone who looks ill or troubled, just aim a quick thought - like an arrow - to God," he said. I found that this helped me. But it appeared to have zero effect on the people prayed for.

Perhaps, Rick, you can advise me. I'm not so cocksure as to suppose that many before me have not had similar experiences.

Rick: The following remarks are predicated on my belief in a non-material reality and God.

I like the simple definition of prayer found in Webster�s dictionary: "To address God with adoration, confession, supplication or thanksgiving." To address God is an act of faith that there is a God, that he (or she: I�d prefer not to get into that tortuous argument of gender so I will continue in the masculine) is receptive to us and is disposed to respond to our prayers.

Furthermore, prayer is essentially a conscious act wherein we are aware of what we are saying to God. Is it possible our unconscious minds pray? I don�t know how we can apprehend this possibility so it must remain moot. Quite likely our subconscious mind continually processes thoughts and feeds them upward into consciousness; but it is the conscious state that is the final arbiter of the content. In the conscious state we weigh choices deliberately. Consciousness enables free will or choice. Consciousness is required for moral decisions.

Prayer is a conscious recognition of the primacy of God in our lives. It defines a relationship and solidarity similar to children and parents maintaining their affection for one another. The most important element is our striving to have a relationship with God. Having established this relationship it is hard for me to imagine how considerations of quantity or quality of prayer have any meaning. God can�t be bribed. He will not suspend the natural law He created simply to relieve our suffering. If we stand in awe of the creator and have trust in him we must view everything as gift, even the bad.

I am reminded of the physician who comes into the hospital room of a severely ill patient. The air is filled with alarm and dread. The patient and onlookers are in anguish. The physician calms the air and stills the alarm with coolness, authority and compassion. Perhaps the final outcome is not affected by his words or actions but the anxiety and mental pain have been calmed. In our prayers we ought to seek the coolness and grace of God. We may wish for different outcomes of our dilemmas; that may or may not be realized but we should always ask for courage to withstand all of life�s challenges. The most important petition is for the maintenance of our faith in God.

How does God intervene in the world? Does he use magic tricks? I don�t think so. There is obviously much mystery in the manner in which God could intercede in our affairs. God could use us to effect the petitions of our prayers. In this context it is appropriate to break down prayer into private and public.

In our private prayers, God can help us clarify our thoughts to find solutions achievable with our own resources. He can serve as counselor infusing us with knowledge and insights yielding positive conscious action.

In public prayer a broad spectrum of people are exposed to petitions and may be galvanized to respond to them. We, the people, are the major reservoir of agents for action on prayer. I think God knows our thoughts and desires so that any verbalization of prayer must be for the attention of the hearers. When we petition out loud we are hoping others will hear and be energized to action.

Mick: Your exposition raises many queries. One is to ask what makes you think that God is interested in our adoration, confession, supplication and thanksgiving?

I for one have long since ceased relating to anyone either as parent or as the sort of physician you describe. Yes, life is full of blessings and joys. But it's also crammed with real terrors which no physician, divine or otherwise, can mitigate.

Anyway, what mature, balanced person would either ask or require that others relate to him or her in the manner you describe? In my book such a person would be pathologically egotistical.

I grant that public prayer is another kettle of fish. Yes, it energises us to action. But if that's its function, if it works as a corporate sign and covenant, why is so much of it framed in such self-demeaning, sycophantic terms?

Rick: I agree that prayers can be framed in self-demeaning and sycophantic terms. I also agree that there are such things as pathologic egotists. These realities are consistent with the flawed nature of mankind that could well use some guidance and correction.

I have encountered many persons whom I considered mature and balanced who sought counsel and strength in times of adversity. As a "pathologic egotist" I felt constrained by empathy to be of assistance.

Despite all the pitfalls and problems with prayer that you cite, I do not see how any of them disqualify it as a valuable and effective instrument for many people.

