VIII. PRAYER IN THE ETHICAL CHURCH
Life, Divine, Prayers, Moral, Powers, Religion
The most important consequence of the new faith that religion is rooted and grounded not in doctrine but in morality, is the belief that the religious instinct grows with the growth and advancement of the moral sense. The old conception that everything religious was revealed once for all 1900 years ago, that it is impious to add to, or modify, the heavenly communication then made, we find ourselves obliged to repudiate in terms. And, hence, we have no creed or articles. We never know when, owing to advancing knowledge, we may be compelled to discard them. The desperate straits to which the Churches and their professional apologists are reduced in their endeavours to reconcile antiquarian statements in Scriptures and theologies with the authenticated facts of mental and physical science, are not such as to encourage us to attempt a definition of the Indefinable, or the comprehension of the Infinite within the exiguous limits of human thought and speech. We are too young by some centuries to so much as think about the formulation of a doctrinal code.
The moral sense, it is abundantly obvious, is growing from day to day. The community herein is the counterpart of the individual. And hence, the moral and religious observances of to-day may become obsolete to-morrow. "The altar-cloths of one generation become the door-mats of the next." Hence, I am full of confidence that though everything may be against us now, one thing is on our side—that is, the future. We saw an illustration of this truth in the history of the relations between the priest and the prophet; we shall witness a further instance of its workings in the history of prayer.
What is the attitude of a human and ethical religion towards that characteristic manifestation of piety which we call prayer? Doubtless its views will be found to diverge notably from those which were prevalent in other days when scientific knowledge was imperfect, and conceptions of man and the Infinite even more inadequate than they admittedly are at present. The origin of prayer is, like the origin of all things terrestrial, extremely humble. When primitive man found himself face to face with the more terrible of the natural phenomena—terrors and portents which he was wholly unable to explain—his only resource was to ascribe their appearance to the agency of beings like himself, though, of course, immeasurably more powerful. These phenomena being often attended by the destruction of the results of laborious industry, and even of human life itself, it became a matter of urgency to devise means whereby the anger of the preternatural powers might be appeased, and a cessation of the successive scourges effected. It was then that man began to offer up entreaty, supplication, petition and prayer to the dread divinities in whose power it was to behave so malevolently towards man and his possessions.
That this account of the matter is not fanciful, the reports of travellers and missionaries in savage lands make certain; and as the inhabitants thereof now are, we certainly once were in our ancestors who dwelt in these northern islands, in the days after the cessation of the glacial periods. There is not one shred of scientific evidence available which would help us to the comforting belief that, however it may be with the Matabele or the Tonga Islanders, the ancestors of Christian England were anything different. That, then, which is called the instinct or habit of prayer, had its origin in the ignorance and superstition of an age which knew nothing of the inviolable reign of law throughout the infinities of the Divine creation, in an age whose religious conceptions were as gross as their scientific ideas were absurd.
Now, the unscientific and unphilosophical taint, which marked the earliest heavenward cries of terrified man, has clung to the petitions which he offers up at this hour for material favours and blessings. At the close of a prolonged drought, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York compose a prayer for rain, and as a drought cannot last for ever, rain does eventually come, and the same dignitaries then order a prayer to be offered up in thanksgiving. But does any one really suppose that the natural order of the phenomena has been altered at the request of the clergy by an Almighty mind? It were preposterous, grotesque and irreverent, in the highest degree to think so. And the proof that it is preposterous is seen in the fact that prayers are no longer offered up for the advent or cessation of the effects of phenomena whose causes have been scientifically determined. Thus, in mediaeval days, man placed bells high in the steeples of his churches to deafen the demons who caused the storms of thunder and lightning which destroyed his property. At this day one may read the inscriptions on the bells which testify to the belief of the time. But as soon as the lightning rod was discovered by Franklin, and its absolute ability to conduct the electric current to the soil, bells were no longer requisitioned as antidotes to storms, and prayers and litanies ceased to be sung to petition the Divine clemency against the effects of the weather. In the same way an outbreak of cholera or diphtheria once sent people in their thousands to the churches and chapels; now it sends them to the drains, and while prayers proved but a poor prophylactic against epidemics, the most pious credulity now places unbounded faith in a sanitary system approved by a first-class surveyor. Can there be any possible doubt that, when the laws of meteorology are as well known as those which govern the tides or the thunderbolts, the archbishops will cease to order any more prayers for the purpose of controlling the elements?
