Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bishop Spong Q&A - Petitionary Prayer

Elmo Hoffman, via the Internet, writes:

I have read much of your work and met you once at Stetson University in Deland, Florida, at a pastor's conference. It was the same venue where I also met Marcus Borg. I am a retired civil trial lawyer and a late-life seminary graduate, now an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, although before seminary I was a lifelong Presbyterian (USA) from the same time frame and section of North Carolina as you. My question, which gives me a great deal of trouble, is: What is your basic understanding of petitionary prayer? I believe you have said, "A God who would save the life of one prayed-for cancer-stricken child and not another would be a monster." This makes sense but gives me a great deal of trouble in considering petitionary prayer. (I have read your book Honest Prayer — I find no answer to this problem there.)
Dear Elmo,

Thank you for your comments and for your question. Your question on petitionary prayer is almost always the first question that comes up wherever I go to lecture. People can talk about their understanding of God until the cows come home, but nothing really changes until they translate their understanding of God into their prayers. More than anything else, our prayers define our understanding of God. So to talk about prayer, we have to define who the God is to whom we pray. To say it differently, "Who do we think is listening?"

Most people, quite unconsciously, approach the subject of prayer with a very traditional concept of God quite operative in their minds. This God is a personal being, endowed with supernatural power, who lives somewhere outside this world, usually conceptualized as "above the sky." While that definition has had a long history among human beings, it is a definition of God that has been rendered meaningless by the advance of human knowledge. This means that for most of us the activity of prayer does not take seriously the fact that we live in a vast universe, and that we have not yet come to grips with the fact that there is no supernatural, parental deity above the sky, keeping the divine record books on human behavior up to date and ready at any moment to intervene in human history to answer prayers. When we do embrace this fact then prayer, as normally understood, becomes an increasingly impossible idea and inevitably a declining practice. To get people to embrace this point clearly, I have suggested that the popular prayers of most people is little more than adult letters written to a Santa Claus God.

There are then two choices. One says that the God in whom I always believed is no more, so I will become an atheist. People make this decision daily. It is an easy way out.

The other says that the way I have always thought of God has become inoperative, so there must be something wrong with my definition. This stance serves to plunge us deeply into a new way of thinking about God, and that is when prayer itself begins to be redefined. Can God, for example, be conceived of not as supernatural person, but as a force present in me and flowing through me? Then perhaps prayer can be transformed into meditation and petitionary prayer becomes a call to action. The spiritual life is then transformed from the activity of a child seeking the approval of a supernatural being to being a simultaneous journey into self-discovery and into the mystery of God. It also feeds my sense of growing into oneness with the source of all life and love and with what my mentor, Paul Tillich, called the Ground of All Being. It would take a book to fill in the blank places in this quick analysis, but these are the things that today feed my ever deepening discovery of the meaning of prayer.

– John Shelby Spong


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A note from Cliff

I have been stimulated by your blog and our Sunday morning discussions to write the following. As I was writing it, I found that one thing led to another, and therefore, it has become wordy and probably too pedantic. Nevertheless, I offer it to you.

According to the 2nd story of creation (Genesis 2), God created man (adham) out of the ground (adamah) and breathed into his nostrils "the breath of life" ("Ruach," also known as "Spirit"). Of course, this was this author's way of trying not only to make sense of how life came upon the earth, but how human life is special and different from other forms of life. These stories are not meant to be understood literally, but taken as stories to help explain the mystery of life. Since that writing, however, we have continued to use the word "Spirit" as a power that is outside the natural order. Yet, breath is a part of the natural order. Ruach, however is something more than air; it is the breath that makes us human. This was to say that human life was more than the life of a goat or the life of a tree. Human life for this author was special, so the problem for him/her/them is to tell the story so that the special nature of humans is emphasized. The problem is that it says nothing to identify the “name” of the “one” who gives life to humans. We might infer that since humans possess Ruach, humans contain the nature of the divine. This is the same specialness that is conveyed by the author/s of the first creation story where it says that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them." Here again it is not the author's intention to identify the Creator, but simply to state that men and women are created beings. Humans are a part of nature, but are special, i.e., created in the image of one who is supreme. It is an attempt to teach others something of the mystery of life. This leads me to understand God as being as close to us as our breath.

