July 23, 2021
We are delighted to share with you the following essay on a new definition of prayer by our friend, Bishop John Shelby Spong:
Prayer, understood as a request made to an external, theistic deity, to act in human history, is little more than a hysterical attempt to turn the holy into the service of the human. Most of our prayer definitions arise out of the past and are thus dependent on an understanding of God that no longer exists. The God who answers our prayers has ceased to be a believable God in our day. A new definition of prayer cries out to be developed.
When I have lectured across the United States and indeed around the world on the task of developing what I call “A New Christianity for a New World,” almost inevitably the first question I receive afterward is about prayer. It usually takes this form: “If what you say is true, then how do I pray?” It appears that whenever God is defined in any other way than as the supernatural being, who stands ready to come to our aid, then prayer, as most people have traditionally understood it, loses most of its meaning. Perhaps it is a fact that the way one understands God is not really tested until we begin to pray. My first book, written in 1971, was entitled Honest Prayer. Long out of print, it was recently revised and republished by St. Johann’s Press in Haworth, New Jersey. This book revealed quite clearly my early wrestling with the inadequacy of theistic religion and thus with the activity called “prayer.” A Christianity without prayer is to most people almost inconceivable. In an attempt to “Chart a New Reformation,” however, prayer must be addressed in a forthright manner. Does prayer still have a place in the Christian future? If so, what is it and how are we to understand it? That task will not be easy.
I have decided that I can only address this issue by telling stories from which new conclusions can be drawn. I will, therefore, relate these stories and then leave it to my readers to extrapolate from them a new definition of prayer that can live in whatever our Christian future will be. All of these stories are true and each begins to illuminate the experience, which we have had now for at least 2000 years and that we call prayer.
Before beginning this task, let me first make a surprising statement about prayer in the Bible. The New Testament uses the word “pray” as a verb only fifty-nine times. It uses the word prayer as a noun only thirty-four times and not once in the Fourth Gospel. Perhaps that distinction should be the first one we keep in mind.
A New Definition of Prayer
My first story involves the former Primus of the Episcopal Church in Scotland and my close friend and colleague, Richard Holloway. A theological gadfly, a man of enormous courage and deep convictions, Richard brought a level of honesty into the theological discourse of the Anglican Communion that was both bold and refreshing. On one occasion he was giving a public lecture somewhere in the United Kingdom and when he completed his presentation, he began to take questions from his audience. The first one came from a lady who was probably in the 8th decade of her life. She was pious and very traditional, one who in all probability did not fit into Richard’s typical audience. “Bishop,” she said, “Do you pray?” She asked this with some obvious anxiety, because some of the things that Bishop Holloway had said served to render this question appropriate.
The bishop responded, without a moment’s hesitation, with a single word, “No!” He made no further comment, leaving that “no” to echo around the room for far longer than people were comfortable to have it linger. There was a shock quality to his answer that many of those present could not easily process. Here was a high-ranking bishop, clad in the symbols of his office, a clerical collar, a purple shirt, a pectoral cross around his neck, who had just stated publicly, “No, I do not pray.” A bishop who did not pray seemed to many in that audience to be an oxymoron. Bishop Holloway had a flair for the dramatic, so he let the uncomfortable silence linger until the level of anxiety had come quite close to engulfing everyone in that room.
God and Santa Claus
Finally, breaking the silence he said: “Madam, if I had answered your question with a ‘yes,’ you would have assumed that I accepted your definition of what it means to pray and your definition of God. That would have been false and misleading, so I had to answer with a ‘no.’ Now, if we can discuss what we mean by the words “God” and “prayer” and get beyond the confusion between God and Santa Claus, which grow out of our childhood, then my answer might be very different.” It was a teaching moment I have never forgotten. Is prayer something like a letter to Santa Claus? “Dear God, I have been a good boy or girl so I want you to do A, B, C and D for me.” That is certainly the way it seems that many people understand prayer.
