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What About Prayer?

A new blog follower of mine commented on how much of what I write about resonates with his own spiritual journey. His faith development led him outside the cathedral of Christian orthodoxy, revealing how much of it is a human construction erected in response to a transcendent mystery – to a mystery larger, other, and deeper than ourselves. He appreciates and still cultivates the benefits of meditation as central to (what I would call a post-theistic) spirituality, especially now in his “elder” years.

My new friend writes:

I am curious about an aspect of spirituality that I don’t think you have mentioned [in the blog]. You write of meditation but never about prayer. Is that something I missed; purposeful or a topic yet to be covered? I do have some interests along those lines.

It would be easy to assume that any more or less disciplined cultivation of spirituality – which, by the way, is my best definition of religion – that is practiced “after theism” and its concept of god have been left behind, would no longer have any use for prayer. If we accept the conventional (theistic) definition of prayer as “talking with god,” then this assumption can stand, since post-theism doesn’t regard god as an objectively existing being.

Of course, I would argue that even a reflective and self-critical theism is conscious of how the genealogy of every representation of god traces back to the human imagination as its birthplace.

But still, “reflective and self-critical” are only descriptive of what can be called late theism, when god-oriented religion has acquired an ability to discriminate between the present mystery of God and our human concepts of god that give the mystery name, form, character, and location.

In the light of this distinction, it is common in late theism for believers to begin doubting the literal truth of these theological constructs, and consequently also to begin questioning the validity of “talking with” a god that might be more in our minds than anywhere else.

It takes some excavation work to discover the extent in which our theological concepts of god are really abstractions from mythological precursors, of deities who live in stories that are anchored to metaphors which link together (or carry across, metaphorein) our experience of mystery and our constructions of meaning. Metaphorically, a narrative depiction of god personifies this mystery, gives it meaning, and invites us into a relationship corresponding to the special powers attributed to the deity.

Once upon a time, there was a god of harvest, a god of healing, a god of love, and so on. In the high theism of biblical Judaism these originally separate attributions and plural deities were unified in the one and only god, Yahweh, and a devotee’s supplication might employ any number of distinct prayer formulae depending on the particular need or objective.

Even here, given that the biblical god Yahweh is also a theological construct of the mythopoetic imagination, the real benefit of prayer can be appreciated as more therapeutic than conversational. While a devotee might believe that he or she is “talking with god” (regardless of the persistent silence at the other end of the line), the effect psychologically might come in the form of a calming relief, an expansion of awareness, the release of guilt, an acceptance of life as it is, or the focused resolution to act for desired change.

True believers will always have recourse to the assertion that god really is there, at the other end of the prayer line.

It’s not necessary for them to have met a deity who fits the biblical profile of Yahweh in order to have faith that he objectively exists. (This is one way that faith gets distorted into “believing it anyway,” when its original and deepest meaning has to do with releasing oneself in trusting surrender to the present mystery of reality.) But with our historical knowledge of how religion’s concept of god originated and evolved over time, there is no reasonable basis for such belief.

God doesn’t have to exist to be meaningful. Which also means that prayer doesn’t have to be conversational for it to still have an important place in the cultivation of spirituality.

So then, what is prayer? If it’s not a way of getting god’s attention, persuading his mercy and forgiveness, stoking his wrath against our enemies, motivating his miraculous intervention on our behalf (etc.), then what use is it? Post-theism has an answer.

Our psycho-spiritual development as humans follows a trajectory in the formation of a self-conscious center of personal identity, or ego (from Latin for “I”). The deities of theism are cultural counterparts of this formation, and one of their primary roles is to serve as mythopoetic ideals (i.e., more perfect and self-actualized versions of ourselves) that awaken and evoke from us such higher virtues as patience, compassion, benevolence, and forgiveness – the distinctly humane virtues.

At this seemingly “conversational” stage, our supplication of god for these higher virtues, along with our worship of god in exemplifying them to us, activates our commitment to their demonstration in our own life, with whatever consistency we can manage.

Petitioning god’s forgiveness, for instance, and then returning gratitude for our release from guilt, motivates our own forgiveness of others who have wronged us.

At first, we look to god for the strength we need to set aside vengeance and act with kindness instead. Over time and with practice, however, living a forgiven and forgiving life becomes more second nature for us: The virtuous strength we had earlier looked to god for is now active in us. Our prayer for god’s forgiveness has awakened in us the power to forgive. That is to say, the virtue of forgiveness which god had personified has now “come alive” in us.

This, by the way, is a post-theistic interpretation of the early Christian myth of Pentecost, where the spirit of Jesus was transferred into the disciple community, which subsequently became the resurrected body of Christ. I am convinced that earliest Christianity, taking its inspiration from Jesus himself, was a post-theistic revolution that later (too soon) was co-opted again by a resurgent theism.

A full account of prayer thus begins in a theistic frame, with god and his virtues depicted as beyond us. Eventually we move into a post-theistic frame, where the virtues of god are awakened and active within us, flowing through us and into our daily life and relationships.

