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Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

William Blake's Job

William Blake’s Job

As the oft-repeated verse goes, “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service” (Romans 12:1). So also the oft-repeated accompanying comment: Worship is holistic. Singing in church has little value if it something less than an expression of the individual and church’s wider commitment to God. When the whole life is directed towards him, even the mundaneness of taking a shower is taken into this position of worship. Nothing is excluded from this living sacrifice, except sin, that which is opposed to God and his plan of redemption. This is not to say that sin prevents it, however. As the Spirit worked in Jesus so the Spirit works in us. We can offer our lives as worship while we await for sin and death to be finally overcome.

What place does doubt play in this very short sketch of the Christian life? Is it sin that will be done away with when the world is brought into new creation? Or is it, somehow, an expression of the life directed towards God? A surface reading of the New Testament suggests the former:

But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask. Whoever asks shouldn’t hesitate. They should ask in faith, without doubting. Whoever doubts is like the surf of the sea, tossed and turned by the wind. People like that should never imagine that they will receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all their ways.

(James 1:5-8).

Doubt could be understood as hesitating to approach God and ask him for something or, having asked God, hesitating to believe that the prayer will be answered. For James, doubt in this sense would probably not be a form of worship! This makes sense when seen in the context of new creation: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Why would the Spirit bring us to doubt if we will one day be free from all doubt?

However, the question becomes more complicated when understood in the context of the wider biblical picture. At the end of 12 chapters in Ecclesiastes surveying the absurdities and evils of life the Teacher can conclude, “Perfectly pointless… everything is pointless” (12:8). Add to that the second voice in the postscript. Not only, “Worship God and keep God’s commandments because this is what everyone must do” (v.13) but, surprisingly, “The Teacher searched for pleasing words, and he wrote truthful words honestly” (v.10). Apparently the Teacher who decried the absurdities and evils was not misguided! The narrator who opens and closes Ecclesiastes reassures us that Teacher’s doubts are not only compatible with the life of worship but actually worth reflecting on.

This is true also of the Psalms:

But now you’ve rejected and humiliated us.
You no longer accompany our armies.
You make us retreat from the enemy;
our adversaries plunder us.
You’ve handed us over like sheep for butchering;
you’ve scattered us among the nations.
You’ve sold your people for nothing,
not even bothering to set a decent price.

(Psalm 44:9-12).

This is not the one-off, sinful musings of a person who has set their self against God. It is holy writ, taken up by the people of God and sanctified as the language of prayer and worship. Would you kiss your mother with that mouth, let alone your God?

An interesting case is Job, whom, as the story goes, God allows Satan to afflict by killing off his children and livestock, and striking him with sores all over his body. Job’s initial responses to the horror include praising God despite the situation — “The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name” (1:21) — and even defending God — “Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” (2:10). However, in the main body of text we encounter a seemingly different Job: “Does it seem good to you that you oppress me, that you reject the work of your hands and cause the purpose of sinners to shine?” (10:3). God does not just seem distant but positively evil: “You know that I’m not guilty, yet no one delivers me from your power” (10:7). Which of these set of statements is spoken in faith or worship? It is hard to imagine any liturgical context where such language is directed in faith to God above, that is, whatever faith in that context would mean! It should also be remembered that, after much dialogue with the friends who apparently came to comfort him, Job is answered by God himself with the longest uninterrupted divine speech in the Bible. At the conclusion of this speech Job affirms again his faith in God’s power. He is declared righteous in contrast to his friends who “didn’t speak correctly, as my servant Job” (42:8).

In what sense can these examples be considered doubt? Maybe not in James’ sense. At least in the case of the Psalms and Job, such utterances are directed towards God rather than in a place apart from him. They arise from the mouths of those who have faith because, despite the content of their complaints, they do not direct it at a subject other than God. They are not uttered “behind his back,” so to speak. And it may be too simplistic to consider them as wavering. There is an urgency in the examples given which seeks answers from heaven. The supplicants are persistent in seeking God to respond to their situations. Thus by doubt I mean that which arises from either having seen God at work in history or more generally from an expectation that God’s being means that life should prevail over death and yet does not see this at work at present: Biblical doubt concerns the cries directed towards the One who could and should be present but is yet absent.