Then, there is another aspect of petitionary prayer which demands a passing notice. It actually represents the Supreme Being as an individual who will interfere with what are manifestly natural laws to suit the convenience or even the whim of the votary; and worse than that, that the course of events will be so ordered as to meet the requirements of the individual supplicant, to the exclusion of the needs, the convenience or circumstances, of numberless other human beings who may be seriously incommoded, possibly even wronged, if the first votary's supplications are granted. It is of little avail to have recourse to the mechanical theory that infinite power is capable of so adjusting matters as to satisfy everybody. These are words and phrases more sonorous than satisfactory. When, for instance, war breaks out between two Christian powers, the Almighty is at once petitioned to crown both combatants with victory, and that done, victory is always assumed by the conqueror to mean that the Divine blessing has been with him to the exclusion of his adversary. But the remarkable fact to the impartial observer uniformly is, that victory always rests with those who have made the best preparations, conducted the campaign in the most skilful manner, and fought with the greatest determination, or as Napoleon curtly put it, that as far as he could see, Providence was always on the side of the strongest battalions.
I recently heard read a lady's letter in which she poured forth her most fervent gratitude to heaven because her husband had been elected to a certain influential position over the heads of seventy competitors. Unless sixty-nine other equally desirable posts were magically created by Divine power, it seems difficult to understand, on the supposition that the election was the arbitrary act of God, how the claims of all were satisfied in this individual instance. The truth is that the prayer of petition ought instantly to cease as infantine, irrational, and irreverent. The serious man cannot bring himself to offer up vocal prayers for temporary or spiritual benefits, which are manifestly attainable by the capacity of man's natural powers, or which cannot be heard without a selfish indifference to the equal rights and claims of others. And, therefore, no petitionary prayers find a place in the service of the ethical Church. The God whom we recognise is the "Mind who meditates in beauty and speaks only in law"; the "beneficent Unity," the "beautiful Necessity"; the law which is not intelligent, but Intelligence. It were as impious to pray for an infraction of the natural laws of Divine ordaining as it were foolish to wish that the law of gravitation were suspended to gratify a passing need or whim. In the Talmud there is a prophetic intimation of the religion which asks no favours, but prays by living the moral life. It foretells the day when prayer shall cease in the Jewish Church, and thanksgiving only be henceforth heard. This exactly expresses what we feel should be the attitude of the reverent man in the silence of the Great Presence—his life an attestation of his recognition of what he owes to the Being whose nature he shares.
But, it will doubtless be urged, prayers are answered even when offered for purely temporary blessings, or at any rate, numberless men and women contend that they have been so answered in their own experience. Members of the more emotional forms of Nonconformity are especially emphatic in their testimony to the efficacy of prayer, though I doubt not that their more educated ministers would hesitate to commit themselves to the belief in its more extreme forms. Mr. Armstrong certainly disavows it for the Unitarian body, a Church always to be held in reverence as having done more to rationalise religion in this country and America than any other agency we could indicate. But what are we to say to such testimonies? This, that the prayers have been answered by the supplicants themselves, when even, indeed, we have not to deal with a matter of mere coincidence. But, I would expressly guard against the inference being drawn, that I question the Divine Personality. I lay down no dogmatic statements as to the efficacy of vocal prayers. What I do say is, that all I know of God as revealed in nature and law forbids me to entertain the notion that the order he has seen fit to establish is to be capriciously altered at the request of any of his creatures. It is not irreverence, but a sense of reverence which prohibits me from believing that the Being whose presence and power are revealed in the least as in the greatest of the phenomena of nature, is open to arbitrarily interfere with the established course of things because an individual or a score of individuals wish it.
