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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Prayer and Meditation

The roots of prayer undoubtedly extend far beyond the boundaries of history into the recesses of human origins. The most ancient civilisations - those of Egypt and South America - without exception record prayers to their gods, usually in pictographic form.

The earliest known example of written prayer comes from the Shang dynasty in China (1766-1122 BCE). Inscriptions on "oracle bones" record petitions made to ancestors for favours in wars or childbirth.

If we guess at what sort of prayer preceded the earliest records, only the customs of hunter-gatherer people give any clues. So, for example, tribes of North America appear to have prayed to the spirits of the animals they hunted and killed. James Frazer tells how the men of the Bear Clan in the Ottawa tribe addressed the carcass of a slain bear first with praise for the animal's strength and grace and then by begging its pardon:

"Don't bear a grudge because we have killed you. You have sense: you see that our children are hungry. They love you and wish to take you into their bodies. Isn't it glorious to be eaten by the children of a chief?" [1]

In many parts of the world prayer has been directed at ancestors, and still is today. But intercession has usually been made to the gods who create and control the world. In monotheist religions the gods are replaced by a single God who orders all things in absolute power. It is not going too far to assert that wherever humans acknowledge a deity, prayer is always part of their lives.

The Odyssey by Homer, for example, draws on Greek mythology dating back in all probability to sources some two thousand years BCE. Prayer is taken for granted every step of the way. Indeed, even the lesser gods pray to the greater as Pallas Athene does to Poseidon, the "girdler of the earth". "Everyone has need of the gods," remarks Homer.

Then as now, prayer was the subject of fierce debate. People wondered what it was proper to pray for. Many Greeks thought it presumptuous of people to pray for goodness since it is the responsibility of each of us to attain that for ourselves. The Roman Stoics - who influenced Christianity deeply - thought that only spiritual things should be prayed for. The early Christian theologian and commentator Origen (185-254) thought the same, though Clement of Alexandria suggested that prayer is good only if it is a means of "talking to the gods". Augustine of Hippo cleared things up for most people when he asserted that it is good to pray for anything which is lawful.

The roots of Christian prayer, however, owe more to the Hebrew religion than to the Greek. The Hebrew Bible refers to silent prayer or "prayer from the heart" in Genesis 24.45 so it can be taken that God was thought of as (to use a modern metaphor) reading a person's thoughts. But prayer was also spoken out loud  in public worship. The Second Book of Chronicles presents Solomon's long dedication prayer for the new Temple:

Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; may you hear from heaven your dwelling place; hear and forgive. 
(2 Chronicles 6.21)

An important thread in Hebrew prayer concerns spoken words and gestures. Hebrews prayed to God with raised or clasped hands, postures which remain to this day in Christian prayer. Other postures in prayer were kneeling (Luke 22.41) and prostration (Matthew 26.39). Both these portray submission - witness ancient pictures and carvings which depict conquered peoples submitting themselves to their new masters. The former remains common in Christianity and the latter is usually reserved for the occasions of ordination and the taking of vows by monks and nuns.

Today we tend to think of prayer as communicating with God, much as one would commune with a good friend or trusted mentor. But this is a comparatively recent way of regarding prayer. Until about four hundred years ago in the West, prayer was almost exclusively thought of as intercession. The Hebrew psalms make this clear, for they are full of petitions for good harvests, health, wealth, happiness and forgiveness.

Perhaps as a result of influence from Buddhist countries, many eastern Christians took up a view of prayer as "wordless". While it was right and proper to intercede for one's benefit, the best of prayer is contemplative. Evagrius Ponticus (346-399) taught that the person praying should ideally eliminate all thought from the mind. One way of doing this is reminiscent of repetitive Buddhist chants - the "Jesus Prayer" in which the phrase "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" is recited continually. (An interesting modern treatment of this prayer can be found in J D Salinger's Franny and Zooey.)

By the 12th century in Europe, prayer had become much more formulaic than before. Just as medieval society was highly stratified and compartmentalised, so also was prayer partitioned into categories. Meditation and contemplative prayer began to merge into a single type of prayer so that today they are generally thought of as identical. 

