Aug 3, 2011

Prayer that doesn't even want to availeth

To play with the idea of impractical religion, religion that's experienced as being 'just because,' just a little bit more: a thought on prayer.

Or, more specifically, how prayer can be experienced as functional in one way, functional in another way, or as not functional at all, and that all three of those are experiences we want to pay attention to, if we're paying attention to how prayer is in the world.

Praying can be experienced in, I think, three sorts of ways by a praying person. There are three types of frames for it:

1) Prayer for divine intervention.
2) Prayer with naturalistic consequences.
3) Worship.

The last is interesting because it's common -- really common -- and yet it doesn't conform to the idea that religious acts should be therapeutic. It doesn't "do" anything, and isn't aimed at helping or benefitting the praying person. It's kind of pointless.

Yet the pointlessness is exactly the point (which is an excess that may make it “religious” in a way that therapeutically efficacious prayers are not).


By not being therapeutic, this prayer 3) isn't about the praying person at all, and thus, it’s experienced as an attempt or opportunity to transcend. It’s absurd, in this way, an excess, and religious in that way, which makes it especially interesting.

The types in more detail:

1) is the standard account of prayer. This the paradigmatic version that is normally what people mean by “prayer.” I.e., it's asking for something in hopes of intervention that's supernatural. So, someone has cancer and prays it will be cured, where the hope is for healing that wouldn't be possible without an otherworldly force, be it saint, spirit, ancestor, or all-powerful Creator of everything, intervening into affairs. Perhaps by miracle, perhaps by this-worldly intermediaries.

The idea is that "the prayer of a righteous man availeth much."

This is an idea of "efficacy," where what makes prayer effacacious is a divine element or force of some sort.

Of course, it's still possible that the "answer" comes via naturalistic means -- so one prays for help, a rescue team arrives, and that's taken as an answer -- or that the lack of an answer be experienced as an answer -- i.e., silence = "no" -- but the key point to this sort of prayer is that it's a request for outside interference, so to speak.

2) is similar in important ways, but distinct in how it brackets off the supernatural. So, someone has cancer, prays, and the prayers work in and of themselves, and help. The prayed-for person heals faster, for example, because she knew she was being prayed for, was positive about her chances at recovery, and that helped the recovery. 2) is efficacious in scientifically observable ways, and explainable without reference to the supernatural.

This is what we hear about fairly regularly with studies purporting to "prove" the efficacy of prayer: they're not looking at the possibility of divine intervention per se, but the effects of the prayer itself (where the reality of that which is prayed to matters little, if at all).

This is also a really common account of how prayer is “comforting.” Also, how yoga is practiced (for the most part) in America.

This is a very different kind of efficacy than 1), obviously. With 2), you get better because of the invocations, and not because of that which was invoked.

However, the standards of 1) and 2) -- the measure by which they're considered successful or no -- are very similar. It's a question of therapy.

E.g.: One could experience yoga as invoking a god, and powerfully efficacious for that reason, or one could experience yoga as a naturalistic therapy, and effective at relieving stress, reducing tension, centering oneself, etc. Or, possibly, one could experience it as both 1) and 2).

Either way, the way you know it "worked" is the same.

There's another category, though. Prayer 3).

How could one know if worship "worked"?

If there are effects for the worshipper, they're by definition secondary, tertiary, and not the point at all. The point of worship has nothing to do with the worshippers, is not meant to benefit them or improve their lives or change something about the world around them. Rather, it, like art for art’s sake, is something that one does just because.

It's even possible it's stronger than that: it's possible to experience prayer 3) as valuable and important precisely because it has no function, no utilitarian purpose. It's a chance to transcend the usual realms of economic exchange, of doing things for reasons, for effects, etc. It's an act one does because it's good to do, and its own goodness is the only reason one can give, and it's good just because it's good, with no reason beneath or behind that or logically prior to that.

Worship, in this way, is directly wholly outward. It isn't directed at "availeth"ing anything, either through divine efficacy or naturalistic therapy. It's a "sacrifice" in exactly this sense that it's not good for anything, but just good.

This isn't only something that mystics and monks do, either. Religious services routinely engage in prayer 3). Religious services of monotheistic religions often emphasize 3), i.e., pointless prayer, prayer that is good because God is good, prayer that isn't directed at results or even interested in dividends from the divine. It's possible that these prayers can be experienced as 2), of course, but the texts of most prayers in most of these services would most easily support a reading where they're prayer 3), with a little space set aside for prayer 1), and possibly a mention or two of prayer 2).

Again, this may make it religious in a way that therapy is not.

It's fine to take 1) as paradigmatic of what religious people think they are doing when they pray, and 2) as the standard explanation of people who are not religious themselves (or acting in an areligious capacity, such as sociology) but want to be serious about what prayer is. But. Pointless prayer, non-efficacious prayer, worship, may actually be religious in a way that prayer that has or is supposed to have a function is not. It should be attended to too.

It's interesting, if for no other reason, if the fact people do it and do it with some much emotional weight is not enough, than because it has an aesthetic quality. It can be an act that is a rejection of imminence and an orientation towards transcendence, which makes it one of the kinds of thing one wants to look at with religion.

The excess, absurdity and, possibly, the beauty of this is part of what we want to talk about with religion in the world. The pointless parts of religion are important to pay attention to too.