But what of the alleged answers to prayers which are held to establish its efficacy? I unhesitatingly ascribe the results to increased activity, more resolute determination, on the part of the natural will of the votary. Let a man, for example, become convinced that the crisis of his life has arrived, that a certain policy must be at once adopted, a certain post secured, or an examination passed, and the natural bending of the energies in a given direction redoubles his ordinary powers. If a post has to be obtained and influence is necessary, he prosecutes a more resolute canvass; if an examination must be passed, a degree secured, he reads with increased application, and, as a matter of course, he succeeds. If, in the meantime, he has had recourse to prayer, his womankind, or possibly he himself, will ascribe the entire results to that agency, while the results are altogether due to his own persistent efforts. He has answered his own prayers. Does the most pious individual believe, if all efforts were remitted, or no exceptional energy put forth by the individual in question, but the whole matter left entirely "in the hands of God," as the phrase runs, that any successful results would have ensued? Not one. And hence those axioms which the common-sense, even of the most credulous, adopts as true, namely, that, "Heaven only helps those who help themselves," or, as another pious recommendation goes, "Pray as though everything depended on God, act as though everything depended on yourself". What wonder, when this advice is followed out to the letter, that we are overwhelmed with assurances that prayers have been answered, when a man is appointed to a sinecure or has obtained a life-pension? What one would like to ask is this: Do these credulous people suppose that the event would have been otherwise, had the young candidate not prayed? Do they suppose that the Deity would positively have snatched away the prize at the last moment, and given it to another, simply because he had not been consulted in the matter? If they do, then we must confess our ideals of the Divine are very different from theirs.
Powers are given to man for one purpose—that he may use them—and to us it is wholly irrational to suggest that what is given with one hand is to be taken away with the other, because the formality of supplication is not employed when anything of moment is to be put into execution. The notion that intelligence was put in man only to be shattered, a will given him only to be forthwith distorted by passion or blinded by ignorance, and that "there is no health in us" unless we abase ourselves to the dust and proclaim our utter worthlessness, is to men and women of this time wholly inconceivable. That nothing ethically valuable can be accomplished except after instant prayer, or after copious outpourings of Divine grace, that the curse of absolute sterility is upon all our attempts to conform to the dictates of the moral law, unless God be with us in prayer, is henceforth an impossible theology.
Tell us that the man and the world are dependent at every instant of time on the sustaining and prolonged creative act of the Infinite Being, and we are one with you, nay, we probably go beyond you. "He is not very far from any one of us" means more to the scientific philosopher than to the mediaeval theologian. But spare us the repetition of those stale legends that man was made and unmade in the space of a few moments, and that ever since the manducation of the forbidden fruit his powers have withered, and that there is no remedy available for their recovery but incessant prayer and sacramental ordinances. Our reading of history is exactly the reverse. With the progress of time we discern the advance of man, and with the diminution of sacerdotalism and a mechanical religion we think we note an accelerated progress; that in those countries in which men are nobly self-reliant, and look within instead of without for the source of their inspiration and power, the course of moral life takes a higher turn; that in proportion as men are true to themselves and the powers of their own being, they ascend in the scale of moral perfection. We think that to teach a man to look without him for assistance is to cripple half his powers, to make him unlearn the grand gospel of self-reliance, to loosen the fibres of his moral being, and thereby to check his individual progress.
