To whom does a non-theist pray?

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Rev. Clay Nelson


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Rev. clay Nelson © 23 July 2017

A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem bureau takes an apartment overlooking the Western Wall—the holiest site in Judaism. Every day when she looks out, she sees an old Jewish man praying vigorously. So, the journalist goes down and introduces herself to the old man.

She asks, “You come every day to the wall. How long have you done that and what are you praying for?”

The old man replies, “I have come here to pray every day for 25 years. In the morning, I pray for world peace and then for the brotherhood of man. I go home have a cup of tea and I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth.”

The journalist is amazed. “How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these things?” she asks.

The old man looks at her sadly. “Like I’m talking to a damn wall.”

I may have told you this story before, but it captures my struggle with prayer. Consider this my embarrassing confession as a minister. I have never had an easy relationship with prayer. Growing up it was not imposed by my parents as part of my bedtime routine. Before dinner my sister or I would lead grace. Often it was a funny song or a less than pious version, such as, “Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub. Yay God!.” Sometimes we played it straight, but we kept it brief, “For these gifts we are about to receive and for the hands that prepared them, we thank you Lord.” It was less a prayer than a starting bell to begin the race through a meal. There were rules though. We didn’t say grace at my grandparents (I never knew why) or at restaurants or at meals other than dinner. There was an unacknowledged embarrassment about praying aloud or with others except in church, where, being Anglicans, we could read them out of a book of common prayer and blend in with the rest of the congregation as we did so. The only rule for prayer in church was you had to say them uncomfortably on a hard kneeler conveniently attached to the pew in front of you. The only one I didn’t have to read was the Lord’s Prayer. Early on I remember having to memorise it in Sunday School. No one ever bothered to explain what “trespasses” were or why we had to be forgiven for them or why Catholics didn’t have to memorise the whole thing. In other words, they were just words.

As you might imagine, this less than pious background did not prepare me well for life in seminary. There was an expectation that you attended morning prayers every day before classes. Your frequent absence would be dutifully noted by the faculty and eventually brought to your attention. There were much more elaborate prayers giving thanks before common meals. There were prayers to begin each class. There were extemporaneous prayers in small group meetings. Those prayers in particular struck terror in my heart if it was my turn to lead them. What do you mean I have to make it up on the spot and not read it from a book or use one I had memorised?

Apparently, there was never an opportunity that could not be enhanced by praying first. Even preparing to lead a prayer service was better if a prayer before praying was said.

By the time I left seminary to begin my journey as a priest, I had got the message that we were to follow Paul’s command to the early Christians at Thessalonica “to pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17). Prayer was to be like breathing. Like breathing, we might not always be conscious of doing it unless we stopped. If we were thankful, pray. If we were in need, pray. If we were fearful, pray. If we were repentant, pray. If we were concerned for others, pray. If we were in doubt, pray. If we were glad to be alive, pray. If we weren’t, pray.

So, when I left seminary in my freshly minted collar, I knew a time for prayer was not designated, like before a meal. It was not a time to demonstrate how pious you were by formulating an eloquent prayer off the cuff to impress others. It was not about having a particular posture or saying them in a particular place or in a particular way. It was not a get out of jail free card if you were in trouble or a wish list to Santa before Christmas. Prayer was a state of being. It was to be immersed in God in your waking and in your sleeping.

This is a lovely vision for a non-pious or non-magical understanding of prayer that I could warm to and I did when my experience of God was still theistic. The only challenge then was, in whom was I immersing myself? As a Trinitarian, I could choose God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Christian prayer assumed theism. No alternative was on offer. Even in those theistic days I wasn’t particularly comfortable with any of the choices. God the Father was a little too paternalistic and authoritarian for my liking. Jesus the Son was a little too incredulously miraculous for my rational way of seeing the world. The Holy Spirit was a little too “happy clappy” for my introverted, shy self. But over time I’ve prayed to all three and I always thought, considering my vocation, I always would. I never set out to be a non-theist. It just happened. It was a natural outcome of my scholarship and, ironically, living out my faith.

When I came to the conclusion that the Bible was a human creation and not the inspired Word of God, that put me on the slippery slope to non-theism. The Jesus Seminar pushed me over the edge, They studied the historical Jesus without reference to the dogmas and doctrines of the church. Their research revealed him to be just a man to whom miracles he never performed were attributed. With that revelation, I found myself in the company of secular humanists and atheists who saw no power or purpose in praying to the supernatural that did not exist. The only thing I found more difficult than praying to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, was having no one to address my prayers to at all. This was especially difficult when someone quite naturally would ask me as a minister to pray for them or someone they loved. Preparing public prayer for a civic occasion was my idea of what hell was like. What could I say with integrity in front of a diverse group who expected traditional theistic language appropriate to the occasion? While rarely called for in New Zealand, it was a common occurrence in the US.

As I have lived with this evolution in my theology I have learned that while theists and non-theists may have very different views of God and religion, they still share their humanity. Even though I don’t believe in a personal God ready to come to my rescue or grant my desires, the theist and I both feel gratitude. We both are capable of feeling guilt and regret. We both seek forgiveness. We both have times when we need help. We both struggle with fear and seek to love and to be loved, and we are both capable of feeling wonder and awe, just as we can both feel despair.

Ultimately, our humanity desires connection with something greater than ourselves. The theist seeks that through prayer to a personal, omnipotent divine being. The non-theist seeks that by being fully human, connected to all others and the cosmos. One of my surprises in studying the historical Jesus was to discover he was more of an eastern mystic than a western teacher. He sought to raise our consciousness. I understand that to mean suppressing my sense of self and finding my identity in the oneness of all. I now believe the prayer he taught was about living in such a way as to embody that oneness. It turns out prayer does not require addressing anyone, it is simply being. Coming full circle, it is what I learned in seminary. It is as simple as breathing.

Jew praying at wailing wall - image Pixabay Jan den Ouden
Jew praying at wailing wall – image Pixabay Jan den Ouden