DON CUPITT

 

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)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... 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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Faith in Search of Understanding
5. Prayer and Worship
by Anthony Freeman

To make a start on this subject I shall define worship in a wide sense as "the response of the creature to an experience of God", and prayer simply as an aspect of that response. The experience in question may be acute or on-going, and the response may be spontaneous or deliberate.

Most organised religious activities (such as prayer and praise and pilgrimage) begin as a deliberate response to some acute and overwhelming experience; then as time goes on it moves into the category of a continuing response to an ongoing experience, of which these very activities themselves form the focus. 

For example, Armistice Day services in Europe began as a response to the experiences of the First World War. But today it is the services of remembrance themselves that provide the core experience, which leads successive generations - who never knew the original conflict - to continue holding them.

Religious activity, in addition to honouring God, responds in a way that keeps past experience in remembrance and facilitates further experience of a similar kind. 

When the experience and the response are communal, the worship is usually regulated to take place:

  • At an appropriate place (sacred sites)
  • At an appropriate time (sacred dates and times of day)
  • With appropriate words and actions (sacred rites and ceremonies)
  • By the appropriate people (defined worshipping communities)

Continuity a Characteristic of Worship
There is a powerful conservative instinct in all religious activity and this results in a strong sense of continuity in all four of these elements. Even when there are new religious movements with their own legitimating stories, links with earlier traditions are strenuously fostered. God is thought to be most appropriately worshipped where he has already chosen to make himself known, and at times and seasons of proven spiritual fruitfulness.

In the case of sacred sites, this can have devastating negative consequences, as when we see Jews, Christians and Muslims all fighting over the same few acres of Jerusalem. Closer to home, one English church I know of is supposedly built on an ancient spiritually powerful holy site, where a number of lay lines cross. New-age devotees come to place their hands on a particular pillar where they believe they can draw strength from the very stones that occupy such a potent space.

When it comes to sacred seasons, Christians today still follow a calendar designed to suit the agricultural year in the ancient near east. 

When the Israelites first settled in Canaan there were three major festivals: The first-fruits of the barley harvest in spring; the completion of the wheat harvest in early summer; and the harvesting of the vines and olives at the end of the summer. These agricultural feasts were historicized as each became associated with a key event in the Israel's time in the wilderness. 

The spring harvest became Passover, when the exodus from Egypt was celebrated. The wheat harvest was known in the Old Testament at the Feast of Weeks, because it took place a week of weeks (7 x 7 = 49 days) after Passover. This is more familiar to us as Pentecost, the Greeks having rounded up the 49 days to 50. Pentecost was historicized as a memorial of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. 

And the grape harvest was transformed into the Feast of the Tabernacles, when the whole period of 40 years dwelling in temporary shelters was commemorated by building shelters or tabernacles of branches - as it still is by Jews to this day.

The Christian Church took over Passover as Easter, the feast of the resurrection; and Pentecost as Whitsunday, the feast of the Holy Spirit. Tabernacles left no mark, its place as the third major feast being taken by Christmas, which draws not on Jewish antecedents but on the pagan winter festival of northern Europe. But the same principle applies: there is a continuity of sacred time.

Time, like place, has been the cause of great religious conflict. The first major split in the Church arose over the timing of Easter Day. Should it keep to the same date, like the Jewish Passover, and be celebrated on different days of the week as that date fell, or should it always be kept on the first day of the week, a day made trebly holy by Christ'-s having risen on that day? 

We probably have an echo of that early conflict in our gospels, where the dating of the crucifixion if different in John's gospel from the other three. The Synoptic Gospels all present the Last Supper as a Passover meal. But John says that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered at exactly the same time as Jesus was being crucified, shifting everything by twenty-four hours.

That this early controversy was won by those who wanted to keep Easter always on a Sunday - and by extension to make every Sunday a mini-Easter celebration - may well be down to the strength of that most distinctive aspect of Jewish sacred time, the Sabbath. 

The destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jews, first by the Babylonians and later by the Romans, gave rise to the centrality of the Torah, or the "Law of Moses". The same events made Sabbath observance a key element of Jewish life, and for the same reason. The Scripture and the Sabbath were both portable. They were independent of place, and acted as a strong cohesive force when the Temple was no longer there and Jerusalem was inaccessible.

So Christians took over the weekly pattern of life from Judaism, transferring the chief holy day from the seventh to the first in honour of the resurrection. 

And being for several centuries without much in the way of official buildings, they also took over the practice of daily morning and evening prayer in private homes. This custom became highly developed in the monasteries, and was revived in a simpler form in private houses after the Reformation, only to have fallen into disuse in the last century.

The Contents of Worship
When it came to the holy words and actions (technically known as rites and ceremonies respectively) used in worship, Christians again drew largely on Jewish antecedents, with the Psalms of David providing the backbone of the body of prayers. 

