Friday, December 17, 2010

Prayer

Here’s my short take on the question raised at ZigZag Café yesterday. Prayer is first of all a response to an invitation from the God who is there. This God speaks through divine communicative action in creation, Scripture, covenant, Israel, the prophets, and ultimately the crucified―risen one, and summons us to enter into a dialogue with the Wholly Other. Prayer, as response, is personal, intentional, not exhaustive, live, planned or unplanned, verbal communication with the living God. Prayer requires language – God speaking and us hearing and us speaking and God hearing. Dual agency implicates dialogical interaction. To pray as Jesus did to God his father is an action that freely brings us more deeply into community with the Author of life and love sublime, in order that this reality and truth might be lived out into the world through us in redemptive ways.

25 comments:

Julia said...

part of me would question whether prayer necessarily requires language...but at the same time, i see prayer as a conscious disposition, and perhaps that consciousness does require language--a dialogical correspondence, as you say, between us and reality, the reality that God lives and moves within and transcends above.

Julia said...

i also think that it is a lot easier to comprehend "us speaking and God hearing" than "God speaking and us hearing"...what does "God speaking" mean? actually hearing his words? feeling that something is right? contentment? peace?...

Greg said...

Julia,
Thanks. Yes, I think the language part is important, as it's one dimension that keeps prayer from being a walk in the woods.

Greg said...

Julia,
Easier. Me too to that. Good question. God speaks through some of the dynamics of the story mentioned in the post, but also through the Spirit, who seems capable of evoking that God's communicative action is valid as an address to us today.

In terms of "feeling" something, this may be a factor in hearing God, but a feeling alone is reductionistic (our feelings may deceive or guide us towards what is true) and may not always be a helpful way of hearing God speaking.

Ragnar Mogård Bergem said...

I want to expand upon Julias first reaction. It seems to me that Greg is quite right in that verbal communication is essential to prayer. But I'm wondering if it leaves out an important part.

When we communicate to other people, language is only a very small part of the communication. In fact, most of the communication goes on at a non-verbal level. That's why we for example often struggle with expressing irony in writing - because irony largely depends on non-verbal means.

Might we loose a crucial part of prayer if we solely depend on the verbal part? Is it so that while we can express ourselves in a lot of colourful means to other people, we must essentially stick to the same level of communication as when we write, when we communicate with the living God?

I'm not saying that is your view Greg. Just expanding on your point to make a... point.

Greg said...

Ragner,
Thanks. Interesting thoughts. I'm not convinced that most communication goes on at a non-verbal level. Care to say more?

I would see irony as particularly verbal because to identify irony requires a comparison with the non-ironic speech act.

I wonder if expressing ourselves is not riddled with language? At any rate, I agree with you that prayer doesn't have to be the same type of communication as writing, but for it to be prayer I believe it does have to be communication that is verbal.

Julia said...

i would first like to point out that irony does not always rely on language--we could talk about dramatic and situational irony if you would like, but that would perhaps to too far beyond the point.

greg, it seems that you are almost saying that nothing occurs without language--there is no is, only what we cast into words. interesting, and perhaps this is true, but i tend to think not. now, my point could easily be disputed in recognizing that all my propositions and conjectures are put forth with language (can we talk about something beyond language by using language?). i would like to take this even further than ragnar--non-verbal communication occurs and is important, yes, and i hope that the Lord of the universe can pick up on our impulses and orientation before they are even put into thought, but more than that, i believe that there is a natural movement in life that really can't be put into words. this is why poetry is so powerful--be cause of the evocations and intimations, the nothings between the words.

so, in short, while i yet agree that prayer does require a consciousness, which requires language, i think that this consciousness can lead us to a disposition, or a movement, beyond language--more so a connection with us and the living God.


sorry i am so abstract. perhaps this topic as a whole is beyond words.

Julia said...

sorry, the last statement was a bit sweeping. we need words. but somethings are too great (too mystical?) for words.

that is more what i was going for.

Julia said...

and speaking of abstract. greg, i am still not convinced about how we hear from God. is it by language? words?

and how do we know it's from God?

Greg said...

Julia,
Good insights and questions.

Drama and situational irony, in my view, don't somehow escape language, but depend on it. While there is more going on than language, there is not less. Perhaps, the more, but not less than, formulation is helpful?

I would assume that your hope is justified in that the Lord of the universe can pick up on our impulses and orientations, but I wouldn't call them prayer.