It must have been some such conviction as this which led the late Master of Balliol to say that the longer he lived the less he prayed, but the more he thought. Precisely; it is not irreverence but a deepening reverence for the Divine powers within us, which shames us into trusting them when anything great is to be done. What god are you praying to, we ask in dismay, when you lift up your hands and your eyes, or turn to east or west, or kneel or lie? Is there any god in the wastes of infinity, in a sunstar, a swarm of worlds, who is not in that miraculous soul of yours? Is there aught anywhere greater than a son of God? Is a stone, a star, a heaven studded with infinite glories, a greater place than your eternal soul? Then look within you. Speak with yourself, commune with your own heart, summon up the irresistible energies of your nature and nothing shall be impossible to you. This is "the prayer of faith" that never shall, that never can, go unanswered, the concentration of the myriad energies of our souls to meet an attack, to prosecute an enterprise, to overcome obstacles, aye, to make our lives sublime with a heroism that men shall call divine. "The less I pray, but the more I think!" Aye, it is not prayer in the old sense, the cry of the soul that believes itself craven, weak and wanton, because it has always been told so by blind guides; it is not this aimless outpouring of energy directed towards a Divinity in the skies, when the very Life and Mind Divine are the endowments of every rational creature, that has made man great; but thought, concentration, the serious, resolute application of the powers that man does possess, the bending of the iron energies to the accomplishment of the individual task—this it is which has "conquered kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained the promises," riveted man's dominion over nature and made him what he was intended to be—the crown and glory of the universe.
And at this point we may make a further suggestion towards explaining the genesis and the continued maintenance of vocal prayer as a part of religious worship. The practice would seem to be due not merely to ignorance or disregard of the obvious law of cause and effect, by which material phenomena are necessarily controlled, but to less worthy conceptions of the Divine Mind governing all things. The Deity of the Christian and Mohammedan worlds is a Being eternally dissevered from a world which he has by an omnipotent effort evoked from nothingness—a conception now regarded as impossible. Consequently, while God is in his high heaven, surrounded by his court, the world holds on its courses, and is periodically corrected by special interferences, generally said to be due to the intervention of prayer. Thus, the grand historical evolution, which caused the Roman Empire to appear at the close of the three great Eastern Empires, and that monument of human genius itself to ultimately collapse and make way for the nations which now constitute modern Europe, in no wise strikes Augustine, or any orthodox teacher, even of to-day, as the outcome of purely natural forces and influences—the action and reaction of powers wholly human—but as part of a Divine scheme, which was foreordained for the purpose of founding the Christian Church. This, in briefest outline, is the famous argument of "The City of God," the first Christian attempt at a philosophy of history. Everything mapped out by Divine ordinance, and men moved like puppets to accomplish the scheme. Attila the Hun appears at the gates of Rome, in the fifth century, and threatens to sack it, and thereby delay the execution of the plan, and prayer averts the disaster. In all moments of danger, threatened catastrophe, public or private, the doctrine inculcated was recurrence by prayer to the external Deity, who would so modify things by his omnipotent power, as to reconcile the interests of all concerned. I do not think it can be said that such a frame of mind is distinctive of the Protestant of to-day, certainly not of the instructed Protestant, who may acquiesce in the vicarious repetition of certain formulas by his clergyman on Sunday morning, but would certainly not in practice endorse the theory that Divine intervention might be called in at any moment by prayer. But it is the attitude of the Roman and Greek Churches, as it is of the Mohammedan religion, and doubtless of the less educated in the sects of Nonconformity.
Now this conception of Divinity is Oriental, whence indeed our current religion arose. It represents the Supreme Being as an aged man clothed in flowing robes, his hair "white as wool," seated on a golden throne and ceaselessly adored by myriads of voices who sing day and night, Holy, Holy, Holy, or Hallelujah. It is the conception of a Divinity who existed an eternity in the solitude of his own kingdom, amid silences unbroken by any voice, who suddenly comes to the determination to create worlds and man out of nothing, and orders men to pray and to praise him. He is angry if they do not; he is "a jealous God," and will punish those who offend him "to the fourth generation". He is sorry he has made man and proceeds to destroy him, and then subsequently regrets that decision. In a word, the God of the Hebrew tradition, whom the Christian Church still popularly preaches, is in reality a magnified copy of an Oriental Sultan, whose tastes and proclivities are such as the Arabian Nights has familiarised us with—greedy of praise, adulation and homage, cruel and vindictive to those who refuse their worship and adoration.