Marcus Reichert's Crucifixion VII

Marcus Reichert’s Crucifixion VII

This brings us to a New Testament example. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ last words on the cross as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken/abandoned me?” (Mark 15:33). By abandonment here I do not see some split in the Trinity (which is probably impossible and with which the world and God would cease to exist), but the simple continuation of the Old Testament tradition of the suffering righteous, as Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus quotes here, shows. Jesus has been abandoned by his Father insofar as his Father did not deliver him from those who crucified him. His abandonment is in the unanswered prayers offered in Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:36). It is Jesus’ abandonment which brings this form of doubt into the Christian life of worship.

This also allows for doubt to be seen in the context of new creation. Both the passion narrative and Psalm 22 point to Jesus’ deliverance: “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here” (Mark 16:6). God did not leave his servant to die but “he didn’t despise or detest the suffering of the one who suffered—he didn’t hide his face from me. No, he listened when I cried out to him for help” (Psalm 22:24). Doubt will be done away with. Yet, as long as creation remains the world of sin and death, doubt remains an important part of the Christian life. The end of Jesus and the psalmist’s story does not mean that there was never a middle. We are in the middle, the redemption of which will one day be brought to completion, and as such we cannot be detached from this middle but stand with it and share in its fears, worries, and doubts. In the same chapter we find the call to holistic worship we also find: “Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying” (Romans 12:15). We need to creatively incorporate doubt and protest into our personal and communal worship.

I end with three of my own doubts that I direct towards the only One who could possibly one day answer them:

  • How can I celebrate the victories and glimpses of redemption that you bring in my life and the lives of others when so many people are left seemingly untouched by grace and love?
  • I can see how you can redeem Jesus’ suffering, who took the cross upon himself willingly and was rewarded with resurrection life. But how can you redeem those who suffer unwillingly?
  • Through the work of the Spirit in the present it is possible to begin to imagine a world without sin and death. In this sense I can see the future of the world being redeemed. But how can this redemption touch every ugly and unspeakable corner of history? You can offer us a better future but how can you offer those who have suffered a better past?
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“I am convinced that God is love; for me this thought has a primal lyrical validity. When it is present to me, I am unspeakably happy; when it is absent, I long for it more vehemently than the lover for the object of his love. But I do not have faith; this courage I lack. To me God’s love, in both the direct and the converse sense, is incommensurable with the whole of actuality. Knowing that, I am not so cowardly that I whimper and complain, but neither am I so perfidious as to deny that faith is something far higher […] I do not trouble God with my little troubles, details do not concern me; I gaze only at my love and keep its virgin flame pure and clear. Faith is convinced that God is concerned about the smallest things. I am satisfied with a left-handed marriage in this life; faith is humble enough to insist on the right hand, for I do not deny that this is humility and will never deny it.”

Johannes de Silentio¹ in Kierkegaard’s Fear and trembling (p.34)².

* * *

After a slow start in his own lifetime, Kierkegaard’s writings have had a profound effect on secular philosophy. Sarte was influenced by Kierkegaard’s detailings of the the anxiety involved in making choices. Heidegger found value in Kierkegaard’s notion of becoming a self and took a cue from the Dane when he wrote about what it means to exist authentically. More generally, a reader conversant in postmodernism will find ideas in Kierkegaard’s writings which inform their own, like the many explorations of the subject’s relation to truth. But reading Kierkegaard, a professing Christian himself, also has deep religious value. Martin Buber saw this and, so I’m told, Karl Barth.

This was my experience in reading Fear and trembling again recently. It was my third time and I’ve hopefully come a long way since that first fateful attempt to read philosophy without any background. I can even say that I arrived at places which allowed me to see holes in the philosophy I hadn’t seen before. One example which you may have noted in reading the quote above is Silentio’s reverential insistence on the im/possibility of faith. Kierkegaard, possibly quite ironically, writes Silentio as seeing faith higher than love, contra Paul (1Cor 13:13) and Jesus (Mat 22.37-40)³. Not only that, but faith in Fear and trembling has been elevated to such a height that it is only attainable by the few.