"A natural movement in life that really can't be put into words." I'm not sure what that would be? No necessary opposition here, but what significance would such a natural movement have?

Seems to me that one of the reason's that poetry is so powerful is not the nothing between words. It's rather the spiking of the imagination through the words. The evocations and intimations flourish because of what's being read, which is not nothing.

The connection with the living God beyond language you mention is more, but not less than language. It's not a state of Ommmm, but one of communicative action that shapes the beyond and gives it sense and reference.

Ragnar Mogård Bergem said...

When communicating with other people, the way you say what you say and how you act, physically, adds a whole lot to the conversation.

We also seem to be able to communicate with other means. Derek Webb just released an album based on the lords prayer. Each song named after a single sentence of the prayer. The whole album is instrumental.

After listening to it, and reflecting on it, it seems to me that I have both learned something more about God, and also prayed to Him. Right now I'm listening to Bach. Sometimes Bach leads me into a unspoken worship of God - much clearer and, I must add, theologically heavier than most modern "worship" music.

It is connected with feelings guided by reflection. Feelings are important as communication, but they have to be coupled with a mind reflecting on the truth.

Furthermore, we are finite. Our language is finite too. I'm hesitant to say broken. But trying to express my affection and also brokeness to God in prayer is sometimes quite hard using words.

Using the words of others might help from time to time. But there are moments when I humbly have to admit that I'm trying to express something that is "outside" of language.

That is not something that has to be illogical, untruthful or solely based on feeling. Chesterton said something like this; The reason the artist and poet is successful, while the philosopher is not, is that he artist simply tries to fit his mind into heaven, while the philosopher tries to fit heaven into his mind.

There are times when I pray that I can't fit everything within the boundaries of language.

Greg said...

Julia,
Too mystical for words. I think I see what you're getting at. Being in community with the living God seems to go beyond words, but it is rooted in them at the same time.This appears to be one of the characteristics of agency that inspires responsibility and love to and for the Wholly Other and others.

Greg said...

Julia,
Yes, I believe it is by language. The natural world and the biblical text, for example, in some sense languages of their own, are informers that God can use to speak to us.

For us knowing it's from God requires several elements (reason, feeling, sense observation, testimony, etc) that go into making a whole. There are no guarantees that we hear accurately, but it seems feasible that there are going to be some things that are more clear and others less.

Julia said...

greg, nothing is something.

Julia said...

the above is in regard to your first response on poetry.

"in some sense languages of their own"--is this just semantics? maybe i wouldn't call these "languages" language at all. unless you define language simply as communication, but then words are not necessary, as we have discussed.

if we want to just go by scripture, it seems that prayer is always talked about as using words. so maybe we are just trying to make prayer too broad. or maybe the authors of scripture made prayer too narrow? or maybe we just interpret their ideas on prayer too narrowly...

or maybe we need another word for non-verbal communication with God--or maybe it shouldn't be a word because that would just be too ironic!

Greg said...

Ragner,
Good. I appreciate your perspective.

I agree with the first sentence.

The Webb album appears to be evoking a set of language phenomenon through an instrument. On that note, this is not just music, but music with a referent. At any rate, I don't doubt that one can learn something about God by this means, but just listening to it is not prayer. You mention after listening and reflection - I would assume with language firing around through this - that you also prayed to Him. If this was a personal, intentional, (and some of the other things in the original post) verbal communicative action then I agree.

I also would agree that Bach is sometimes clearer and theologically heavier than some contemporary worship music, but I'd be interested to know more about "unspoken worship."

Maybe feelings guided by reflection are a form of communication. Feelings and reflection may be related and distinct?

Quite true that language has its limits. When we cannot pray as we ought (according to God's will),we do trust that the Spirit intercedes for us when we are unable to find words, but this is the Spirit's doing, not ours. The Spirit does so according to the will of God, which may in fact escape us. I would be hesitant, however, to call this our prayer.

I liked the Chesterton comment, but would propose a place for both/and - not either or, and understand that each orientation has its limits.

Greg said...

Julia,
Well, I have to ponder that. Seems to me that nothing is nothing. It could be something in the sense of it being a word; part of language.

Greg said...

Julia,
Languages in the sense that they speak and are therefore identified and named - verbally spoken about. But surely this is not the end of either.

Oh yes, the irony of another word. I'll take that.

I look forward to reading what you sent through FB. Thanks for that.

Ragnar Mogård Bergem said...

