The purpose of prayer


Marcus Borg, in chapter 11 of his book The Heart of Christianity, makes the surprising confession that he participates in prayers of petition and intercession. I say that this is surprising because in chapter 4 he presents a panentheist conception of God that specifically denies that God intervenes in the world.

I have to admit that I find Borg's position on this subject inconsistent, and it represents yet another example of where he clings to aspects of the old paradigm that he claims to have superseded. We see this same problem with Borg in his admission that he recites ancient Christian creeds that he doesn't believe to be literally true. Borg does more or less admit that the idea of praying to God to intercede on someone's behalf makes no logical sense, given his theology of panentheism. He points out, for example, that the idea of a God who intervenes in the world makes little sense in the face of such horrors as the Holocaust. Yet, he claims, prayer--at least prayer for the health of others--somehow works anyway, although he admits not to knowing the mechanism.

If you pray to God to heal someone, and you don't think that God intervenes to heal people, but people mysteriously get healed anyway, then who or what is doing the healing? And what was the point of praying to God if she wasn't the one doing the healing? Is there some minor deity listening in, a sort of cosmological NSA tapping our prayer lines, who decides to intervene since God will not?

Many people pray for the healing of loved ones in times of sickness of injury. The "miracles" involved with healing an illness are beyond our ability to observe them. There is no way for us to monitor the microscopic processes in a human body in such a way as to observe that a healing occurred because "miracle" has taken place rather than as a result of normal body chemistry. If a healing is "miraculous", is it because God flipped some quantum switch in a couple of atoms somewhere? Thus healing is a convenient focus of the "God of the gaps"--the theological notion that divine intervention occurs in the gaps of our knowledge and understanding. There will always be in the foreseeable future a "gap" in our ability to perceive human healing processes, and since illness and healing are so intimately bound up with human hopes and fears, it is a conveniently self-justifying source of intercessionary prayer. And if someone doesn't get healed, the believer can always just say that God answered "no" to the request.

Sure, Borg isn't saying that God might heal Aunt Gertie's goiter even though he or she wouldn't prevent the Holocaust. He is saying that it is a mystery as to how prayer affects healing in light of panentheism, but he believes in it anyway. Here we have a huge gap in his otherwise rational, panentheistic cosmology. He claims that it is the sin of pride to claim to know that intercessionary prayer doesn't work, but I think it is the sin of pride to assert to assert that Aunt Gertie's goiter is more important than the lives of six million Jews. Even if it isn't God who heals Gertie, but some weird impersonal force of the universe that gets triggered by praying to God, how can this be logical? I have a friend who is slowly dying from a spinal disease that will eventually cause his lungs to collapse on themselves. Isn't he also worth saving? If prayer to God triggers an impersonal healing force rather than some decisionmaking by a personal deity, then why doesn't prayer help him?

Rabbi Kushner, who wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, described prayer as simply being in the presence of God. Kushner understood the implications of the Holocaust for the idea of a God who would intervene in the world. The idea of praying to God to ask him to intervene, whether to prevent a horrible evil, or to cure Aunt Gertie, makes no sense in the light of those historical events. Kushner understands this; Borg only claims to understand it.

Borg, unfortunately, is far more stuck in the old paradigm than he admits. He wants to affirm creeds that he doesn't believe, and pray to God to act even though he doesn't think God really acts that way. For me, such intercessionary prayer would be both intellectually dishonest and contrary to the panentheist conception of God that I hold to. Borg expresses many excellent ideas--about the nature of God, about religious pluralism, about the kinds of transformation that modern believers need to make in order to create a viable religion for the present age. But there are times when he seems to want to have his cake and eat it too, and this seems to be one such example.


Anonymous said...

Borg is not being dishonest or inconsistent - he is trying to find value in the old traditions, whilst bringing about a new perspective. Much more constructive than sweeping everything aside, and a much more pragmatic approach to bringing about change.

Mystical Seeker said...

I should say that I'm not accusing Borg of being dishonest. He can and should do whatever works for him personally.

But since Borg has stated that the old paradigm doesn't make sense in the modern world, and he has called for a new paradigm, then why keep old traditions that are inconsistent with the new paradigm just for the sake of keeping them, because they are old? Old traditions are fine as long as they don't contradict the new paradigm, but Borg goes further and keeps even those old traditions that contradict the new paradigm.

If Borg can recite creeds that he doesn't believe with a straight face, more power to him. But that is something I cannot do. Nor can I pray to a God to act in a way that I know in my heart is inconsistent with the nature of God as I understand him/her. For me, just doing such things because that is the why they've always been done is not true to the spirit of creating an honest religious spirituality. We can honor old, superceded traditions without blindly repeating them. We can, for example, read the Old Testament and appreciate it without adhering to the laws of Deuteronomy; similarly, we can honor the old paradigm of Christianity without repeating practices that we don't believe in.

Rob said...

In my experience, God is profoundly interventionist. You may chalk that up to self-fulfilling prophecy, group-think, selective perception, reverse cause and effect, or just wishful thinking, but there it is.

I have seen God move directly in response to prayer in very powerful ways, including healings, words of knowledge, prophecy, provision of needs etc.

But, in my understanding, we're moving in response to God's will, not vice versa.

Just an alternative view.

Mystical Seeker said...

Rob, of course you are entitled to your own views about divine intervention. My point was simply that Borg, who like me is a panentheist and thus generally doesn't believe in divine intervention, doesn't consistently apply this principle across the board. My concern is that the building of a new paradigm isn't going to work if we only half-heartedly shrug off those elements of the old paradigm that we are seeking to replace.

CT said...

My experience is that if you look at people who believe in God's intervention in the world in response to prayer you find a complete lack of consistency and honesty. Chance events that result in some good are taken as divine intervention, but then chance events that are bad are searched for their 'good' purpose. Eventually the bad events are also signs of divine intervention - if you wait long enough and stretch your imagination hard enough you can always find some hidden meaning or purpose. This is where I'd suggest dishonesty comes in to it - not being prepared to admit that its ridiculous for God to step in so that your train arrives on time, or so your only break your leg in a car accident while escaping more serious injuries.

Unfortunately the intervention model doesnt hold when you start to consider the Holocaust. There is no hidden positive purpose to explain God's non-intervention.

I must say I've started reading Borg based on your comments and I've found the same thing. Borg talks about a new way of reading the bible but without facing all the limitations and inconsistencies of the text. God-sponsored violence in the Old Testatament is never challenged, rather we are introduced to the profound and wonderful metaphorical meanings beneath the text. My feeling is that Borg is writing for a Christian audience, trying to wean them off fundamentalism as respectfully as he can and that forces him to hold onto some concepts where he does not apply the same rigour to his logic.