* * *

Quite serendipitously I have enjoyed the coincidence of formulating an important question on the nature of prayer during my re-reading of Fear and trembling. In my own prayer life and the thoughts surrounding it, the problem of whether petitionary prayer should be humble resignation to the will of God or bold, childlike requests returns perennially. If I’m applying for a job (*mumble, cough, etc*) do I submit to whatever may be as a the outworking of the will of God (I don’t get this job but another opportunity presents itself) or do I daringly believe and receive from the Lord this job I have applied for? But Camo, the two can exist beside each other! Yes reader, but only to an extent. The moment I subtitle my prayer for this application with “but only if it’s your will” is the moment I throw away everything I just asked for. How? It demonstrates my conception of God as a being who is ultimately indifferent to particular requests. What if God’s will was not something we adhered to but that which we took active, constructive participation in?

I had this conversation with our new youth pastor last night to see what his thoughts were on it. The most difficulty I have with this idea is due to Jesus’s words in Matthew:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

(6:7-10, NRSV)

If the Father knows what we need and we’re praying generally for his will to be done, then what use is prayer!? Is it just a gesture, some awkward conversation to make when you have nothing else to say? But my friend pointed me to the crux of what Jesus is saying here. It’s not a blind acceptance of reality in line with God’s will but a pointing to the God at the center of our prayers. If we displace this center then our prayers become just the expressions of our selfish desires. I’m not saying that we can no longer consider ourselves in centered prayer — the job may be close to home and have convenient working hours for your lifestyle — but that centered prayer brings our own bold requests into the greater context of the Kingdom of God: What we expect and ask for, we do so with the trust that we are taking part in the co-construction of God’s plans and their fulfillment4.

http://cheezburger.com/4707153664

Is this what Jesus meant when he gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, with authority to loose and bind on earth and heaven (Mat 16:19)? My friend gave examples of Jesus’ teaching on prayer:

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

(Mat 7:7-11 NRSV)

In Luke, Jesus goes even further, speaking on the need for persistence in prayer (18:1) and going as far to ironically compare God with an unjust judge (vv.2-8) and an angry neighbour (11:5-8). I have written elsewhere about this, looking at examples such as Abraham beseeching God to withhold judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20ff).

* * *

How does this relate to Fear and trembling? Silentio’s understanding of the spheres of existence are applicable to this model of prayer. In short, possibly erroneous terms, three spheres are referenced in Fear and trembling, the aesthetic, ethical and religious. The mysterious ‘A’ explores the aesthetic in Kierkegaard’s Either/or, although this may be quite different to the way Silentio understands it.  My understanding of the aesthetic is to live for yourself according to your own desires without a lot of care for God or others. The ethical is quite the opposite, almost equivalent to the idea of law in Christian theology (I do, however, admit the massive space for interpretation of ‘law’). To live ethically is to live responsibly, with thought of others’ needs and social contracts, generally putting those before your own (There is a more specific Hegelian definition Kierkegaard is referring to but I’m not yet familiar enough with it!). In Either/or, Judge Vilhelm answers A by saying that to live ethically is the only way to be truly aesthetic, to have peace with God and your community. The religious does not appear in Either/or but it can be understood as a return to the aesthetic through faith. In Fear and trembling, the religious person, or ‘knight of faith’ is the one who seeks not their own or another’s good but the good of both God and their self. Just with that formulation a lot of people will immediately have problems. Who is this Silentio and why is Kierkegaard corrupting the youth through his bad theology? The formulation is based on the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac: Abraham cannot sacrifice Isaac aesthetically because he wants to have descendants. He cannot do it ethically because it will destroy his family. He can only do it religiously, because God commands him, without explanation, to do it.

