Why pray to God who is not there?

Trying to find words to explain...

I can imagine someone asking me this question because it's a question I ask myself. After a cold, irritating ride into work, complete with flat tire, sitting this morning and saying The Office was not just discipline. It was boring. I was late. Sometimes it also seems a little ridiculous. Why do you pray to a God who is not there?

Whatever the ultimate reality of the universe, there is no God who is listening to me as a favourite Auntie might. I'm fairly sure there is a reality well beyond us, and that the hopes of some "scientists" that we will plumb it all with science, are wildly optimistic. But the traditional God to whom one spoke, is dead and gone. So why read The Office?

The answer is messy; anything worth knowing is messy.

I want to make sense of my life. I want to feel I have lived something worth living, and with some passion and energy. As much as life frightens me, I don't want a safe life. I want to have done something worthwhile. I want to be able to look at myself and not be ashamed.

How do I live a life worth living? From where do I take my bearings? How do I set my course in this uncertain world? Do I simply give up and accept that luck and bad weather will push me where they will, or do I try and maintain a direction? How will I do that in a life of so many competing demands?

One understanding of religion is that it is a discipline for setting a course in life. The religious person has decided what is important, what is ultimate, and has begun to journey in that direction. This view of religion is not traditional. Indeed, many people 'bind' themselves to a discipline that does not seem at all 'religious,' but which is still aimed at journeying in a chosen direction. (For 'bind', see Wikipedia. The ultimate origins of Latin religiō are obscure. It is usually accepted to derive from ligare "bind, connect"; probably from a prefixed re-ligare, i.e. re (again) + ligare or "to reconnect." )

My 'binding' is to the Christian religion. It is the discipline I have found helpful for setting a course. Although I begain from a traditional understanding, I no longer think that way. In that sense, I pray to a God who is not there. The tension between the traditional, and the new, is where I find much of the power of this religion.

Traditional Christian religion often saw a God who needed placating, and saw ourselves as perpetually guilty. Jack Spong summed it up like this in a recent study:

Christian worship seems to require the constant denigration of human life. ... Christianity [has become] a religion of guilt, which [is] encouraged liturgically. ... nothing about this ... could be called good news or "gospel," yet it [has] persisted for centuries.
Rethinking Basic Christian Concepts in the Light of Charles Darwin (6)

He says the insights of Darwin "applied the coup de grâce both to religion and to the belief in life after death". From this perspective, Darwinism has done Christianity a great favour in exposing the unhealthy nature of much traditional theology!

In that same article, Spong outlined a new "point of entry" to the Christian faith like this:

... the greatest of the New Testament scholars in the 20th century, Rudolf Bultmann, regularly spoke of Jesus not as the "savior," but as the "revealer." That shift was not subtle. ... Jesus "revealed" a new dimension of what it means to be human and in the process opened a new window into what it is to experience the presence of God. .... Underneath the focus on sacrifice revealed in the gospels I began to view Jesus as one who was so deeply and fully human that whatever it is that we experience God to be could be seen in him and experienced through him. A new way to view the cross next began to come into view. The cross was not a sacrifice to placate an angry God, but a living portrait of a human life that was no longer controlled by the innate drive to survive. Here was a life free to give itself away, a life with no need to build itself up at another's expense. This was a new dimension of what it means to be human, what it means to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that life was meant to be.

This is similar to my own understanding, although I do not possess Spong's eloquence. I love his explanation for 'all the stuff' in the gospels, that now seems so improbable:

When I got beneath the level of later explanation, which dominates the gospel narratives, and began to ask what was the Jesus experience that compelled his followers to stretch the words available to them to an infinite degree to enable those words to be big enough to capture their Jesus experience, I heard them saying we have met and encountered in the life of this Jesus everything that we mean by the word "God." It was that word "inflation" that gives us virgin births, wandering stars, miracles, parables, physical resuscitations and ascensions into heaven. They were trying to say that in his humanity, which seemed to break all human barriers, they had found a doorway into the meaning of transcendence, the reality of God.

He talks about a way into Divinity; a way to finding and experiencing something of the ultimate.