The Jews of the dispersion had themselves adapted their scriptures and applied them metaphorically, so that words once associated literally with Mount Zion or the hills of Judah could retain their relevance in a time and place far removed from their origin in the holy land. Christians extended this approach, and spiritualised the Jewish writings, re-assigning references to earthly sites such as Jerusalem and Canaan to their heavenly counterparts.

A specially important shift in understanding related to the practice of animal sacrifice, which stood at the heart of the Jewish system of worship. 

Christians saw the death of Jesus as the perfect sacrifice, in which Jesus was both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrificial victim. The crucifixion was for them the culmination of the old sacrificial system and simultaneously fulfilled it and rendered it obsolete. 

This theme is worked out at length in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but is there also in Paul ("Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us" - 1 Corinthians 5.7) and in John ("Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world" - John 1.29). And the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all use their accounts of the Last Supper to present the impending death of Jesus in sacrificial terms.

Because they no longer needed to offer literal sacrifices, Christians commemorated instead the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus when they gathered for the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup of what they now called the New Covenant. 

And this was no mere looking back to a past event, but an active participation in it, as the events of Good Friday and Easter Day were made present to the worshippers. Thus Paul can say to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10):

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?

The word I have translated there as "sharing" also means communion, fellowship, participation, and so on, in what became known as "the un-bloody sacrifice" of the Eucharist. 

It is a "sharing in" not a "sharing out" as in a meal, and the difference is crucial. This is dramatically shown in what we know as "the feeding of the five thousand", which is effectively a symbolic eucharistic meal set within Jesus� earthly ministry. 

The bread - which our Lord takes and blesses and breaks and gives - is not like the proverbial cake, the slices of which get smaller the more who take a piece. On the contrary, the more the Communion is shared, the more it abounds. 

This is because when Christians take part in the Eucharist they actively engage in the saving death and risen life of Jesus. They do not consume the body of Christ, as though using up some limited resource. Rather they become the body Christ, increasing its life and vigour here on earth. It is the ultimate "renewable" source of spiritual energy. 

Again it is Paul who puts his finger on it, when he continues the short quotation just given as follows: "We being many are one bread, one body, because we all share in the one bread."

Prayer
I was much exercised as to the best way to divide up this aspect of our subject. I could have gone for public vs. private, vocal vs. silent, written vs. extempore, or verbal vs. mystical. But I decided in the end to fall back on the traditional four-fold division into Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving and Supplication (ACTS). 

As we consider these four aspects of prayer, the ways they relate to those other divisions of prayer-type may suggest themselves to you.

Prayer, even when practised in company with others, is a personal thing (which is not quite the same as an individual thing). We say "Our Father" not "My Father", but it remains a personal form of address. 

Consequently, my own belief - that God is not best thought of as an independently-existing person - is widely felt (by critics and allies alike) to face its toughest challenge when it comes to prayer. I shall therefore take the liberty of including under each of these heads a brief explanation of how I personally approach these four elements of devotion.

First a general point: All religious language has the character of metaphor and analogy, and is not entirely dissimilar from other, non-linguistic, aids to worship. 

For example, an icon or a crucifix or some other physical image often helps to focus the eyes during prayer. And in a similar way a particular idea or mental image of God helps to focus the mind. One is not praying to either the metal or the mental image, but this does not mean we aren�t praying at all. Now consider the four classic elements of prayer.

Adoration is the prayer in which we rejoice in God for his own sake. It directs us completely away from ourselves to that which is utterly beyond us. John Macquarrie, writing about the prayer of adoration, has expressed it in this way:

Mystical writers have declared God to be more than power, more than goodness, more than beauty, and this is their way of saying that although these qualities do point us to God, when they are raised to the absolute they transcend our understanding ... The human being has a need to adore, to relate to that which is incomparable and absolute.

My critics claim I am bringing God down to our level when I speak of God as "the sum of human values". But I am happy to use Macquarrie's language and say that our individual human values do no more than "point us to God", and that "the sum" of those values, when they are raised to the absolute, indeed transcend our understanding. 

It is arguable that more traditional believers, who insist on "the existence of God as an objective being", are the ones refusing to allow God to transcend our understanding in the way required by pure adoration.

Contrition (incorporating confession of sin) is the second element of prayer. Handling failure and guilt is one of the life-skills essential to healthy integrated living. For this the prayer of contrition, grounded in the assurance of forgiveness in Christ, has been an invaluable tool for many Christians. But it appears to need an "external" God who can stand over against us and pronounce us forgiven.

I argue to the contrary that our own forgiveness depends above all else on our willingness to forgive others. 

This is the teaching of Jesus himself in the gospels. It is not an arbitrary decree by God, but a psychological truth. The capacity for receiving forgiveness is bound up with the ability to bestow it. 

And this in turn is bound up with the capacity for love. Forgiving one another in love, and receiving forgiveness with humility and gratitude, are practical matters at the centre of the Christian life. They are never easy, and the variety of spiritual exercises which come under the umbrella title of the prayer of contrition provides a useful - even an essential - support for this dimension of Christian living. 

