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A Prayerful Life

In What About Prayer I responded to a question from a new blog follower, about whether prayer has any continued relevance after (post-) theism, at least in the version of post-theism I have been advocating for. He understands that post-theism is not hung up in the debate over god’s objective existence but is more interested in what our concepts of god say about us and where they may be leading.

It is not to be reduced to atheism, in other words.

In our personal correspondence, my friend referred to another post from nearly a year ago, entitled More Than You Think. It explores a new theory of mind based on the scientific fact that we possess consciousness-conducting cells, called neurons, not only in our brain, but in our heart and gut as well.

If that is the case, then it’s reasonable to at least consider expanding our definition of “mind” beyond what’s transpiring in our heads only, and to ask whether there might be distinct types of mind that engage us with reality in ways very different from the logical, rational, and discursive thinking we so revere in the (“heady”) modern West.

In this post I want to revisit that model of plural minds, but now with the explicit question on the table of what it could mean to our understanding of prayer. As we’ll see, the model provides a useful frame for appreciating both the ascendancy of theism and its necessary transcendence by a post-theistic spirituality.

My present interest is the continuing relevance of living a prayerful life after theism.

To get started, let’s begin with the etymology of our word “prayer,” which refers to the outreach of supplication to what is beyond us for something we need or desire – protection, provision, wisdom, guidance, comfort, healing, forgiveness, liberation, etc. To seek it outside ourselves is at least an implicit acknowledgment that we don’t possess it already, or at least believe that we don’t.

Both the spiritual wisdom traditions and contemporary science – and what the heck, let’s also throw in common sense – confirm the fact that we are not entirely self-sufficient and absolutely independent beings, but rather that we and every other life form are chronically deficient and profoundly dependent on relationships, resources, and ecosystems for our existence. By “chronically deficient” I simply mean that we need things, like oxygen to breathe, and that this need recurs as an urgency of life itself.

So then, there is a very natural inclination in us to reach out for (or open up to receive) what we need but don’t (simply because we can’t) possess.

Could this be the experiential origins of supplication? Is there already an implicit, maybe even an instinctual acknowledgment here that we rely on something beyond ourselves for what we seek as human beings? If it is rooted in instinct and the life process itself, is it not reasonable to expect that this inclination might find expression in the form of invocation, petition, thanksgiving, and even devotion as it rises into our more evolved human capacities for language, self-consciousness, and meaning?

So goes my theory.

Our logical mind is where the business of language, self-consciousness, and making meaning unfolds. It is what most clearly distinguishes our species from all the others, and it’s also where the illusion of our separateness is generated. By definition, ego is our separate center of self-conscious identity which divides reality – but actually only our perception of reality – between “me and mine” and “not me: other.”

Furthermore, the “I” at the center of this worldview is itself a social construct, a kind of negative space created by the gradual separation of “me” from “not me.” Into this negative space our tribe installs all kinds of codes, roles, values, and beliefs that conspire in shaping this animal nature into “one of us” – a well-behaved and conscientious member of society.

Historically a big part of this project has involved putting the developing ego into relationship with a Supreme Ego who is regarded as the higher intelligence behind the world, an absolute will above our tribe’s moral codes and ordained authorities, as well as the exemplar of virtues towards which we and our fellow devotees aspire. Just as our own separate ego-identity is a construct of language and entirely imaginary, the same is true of this Supreme Ego who stands in the role of patron deity: bestowing blessings and protection, providing for our atonement when we step off the moral path, giving us a longer and higher vision for our lives.

It’s important to understand – though virtually impossible for true believers to even consider much less accept – that this god is imaginary and not real, a literary figure (in sacred stories) and not a literal being (outside the stories), a theological construct and not an actual personality. The roots of this construct are metaphorical and grounded in that deep inclination to reach out for what we need, which at the level of our logical mind is security, identity, meaning, and purpose.

As it relates to my topic, this is where prayer is conversational, imagined as a kind of dialogue between “god and me” (and “us”).

As post-theism begins with the realization that god lacks objective existence, proceeding into meditation on what god means, those deeper roots of metaphor and the experience of deficiency, dependency, and supplication it images-forth lead us through the floor, as it were, of our logical mind. As we enter the sympathic mind of our heart, the separation of ego and other dissolves away and our world construct is left behind.

Here it becomes immediately evident that all things are connected, interdependent, and, as the Buddhists say, mutually co-arising. There is no “separate self,” no “alien other,” but rather a vibrant web in which self and other are “together as one,” partners in a larger reality.

“Heart-centered” prayer, then, is very different from the “head-centered” imaginary conversation where ego petitions god for what we need. Deeper into the web of life and our sympathic mind we send our intentions along the axons of communion, receiving and releasing, perhaps redirecting the flow to where in the web it is most needed. As a spider can feel the vibration of activity from far across its web, we also participate in a visible and invisible field of energy, matter, life, and mind.

Prayer is as spontaneous as taking a breath and giving it back, holding one another with gracious intention, living carefully and responsively on the earth, lifting our cup from the communion of life and offering our thanks in return.

We still have one more deeper level to go in our reflections on prayer as supplication. Far below our wordy world of identity (logical mind) and beneath even the vibrant web where all is one (sympathic mind), each of us is a living manifestation of being, of the ineffable mystery of be-ing itself. Here our intuitive mind (centered in the gut) lives silently in the cycling rhythms of our autonomic nervous system, metabolic activity, and physical existence.

This “grounding mystery” (as I call it) is not found by digging into other things, but only through engaging a contemplative descent within ourselves.

Each descending step of awareness entails a surrender of something we may be hanging onto – my tribe, my beliefs, my ego, my thoughts, this thought, thinking itself, the one who thinks he is thinking – until we enter a clearing of boundless presence. Such surrender is a third type of supplication, then, having now dropped below conversational prayer and even communal prayer, into contemplative prayer, where we are content to dwell, silently and with open attention, in the present mystery of reality.

 

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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.)┬áBut 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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