They were trying to say that in his humanity, which seemed to break all human barriers, they had found a doorway into the meaning of transcendence, the reality of God. The way into divinity became for me the pathway of becoming fully human. It was to affirm that we are still evolving into we know not what. Jesus was a new dimension of life for The way into divinity became for me the pathway of becoming fully human. It was to affirm that we are still evolving into we know not what. Jesus was a new dimension of life for which we may all be headed.

That is what religion is about- being a doorway to the Ultimate. Being able to say, "Yes, despite all my failings and disappointments, this life was worth living." Being able to trust that it was worth it. Trusting that what we "are still evolving into" is of the Good.

From my desk above North Terrace this morning, I have watched a maelstrom of activity. Several thousand cars have passed beneath me. Dozens of Annesley College girls have climbed of the statues of Sir Samuel Way and others, noting down details. A movie crew shot some scenes on the lawns of the Conservatory. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of students crossed at the lights, along with tourists, people bound for the hospital, dangerously darting pushbikes, and a few lost souls.

Life demands entry into this whirlpool. The Daily Office is map and compass for the course. It keeps me from being an obviously lost soul, and from the deception that busyness means something.

Praying to the God who is not there, is my messy way of dealing with the uncertainty of our times, and working toward new understandings of what is Ultimate, or God.

We can mostly only say what God is not. Finally, we able only to contemplate the mystery of More. Some people are able to meditate, emptying themselves, and being open to some Other that is. It doesn't work for me. Perhaps it is my personality type, or perhaps I am merely undisciplined. I seem to need structure and and a pattern to keep me on course.

The content of the written prayers, and the bible readings set down for each day, remind me of the tradition. They remind me of the things I have decided are important. They call me back to my aspirations. They steer me away from 'hobby horse' issues. They weed out the temptation to construct neat ideology.

They are both comforting and discomforting.

There is comfort in the familiarity of prayers which are met each week, and in favourite readings that come up in the cycle.

There is discomfort in the challenge of the ethic of Jesus. The stories about, and perhaps even told by, "a human life that was no longer controlled by the innate drive to survive," are deeply confronting. There is great discomfort in those parts of the tradition which are sub-Jesus; those attitudes which are called into question by the Jesus story but have remained in the tradition. I find them far more troubling than the pre-scientific assumptions of many of the readings. Also troubling are old interpretations of evil which demean our humanity. Truly, "no one knows themselves," and what they might do, but some liturgy seems to deny any image of God within us.
(Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees. as quoted at Experimental Theology)

Why not abandon the bad bits? Just cut them out!

Part of the answer is that indeed no one knows themself. Easy editing out of the negative can be a denial, or simple unconsciousness, of the evils we can commit. I prefer to rewrite The Office very slowly. Being confronted with these negatives- you read the texts aloud- is part of the confrontation with our humanity, base or inspired.

We live in a time where certainties are eroded. Death (and taxes) and pain remain, but the rules and explanations no longer work. Joy seems ephemeral. Answers that were sufficient for our parents, even ourselves, seem twee or naive. Anyone aspiring beyond cynicism and cynical self advancement, must try and keep some grounding in old traditions, while seeking new paths. I live with the troubling texts until I have some confidence about where I am going.

I hear you say all this is mere fiddling on the keyboard, and avoiding the real issue: I am praying to a God who is not there. This work is intensely personal. I can do some abstract thinking; some careful weighing of the facts. But ultimately, the issue of me, and my depths, is not a matter of intellectual assessment. It needs conversation. I need to talk, and struggle, and trust. I need a person to listen. So in my new, old tradition, I read the prayers aloud to the God who is not there.

I've lived it both ways. For years there was no praying, and little reading of the bible. I lived the best I could, mostly based on the memory of earlier readings, and the habits of a lifetime. Coming back to the discipline has renewed a relationship. In the readings I talk and struggle with an ethos which has developed over generations. It is personal; some of the pain is pain I know. Some of the joy is like joy I have found. Sometimes there is something more....

I will keep praying to a God who is not there, because it is not the same as talking to an imaginary friend. It is sounding out the channels of an ancient tradition. Sometimes I find bottom exactly where it should be. Sometimes there is no bottom to the ocean.

Andrew Prior




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