Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Hallowed Secularism and Prayer

9/19/2007--The following is a section of the book that is concerned with prayer. This theme is fitting for the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, which begins this Friday night.

Can we say what prayer actually is? In his book, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, Mordecai Kaplan refers to “God felt as a presence”. This seems surprising since Kaplan held that there was no supernatural realm. God was not a being separate from the creation. God was not something separate from everything else. Nevertheless, Kaplan stated that God could be felt as a presence. As a Jewish leader, Kaplan had to use the word, God. But you and I do not have to use that term. We can simply say that prayer is openness to that felt presence and leave it at that.

We are not atheists. We don’t have to deny the experience of renewal that comes to us from prayer. We only deny, like Kaplan, that a being outside time and space, speaks and acts. It is God treated as a being that we deny. We don’t deny the experience of presence.

There are different categories of prayer. I don’t intend the following to be exhaustive, merely indicative of several ways the secularist can approach prayer.

Every form of prayer seems to me to require self-surrender. In fact, the inability of atheists to get beyond themselves is the clearest indicator of why Hallowed Secularism is needed. I am not referring to individual atheists, but to the recent writers, like Hitchens. These people seem very ego-centered, very full of themselves. Indeed, how could they not be when their message is that man is the only important thing in the universe?

People cannot sustain that kind of self-importance. Prayer, in contrast, allows me to let go. Prayer assumes that there is something beyond man, though what and how that something can be specified is difficult. But that something is real.

Kaplan wrote of the “cosmic urge” I might become a part of. Anther way to say that is to return to the central Jewish prayer, called the Sh’ma, that asserts that God is one. Adonai echod. The oneness of God is the experience of unity with all things that comes to me in self-surrender. This sounds Buddhist—make me one with everything—but there is certainly no harm in that. The secularist borrows from everyone.

Self-surrender requires trust. I must trust the universe not to harm me. And the more I pray the more easily that trust will come. In fact the hardest thing about prayer is probably starting.

With prayer also comes the sense of love at the heart of reality. Again, that will imply to some that there must be a person to love and to be loved by. People here must let their own experiences speak to them. It is good to repeat on that point that secularism is not a dogma. Thus, if one is moved to affirm “God” as a person after the experience of prayer, this is not a loss for secularism and a victory for religion. We don’t know what the future of secularism will be like. This book is trying to open secularism up to whatever future comes.

Thus far, prayer has been portrayed as solely a positive experience—beneficent presence.
That is not the whole story of prayer. There is an ethical dimension to prayer in two senses. First, as Kaplan warns us, I must be worthy of the experience of prayer. This means clean hands and heart. But, of course, none of us has clean hands and heart. We are all sinners. Thus, forgiveness of sins is always a part of prayer.

Judaism devotes a particular day, Yom Kippur, to fasting and prayer for the forgiveness of sins. It may seem odd for secularism, which denies the traditional God of theism, to try to practice prayer for the forgiveness of sins. But such forgiveness happens. The secularist cannot readily affirm that God forgives sins but must assert instead that forgiveness of sins is a reality.

Forgiveness of sin is a necessity for human life. We are always enmeshed in the ambiguity of existence in which, even with the best intentions, we constantly harm others. In addition, we often lack the best intentions. Without forgiveness of sin, human life becomes callous for the most sensitive and remains callous for the obtuse.

Nor is forgiveness of sin something we can give ourselves. The promise to the Jew on the High Holy Days is that, “though your sins be scarlet, they shall be white as snow”. This is what every person needs because we are incapable of forgiving ourselves.

Nor should we forgive ourselves. There is a famous story of the Nazi who sought forgiveness in Simon Wiesenthal's book The Sunflower. Wiesenthal walked away from the dying Nazi on the ground that it was not his place to offer forgiveness. That was a wise response. But the promise from God is that all sins can be forgiven. There is no moral extreme beyond God’s compassion for the truly repentant.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, I must add that forgiveness of sin does not relieve me from the responsibility to undo as much of the harm I have caused as is possible. But that matter is not the point here.

There is also an intellectual side to prayer. The rabbis portrayed study and discussion of God’s ways as the content of life in the world to come. In other words, knowledge of God rather than just the presence of God. So, we should think of prayer outside the usual categories of piety—clasped hands, on my knees and so forth. These physical acts are indeed symbolic of the surrender of self that prayer requires. But study and discussion and clear thinking are also prayer. Martin Heidegger once wrote that questioning is the piety of thinking. Thinking can be the piety of prayer.

Prayer thus can help bring clarity to any situation that we are in. There is real truth to the expression that “I will pray on it.” I am not speaking here of getting “an answer” but of clarification of the matter itself. Prayer helps me remove my own interests from a matter to see the matter more clearly.

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