Prayer as conversation transforms into prayer as incarnation, and we step fully into the liberated life.

 

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A New Christianity

In a recent blog post (“What is Post-Theism?”) I explored how Western culture since the ancient Greeks evolved through three creative phases, where an earlier function of god (behind nature, above politics, and ahead of morality) was internalized and transcended by the human being.

The revolutions of science (natural philosophy) and democracy in Greece essentially took over for god (or the gods) and elevated humans to a new level of control, freedom and responsibility in the world. As each of these “progression thresholds” was crossed, Western culture entered upon a new post-theistic age.

That isn’t too difficult to accept, as far as it goes. But then I suggested that we crossed over into post-theistic morality with the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus redefined the moral function of god away from exclusion, retribution, and final vengeance on enemies, toward a model of inclusion, generosity, and unconditional forgiveness. He called upon his disciples to accomplish in loving their enemies what god had been unwilling and unable to do.

Let’s refresh this theory in our minds before we proceed, since so much hinges on it.

The moral function of god historically has been not only to enforce proper behavior, but to serve as the advancing ideal of human evolution. As the principal attractors of human moral development, gods possess certain ethical attributes and propensities. These “powers” are raised into the focus of aspiration whenever we praise god, meditate on the perfection of god’s virtues, and worship him for being such-and-such and acting thus-and-so towards us.

Because worship and aspiration – praising god and striving to be like him – are so close as to be nearly identical, the interesting progress in all this devotional activity involves awakening these same virtues in ourselves, activating them into the forefront of our moral concerns, and eventually expressing them in the way we live in the world.

The prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah prepared the way by daring to speak not just on god’s behalf, but as god to their generations. Once god was thus internalized, as it were, compassion for the outcast and justice for the poor (the twin obsessions of prophetic literature) became active humanitarian concerns. With a new human ability to embody and express these virtues, an idealized and external representation of them (in god) was no longer necessary.

With Jesus we might say the final step was taken. Not only preferential love for insiders or compassionate love for outsiders, but unconditional love for one’s enemies was first professed by Jesus to be the way god really is. He went on to demonstrate this same love in the way he lived, and then called his friends to do the same.

It’s absolutely crucial that we try to grasp how revolutionary Jesus was in calling his followers to outdo even god (the tribal, retributive deity) in their practice of love. Even god couldn’t forgive unless and until all the conditions of repentance had been fulfilled, yet Jesus exhorted his disciples to begin with forgiveness, without expectation of repentance, and to never stop.

Tragically, later Christian orthodoxy would go back to retrieve the vengeful deity and proceed to make the cross of Jesus a satisfaction of conditions against god’s willingness (ability?) to forgive sinners. For another two thousand years (and counting), Christianity would revert to the very model of god that Jesus had helped us transcend and leave behind.

The earliest Christians could appreciate the repercussions of what Jesus had said and done. His community of followers (at least some of them) stepped bravely into a post-theistic age. They came to believe they were living in the fulfillment of time, as god had completely emptied himself (kenosis) into humanity, and humanity had at last risen to its divine potential (apotheosis) in Jesus.

Such a realization is rather esoteric (meaning deeply interior), to say the least. So in their effort to communicate its meaning to the larger culture, second-generation Christian storytellers began the work of painting him into a mythological frame. In a series of strategic moves, the Jesus of memory opened out into an elaborate story about Jesus the Christ: the messenger became the message.

According to the Christian myth, after his death on a cross Jesus was raised back to life and taken up into heaven, where he became (as the apostle Paul says) a life-giving spirit. Not long thereafter he descended as the holy spirit (an identification made explicit by Paul) upon the small community of his huddled and discouraged disciples, bringing them to life (in a second-order resurrection) as his new body on earth.

So in their religious (mythic) imagination, the Jesus they remembered and heard about – the one with this radical message and example of unconditional forgiveness – went up into god and came down into humanity. This was precisely the dynamic that had transpired while he was alive as one of them: he took them up into a new conceptual definition of god (with his teaching), and brought them down for an embodied demonstration (in his action).

As an example of post-theistic mythology, the early Christian myth effectively introduced newcomers to Jesus, as it facilitated the plunge into a more grounded and mystical spirituality for those farther along. Problems emerged, however, as the avant-garde post-theistic Christian movement became an established state-sanctioned dogmatic orthodoxy. The more radical and esoteric edge of the movement was sanded down into a popular religion, fully stocked with administrative officials, membership requirements, and a fantastic post-mortem benefits package.

Jesus would soon be rewritten in doctrine into the world savior who swept in from somewhere else, accomplished the critical transaction for our salvation, and went away again. He is expected to come again someday, at which time he will gather his favorites and throw the rest in hell for not believing when they had the chance. All the while, we hunker down in our denominational boxes and recite the company line with heads bowed.

If Jesus could see us now.

 
 

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