Silentio goes on to compare Abraham’s sacrifice to Jephthah’s (Jdg 11), who made a rash vow to sacrifice the first thing coming out of his house when returning home if the Lord gave him victory against the Ammonites: “What good would it be for Jephthah to win the victory by means of a promise if he did not keep it — would not the victory be taken away from the people again?” (p.58). Jephthah can justify his sacrifice to the people but Abraham cannot. His is, as far as they know, arbitrary and downright evil (not that there is a non-evil form of sacrifice). There is an important idea Kierkegaard develops in what is required for sacrifice: resignation. This is what makes the ethical higher than the aesthetic. A possible aesthetic Jephthah would just say, “Screw you guys, I won the battle but now I will defy God and keep my daughter.” But the ethical Jephthah tragically gives up his daughter (figuratively everything) for the greater good of the community of which he is a part. He fully surrenders himself to God and people (or God through people). Silentio makes the point that this is not, however, unpraiseworthy. In Kierkegaard’s trademark denunciation of the society of his day he writes of the monastic life:

To enter a monastery is not the highest, but by no means do I therefore believe that everyone in our day, when no one enters the monastery, is greater than the deep and earnest souls who found rest in a monastery.

(p. 100)

Veng Abbey Church, on the site of the old Veng Abbey. Protestant Northern Europe generally found other uses for their monasteries after the Reformation. Kierkegaard's snide comments about monasteries, expressed by more than one of his pseudonyms, may be indicative of general Protestant rejection of monastic life during his Zeitgeist.

Veng Abbey Church, on the site of the old Veng Abbey. Protestant Northern Europe generally found other uses for their monasteries after the Reformation. Kierkegaard’s snide comments about monasteries, expressed by more than one of his pseudonyms, may be indicative of general Protestant rejection of monastic life during his Zeitgeist, as much as he tried to distance himself from that culture.

The monastery here is a symbol for resigning all worldly ambition and asset to God. For Silentio, to renounce everything is not as high as faith, but it is still an admirable, even a necessary step on the road to faith. What, then, is faith? Faith is that which gives everything to God and then asks for it all back. For Silentio, this is the paradox of Abraham: He finally receives from God the promised heir through which his descendants will come and then God asks him to get rid of him! Abraham’s faith is in simultaneously giving Isaac up to God and trusting God to stay true to his promise.

* * *

This is where Kierkegaard meets my thoughts on prayer: The aesthetic, ethical and religious line up roughly with different ways of praying. To pray aesthetically is to ask God to meet your own needs without much thought of him or others (cf. the prayers Bruce is asked in Bruce Almighty like winning the lotto). To pray ethically is to pray just that the Lord’s will be done, to give your whole life to him by qualifying all your requests with “but only if it’s your will”. To pray ethically is not a bad thing and it is a necessary area to move through and return to continually through your walk with God. To pray religiously, in faith, is to give yourself fully to God but dare also to receive that which you ask for.

* * *

¹Number one rule of Kierkegaard scholarship: Don’t talk about Kierkegaard. Or, do so but keep in mind that he constructs characters who may have views differing markedly from his own.

²Kierkegaard, S. (1983). Fear and trembling/Repetition (H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (1843).

³Love I believe to be the center of Christian theology and practice, although I don’t make a big case for it here and the two passages need to of course be understood as situated within the wider biblical story. The English words ‘love’ and ‘believe’ are etymologically related.

4Enter the contentious issue of car park theology: How consumerist has our faith become when we start asking God to find us a car park at a mall? Yet this is the very illustration I have been looking for. If car parks are the only thing we ever ask of God then what kind of god is that? But if we pray for car parks within the wider context of participating in the Kingdom of God, if this is just a small expression of the God who is continually making his way into every area of our lives then I don’t only have no problem with it but see it as a positively good thing.

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Nothing is more readily evident than that the greatest attainable certainty with respect to anything historical is merely an approximation. And an approximation, when viewed as a basis for an eternal happiness, is wholly inadequate, since the incommensurability makes a result impossible.

–Søren Kierkegaard

* * *

Kierkegaard, aware of the advances in history and archaeology during his time, argues that that faith needs an objective basis, but because the objective is constantly under question and development then this objective basis is thus impossible and all objective content that we base our faith on — Jesus’ death and resurrection — is merely an approximation. The divide between subjective (our approximation) and objective (what we are approximating) should also be called into question: Truth that is fully subjective has no content because the approximation is the subject’s reading of the object and truth that is fully objective is obviously inaccessible because we access objects through our subjectivity. Truth is therefore always in the relationship between the subject and its object¹. Truth is a verb.

