Monday, July 20, 2009

I Sing the Mighty Power of God

"So," our guitar player said at the next rehearsal, "it turns out my first MRI was a false alarm." His aorta is not dilated, though he still needs to be treated for a blockage. He offered this matter-of-factly -- and our usual group does not have the same charismatic flavor as last time -- but nevertheless attributed the results to the power of prayer.

And why wouldn't he? While the doctor's impression is that the first test was simply mis-read, and nobody is freaking out over a "miraculous" healing, the simple truth for my guitar player is our prayer was answered. Ever the skeptic, I find myself wondering: if God was going to take the trouble to heal my friend's aorta, was it too much too ask for the blockage to be taken care of, too?

As we listen to this story, our accepted role is to affirm this narration of divine providence. "Yes," we say, "that's right." "Mm-hmm." There is a kind of gnostic quality to this exchange: we are in the know. It may look like a simple case of a misread MRI, but the doctor doesn't know that this man was prayed for. Doctors and others with their scientific, rational explanations don't know what's really going down. The story and our affirmations play a part in a larger system of mutual reinforcement. For me to bring up my aorta vs. blockage rejoinder would be a serious breach of linguistic ethics, a violation of code.

My guitar player's experience could be narrated a number of different ways, some of which might make more sense than others but none of which can claim the final say on the "really real." I can't claim with absolute certainty that, ultimately, this was mere coincidence and the prayer had nothing to with it. My friend can't prove that it was all a God thing. But how he narrates this to himself, and to his church family, must take into account both the shared belief of the group and the fact that he was prayed for. Attributing the outcome to the power of prayer makes perfect sense within that system.

So does prayer itself, of course. I had prayed earlier that night, as part of my duties in running the rehearsal. I actually enjoy praying out loud, because prayer is, for me, a kind of oral poetry. I don't say this dismissively or even all that cynically. Prayer, even if there is no discernable outcome (or one expected) is itself a part of that system. Praying to the Christian God (in Jesus' name, of course) marks us as Christians in much the same way that saying the Pledge of Allegiance marks us as Americans.

But there's more to it than that. The Pledge is more liturgy than discourse (which is not to deny that liturgy itself is discourse), resembling the Creed more than anything else, and mine was not a liturgical prayer. I declared our thankfulness for being called and being allowed to play music. I prayed that God would be pleased with the offering of our talent, time and effort. I prayed for a blessing on our rehearsal, and that our voices and instruments might join the saints and angels in a song begun before creation.

What I meant, beyond playing my prescribed role, is that I hoped we would settle down and not be scattered, that we might have a good and productive rehearsal, that we might have some sense of a greater purpose that impels us to do well. That we might listen to one another. If we were a sports team, and not a church music group, I might have given a pep talk. And I could have just said those things, or given a pep talk, but to do so would fail to take into account the collective belief of the group and our shared experience of faith. For me to invoke a common vocabulary of faith by praying is no more cynical, I submit, than ordering in French at a Paris café, especially if you happen to be fluent in French.

Of course that analogy breaks down. But I don't think it's as simple as thinking I'm just praying insincerely in order to not blow my cover, or as a mockery of Christian prayer, which is certainly not my intention. I pray because prayer is part of what makes us Christian. I pray because I genuinely desire the things I pray for. I pray because I don't claim to know, ultimately, what prayer does and doesn't do. I pray because I'm not in charge.

Still, I don't always know how to act when faced with the faith of others. And the sort of thing I just wrote is pretty much what goes through my head, which of course I can't say out loud.

"Well," I said eventually, genuinely happy for my friend's good news, "how about that."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Standing in the Need of Prayer

"I need prayer," our guitar player said as we wrapped up a rehearsal the other night. Apparently his aorta is dilated to (if I heard correctly) 3 or 4 times its normal size, and he's having an MRI to confirm the findings. If confirmed, he could be facing open-heart surgery. Understandably frightened, he turned to his friends and his faith for comfort. Our church is not terribly charismatic -- they're Presbyterians, for God's sake -- but this particular crew was. There's a bit of self-selection to that; we had planned an anomalously gospel-oriented service, and once again I'm involved by virtue of being the only resident gospel piano player (and also by virtue of being a staff member who can maintain a certain element of quality control). Anyway, the upshot is that the deck was stacked on the Pentecostal side that night.

"Well," said our bass player matter-of-factly, "we need to lay hands on you." And we did. There was definitely some namin'-and-claimin' going on. Satan was bound, and demons cast out. Victory was proclaimed. The doctors would, we declared, be astounded and mystified at the healing that took place that very night.

