I’ve had a very productive week with the housework, so I’m rewarding myself by writing a more substantial blog post than I normally have time for.
It’s been many years since I stopped believing in God. But what I once believed is important and worthy of being shared, because who I am in the present is shaped by whatever has influenced me in the past. If I had never been a believer myself, for example, my attitude toward other believers would very likely be different. In this spirit, I’ve discussed my former Christianity in previous blog posts – e.g. here and here – and today I would like to focus specifically on the subject of prayer.
I hope we can all agree that the description of prayer found in The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett (“frightened people trying to make friends with the bully“) is a very long way from the Christian understanding. But while it’s easy to talk about what prayer is not, discussing what it is requires grappling with paradoxes like why an omniscient God would need suggestions from humans. Back in the day I devoted considerable thought to questions like that, and I still have some of that thought written down, in a document that forms the bulk of material for this blog post.
Prayer, according to what I consider the highest Christian understanding, is not about giving God suggestions. It’s more like tuning an aerial: maintaining and refining the telepathic link between one’s self and God. Because God is understood as moral perfection, and because there is no greater pursuit than to better ourselves morally, the Christian’s greatest ambition is to think the thoughts of God. Prayer is an attempt to fill the mind with God’s thoughts, in part by putting into words the thoughts one understands to be “godlike” (such as compassionate wishes for other people). Deliberately focusing on godlike thoughts, it is thought, makes the mind more receptive to thoughts that come directly from God: the aerial-tuning analogy works pretty well here.
The Bible talks about praying “in Christ’s name”, which I take to mean praying for the things that Christ would want you to pray for, i.e. more or less what I just described. The J. B. Phillips translation of the Bible says “Incredible as it may sound, we who are spiritual have the very thoughts of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:15), which as I’ve described it is what prayer is intended to achieve. Another verse, James 4:3, tells us that a prayer not made with the right attitude will not be answered: “And when you do ask he doesn’t give it to you, for you ask in quite the wrong spirit – you only want to satisfy your own desires.“
This overview of prayer won’t be complete without addressing the concept that prayers can be answered. The requests that one makes in prayer may be attempts to articulate what God would want you to ask for, but it is also standard Christian belief that requesting it makes it more likely to happen. My understanding was that this is an arrangement God has worked out. One argument theologians make to explain why the world is not already perfect is that, if it were, we could not experience the yearning for a perfect world, and without that yearning (so it is accepted) one cannot complete one’s spiritual journey. So between a world where prayers are never answered and a world where there are no prayers left to answer, I concluded that God made a kind of optimal medium, a world in which prayers are answered up to a point.
The document I’m getting most of this from (which I wrote) goes into detail about characteristics of good prayer, why prayer is different from magic spells, and so forth. For this blog post I will skip that material, but feel free to ask about it. I now skip ahead to the final section of the document, which is personal rather than theological.
One ritual of prayer I worked out for myself was as follows. Lying in bed at the end of the day, I would begin by reciting the Lord’s Prayer and bringing before God whatever was on my mind. Then I would bring to mind a person, or a group of people, and pray the following blessing.
Lord, I pray for everyone currently wearing a green hat.
Destroy that which keeps them from you, and strengthen that which keeps them with you.
Guide them to your image and according to your will, that they may become what you would have them be.
(Obviously the green hat is a frivolous example, but I really did try to think laterally about who to bring to mind, because personalised compassion for everyone in the world is, after all, pivotal to the Christian understanding of godlike thought.) Then I would choose some other people, and pray the same blessing until the end of my allocated prayer time. During this time I would also try to listen to God, and to respond to what I perceived as prompts from the Spirit. If I felt God calling me to recite the Lord’s Prayer again, spend a few moments in silence, sing a song, whatever, I would do that.
Towards the end of my time as a believer, I was seriously considering praying for every single person in the phone book, one at a time, over as many days as it took. As in: Lord, I pray for A. Aamir of South Plympton. Destroy that which keeps them from you and strengthen that which keeps them with you. Etc. But I never made a start on actually doing this. Whether I would have, if I didn’t stop believing in a God to answer them, is an open question.