* * *

To make use of some other terms widely utilised by Kierkegaard, approximation also occurs between the finite (here subject) and infinite (here object). There is a bias in which particular finite activities are the sites of interaction with the infinite (Of course, all of finitude is in perpetual interaction with the infinite, but this is referring to Kierkegaard’s concern for eternal happiness of the individual, and more widely, the site where the finite is redeemed from evil/suffering by the infinite.). For example, take Paul’s words in one of his sin lists: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5 NIV). The key word here is idolatry, which brings to mind the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Sin is sin because it is a form of idolatry; it puts something that is not God above him. The first commandment could occur first because the following commandments are just variations on it. Alternatively, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (v.1) can be seen as the first commandment, and the prohibition of idolatry is just a variation on the reality of God’s identity, the most rudimentary truth. Thus even if the penitent’s words in psalm 51 are applied to David and Bathsheba, therefore sidelining David’s poor treatment of his good friend Uriah, they still make sense: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v.4). Sin is idolatry and idolatry hampers the redemption of the finite through the infinite because the finite persists in it’s finitude, without acknowledged need for its definition in relation to infinitude: Idolatry is the relation of the finite to the finite, whereas worship is the relation of the finite to the infinite.

Idolatry somehow never appealed to me…

* * *

This, then, is the hypocrisy: Christianity privileges some finite means over others:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

(Hebrews 4:15-16).

Prayer is the relation of the subject (believer, etc) to its object (God). Prayer is an approximation, and cannot approach God as he is because this requires objectivity, which is impossible. Only Calvinism can overcome the idolatry of prayer by having God pray to himself through the believer as an instrument rather than subject. Is the answer to idolatry then relativism, that since prayer depends on a much closer approximation of God by treating him as he is due, as opposed to gluttony which involves a lot less conscious acknowledgement of God, the two swing back into their absolute categories and prayer remains worship while gluttony remains idolatry? Is prayer only worship or acceptable because it is less idolatrous than gluttony and vice versa?

* * *

This is the wisdom of Peter Rollins’ landmark book, How (not) to speak of God, where he examines the story of the Israelites and the golden calf. Actually, you should read the book, which is a lot more conclusive than this post. The Israelites were worshipping God, though through the medium of a golden calf, as is indicated by the almost laughable-from-our-perspective address to the calves:

He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

(Exodus 32:4-6).

Put aside the last sentence with seems to be the author also encouraging us to laugh at the naivety of the Israelites (as also the writers of the gospels encourage us to laugh at the continuing of-course-I-wouldn’t-do-that faux pas (plural) of the disciples), and you could almost have the same religion with just a different approach. The only other difference would be an almost purely linguistic one, where God, instead of residing in the ark of the covenant, is the golden calf. That overt idolatry is linked with revelry only seals the deal. The revelry arises because God is met on our terms rather than his own, allowing Rollins to say, “it is the way one engages with an object or idea that makes an idol an idol rather than some kind of property within it”. Idolatry is not objective but relational. God is not an idol but our relation to him is.

I think this adequately demonstrates the connection between the golden [rabbit] and feasting and revelry².

* * *

The problem is that idolatry and worship co-exist within relationality. The gap between subject and object can adequately be called worship (everything is within God’s will, inclusive of sin, that to barely exist is to worship him) or idolatry (everything falls short of acknowledging God as he is, therefore acting in response to an approximation of him, which is idolatry). The latter is to be preferred. Freedom/human agency to some mysterious extent is necessary because otherwise God redeems only himself, which means pantheism, which is itself a cover for non-existence. How then do we overcome the idolatry of relation, continuing to relate as subjects, which is entirely necessary to redemption?

* * *

¹This insight was refined for me in Žižek’s second essay in The monstrosity of Christ, appealing to previous trends in philosophy, of which Kierkegaard is also a part.

²My study bible notes that the language around ‘revelry’ suggests an orgy. Maybe it was a rabbit, and the later interpolation of ‘calf’ was a polemically motivated attack on Hindu merchants…

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