Monday, 3 December 2012

Sunday Sermon: Prayer and God

Hello Everything. Thank you for another week of wonder and becoming. Feed our souls with words and with music, Every, and bless our paths, that we may further your will on Earth. Amen.

Hello everyone.

Whatever we do, whoever we are, all of us without exception are obliged to have some sort of working relationship with reality. I use the word 'reality' here in a similar way that a rationalist may use the word 'truth' - not as something I'm pretending to understand but as a label for whatever-it-is. 'Nature', 'the universe', whatever. God, even. Whatever it is, this reality, and whatever our individual understandings and misunderstandings of it, it is a thing which we share. There is only one of them, even as we experience it with vastly different perspectives.

Wherever there is consciousness in the universe there is a relationship between that consciousness and its reality. It may be a simplistic or even hopelessly delusional relationship, but it will be a relationship nevertheless. And, at least in our case, it lives and develops in our words, in Logos.

We barely know what we're doing in a conscious sense, of course. We can think about things and make decisions, but the vast majority of our activity, including our mental activity (let alone things like breathing and metabolising food or fighting off pathogens), carries on whether we like it or not. Indeed I can think of three occasions when any one of us may involuntarily make direct verbal communication with reality itself which may even be called 'prayer' in the technical sense of the conscious microcosm appealing to the macrocosm. They are the occasions of sudden shock or disappointment ("Fuck!", "Jesus!"), awe ("Wow!") and sudden relief ("Thank Christ for that!").

If these emotional experiences are not sudden, or if we manage some decorum and self control, we may not say anything at all on these occasions, but some of us may choose to express these things anyway, in a formulation that would more commonly be called 'prayer', and normally with a bit more delicacy. "I suffer Lord; help me in my time of need", "Thanks to the Spaghetti Monster for this beautiful pasta" and "Praise be to Allah for deliverance from mine adversary" might be respective examples.

But in their involuntary forms these exclamations are often culturally taboo words, especially in the first case when we are committing what in many religions is the crime of cursing God. In that instant, when the hammer hits the thumb nail, we might in psychological fact hate reality itself. It has betrayed us. And in some psychological sense the curse does alienate us from God in that instant, and make us quite useless until we can again become reconciled with the situation. But they do not for a moment indicate that someone actually believes in the reality of any deity mentioned. They are involuntary utterances essentially, directed not to any person (they are as likely to be uttered when no one is listening), but to reality itself, quite aside from our comprehension of said reality.

"Oh Zeus!" was the most common Greek version of the curse. But the moment was identical, from the hitting of the thumb with a hammer to the involuntary utterance and the resultant psychological turmoil, and possible offence from anyone in earshot. It just had different words, and those words had a different cultural setting. Even atheists involuntarily reach for a taboo word to encapsulate the outburst of emotion, and may even be confused in retrospect about why they appealed to Jesus Christ.

I'm not trying to be cute. Whenever I refer to 'God' with a capital 'G', whenever I pray to God, whenever I think of God, I mean all of reality, the entire mystery of our existence, the universe itself, Everything. I am fully aware that people mean, and have meant, all sorts of things by 'God', and in their comprehension they have discussed, worshiped and prayed to those things. We may point out that someone's conception of God (or some sort of spiritual world perhaps) is very limited and archaic, even fanciful, but we have not challenged the existence of the person's relationship with God, merely its conception.

It should be no surprise to us that an answer to a question should be refined and tightened over time. It's easy to forget that humans worked out anything we do know from scratch. Questions of human nature, origins and cosmology as well as things like illness, self-improvement and identity all have a long history of archaic answers, slowly improving with time and the relentless progress of Logos, 'God's Word'. And the thing about 'God', as contrary to fantasies like Santa Claus or indeed the Spaghetti Monster, is that it is an answer to a legitimate and compelling question. "What is the highest possible conception?" was the way Aristotle asked it, but we may in a more urban way ask, "What do we cuss when we scream 'Fuck!'?