I'm not sure if I completely agree with your thoughts about the album. I don't understand the difference between music and "music with a referent". Maybe I misunderstand you, but you seem to be reducing music to language.

I must say I do agree that language seems to som extent to be supreme. By that I mean that whatever I bring up you might just that it is just an addon to language. Language plus something else.

But with respect to music, spesifically, while language certainly is not left out of it, and is used activly in the process of reflecting on the music, it's not reduced to it.

One of the songs on the album is, naturally, "Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread". By listening to it, I get Webbs interpretation of how God is constantly providing for us in our daily lives. Now, I just spelled out the information in words. Still, I didn't have to, not even in my head. I still think Webb could have communicated something to me.

Now, how this relate to worship and prayer, which are related on one level, is that if this is the case, that one cannot reduce all communication to verbal language, then one might be able to explore new dimensions in communicating with God.

To expand on unspoken worship, I don't think worship should be devoid of language. Like you said, this is not about excluding language.

But take something like Morricones music to the movie The Mission. The soundtrack explores both natural grace, sin, remorse and redemption. The movie itself ends with the song On earth as it is in heaven. Now, I don't understand the lyrics, and I don't have to. But Morricone moves me through the drama of scripture, and when it ends in redemption, my heart leaps and I cannot call it anything other than worship.

Is there language there? Yes. But reducing it to language alone is doing unjustice to the music, which communicated the existential part of the drama and made me move with the music in worship of my God. I don't speak a word, I might not even think much at the time - but I move with Morricone in worship.

Now I do think I agree with your basic pretension, that verbal language is essential. But I'm not exactly sure to what extent the non-verbal part of communcation is based on the verbal part. I just don't want to reduce it to something less than it is.

Ragnar Mogård Bergem said...

I'm not sure if I completely agree with your thoughts about the album. I don't understand the difference between music and "music with a referent". Maybe I misunderstand you, but you seem to be reducing music to language.

I must say I do agree that language seems to som extent to be supreme. By that I mean that whatever I bring up you might just that it is just an addon to language. Language plus something else.

But with respect to music, spesifically, while language certainly is not left out of it, and is used activly in the process of reflecting on the music, it's not reduced to it.

One of the songs on the album is, naturally, "Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread". By listening to it, I get Webbs interpretation of how God is constantly providing for us in our daily lives. Now, I just spelled out the information in words. Still, I didn't have to, not even in my head. I still think Webb could have communicated something to me.

Now, how this relate to worship and prayer, which are related on one level, is that if this is the case, that one cannot reduce all communication to verbal language, then one might be able to explore new dimensions in communicating with God.

To expand on unspoken worship, I don't think worship should be devoid of language. Like you said, this is not about excluding language.

But take something like Morricones music to the movie The Mission. The soundtrack explores both natural grace, sin, remorse and redemption. The movie itself ends with the song On earth as it is in heaven. Now, I don't understand the lyrics, and I don't have to. But Morricone moves me through the drama of scripture, and when it ends in redemption, my heart leaps and I cannot call it anything other than worship.

Is there language there? Yes. But reducing it to language alone is doing unjustice to the music, which communicated the existential part of the drama and made me move with the music in worship of my God. I don't speak a word, I might not even think much at the time - but I move with Morricone in worship.

Now I do think I agree with your basic pretension, that verbal language is essential. But I'm not exactly sure to what extent the non-verbal part of communcation is based on the verbal part. I just don't want to reduce it to something less than it is.

Greg said...

Ragner,
I appreciated your helpful insights and thoughts very much.

For me, all music has a referent, not least and notably the person who's playing it. But no, I don't want to reduce music to language and so I agree with you about that.

Communicating something would appear to have a language dimension, but more.

Seems like the notion of God constantly providing for our daily lives is not less than language, but a whole lot more. Fending off reductionism again!

Maybe communing with God could be all sorts of things, but this, I don't think, is prayer.

Well, I suppose a leaping heart might be worship, though that would to depend on lots of other factors than a heart leap - beware of reductionism again.

Ragnar Mogård Bergem said...

Yes, this discussion was helpful for me. Thanks.

And, not to be picky, but it's Ragnar, not Ragner. Language is important. :)

Greg said...

Ragnar,
So it it. Please excuse my spelling mistakes - spelling is important.

reneamac.com said...

Hi Greg. This is really good. I would want to include the present-day body of believers as well in the list of God's communicative venues.

Greg said...

Thanks Renea.