Now this Orientalism is no longer tolerable in the eyes of thoughtful people. We cannot conceive that the Infinite Being should find pleasure in hearing all day and night how wonderful he is, and how miraculous his works. It is not easily intelligible how services and litanies of "praise" can be acceptable to the Creator when they would certainly be nauseous to the best men on earth. Jesus openly reproved one who praised him as "the good master". "Call no man good," he said: "God only, he is good." Wellington's reply to the famous individual who claimed to have "saved the life of the saviour of Europe" is too well known to repeat. The truth is, that these prayers and chants are offered up not for God's sake, but for ours. They are a relief to the heart surcharged with religious emotion, the outcome of the vehement impulse of the soul towards communion with the Life of its life. Speaking reverently, prayer and praise are like a lover's protestations, which are not an act of adulation at the shrine of his mistress, but an irresistible unburdening of the greatness of the emotion that fills his heart. But no lover could speak from his soul in a public place, in the sight or hearing of other men. Solitude, silence, "the element in which everything truly great is made," is needed above all else, that the soul may find adequate utterance for thoughts so sublime.
And, therefore, Jesus warned man to pray in his own chamber, in secret, the lonely soul bared in the presence of the Alone, "to the Father which seeth in secret". Hence no sound of spoken prayer is heard at our services. The deed is too solemn. Nevertheless, the whole object of the series of acts which are done is to suggest, to create, first thought, and then emotion, after the manner of the Hebrew psalmist, who sang "In the midst of my thoughts shall a fire flame forth". The hymns are chosen with the idea, not of praising the Almighty, who needs no such praises, but of filling our souls with a sense of the unearthly beauty of the moral life, of the life perseveringly devoted to high ideals of self-culture and human service, and thereby lifting our souls to thoughts of that fair world of the Ideal in which such conceptions are eternally realised. Likewise the readings set before us the burning words of first one and then another prophetical soul to deepen in our own the conviction of the seriousness of life, its far-reaching responsibilities, the realisation of the boundless capacities for good or evil which man has within him, and the utter worthlessness of all things on this earth compared with character, integrity, the perfection of the will by conformity with the moral law.
In the midst of such influences by which we are surrounded during the hour, all too brief, which we devote to the world of the Ideal on one day out of seven, it is hoped that thoughts will sometimes burn in many hearts, that reverence, awe, fear, regrets for the past, fervent resolutions for the future, hope, aspiration, and love; in a word, all the sanctified emotions of the human heart, which together melt into the supreme emotion of religion, will sometimes arise to sternly rebuke the selfish life, shame us out of our moral lethargy, and comfort those whose one solace is that their honour is intact, though misfortune has stricken them in mind or body, or robbed them of the goods of earth, or the cheer and comfort of friendship and of love. It is hoped that the influence of what is said and done then will endure beyond the hour of our meeting, and fill some other moments of our lives when we are, as we should be, at seasons, alone—alone with ourselves, and therefore alone with God, in solemn communion with the Soul who is the soul in us, and who asks for no articulate voice of prayer, but only that our life in every word and deed should be worthy of our exalted nature. Life is prayer. Conduct is sacrifice. Morality is religion.
When I am stretched beneath the pines, When the evening star so holy shines, I laugh at the lore and the pride of man, At the sophist schools and the learned clan; For what are they all in their high conceit, When man in the bush with God may meet? —EMERSON.
See the concluding words of Emerson's essay on "Self-Reliance".
The Ethical Religion Society meets weekly on Sunday mornings.
|Written By W. R. Washington Sullivan|
|Prev | Next|