God is unknowable. Yet, when the authors looked around them and saw that humans were somehow more than plants and animals, they attempted to understand this mystery and help others to do the same. Humans have the capability of thought, of reason, of developing language, of creating tools. The thinking of the day said, humans must somehow be associated/connected with a "being" which is outside of creation. Since there was a school of thought that said, there are many gods that live outside of creation, the "being" which created humans must be a god, but not simply a god, but THE GOD, which is over and above all gods and creation. This may have been an attempt to refute the notion that there are multiple gods that rule the creation, hence, the beginning of the notion that there is one and only one God.

The point that I am trying to make here is that the characters in the Bible stories strain to understand the breath of life, Ruach. They were not satisfied with old thinking. All through the Bible we discover people who are on the cutting edge of thought and action. This straining to learn and to become more than we already are, has led to the quest for scientists to continually learn more about the universe.

Moses, for instance, wants to name the entity that breathed life into humans. The author/s of the story of Moses want to emphasize that the one whom they have named "God" or “LORD” is THE SUPREME BEING, (not a scientific theory, but a statement of faith and hope) so the authors created a story whereby Moses, a great leader of the Hebrew people, encounters a "being” i.e., one unlike any other being, who communicates with him" in a burning bush which is not consumed. Of course this is fantastic. It is meant to be awesome. (It also elevates Moses to a position of authority.) When Moses asks the "being" in the burning bush his/her/its name, the only answer Moses receives is, "Say to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" (Exodus 3:13 ff.). "I AM" can be translated, "BEING," which also might be interpreted as "the breath of life" or "Ruach," or Spirit. In my words, “The Ultimate Spirit of life has sent me to you.”

It is also interesting that Paul Tillich attempts to find a name for God. He calls God, "The Ground of Being" or in Hebrew, the Adamah (ground) of Ruach (the breath of life.)

The Biblical writers wanted a "name" for "The Breath of Life." Thousands of years later we still want to find a "name" for the "breath of life!" The writers of the biblical books called the "breath of life" by many names: Yahweh, Spirit, LORD, Elohim, El-Shaddai, Adonai, G-d, Creator, and several others, I am sure. The name “God” became so sacred that the Hebrews were prohibited from uttering or writing it. The early church leaders called The Breath of Life by the names of Father, King, Holy Spirit, and Shepherd. The Gospel of John calls God the “Word” or Logos,” which is the force that precedes the known world. Many of the names by which we know the Breath of Life are descriptive rather than an attempt to name God. We say that God is light; God is love. Even the Trinitarian formula, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, is meant to be descriptive rather than an attempt to name God. Unfortunately, those who have been called to be leaders and spokes-persons for believers, have had other axes to grind, therefore, they have proclaimed that anyone who believes in these things will inherit eternal life; all others are lost until such time as they come to believe, a notion which must be actively rejected, for this is legalism of the highest order.

What does all of this have to say to us? This is my answer or as a preacher, my sermon: The Bible is not an authoritative set of rules, which says, "Obey" or go to hell. The Bible for me contains stories that help to teach us to grow in our understanding of all that there is to comprehend. The intellectual quest to know our creator/God/Breath of Life/Yahweh/ Elohim/Shepherd/Father is a quest that has its roots in our beginnings as modern human beings, and it is not wrong to try to discover a name that is descriptive for Ultimate Being. Most of our names will be description, rather than identification, because the one we seek to discover is unknowable by intellect alone. For me, this says, "Continue trying to find a suitable descriptive name for "The Breath of Life." It says, "Continue searching for a name that is meaningful for us, just as those who came before us searched for a name that was meaningful for them.” The implication of this is that humans must not be passive spectators but active explorers, who seek to discover all that there is in creation. The ability to do that makes us unlike anything else in all of creation. What a gift!