Friday, October 12, 2007

Thy Will Be Done

Tom Gnau has been wrestling with me in the combox to my recent post on prayer. In that post, I characterized certain forms of petitionary prayer as simplistic and naive, going so far as to call it "magical thinking". I knew when I wrote that post that some people would be offended by it, and Tom, while he may not exactly be offended, is at the very least a little grumpy about it, since he seems to like precisely the sort of petitionary prayer I was rejecting. His comments prompt me to say something more, if only to clarify my own position and make sure that I offend as many people as humanly possible. But, in all seriousness, I am not claiming that my view is either the most orthodox, the most rational, or the most psychologically appealing. It is simply my view, and it doesn't have much else going for it other than that I have thought about it long and hard and have a few things I can point to in its support, and I am very happy to hear what others think about it, especially those who don't accept it; I would be particularly interested to hear what my regular Protestant readers think of it, though I have no illusions that they will be the only ones who don't like it.

Let me start by quoting from Tom's most recent comment, to "set the stage", as it were, for my further comments.
Speaking of the Lord's Prayer...that prayer readily chips away at your idea that petitionary prayer is somehow "naive," silly or in any way out of court. That prayer is chock full of petitions. "Give us this day our daily bread ..." is best seen in light of the Holy Eucharist, without a doubt. But even Pope Benedict XVI has said that petition can be read and offered in more prosaic ways, as indeed it has for all of Christian history.

My argument here is not that we offer good or commendable petitions. What may arrest our minds and hearts at any moment is all too often trivial, unfortunately. And it is better to intercede for others (a type of petition, no?), to praise, to thank, to seek to glorify, to seek to serve.

My argument is simply that Jesus himself in effect paved the way for our petitions.
I would like to begin by drawing a distinction--again, a distinction that I am sure will not be to everyone's liking--between what is permitted, what is preferable, and what is necessary. I have no doubt that Pope Benedict is quite right that, for many, many generations now, countless Christians have offered up the petitions in the Lord's Prayer in a very literal way. Clearly, that way of "reading" the Lord's Prayer is permitted, that is, it is not crazy or heretical or stupid to understand the Lord's Prayer as a set of petitions on the order of asking for a good parking place at the mall. By the same token, it is clearly not necessary to see the petition "Give us this day our daily bread" either as a request for food, a request to enable one to participate more actively and fully in the Mass, or even in the way that I would suggest we read it, as a petition for the Lord Our God to be our only source of spiritual sustenance. The question is not whether any of these readings are either permitted or necessary, but whether any one of them is preferable to any other. My own view is that they are all permitted, none is necessary, and one is preferable.

OK, so that's my distinction: I think that it's irrelevant that the Pope thinks that the petition "give us this day our daily bread" is about the Eucharist or that it's acceptable in his view to read it as a request for food. It's irrelevant because he's simply stating views that are acceptable to hold, not view that must be held de fide, and, more importantly, he is not excluding any particular views by supporting the ones that he does. Typically, when the Church has something definitive or authoritative to say about matters of faith and morals, she does so by means of the via negativa, i.e., condemnation of error, not mandating of any particular view. The decrees of Ecumenical Councils, for example, typically consist of anathemas, not positive decrees of what must be believed (though of course one does find that as well). So it's important that in saying what he thinks the petition is about he does not say anything about what it is definitively not about. In particular, he does not say that the petition is not about asking the Lord Our God to be our only source of spiritual sustenance.

Now, to the more general question: what's wrong, exactly, with seeing the petitions found in the New Testament as straightforward petitions in the simplistic, naive, magical-thinking sense that I don't like? Tom's prime example, mentioned in a different comment of his, was that of Our Lord in the garden of Gethsemane. How could those petitions not be taken literally? Clearly, he said, Our Lord wanted that Cup taken away, but He added the proviso "thy will be done" (thus saving himself the embarrassment of asking for something that he already knew was not the Father's will, I suppose).

Frankly I can think of no worse way to understand Our Lord's prayer in the garden. If Jesus had really been asking for that Cup to be taken away, that would suggest that he did not understand either the purpose of his own mission or the normative criterion of redemptive suffering in the order of the kosmos. Given that we are to believe that Christ's will was perfectly conformed to the will of the Father, it seems virtually heretical to think that he genuinely willed that the Cup be taken away, though deferring to the Father's will in the final analysis. Consider two different people, each trying to conform their will to the will of a third party. Let's call the normative will, the will to which they are trying to conform, will A, and the two other wills we may call will B and will C. Agent B reasons this way about his will, will B: "I do not want what will A intends, and I do know what will A intends and I actively will something else to occur, but if will A obtains its object I will acquiesce in it." Agent C reasons this way about his will: "I know exactly what will A intends, and I, with will C, intend the exact same thing." Both will B and will C can be said to be "conforming" to an extent with will A insofar as both B and C are content to have will A obtain its object, but clearly will C is more closely conformed to will A than is will B. And given that Christ's will is to be believed to be perfectly conformed to the Father's will, it seems to me that Christ must have willed something like what will C has willed. In short, his petition was not literally that God take the Cup away, it was something else. But what?

