Tag Archives: Comparative Religions

Faith Demystified – What Prayer is Not


 

 

Prayer

FAITH DEMYSTIFIED

What Prayer is Not

Prayer is a very powerful tool, but few Christians understand much about it. Churches have not wanted to be honest about prayer. Rather, churches have spent their energy polishing the prayer illusion, often for financial gain. Most churches would no more give up the illusion of prayer than a casino would get out of gaming, or coffee shops stop selling coffee. The prayer illusion keeps churches in business, much to the loss of their members.

Before I can describe what prayer is I must first clear the decks and tell you what it is not. Prayer is not a way to persuade God to give you a better outcome. God is not your fairy godmother, not a genie in a bottle, not the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain. Praying for your Aunt Agnes’s gall stones will not heal her. This is not what prayer is about. It is not how God works. I am sure that many people out there will want to dispute this point. They will cite anecdotal “evidence” that God did indeed heal their Aunt Agnes. Many Christians prefer a comforting illusion over hard reality.

People are easily duped because they really want to believe. It is like when you see an advertisement for a new weight loss formula that guarantees you will lose 40 pounds in your first month. And you think, you have been fat your whole life and someone has finally come up with a solution!  It comes with a money back guarantee so what can you lose except for your excess poundage.

But such a naïve and childlike understanding of prayer can also cause much grief and hardship. How do you explain it when prayer fails to get your intended results? In the same way, please do not say that God allowed your loved one to die. God had nothing to do with it. That is not how God works and it is not how prayer works.

There is a story about a man who attended many faith healing services. He noted that he had seen many crutches cast aside, but somehow no one ever cast off an artificial leg. The healer will tell you that if the miracle you are seeking has not happened yet it is because you have too little faith, or have not paid enough into the collection plate. The evangelist will happily give you these reasons as he strives to keep the frenzy going in order to line his own pockets and to advertise his great spiritual “power”.

Only a fool prays for rain when the wind is in the east. (Please adjust as necessary for your own climatological situation.)

This is the reality. Everyone dies. Everyone gets sick. Everyone faces endless tragedies and uncertainties throughout their lives. They lose their loved ones; they lose their jobs, they lose their money; they lose their health. Prayer will not change this, although it may make it easier for the person praying to cope with adversity. Aunt Agnes will not be healed through prayer, and therefore I would never pray for her healing. I do not believe in practicing deception or in polishing the illusion of the genie in the bottle that will come forth to grant three wishes. If you believe in that sort of God all I can say is, “Grow up!”

I will pray with and for Agnes and her family, but not to heal or to preserve her life. I will pray that the family is embraced by God’s love and feel God’s presence in their time of sorrow. Some might tell me that even that is an illusion. But it is a far different order than trying to command the fawning service of God.

There has been a long standing practice in church circles that it was possible to pray someone into heaven. If your uncle of dubious character passed away, one way to insure his place in eternity would be to endow a priest to say mass for your uncle every day. In this way, the priest received a stipend and your uncle just might spend less time in purgatory.

In the world of mega churches and televangelism, prayers can be bought. Some of these charlatans will encourage you to call their prayer line to pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones. When you call they might even say that they will pray for a particular fee. The less transparent “ministries” will simply use your prayer request as an invitation to include you in their fundraising campaigns.

There was a story of an elderly couple who attended a mega church run by a well-known televangelist. They were about to lose their house due to extreme financial difficulties. The preacher asked them to bring in their family budget and he would pray with them. When the preacher saw their budget he told them that there was not enough money in it for Jesus. They needed to greatly increase their contributions in order to prove their faith commitment. In this manner the shyster-preacher tried to scam the elderly couple out of their last dollar. And of course that dollar was not going to Jesus, but to the shyster and his own pockets and his “ministry.”

Prayer never changes God’s mind. You cannot bargain with God, and you cannot gain his support and attention by any form of prayer that you can think of. God does not barter.

Clergy prayers have no special powers. Prayer is not about making fancy speeches or magical incantations. Having the whole church pray for Aunt Agnes’ gall stones will not change the situation, although you and Aunt Agnes may receive support from your fellow worshippers through prayer. Impossible prayer is still impossible, no matter how much you gussy it up.

Prayer is not about the worthiness of the pray-er. It does not help to recite bible verses, use magical incantations, or flowery language. You do not need to “butter-up” God before you begin because God does not have an ego.