Most prayers assume that God is an external being, possessing supernatural powers. Prayer is thus often seen as the activity of last resort. “There are no atheists in foxholes,” we are told. We assume that this deity has the power to manipulate the forces of nature to bring about a desired result. Our prayers seem to assume that God might not “do good” or “be merciful” unless we ask God to do so. Our prayers also seem to assume that the mind of God can be changed, and with it the course of history. Do we really want to think that our prayers have that power?
If those are our prayer assumptions then we can understand that the death of the theistic God becomes nothing less than the death of that activity known as prayer, at least as prayer has been practiced through the ages. The Primus of Scotland could therefore in all honesty say to this lady’s question, “No, madam, I do not pray.” That does not mean, however, that this bishop has given up praying, so much as it signals that he has come to a dramatically new definition of prayer, a different understanding of what prayer is. I cannot speak for or answer this question for Bishop Holloway, but I can answer it for myself. For me prayer remains a profound, life-giving experience, but I no longer define prayer as the petition of one in need to one who has the power to meet that need. Indeed I regard this concept of prayer to be like a delusional game of magic, a childhood concept out of which all of us need to grow. Perhaps the word prayer itself is where the problem lies. The Bible does tell us to “ask and you shall receive,” but is that what prayer is all about?
A letter recently received through my website carried this request. “Please tell me how to pray. I have just been diagnosed with cancer and I need to know quickly.” Did this person believe that prayer was the activity needed to cure cancer? Does prayer change the world of cause and effect? Yes, of course there are such things in the world of medicine as “spontaneous remissions,” but if they are understood to be something brought on by divine intervention, then a host of other questions have to be faced. Why did this spontaneous remission occur in one person and not in another? If God has the power to intervene in history, why does God not do it with frequency? If God has the power to cure sickness, to relieve pain, to help people escape danger or to bring a war and its consequent suffering to an end, then why does God not do this? If God has the power to intervene in response to our prayers and does not do so, is God not malevolent? If God does not have the power to intervene in response to our prayers, then is God not impotent? How long is the shelf life of a God defined either as malevolent or impotent?
I have another true story that illustrates this same theme. Our youngest daughter is adventuresome as all our daughters tend to be. After serving as a paramedic in both the South Bronx and Sarajevo, she decided to serve her country, so she joined the United States Marine Corps. Given her ability and her athletic prowess, she quickly rose in the ranks of the Marine Corps, completing officer training school, pilot training and finally helicopter training to become the second American woman to pilot the “Cobra,” the Marine Corp’s attack helicopter. She served three tours of duty in the II Iraq War, which included participation in the Battle of Fallujah, the bloodiest battle of that war. Those were days of high anxiety for both her mother and for me. People asked, “Did you pray for your daughter while she was in Iraq?” The answer was, “Of course, we did!” How could we not pray for one we love, whom we know to be in danger? The real question was, however, how did we understand what we were doing when we prayed?
Did I, for example, believe that our prayers would keep our daughter safe? If her helicopter was hit by a ground-to-air-missile, destroying its ability to continue to be airborne, did we believe that our prayers would cause God to provide her with a safe landing? In biblical words, drawn from Matthew’s story of Jesus’ temptations, when he was told to cast himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, did we believe that God had promised: “He will give his angels charge of you — lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Matt. 4:6)?
If we had believed that then would we not also have been forced to conclude that all of those young men and women, who died or who were injured in Iraq must have had no one praying for them? Did we assume that in the divine plan it was time for these people to die? Perhaps their lives were not worthy of continued life because of their sinfulness. All of these alternatives have been offered in Christian history, designed as they are, to soothe the human anxiety over the “shortness and uncertainties of human life.” What they reveal, however, is a monstrous God who would be unworthy of human worship.
We prayed for our daughter because that is what love does. We held her in our hearts before God as we do for all those we love when they are in “trouble, sorrow, need, sickness or any other adversity,” but that does not solve or illumine the question of prayer. It only poses the problem. We start our discussion of prayer here, but there is a long way we have yet to travel, so stay tuned.
by Bishop John Shelby Spong
1 September 2016