My own view is that much of what we find written in the New Testament, but particularly the Gospel accounts, is intended to represent something rather deeper than what we find at the surface. In the case of Our Lord's prayer, for example, it seems rather clear to me that we have little reason to take it as literally as some folks have been tempted to do, and this for two reasons. First, if we were to take it literally, it would raise the question of how the story came to be embedded in the Apostolic tradition in the first place, seeing as how Our Lord was alone in the garden, and Peter, James, and John are represented as being asleep during the prayer. It seems unlikely that Our Lord told them about his prayers on their way back to town, since the Gospels frequently emphasize his wont to remove himself to a very private place for prayer, and his own advice to folks was to go into their rooms alone and pray. In short, Our Lord seems to have frowned on the practice of letting others in on the content of your private conversations with God. Possible we are to imagine one of the three disciples really being awake the whole time and listening in, but that just raises more problems than it settles, since it would not make that particular disciple look too good, and it's also obviously a rather ad hoc explanation. Second, the account of Our Lord's final hours in the Gospel of John portray his affect very differently. He is not afraid of dying there, indeed in the High Priestly Prayer he makes it very clear that he knows exactly what is going to happen, he knows that it is for the best, and he knows that it is the will of the Father, and he is perfectly jiggy with going through with the whole thing. There is no trace of the sweating of blood in chapter 18 of that Gospel, and if there were, it would ring very hollow, following so closely upon the triumphalism of the High Priestly Prayer. I think, therefore, that when Christ is made to pray in the Synoptics that the Cup be taken away, we are not to see it as a literal request by Jesus that the course of history be altered, or that God find some other, less painful way, to accomplish his will for mankind. That would make Our Lord very craven indeed. Instead, I think, it is preferable to see in Our Lord's petition a desire on the part of Jesus of Nazareth to draw ever closer to his heavenly Father, to feel his presence at a time when human nature is most likely to overlook the presence that is, in fact, ever-present. It is, in short, a model for us, not a petition of his, it is a paradeigma, a way of illustrating by way of example the sort of relationship that the Father most desires in his creatures: we are week, we have desires, but when those desires distract us from God's presence, we ought to offer them up by admitting that we have them, admitting our weakness, but we do this not because we want God to satisfy some desire that is itself a manifestation of that weakness, but because we want God to draw closer to us, to replace that desire that comes from that weakness with an abandonment of self to his most holy will, and that is why the "proviso", the "thy will be done", is not a proviso at all but the most essential element of the entire petition.

Regarding the Lord's Prayer, I certainly do not disagree that it is, indeed, literally filled with petitions. But again, my own view is that when Our Lord gave this form of prayer to his disciples, he was not telling them anything at all like "You have things you want? Go ahead and ask for them! Just do it this way!" In my opinion, every one of the petitions in the Lord's Prayer not only can be, but ought to be, interpreted not as a straightforward asking for something, begging the Father to fulfill some earthly desire, but as spiritual requests, petitions for varying aspects of our relationship with the Father to be made manifest in our lives. Because I have this attitude towards petitionary prayer, I am particularly put off by the so-called "prosperity Christians", who ask God for whatever they want and interpret getting what they want as proof that God is listening to and answering their prayers. In their view, the story about the woman pounding on the judge's door at night asking for a hearing is to be taken as practical advice: if you pester God long enough, he will give you what you want just to shut you up. Same with the bit about "ask, and you shall receive, knock, and it shall be opened up to you"--these are all about getting what we want, as far as those folks are concerned. But our relationship with God isn't about getting what we want, it's about wanting what we get, since what we get is either what we need or what we deserve, or else it's just random, in which case it would be well for us to accept it with a certain equanimity. Even in the case of physical suffering, when we pray for an end to pain, whether physical or emotional, my view is that what we are really praying for is God's comfort in the form of closeness to him, a greater awareness of his presence in our lives. We often confuse that desire with a desire for an end to the physical suffering, but we're Christians, people: we don't think that physical suffering means anything in the face of spiritual life! Sickness and death, physical pain, etc., these things are all natural, in a way: part of the physical, material world, they are byproducts of natural forces. But they are also signs of something else, of our separation from God. When we pray for an end to physical pain, it's the animal in us that really wants nothing more than an end to physical pain. The Christian soul in us is really saying, I want to restore a right relationship with my Father. This is true, I think, even when we do not believe that it is true. It is what prayer really is, whether we understand that fact or not.