Prayer is not about directing God to do the right thing. It is not about calling for help so that God will notice your plight and then help.

God is not your handmaiden. Instead of holding on to this illusion to get you through times of trouble and stress – grow up and adopt a less infantile notion of God.

  • Be as strong as you can.
  • Be as knowledgeable as you can.
  • Learn to help yourself, your family, and others.
  • Learn what real, grown-up prayer is.
  • Learn to accept life with all of its chaos and caprice.
  • Expect turbulence and learn to swim in it.
  • Realize that whatever happens, for good or ill, it is not about you.
  • You are not the center of the Universe. You are thinking of God.

 

 

 

 

Faith Demystified – Sacred Texts


Sacred texts

FAITH DEMYSTIFIED

Sacred Texts

All religions are human artifacts developed to explain the questions of faith. This is true of all sacred texts. Stories were told around ancient camp fires. After a hard day’s work the community would gather to eat, relax, socialize, and make plans for the morning. There were all sorts of stories told for entertainment. The hunters would boast of their courage and prowess. There were stories of great events of the past, stories of people who had passed on, stories about the cycles of the seasons, and the majesty of nature. There were stories about family life, sexual conquest, childbirth, contact with neighboring tribes, and all manner of human activities. They recount tribal history. There were “blooper” reals remembering when someone really fouled up.

From around the campfires of old there emerged a special collection of sacred stories. These stories centered on existential issues, great yearnings, the deepest questions, and the most profound mysteries.  These sacred stories had a quality of transcendence, lifting the community out of their mundane existence and delving into the greatest mysteries.

  • What is a small tribe of humans compared to the trees and the mountains around them?
  • How can we understand the vast canopy of stars overhead?
  • Where does the sun go at night?
  • Why do the patterns in the sky never change?
  • What happens when we die?
  • Where are those who have passed on before us?
  • Why does new life spring from the earth according to season?
  • Where do we come from?
  • Who are we as a people?
  • What is the meaning or purpose of life?
  • How are we connected to the universe around us?

Stories were created by the community to explain these and other mysteries. They were told and retold for entertainment, to educate the children, and to remind and confirm the tribe of its shared heritage. Communities grow around the stories that they share.

The oldest profession is not prostitute, as many people believe, but shaman. The shamans wove stories to explain the questions of faith. The ideal priest had an inquisitive mind, a fertile imagination, a gift for public speaking, and significant people skills that would draw the tribe towards him or her. She would be a great listener who collected stories and wove them into a magnificent tapestry. He would also be a great entertainer. An oral tradition of sacred campfire stories emerged. Through many generations the stories would become more and more organized and accepted. “Official” versions of the key stories were selected from the many variants. Eventually such stories were written down.

As these stories became ever more normative for the communities of origin, it became desirable to assert divine sanction. Through the use of a created illusion, texts might be ascribed to divine origin. The stories are now seen as transcending the stories of mortals. The authorized sacred texts now are thought to have sacred origins as well as sacred content.

Sacred texts begin from sacred content. Then they are distilled and refined by the community over time. The texts are thrashed like wheat to separate the grain from the chaff. The texts are fermented like wine, carved like an amulet, or purified like a metal in the caldron. In time these texts are truly transformed. They represent not divine revelation, but rather the best distillation of human wisdom by the community. They become the spiritual and intellectual foundation for the community. They reflect the community’s history and chart its future.

Faith Demystified – Prologue


Ghandi

FAITH DEMYSTIFIED

Prologue

The quest for faith is one of the strongest of all human urges. The oldest archeological sites contain evidence of religious awareness. The Neanderthals buried their dead, suggesting that they were aware of their own mortality. The quest for faith includes of the following categories and more:

  • What happens when we die?
  • The world is so big and we are so small. What is our place in the world around us?
  • How do we gain control over our own existence? How can we protect ourselves from forces of evil? How do we deal with the forces that we cannot control?
  • What is the meaning of life? Are we here just to survive to breed and die?

Religion is a human artifact designed to deal with those issues and questions. Questions of faith are truly beyond human comprehension, and so we fill those gaps with a comforting illusion. An organized set of these illusions is called a religion. Religion is an illusion designed to hide a very harsh reality. Illusion is not a bad thing as long as we recognize it as an illusion. The tooth fairy is not just some random nonsense. Rather, it is an illusion to soothe our children as they lose their baby teeth. Instead of mourning the loss of baby teeth, we celebrate it as a sign of growth and blessings.