I have great respect for those who face all problems solely with their own resources. Such total command of life I have not yet achieved nor do I think total self-reliance would make my life better. Self-sufficiency can deprive one of rewarding interpersonal relationships. Interdependence with individuals and communities is not a bad thing. In fact, I see it as a necessary feature of civil society.

Is God interested in our adoration, confession, supplication and thanksgiving? Answers to this question hinge on one�s conception of God. If he does not exist, the question is irrelevant. If he is indifferent to creation, the question is moot. The answer is yes if you believe God not only exists but has, as well, a personal dimension.

I do not consider prayer as placation of God but, rather, as a natural human impulse to make contact with the holy and to consciously create a relationship with transcendent power.

Mick: Fair enough. I'd like you now to try the following on for size. It's another way of approaching prayer which may fit you - or anyway, may find a place in your wardrobe.

Prayer for me consists of two streams. These streams are unusual in that they mix and separate, each constantly enriching the other yet retaining its own character.

The first stream is my prayer as an individual. Prayer flows through my whole being. There is no spiritual tributary and the flow never ceases. I am constantly immersed in life. As I live I pray and I pray while I live. Currents of prayer fertilise my life. They help me grow into specific life-creating activities in my tiny part of the world. At the same time, I note and stay aware of aspects of life in stretches of the stream beyond my reach.

The second stream is public prayer. I pray as an individual during public prayer. But I also take part in a corporate affirmation of life. I join with like-minded people in a mighty river of celebration. These waters potentially nurture everyone, without exception. They include sorrow for personal and corporate failings, best expressed publicly because of their intertwined nature. The place of a community in the greater river is celebrated and mutual concerns expressed. But it is in the main a celebration in many differing forms of the creation in all its glory.

Anyone can pray like this, though as a Christian I pray personally and corporately with Jesus of Nazareth in the forefront of my consciousness.

Rick: One of the most important faculties of the human mind is propositional speech. We communicate with each other with language to share ideas and feelings. We can literally open our minds to our fellow beings. This stands in bold contrast to other species who merely signal each other in rudimentary matters of survival.

Our communications, or better, our conversations imply the presence of an interlocutor, one with whom we are trying to share our ideas and feelings. Talking with self is thinking, not conversation. There must be someone outside of self with whom to speak.

In prayer the interlocutor is God. We do not pray to our fellow humans. We might admonish them but we do not pray to them.

When we affirm life and celebrate life-creating activities we are not praying. We are taking conscious note, marking them as positive and fulfilling events or qualities. Celebration alone has no interlocutor. There is a vast difference between thinking about something and entering into a conversation about it. Prayer is a conversation with someone or some power beyond the human.

Our discussion of prayer has once again highlighted our different views of reality. If there is no God or higher being then, I submit, there can be no prayer; instead, there are only discussions, speculations, commiserations, etc. about the nature of the human experience. For some this is sufficient. For countless others prayer is a vital life-sustaining act that gives purpose and meaning to their lives.

How each person arrives at either side of the divide is a complex matter as we have already discussed. What I consider most important is for each individual to be aware of the choices involved and to take the path that will lead to the best outcome in this short lifetime.

Mick: Yes, our discussion of prayer illustrates beautifully the gulf between traditional Christianity and Christianity in exile. There seems no way of bridging the chasm.

The old picture portrays a world foreign to me. I must take it out of the frame and store it with due reverence. Into the frame goes the world I know.

The new picture is spoilt if I brush in God as a person. So what I paint is God in-between everything - between the insubstantial strings of energy which make up atomic particles, between the weakest whiffs of interstellar gas in the vast reaches of space/time, between the very neurons of our brains.

This is not a person, but personality itself - indescribably intimate, yet encompassing all. I trust that this in-between God knows and intimately shares the world in my picture frame.

The picture I create can't converse with me. But it does in a strange way communicate with me as I look at it.

So what is important is that I constantly affirm the life which animates the canvass - my life, the life of others, the life of the universe. I conflict with elements which seek to paint life out of the image. On my part there is a constant refocusing, a constant envisioning, and a constant readjustment of the brush strokes. This process I call prayer.

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