The Gospel accounts are filled with miracle stories in which Our Lord asks someone, "What do you want me to do for you?" And the person says something like "I want to see" or "I want to walk". Even these stories, in my view, are not about getting something specific from God. Because here again, the disabilities in these stories are not disabilities, but signs of our sinful state. When the person says "I want to see" what he really means is "I want to be free from sin", and Jesus gives that to him under the sacramental sign of the healing of his disability. It's very important, in my opinion, to keep the deep symbolism of the Gospel accounts in mind at all times. This does not mean that I don't think that these miracles "really happened", or that they happened in some ordinary way. I think they really happened, just as the Gospel stories describe them as happening. But I don't think that they mean what a straightforward reading of the text would ordinarily mean. When Our Lord walked the earth, everything that happened had two meanings: the literal meaning, which is unimportant, and the hidden meaning, the theological meaning, which is everything. For Christians, the world is still like that to a certain extent--shot through with meaning in every existing thing--but it will never be quite the same as it was when God was incarnate and walked among us. At that time, when God became Man, Man himself became a sign of something else, and perceptible creation was itself sacramentally used by the GodMan as a bearer of his message. For this reason, I believe that we cannot read the Gospel accounts in a simple and straightforward way; I believe it is necessary to always look beneath the surface, at the historical context, sure, but also at the theological context. The early Fathers read the texts this way as well, and it has harmed us that their approach to these texts was superseded by a dull and banal literalism that lacked imagination and wonder.

So my view is that every prayer, of every sort, no matter what words we say, no matter what semantic content we impute to them, is really just a variation on the theme "thy will be done". We express this theme in very many ways, obviously, and I don't deny that we all ask for very specific things in our prayers from time to time. The Church herself puts very specific petitions into her liturgical prayer, but these, too, I claim, are simply different ways of making explicit the same inner desire: closeness to God. We don't know what the Beatific Vision will be like, obviously, so we try different ways of expressing our inner longing for that one, unified moment, in which we will behold him face to face, when we will have no more desires and no need for petitionary prayer. In a way, petitionary prayer is just practicing for that moment: trying to find some modicum of awareness in this mode of existence of what that mode of existence will be like. Clearly we can get no closer than analogical being, but to the extent that we pray at all times, without ceasing, in every manner that is available to us, we strive for what is, after all, our highest end.


Anonymous said...

Well, Mr. Carson, you are long-winded - my goodness, you are - but you make it easy. It's your specialty, I guess.

Granted, Benedict is only the Pontiff, not a blogger. Still, he knows something of scripture and theology.

May I direct you to his latest book? (He's written a few.)

"While he says to his disciples, 'Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat (Mt 6:25), he nevertheless invites us to pray for our food and thus to turn our care over to God." -Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth

And later:

"We have the right and the duty to ask for what we need." -ditto

The "worst possible" interpretation? Then I'm certainly in good company - extremely good company.

You, Mr. Carson? You just seem peeved that anyone would dare ask God for anything at all.

What a strange position to be in. Have you never asked God for anything, even for someone else?

Again, strange.

I don't know whether to be flattered that I've sent you scurrying for cover under what must be thousands of words. Or flattered that you still haven't touched the core of my argument.

And that core is simple (and quite brief): The Good Lord is good enough to hear our petitions, just as Christ's was heard the night before his death, both at the institution of the Eucharist and in the garden of his betrayal (that evening teemed over with petitions, it seems, although none come across as "naive.")

What shall we pray for this evening?

How about gratitude that these petitions are heard at all?

Unless, of course, that's "naive."

I'll guess you'll be praying for, well, a T-1 line. Or nothing at all.


Anonymous said...


Again, no offense intended, but the fact that you are taking things so personally suggests to me that you still do not yet see my point.

I will say this, however: we are a lot closer together on this than you seem to think, because when you write that we have a right and a duty to ask for what we need, I agree absolutely 100%. Where we appear to disagree is on what it is that we really need, and what it is that we are getting when we ask for what we think we need.

Be that as it may, I assure you that I am not "peeved" in the least (at least, I'm quite certain that I'm not nearly as peeved as you appear to be, but as I mentioned in my post, this is all just my opinion, I'm not saying it's the most orthodox, etc. etc.).

As for failing to touch the core of your argument--well, I have to thank you: that's the best belly laugh I've had all day!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this second good reflection about the purpose of prayer. I share your reservations about prayer as magical thinking, but I do wonder if you don't perhaps slight the meaning of the text by initially assigning it a symbolic meaning. The Catholic sacramental understanding starts out (I think) with the literal. When Jesus says, This is my body, he's not speaking metaphorically in the first place. Lots of other, 'symbolic' meanings may follow, but we're meant to start with the thing itself. Not sure what this means for prayers that we have our daily bread, except that the prayer does likely have something to do with that actual thing made of flour. yeast, salt and water...

Anonymous said...

Dear Scott I found what you said extremely helpful and it has given me much to think about. I liked very much what you had to say about all prayer being at heart the desire for God which I too increasingly find to be so. Also the view that the gospel stories should be read most deeply as signs of how our relationship with God should be restored was a real revelation to me. The meaning of the healing miracles in particular touched me due to my own ill health. Thank you for this and God bless you. I'm going to try and read some of the other things you've written now. Yours, Nick.

Homily for Requiem Mass of Michael Carson, 20 November 2021

  Readings OT: Wisdom 3:1-6, 9 [2, short form] Ps: 25 [2] NT: Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39 [6] Alleluia verse: John 6:39 [...