The Changing Life of Prayer

“What is your sermon on this week?” The stand-in secretary asked.

“The next beatitude ‘Blessed are the Pure in Heart.'” I replied.

She said. “Aren’t you done with those yet?”

I laughed. I think she did too once she thought about what she said. Like many satirical punchlines it was funny because it was all too true. I know many church members do not like “sermon series” type of preaching. For a pastor they make planning easier. For a church member that attends every other week, it means they will miss something. That is if they really care that they miss anything.

My ministry has seen a lot of the Beatitudes both according to Matthew and Luke. I have had church members and church visitors ask me where they can be found in the Bible. Most people are familiar with the Ten Commandments (there was even a movie) but know nothing about the Beatitudes. Because of this lack of knowledge, I have adopted a few catch phrases. “I will see you ten commandments and raise you eight beatitudes,” is one such phrase. It encapsulates my counsel that the Commandments are where we begin while the Beatitudes are our goals in Christian living. If the “big ten” commandments make one uncomfortable wait till I introduce you to the Beatitudes. These eight should make one really uncomfortable because they eventually got Jesus killed.

Practicing Christian faith should make us uncomfortable. On one level it would be wonderful to live life in constant communion with The Way. On the immediate level we might miss everything about life right now. Salvation is wonderful. But, do we wish to see people we know to be evil receive it? Justice is wonderful too. Do we wish to see our best friends feel that wrath? These are uncomfortable questions. And we want most of all to be comfortable in our life with God.

The practice of prayer becomes especially difficult if we are praying. I have known people who ask for other people to pray for them simply because they never pray themselves. I know others who fear they don’t pray correctly and do not try. Still others practice prayer and find themselves empty when they once were filled with joy in their communion with God.

It is not that they have sinned against God or do not pray correctly. It is a sense of needing to find a new prayer way. Unfortunately, there seems to be more in church life about doing than there is about staying in peace with God. The changing life of prayer for those who practice prayer daily or even many times a day is important in the growth of the person. Prayer is connection. It is communication. It is talking. It is listening. Prayer is being pure in heart and doing purity of heart. It is calling on the transcendent to become immanent. It is asking. It is answering. It is seeing because we are searching.

Essentially prayer is running toward God. Sometimes we are exhausted because we are running in place. God is there to meet us. And God meets us when we respond to any of the divine invitations to be in God’s presence. Once again, I must add is it is often uncomfortable. Many people prefer God meet them in preferred places. Those places may be churches, private homes, or in an out of doors setting. God never promised to meet me where I wanted to be met. God never promised to keep my schedule or respect my boundaries. God promises to be with me. I am not certain what that means.

I have reached a place in my life where I can let God be God. My image of God may be a mere image. However God chooses to have communion with me, it is left to me to respond. The same is true for all of us. If God afflicts my comfort so that God’s glory may be shown, so be it. My life lies with God.

Being Transcendent

I really enjoyed reading David Bent Hart’s book Experiencing God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.  A good friend turned me on to this writer wondering if I could make heads or tails of what he was trying to say. Hart makes two important moves in his argument for the existence of God as defined by ancient philosophical theologies.

The first move is the one of definition. Hart defines God much the same way as Plato. God is beyond nature and the progenitor of all the was, is, and will be. Beyond the Cosmos there is more than what Carl Sagan imagined. The difficult aspect of this definition for God in philosophical theology is that it is beyond argument. One cannot argue convincingly to a person who is used to logically having a firm definition that can be demonstrated. It feels like slight of hand is at work for that person. Daniel Dennett claims it is like playing tennis without a net for one’s opponent while having to play with one for yourself. I agree it is difficult to argue against a vague definition. It is paramount to saying, “I don’t believe in the Hindu position” when no such position exists. Some people are indeed Hindu. Yet, there is no truly defined Hinduism. That is a Western word developed by Christian thinkers. And so God as defined by Hart is beyond argument.

The second move he makes is that, while God is beyond argument, God is not beyond human experience. God becomes, as panentheists argue, both immanent and transcendent. Those of the great theistic religions who practice spiritual disciplines claim to experience God in some way. Hart uses teachings from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu mystics to demonstrate how spiritual discipline develops awe for the transcendence that gives God the supernatural side of “being-itself.”

Hart is not advocating religious syncretism. His main purpose is to oppose philosophical materialism. And yet, here is the major problem. A person who holds to the materialist position can experience transcendence. Hart claims that any time this experience comes to an individual or say that person desires to learn the good or the true then that person is experiencing or seeking God. His definition allows him to make that claim.  God becomes an interesting being who both is and is not…like the famous non-existent cat.

Hart claims that any other definition of God is then something less than God. The divinity becomes a product of nature by being a dependent Intelligent Designer; or a fallible demiurge in the definitions that argue God is immoral in some actions described in sacred literature. Why not use the word Tao as something undefinable? Because Hart needs the supernatural God to be personal. The great theistic religions require not only a divine being but a divine person.

Divine personhood is the tricky part. A person acts. And therefore has both will and must be responsible for actions or refusals to act.  This is territory Hart does not venture into. Why? Because no moral demands may be made on the ultimate Truth and the ultimate Good.

I have set this argument up as an agnostic or an atheist would for a simple reason. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian. His purpose in developing an understanding of God is to look to thinkers and mystics of the ancient times for other answers as well. He appeals ultimately to Tradition. As an amateur historian I understand the pitfall of nostalgia. The commonly spoken phrase of “We need to get back to…” is at best a desire based on distorted vision. I loathe the Hindu caste system. I despise the traditions of Islam that allows for the modern practice of slavery. I shake my head when Christians appeal to the works of various denominational founders as starting over points. I do these things when those of secular disposition kneel before the idols of the eighteenth century. Time moves in a certain direction for human beings. We can only ever step forward. Many ideas about the human spirit should be discarded when we know that human life, being, and personhood do not fit those ideas.

Theologians of the philosophical bend should be prepared to give up old definitions and find those that give hope in life as we continue to discover what that is. And do not fear where that may lead if thought, experience, and experiment are rigorously tested to help further the human spirit as such. I cannot say I accept Hart’s definition of God as any more convincing to a skeptic. He is merely engaging in a form of Christian apologetics that has already failed.