Likewise, when a 12-year-old girl begins to bleed she might feel like she is dying. In response we create celebrations for rites of passage. We celebrate the passing from innocent childhood to sexual maturity and adulthood.  The reality is that the transition from girl to woman is filled with frightful consequences. Women through history (and prehistory) have been victims of:

  • Oppression and slavery.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Unwanted pregnancies.
  • The excruciating pain and risk of childbirth.
  • Reproductive health issues.

The transition from girl to woman is a terrifying, dangerous, and yet a most glorious event. The illusions created in rites of passage hide these harsh realities from view.

There is perhaps no more sophisticated example of religious illusion than that of a military funeral, or a visit to Arlington Cemetery. To see this illusion you must hold two video clips in your mind at the same time. On one screen, picture the Normandy Invasion. There is blood and body parts being thrown about by exploding ordinance. There is barb wire and machine gun nests and bodies exploding on the beach. There are young men being cut down in the prime of their lives. Many of these men will never hold a woman, or have a child. Their whole life is cut short by this hell on earth.

Now, shift your focus to the other screen. You will see soldiers wearing white gloves and fancy uniforms. You will see chrome polished swords and the finest marching that can be found anywhere. The soldiers form up and march with incredible precision. Each turn and heal click is precisely choreographed. Each participating soldier is physically perfect, strong, young, and handsome. You will not see tattoos, or facial hair, or pot bellies. The soldiers must meet strict height and weight standards. And you certainly will not see any one-legged soldiers there, not even those wounded in battle. The illusion of cleanliness, order, perfection, and precision at the Changing of the Guards ceremony is created precisely to deny the reality of the horrors of war.

The illusion of religion can become a problem when we forget that it is an illusion. Violence and hostility between various religious communities is often spawned by the “My religion is better than yours!” conflict. This conflict even occurs within religious communities, with Christians fighting with Christians of a different brand, or Muslims fighting against other Muslims for the same reason.  When we insist that our religion is the only right path then we will have inevitable conflict with everyone else. My personal experience with Buddhists is that they tend to be peaceable precisely because they realize that their own understanding is not undermined by someone else’s views.

Sometimes we can hold on to our illusions too tightly or for too long. When I taught my son to ride a bicycle he began by using training wheels. Training wheels are an extra set of wheels on the back of the bike that allow the bike to stand upright even when it is not moving. At first the training wheels help, but then soon become a hindrance. A bicycle, by its very nature, is designed to lean right and left. When a bike is up to speed it is not steered by the handle bar, but rather by leaning and tipping the bike.

The moving bike is held up by the physics of gyroscopic stability. The addition of training wheels makes it impossible for a bike to actually perform as a bike. Training wheels are for those bike riders who do not believe in gyroscopic stability. As my son would learn to ride the bike from the street, up a driveway, and on to the sidewalk, the training wheels would hit curbs and other obstructions and cause the bike to crash. Without the training wheels such maneuvers would have been easy. With training wheels these maneuvers became impossible. So the very training wheels that were supposed to hold the bike up actually caused it to crash.

There is much in the Christian tradition that is harmful and cause the same problem as training wheels on a bicycle.  It can be very difficult for some people to let go of their security blanket.

As a pastor much of my job was to support the Christian illusion. Many Christians think that the particular words of a ritual are magical incantations that have the power of a Harry Potter curse. At Christmas time no one wants to hear that Matthew’s Christmas story portraying the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi (three kings) is a total fabrication and tacked onto Matthew’s gospel by later editors. Such an acknowledgement would be like the loss of training wheels. The faithful turn to religion for security, certainty, consistency, and comfort.

As a pastor I had to polish the illusion; that was my job. But here I do not have that constraint. Here like the Masked Magician I will take you behind the illusion. I will show you what happens behind the smoke and mirrors. Here, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I will lift the curtain to show you that the wizard is just an ordinary mortal with a mastery of illusions.

I pledge to you my absolute honesty. I will not try to varnish the illusion, but to lift the curtain so that you may better understand its workings. I do not disparage religion, but only want you to understand how it works. My background is in the Christian religion. But the quest for meaning is a universal phenomenon. All religions share the same journey, each one by its own path.

{This is a prologue to a book I am planning}