If God is not an external being out there who controls the world and dispenses grace according to divine prerogative, then what is prayer?
Lamentations 3:44 You [God] wrapped yourself up in a cloud; prayers can’t make it through!
[Scripture taken from the Common English Bible®, CEB® Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.]
A Circumfession on Prayer
In his delightful little book, Truth, John Caputo skewered and filleted me when he wrote about Augustine’s and Derrida’s prayer. He wrote:
“We stand in the truth to the extent that we stand exposed [my emphasis] to the event, open to what we cannot see coming, putting ourselves in question and making ready for something for which we cannot be ready.”
The first twelve words echo (repeat) the words of the Bible – namely, to stand in the truth / faith means to stand exposed before God. Derrida’s prayer exposes me!
From Augustine we get that prayer is a wounded word from / for / within the restless, longing heart. Derrida (a thorough-going secularist and atheist) addresses his prayer to “you (tu),” even to “you, my God.” Of course, he doesn’t mean “God” in the same manner that traditional Christianity means “God.” Therein, however, is the word that has exposed me. When I gave up the theistic concept of God, I also gave up prayer. (Perhaps, if truth be known, I have never been a fan of prayer, have never been much of a prayer.)
When my wife’s trauma struck 35 years ago, I did not pray. I did not rail against God (“Why her?” “Why me?) nor did I ask for healing. And yet, in retrospect, I probably felt closer to (on more intimate terms with) God than at any other time in my life. I was wounded at the depth of my being, and the surprising thing is that my woundedness did not seem to evoke the prayer of a restless heart.
Until now, I didn’t have a handle on what was happening, starting back then. In Derrida or Caputo’s terminology, I had an event before me, insisting. That event, that insistence, was life-changing and transformative. It was clear to me that I had possibly lost my life’s companion. (This was most clear when the doctor asked me: “If she has another attack, do we treat it or let it take her?” My answer was immediate: “We let it run its course.”) As disorienting as that thought was, I felt a deep and growing sense of peace. I knew (how I knew I do not know) that the future was O.K. (that is, still filled with promise and possibility). Whether Sue lived or died, we would be O.K. If Sue lived, whether she recovered fully or partially or not at all, we would be O.K. Our son, daughter, and I would survive – scars and all… and not just survive, I knew that we would thrive. That was the promise and possibility that filled the future.
When I gave up the concept of a God as an existent being, I gave up God as a reality. Tillich’s Ground of Being was a convenient substitute, but I was never sure what Tillich meant by that phrase. Kaufman’s “serendipitous creativity” was a helpful option to use as a content description for the “God” who had no physical reality, but was no God to address in prayer.
It is clear now that the prayer I was giving up was “saying prayers” and more specifically intercessory prayer. If there is not a “hearing” and “responding” entity out there which can hear my prayer as a “call” and then respond, of what use is prayer?
The shape of prayer (that is, my pouring out a wounded word from my restless heart) has become journaling (as evidenced in this writing) and its 2nd cousin, emailing, as well as in-depth conversations with others. These shape the processing of the stuff of my life. They are the locus for affixing the name “Sacred” or “Mystery” or even “God” to my grappling and my response. These are the occasions for engaging, reflecting, correcting, and celebrating who I am and how I live. Here are areas wherein I experience events that insist / call upon me and in which I share my response, perhaps.
In short, when I gave up understanding “God” theistically, I gave up on God. I may still use the name of “God,” perhaps, in dialogue with others. I understand the name of God (perhaps) to be a metaphoric construction that is short-hand for our deepest desires, but not a separate entity or being. Actually I hesitate to speak the name of God (perhaps) because it is so easily understood to invoke a physical entity, a Supreme Being out there.
Perhaps this is but a repetition of Derrida’s:
“The very core of his prayer, and the core of his religion, is this unknowing, which is the wound of his heart which issues in prayer. He prays in a night of unknowing for the coming of something, I know not what, praying for truth to become true. Prayer for Derrida is too precious a thing to surrender to theology for its exclusive use.”
As Caputo continues, he suggests that Derrida affirms a desire for “God” (that is, the name of “God,” perhaps) without God. That is where I am – “God” without God, religion-less Christianity… a restless heart, instead of an “active God.”
For me, prayer is not something I say; instead, prayer is my attempt (feeble as that attempt may be) to enter into the fogginess of the cloud of unknowing and to abide there, if even for only a short duration. These are trips of short duration because every fiber of my being cries out that I want to know, I want to pierce through the cloud and see if anything of substance is there. Strangely enough, these trips of short duration into the cloud of unknowing help me gain some inner strength that enables me to stay present to my immediate context and the people therein. Is this prayer? Perhaps.