As an aside to the new atheists, who are at worst as ignorant about philosophy when it comes to the question of God as they are of anthropology when it comes to their purview of 'religion', this is the basic difference between 'God' and Santa or fairies at the bottom of the garden. Rightly or wrongly 'God' is an answer to perfectly reasonable questions like "How did we get here?", "What is the highest realm of meaning?" and "What if anything is my purpose here?" The atheists have different answers to these questions, but let's note that practically nobody is seriously arguing the existence of fairies, there are no philosophical stakes involved in fairies and polemics against the existence of fairies would not sell many books even though many people actually do believe in them. It's just not an interesting argument with any content at all, unlike arguments about the existence of God which are currently absorbing a fair portion of the intellectual efforts of humanity.

Similarly to compare a person's current belief in God to the non-existence of the same's belief in Zeus ("See, we're both atheists when it comes to Zeus! Ha ha") is so blatantly anti-dialectical and defiant of context that it beggars belief that the argument keeps getting repeated by apparent intellectual sophisticates. Needless to say both the atheists and the ancient Greek would agree that Yahweh doesn't exist, too. But atheists, Christians and ancient Greeks are all attempting answers to the same questions. It's no profound insight that their answers are mutually exclusive.

But I can not polemicise against the new atheists without pointing out that their challenges are crucial. Their charge is not merely that religious ideas are incorrect but that there are very high stakes involved - that religion does and is capable of great damage. And to be clear the charges the new atheists bring against religion are not dismissed by challenging their definitions or exposing the weakness of some of their polemics. In short the new atheists have not dismissed religion as they attempted to do, but they have challenged it greatly. Every religionist should face off these challenges given the stakes claimed and the high profile of the arguments. And few religions should remain unaffected.

So do I expect my prayers to be answered? Does the universe get upset when I tell it to go fuck itself? No, but my relationship with the universe is deeply affected and the impact upon my life is undeniable. In the latter case, regardless of my beliefs, I do have to kind of make up with the universe in order to carry on. For some reason it also seems appropriate to apologise to and reassure anyone who heard my curse as well. Even those with not a religious bone in their body need to be 'ok with things' in order to just carry on. They need a decent relationship with God, in my own terms. Their own terms might be being 'all right with themselves' or 'ok with life'. As do we all.

Religion is a human universal. It does not fade. It just transforms.

I have written a little about prayer before. For anyone's interests, here are links to Prayer 1 and Prayer 2.
Everything, thank you for this world of life and Logos. Bless those souls who read my words with keenness of mind and purity of heart, that they may do so openly yet critically, with neither prejudice nor favour, and thereby not be deceived by the words, but only grow in their own paths toward wisdom. Bless the week before you Every, and may thy will be done. So be it.


  1. Oh Zeus what a reality check, and the video is universally Lovely! thank you for this

  2. I agree with PunkySocks, the music is great and all I can think this morning is that I want more music and dance in my life and in my theatre and in the theatre of life. And of course now I am thinking about the relationship of prayer to music and dance.

    Approaching your words another way this morning, I am thinking about the multiplicity of ways in which one develops a relationship with 'all that is', with Everything. This week I received a beautiful article written by a senior actress, director and pedagogue based in Denmark. In the article she is reflecting on the way in which being asked to direct a younger actress to make a performance based on the words of female mystics has caused her to reflect on what she believes, personally and professionally. Her name is Julia Varley and I share just a few of her concluding remarks:

    "I have reached the age when people close to me die. In moments of desperation, I am told: “It is not possible that there is no world beyond ours, that there isn’t a soul that detaches itself from the body; that a person dies and nothing remains.” I believe in a soul called memory. For María and Sally to remain alive, I need to assume the task of letting others feel how they are alive in me. This is one of the reasons why I make theatre and one of the reasons I write articles.

    I believe in energy, in ashes that fertilise the earth, in knowledge which passes along generations, in history which bears the whole of human experience, in stories that keep people alive in the memory we have of them and their lives, in feelings which connect us beyond presence, in the cells of my body that think and feel, in the women who create their own theatre history, in the transcendence of my profession that at times manages to have a meaning that lasts after the performance is over. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but in this life: in being united and divided at the same time. My life is the others: those who came before me, those around me and those who will follow."

    I look forward to reflecting more deeply this week, on her words and yours. And to having a bit of a sing and a dance.

    Love, Dawn