I know how this goes. If a healing takes place, there will be celebrating. We will testify to the mighty power of God. If it does not, we won't say much about it. There might be some nod to the inscrutability of God's ways, the suggestion that God has some purpose for dilating an aorta, or at least for not healing one. But for the most part the moment will pass and faith will remain. The Lord moves -- or doesn't -- in mysterious ways. Falsifiability is not on the radar here.

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that such healings sometimes take place. I think it's possible. I don't think an agentic deity is condescending to hear some prayers and not others, and the "why doesn't God heal amputees" people have a point, but I think sometimes people get better for reasons that aren't easily explained by medical science and may be related in some way to the belief -- by them and others -- that some outside force is healing them. If there was an historical Jesus, I'm much more likely to believe that he was, in some way, a gifted healer, than I am to believe he was literally born of a virgin or rose from the dead.

It may be that the real good that night was not the possibility of an extraordinary healing, by whatever means such things take place, but the ministration of comfort that came from our being willing to not only pray for our friend but to touch him, to lay hands on him, to declare unequivocally that we are on his side. For this reason, I continue to pray for people when they ask me to. I don't necessarily do so out loud, in the moment, but if I tell someone I'll pray for them, I do it -- even though I have no idea how or why or if prayer actually does anything. Would the people with healing stories have recovered anyway, even if they (or others) hadn't prayed? I don't know. Causality is a tricky thing, and I don't have those kinds of answers.

I recently had an exchange that brought home to me just how "postmodern" I am. I don't really like that word, because it is too easily mistaken for some variant of liberalism (Liberalism 2.0?) or a cultural trend involving diminishing attention spans and a fascination with new media. In the church world "postmodern" is either something we're trying to recover from or something we're supposed to be so that we can reach the lost. This misses the point.

What I mean is that, without consciously seeking to be or not be anything in particular, I've imbibed the Derridean Kool-Aid. I don't think there is any intrinsic meaning. No self-interpreting events, no self-evident truths (apologies to Mr. Jefferson). Not all interpretations are created equal, but none has the privilege of a pristine purchase on reality. There is simply no such thing. And it's not about whether or not there is absolute truth; there might be, but how would we know? I might believe ardently in some particular truth as absolute -- even if it is the denial of absolutes -- but I have to face possibility that any change in my personal or cultural history, or genetic makeup, or brain chemistry, or social context, could alter my perception of what is true and what is not. All of our interpretations are, as it were, suspended over the void.

This void is not the absence of God. To declare God present or absent is just another suspension over the void. The void -- and to what extent this corresponds to the Nietzschean abyss or the Lacanian Real, I can't say for sure -- is a singularity, a kind of epistemological black hole where the light of certainty cannot shine, cannot even exist as such. This seems admittedly bleak. I'm fond of phrases like "The cold, hard, reality of it all," which betrays my presumption that reality (to whatever extent we can apprehend it) is cold and hard. The real "cold, hard reality" is that we never see reality for what it is.

I think religion parcels out the void for us in manageable chunks. The same could be said for worldviews in general, but this often takes religious shape. Just as Moses could not look upon the face of God, we can't face the void directly. We are not prepared for the full frontal nudity of our existential nakedness. So, like a striptease, religion uncovers bits of the void for us to see while it covers others. It is a means of self-protection. Whether or not there is a God who abhors a naked singularity, we're not prepared to face one. Even my saying so is not facing it directly, inasmuch as I am simply not aware of what I'm leaving out -- if I were, it wouldn't really be left out.

The negotiation, then, between different forms of religion, and especially different forms of the same religion, is to some extent one of negotiating which bits of the void to expose and which to cover. I realize this is a bold and pretentious claim, because of course the conversation can't take place on that level, which means that I am claiming to understand the religious impulse on terms that are antithetical to that impulse. I am saying to the religious (including the religious in myself), "Your religion is not reality; your religion is a way of dealing with a reality that none of us can apprehend, and of dealing with our utter lack of apprehension." It's not as cynical as proclaiming religion the opiate of the masses, but it's still entertaining the questionable prospect of representing others to themselves. Nevertheless, it is for me the seed of a philosophy of religion.

So what does this have to do with prayer? Prayer is itself a necessary suspension over the void, or a casting of words into the void. Whether or not there is a God, there does seem to be Something Going On that Christians narrate variously as God or the work of God or the Holy Spirit, etc., and prayer is a way of trying to get a handle on that. It is also a practice, one that marks us as part of a particular tradition. What we pray and how we pray and whether we pray is all part of a matrix of habits and assumptions that mark us as a particular people and help us to become a particular people. We pray as a way of modulating our relationship to the void, to the divine, to each other.

We pray to believe.