But none of this depends on an objective personal God.

Thanksgiving is the prayer of gratitude. It is praising God for his goodness in his works, especially where we ourselves are the beneficiaries. 

So can thanksgiving survive without an objective creating, caring, redeeming God? I believe it can. "Count your blessings" is still wise advice. And "an attitude of gratitude" - the signature tune of Christian stewardship - is a remedy against many spiritual and emotional ills. 

There is an acknowledgement here of all that is "given" in our lives, of all that is not of our own making. It need not entail belief in a supernatural provider in order to fulfill its role in shaping our lives and attitudes.

Supplication (embracing both petition and intercession) is the last of our four aspects of prayer, and the one which more than all the others apparently demands that God be an independent agent able to respond to requests. 

This is an aspect of prayer which creates difficulties for all who take its implications seriously, and traditional theists are arguably in a worse case than radicals like me. The hard questions are well known:

  • How can God, who is both almighty and all-good, so often appear to deny his petitioners their legitimate requests?

  • Why should God, "who knows our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking", nonetheless require such asking to be done?

  • If nature is governed by his own "laws which never can be broken", how can God intervene in answer to prayer without self-contradiction?

The whole thing becomes more explicable if we transform the picture of God as almighty-but-reluctant, into one of him as desirous of helping us, but deliberately limiting himself to working with us rather than over-riding us. 

Looked at in this way, the role of prayer is not a matter of trying to persuade God to do something he otherwise would not do, but of aligning the human will with the divine will in order to enable their joint desire to be accomplished. On this model, "Thy will be done," is not a passive resignation to the inevitable, but a co-operative venture. "Thy will" and "my will" are not assumed to be at variance, but trusted to be in ultimate conformity.

Once we see human prayer not as an exercise in twisting the arm of the Almighty, nor as an exercise in magic, but as an agency for achieving good outcomes, then all is changed. 

We can understand the role of God (the sum of all our values) in relation to the setting of our human goals - assuring that we pray and strive for the right things - rather than treating God as the reluctant dispenser of certain things that we beg for.

Jesus the Model of Prayer
Although I have presented this way of approaching prayer in the context of my own radical ideas about God, I firmly believe that it is the right approach even if we stick to orthodox theism. 

If we truly believe that our best source of information about God is what is shown us in the story and person of Jesus, then we are bound to conclude that God depends on us no less than we depend on him. God needs our prayers, not because he refuses to help us without them, but because he cannot help us unless we align ourselves with God's purposes.

We say that God is "almighty", but there are still limits to what he can do. In particular, he cannot go against his own nature. For example, he cannot do anything that is intrinsically evil, because his nature is to be the perfection of goodness. 

That is a philosophical point to be found in all the textbooks and would be agreed by anyone who believes in God - be they Jewish, Muslim or whatever. But as Christians we claim that our best insights into God's nature do not come from philosophy, but from the story and person of Jesus. And in Jesus we learn that the nature of God is not to "go it alone" but to depend on human co-operation.

We have seen already that two of the early heresies to be condemned by the Church were (1) the idea that Jesus was not fully human and (2) the view that his humanity and divinity were not fully integrated in one person. 

It is absolutely central to Christian doctrine that Jesus was and is both fully human and fully divine. And so close are the human and divine natures that he was and remains a single fully integrated person. Now comes the crucial part that is so often missed.

John tells us that, "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John 1.18). 

If this is so, we can only know God as he is made known in God-the-Son, in Jesus. And God-in-Christ able to work only in and through and with the human Christ, because - as we have just seen - in him the divine and the human are perfectly harmonized in a single person. 

Thus, while the philosophers tell us that God is perfectly good, and therefore it is impossible that he should do anything intrinsically evil, we as Christians will add: God is also Christ-like, and therefore it is impossible that he should work other than in and through and with the human race. 

That is not a claim to make lightly. It is not a claim for the fainthearted. But in the symbolism of Christ's Ascension we celebrate the elevation of his humanity to the throne of God. Where God is, there also is Christ's humanity - and that means our humanity, all humanity. So for Christians God's action cannot be conceived of apart from human action. And God's will cannot be done without human co-operation.

This puts Christian prayer in a new light. It is not an empty charade, imposed by God to remind us of our dependence upon him, but an expression of God's dependence upon us. It is the earthly counterpart to the heavenly vision of Christ's humanity sharing God's throne. 

Prayer is nothing less than a part of the divine-and-human action by which God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself.

That is also why the wordless and imageless prayer of contemplation and the mystical tradition is just as much intercessory prayer as are the long - often too long - lists of requests read out in the vocal prayer of public worship. 

True contemplation brings an inner and unspoken awareness of reality, and so purifies and aligns the will of the individual with that transcendent "sum of all our values" which we call the will of God. 

And in that purifying and aligning process true prayer is both made and answered; it is prayer modeled on the prayer of Jesus himself, a prayer that he embodied rather than uttered.

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