Was MC Hammer right?
I was listening to a radio interview with Bishop Spong once. A woman rang to say that she had prayed to Jesus when her child was very ill. She had promised him that she would live a more Christian life if he would heal her child. Her child did get better.
Spong gave her a gentle reprimand on two counts: Firstly, for ‘bargaining’ with Jesus, and, secondly, for believing in an intercessionary God at all. “It’s not rational”, he tells her. Spong, on this, as on many things, has utterly missed the point.
Firstly, asking for something, and promising nothing in return, devalues the asker. It’s called ‘begging’. For this woman to offer Christ something in return for the life of her child, she was actually making a positive statement about her own worth. In the form of prayer that she chose – exchange – she conceived of herself as an empowered spiritual actor with something of value to offer her God – in this instance, a good life. Hellenismos has always understood interaction between our world and the next in terms of reciprocal exchange, because our religion has always valued pride.
Secondly, there has to be some respect for the scope of religion to articulate the human confrontation with what happens beyond the rational. I don’t believe for a second that Jesus had anything to do with the recovery of her child, but Gods and messiahs are the faces that we put on the unknown. Why did her child live, and not die? The experts couldn’t tell her, and neither could Spong.
The gurus of modern religion, like Spong, are not particularly innovative or original thinkers. They have been fooled by the hegemony of atheism and reductionism; they try to save spirituality by casting it in the ‘respectable’ discourses of science and rationality, failing to understand how anathemic one is to the other. Which, of course, explains the popularity of these gurus: They are saying what people can understand and want to hear.
However, when even the priests are encouraging us to ridicule prayer (and other forms of spiritual expression) as misguided and primitive, everyone misses out on the poetry and the art of religious practice.
In truth, prayer is an irreducible expression of spiritual and religious emotion. How I feel when I pray is utterly unique. Wittgenstein gives the example of kissing a picture of a departed loved one as an irreducible gesture, something for which there is no words for. It is not an action based on any articulated belief at all; the kisser does not believe that the dead person can feel their kiss. They undertake that action as an articulation of an emotion for which there is no substitute. Prayer is like that kiss. It is a proto-language, a primal symbolism that blurs the line between subject and object. It possesses and expresses something that cannot be found anywhere else in life.
Prayer is a moment in which reality shifts sideways, in which emotion is experienced as something quite tangible. Treating abstractions as physical allows us to re-evaluate subjective experience, to view it as one would a painting or a piece of music, to both transform and be transformed by it.
Nietszche constructed his own life and self through language. He wrote down everything – by his late teens, he had written half a dozen autobiographies! But he was literally creating himself, quite consciously, as both his own subject and object, in his writing and his poetry. Prayer offers us the same opportunity. It forces us to stop and take note of the things we want and the state we are inhabiting. It’s constructive in a way that reaches beyond self-help rhetoric because of the place it gets it’s authenticity from- not the poetry of the act itself. The benefits of prayer are dynamic, fluid byproducts of a much larger engagement.