Church teaching identified discursive prayer (talking to God) and affective prayer (in which feelings are stressed). Prayer is also sometimes split into praise, thanksgiving and confession as well as into stages (purging prayer, illuminating prayer, and prayer which unifies us with God). Likewise, various famous Christians produced their own prayer methods. The most well-known of these today is Ignatian spirituality.

Just as ancient religions prayed to many gods, so also the Church has evolved prayer which addresses not only God but also Jesus, Mary and the many thousands of saints. But traditional teaching is careful to stress that in praying to Mary and the saints, people intercede through them and not to them. That is, they are asked to pray on our behalf because they are as it were closer to the Godhead in heaven than we are on earth. 

It goes without saying that various Christian groups are at loggerheads with each other about prayer, as about many other matters. So, for example, Protestant churches generally say that praying through the saints and Mary is not legitimate. African churches find no problems with praying to their ancestors as a matter of Christian obligation. Others suggest that prayer is by its nature never private. Alan Richardson writes that

Christian prayer is always corporate in character, even when we enter into our private chamber to pray. Even then it is the Church, in heaven and on earth, praying through us [2]

an approach which would not find favour with many traditional Christians.

Of all the forms and modes of prayer, petitionary prayer suffers from the greatest philosophical problems. The monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) all define God as all-powerful and therefore in theory able to grant any request. 

God is also entirely loving in nature. A problem arises in understanding why a loving God should fail to grant a reasonable, loving request which does not violate the natural order. And what if petitions conflict, such as when opposing sides in a war both ask God for victory? Eleonore Stump thinks that

... the objection supposes that the only way to respond appropriately to a petitionary prayer is to grant it ... as politicians know, there are many ways to deal with conflicting petitions, short of granting them all. [3]

God is traditionally defined as knowing everything. But if that is true, then God knows what we want before we know it ourselves. There is no point in telling God what is already known. So why intercede? Some suggest that God is outside time. There is a sense in which God is eternally responding to prayer. It is we who, being limited in this respect, can't recognise the divine response in the same way that we recognise other events in time.

Increasingly, though, those who think about the meaning of prayer are wondering if this class of difficulty is created not by the concept of prayer, but by the way we define God. Is it true that we have to think of God as all-powerful? Isn't it possible that God is all-powerful but that the divine limits itself with respect to the workings of the universe. God may be all-knowing, but perhaps space/time has been created such that it is impossible for even God to know the future. 

And why should we suppose that to be loving demands our safety and comfort in this life? For if we examine the way the world actually works, it is plain that suffering, uncertainty, risk and death are all essential components in the dance of life. In other words, love is much, much more than rescuing the unfortunate.

At any rate, if we accept the universe as it is, there is every reason to suspect that God has designed life to include all the difficult and unpleasant things we experience as we live. We may pray that we be relieved of the tough parts of living. But a truly loving God, having set up this particular expression of love, isn't less loving because the world is allowed to work as it was intended to work, unpleasant aspects and all.

As humanity has begun to understand more about how the world operates, so have the frontiers of the unknown been relentlessly pushed back. What was once thought the subject of God's constant intervention in nature - like weather or earthquakes, for example - is now known to derive from the workings of a complex natural system.

One result has been an ever-increasing difficulty amongst ordinary people to believe that God intervenes in the world at all, prayers or no prayers. The world clearly carries on as a functioning system regardless of any interventions by us. And if God intervenes in that system, then everything by definition becomes unpredictable. Only if a system functions as it should can we know more or less what to expect. The complex dance of nature cannot operate if an external force is constantly intervening in it.

Having said all this, there remains what seems to be an ineradicable need for people to pray. There are probably as many ways to pray and concepts of prayer as there are people doing it. Whatever sense we give to prayer and meditation, almost all of us do it at some time or another. Some do it better than  others and some do it more often. But everybody does it.
[1] The Golden Bough, Wordsworth Reference, 1993
[2] In The New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 1983
[3] A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, Blackwell, 1999

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