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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A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Prayer


The way a majority in the West thinks about life and the world differs radically from the past. People regard their world and relationships increasingly as their own responsibility. They find it hard to imagine a God-force intervening in the world from an outside, heavenly dimension. Perhaps Christians need to re-imagine prayer and what it means to them in worship and daily life.

This is an outlook on life which taps into an ancient way of regarding the world. Even as the 21st century begins, millions of religious people regard the "spiritual life" as a form of being which allows them to reach into a supernatural and super-sensible dimension. Certain practices and skills which impact the supernatural enable them, they claim, to achieve effects in the natural world which are not otherwise possible.

In general, the key practice of the spiritual life is prayer. If a person masters certain skills in this discipline, he or she is enabled to contact God and receive spiritual messages which enable them to live ordinary (i.e. non-spiritual) life more effectively. 

Some claim to use prayer to highlight concerns about the state of the world - be it in relation to international affairs or the illness of an individual - so that God will act to influence or right an undesirable state of affairs.

Another key practice of the spiritual life is meditation. This involves practices which calm or quiet the thoughts and emotions of a person. He or she enters a state of detachment in which it is possible to directly experience a spiritual dimension. Some say that in a state of deep meditation (also called contemplation) it is possible to relate directly to God and so enter a state of spiritual bliss, sometimes called the numinous.

The spiritual life isn't confined to Christians. There is anecdotal evidence that many otherwise so-called secular people in the West practice these similar disciplines though not necessarily with similar aims. Many other religions have focus on a spiritual life. Buddhists, who don't think of a dualistic universe (that is, one split into two parts, spiritual and material), have perhaps developed methods of prayer and meditation further than most. 

What is known in the West as "New Age" spirituality appears to borrow many of its techniques from Buddhism. There is a long history of spirituality in Islam.

It is possible to retain both prayer and meditation in a non-dualist world. Such a world can be thought of as having certain characteristics:

  • It is monistic. That is, it is a single entity or reality. There is no "outside" or "beyond" the universe. God may be conceived of as "outside" the universe. In that case, God is unknowable since nothing other than the universe is accessible to us. 

    Or rather, God can be known adequately for our purposes through the universe - through natural things. This is not the position of traditional Christian theology which is largely based upon the idea of the supernatural.

  • The universe can be completely and satisfyingly experienced without resort to an hypothesis that there is a supernatural dimension. A principle of good thinking called Occam's Razor (also known as the Principle of Parsimony) states that "What can be done with fewer [assumptions] is done in vain with more." In my view, the supernatural is an unnecessary complication, unverifiable, counter to the experience of many, and contrary to the entire body of contemporary thought.

There is ample evidence in the form of human testimony throughout history that certain "altered states" yield a type of experience apparently inaccessible from any other perspective. 

Meditation and its "deeper" counterpart, contemplation, appears to be the method - with many differing techniques, routines and sub-routines - which yields this sort of altered state. New scanning technology allows us to watch brain patterns change as these altered states are accessed, as Newberg [1] reports. It now appears highly likely that a sense of the numinous is explicable in terms of brain function alone.

There is every reason to hold today that what we call meditation is a perfectly valid set of methods through which we can experience the universe in a way no other practice will give us. It appears that those who are able to attain altered states through meditation are better for it - mentally and emotionally - regardless of whether or not it gives them access to a dimension called "spiritual". In these terms, the spiritual dimension is an unnecessary complication.

What then of prayer? This is a huge subject and has been the focus of religious people for millennia. I can deal with it here only very simply.

In a monistic universe, it could be asked "Why pray? It makes little sense to pray to the universe. Is there a God to pray to?" If one chooses to interpret the Big Bang as an act of creation (I say "choose" because there's no way of proving it) then it seems silly to me to think that the Creator can't in some way access in real time what we think and feel. God the Creator can be thought of as an "in-between God" - somehow in-between the smallest, least durable and most ephemeral elements of his universe. 

In this sense "prayer" includes every thought and act of our lives. And yet it's also those deliberately special thoughts, words and deeds, whether public or private, which we ourselves label "prayerful".

The main problem in a monistic universe arises when we pray and expect God to "answer" prayers by intervening in his creation. There are cogent reasons for thinking that if God does this, our way of perceiving reality today must collapse. 

Put briefly, the universe is a total system, comprising a multitude of sub-systems. Because they all interlock completely to form a working whole, any intervention from "outside" the universe must disrupt the entire web of the space/time continuum. Every time God intervenes (if God does intervene) the universe in effect begins again from ground zero. There is increasing reason to think that the physical structure of the universe could not continue to exist if this is the case, since the delicately balanced nature of the Big Bang doesn't allow the sort of change which intervention by God would imply. 

One other option is to suppose a reality in which not only the universe but individual consciousness alters each time God intervenes. If every element in the universe is linked with every other in a system, then to change one part, however little, is to change the whole. 

If this is true, then because we ourselves would also be changed by every act of God from "outside", we wouldn't necessarily know that anything else has changed. It follows that we perhaps can't know that God intervenes in the universe.

If this is so, how is it possible to make sense of intercessory prayer for ourselves, for others and for the world?

My response is to propose that prayer is a natural and powerful way of altering and consolidating our individual cognitive-emotional patterns. Underlying it is the natural mechanism of behavioural conditioning. This mechanism is critical to our development and our survival both as individual organisms and as a species. 

Put briefly, conditioning is a natural process through which behaviours we perceive as beneficial to ourselves are maintained, and those we perceive as inimical to ourselves are eliminated. All living creatures adapt in this way.

Prayer for ourselves, then, may be a method which helps us in self-conditioning so that our behaviours can more easily and effectively be changed. We deliberately focus through prayer on aspects of our lives we wish to enhance and on other aspects we wish to reduce or eliminate.

What then of intercession? In a non-supernatural reality one doesn't expect God to intervene at our beck and call. Intervention itself may be counter to what we know about the nature of the universe. It seems to me that one way forward is to recognise intercession as a valid activity in two ways:

  1. It is a means of prompting ourselves into action. When we intercede for people and events directly associated with us, we are as it were orienting ourselves to take appropriate action. 

    Where we intercede for outcomes which are highly improbable, we exercise the virtue of hope which, by its nature, must always include an acceptance of "the ways things are" - in other words, that the improbable may not come about. Certainty excludes hope.

  2. When intercessions are made for larger or more distant matters outside our sphere of influence, it's usually true that we can't ourselves make any significant or immediate difference to the outcome. But I think that intercession amounts to a commitment to discipline ourselves to act in ways which, in our own spheres of life, will help bring about the outcomes we wish for others. 

    So to intercede for the starving in another country is to commit oneself to some local action which will [a] prevent any similar outcome in one's own life and circumstances and [b] may help alleviate hunger elsewhere through some action, however small, on our part.

This approach may suggest that traditional prayer, which cajoles God into action on our behalf, doesn't work. That may be so - but it's impossible to demonstrate, any more than it's possible to demonstrate that God does act in response to prayer. 

I think that it does imply that prayer and intercession which doesn't result in action is open to a charge of hypocrisy. How is it possible to validly pray for one's neighbour if one doesn't also take steps to make the prayer happen. Leaving it all to God is, I think, a highly suspect approach in a monistic universe.
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[1] Why God Won't Go Away, 2001

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