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Prayer and Its Difficult Depths

February 4th, 2014by Dan Thomas

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Through the blog of Sean Michael Winter I came across an article, Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times William James, Joel Osteen, and the Gray Lady BY LEON WIESELTIER literary editor of The New Republic 

In it he raises several significant issues worth reflecting about in our experience of religious belief and religious practice, particularly the practice of prayer.

First, there are Wieseltier’s reflections on intercessory prayer that point out its difficulties and challenges:

“As the climactic pleadings were chanted, I was pierced by an intuition of the utter impotence, the wrenching sensation of vulnerability, in which prayer originates. Praying, we are all beggars. A prayer is a kind of panic, an exclamation of helplessness. Please give us rain!”

We are forced to look at our limits and vulnerability and know that it is God on whom we depend: a most difficult thing for us post-moderns, who are so sure we’re in charge.

A second challenge Wieseltier makes is to the facile use of feelings as the standard of what is right and true. “If it feels good, do it, for it must be right” we say. This, of course, simplifies the decisions we must make so we don’t need to do the hard work of prayer, thought, discussion, that lead to the good decision-making that we are called as humans and Christians to do. In calling to account the New York Times columnist, T.M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford, whose discussion of speaking in tongues he questions, Wieleltier questions her as follows: “She never explains how God differs from Pilates, or why ‘feeling good’ should be the supreme objective of the soul.”

Thirdly, Wieseltier raises the need for a respected intellectual approach to religious belief and practice while not giving in to the contemporary belief that states that it is only empirical proof that is valid. “My fellow Americans, there are questions that do not allow of empirical answers!” This is a statement that needs to be proclaimed to those who disparage all that religious belief and practice offer to God, to our society and to each of us.

Take some time to look at this blog post and reflect on its depth and its challenges. It raises interesting questions and gives powerful answers.

Dan Thomas

Dan Thomas is a retired Director of Religious Education, living in Dayton Ohio. His education includes graduation from Chaminade HS and the University of Dayton (MA in Pastoral Ministry). He is married with two adult sons and is a parishioner at St. Helen, Dayton.