Why do Christians pray?
For a large majority of Christians the question is dumb. Its answer is simple and self-evident. Why Christians pray would be about the same as why Buddhists and Hindus pray. Christians have Jesus’ instructions about prayer: “When you pray say, ‘Our Father, in heaven...give us...forgive us...lead us...’” Christians pray for the things they need to live abundantly and the attitudes they need to live faithfully according to God’s will.
That leads to the underlying question of why Christians need to pray. Is God going to be passive until Christians implore their necessities? That doesn’t comport with the notion that God is loving as well as all-knowing. Does God withhold abundant life from those who do not pray, who are too little to pray, who pray wrongly, or who pray to other gods? In general, that seems hard to demonstrate. Plagues, drought, floods and illness as well as sunshine, kinship and welfare tend to come to populations indiscriminately. Innocent people sometimes suffer and guilty people prosper. Either prayers don’t work very well or the way prayers function is not direct cause and effect.
That leads to the on-going discussion about prayer. Karl Barth, one of the 20th century’s leading Christian theologians, concluded that the only legitimate prayer is thanksgiving. Just the other day a friend from Toronto mentioned that prayers in the church he attends are positive, “no groveling in guilt and pleading for mercy.” An Internet posting informed me that the Church of England has mastered the art of prayer so as to remove the possibility that a priest’s indigestion will affect the contents of prayers.
My friend and former colleague, Philip Hughes, a sociologist of religion in Australia, draws attention to a paradox embedded in Christianity as well as Buddhism. “The world is seen as both chaotic and governed.... It is negotiated both through calling on supernatural powers and through moral merit-making” [or obedience to God’s will, which is often the Christian equivalent of merit-making]. Philip and I tend to agree that most Thai sermons, Buddhist as well as Christian, are authoritative about moral and religious performance. That does not account for that which is random, chaotic, and supernatural. But the unaccountable elements in life are incorporated in faith practices when the sermons are over.
In the picture accompanying this essay Saman Chaisatan a faculty member of the McGilvary College of Divinity at the time the picture was taken, is leading a group of seminary students praying for Elder Saikaew of Lampoon. It is probable that they were trying to be both realistic and optimistic, and that their prayer was intended to give the elder encouragement as well as to express confidence that God would do the optimal things to provide comfort and to address the infirmities and insecurity of the ailing church leader.
In other words, Christians tend to shift into a supernatural mode of belief when dealing with big trouble. Philip puts it this way, “I believe that there is, in fact, a lot of 'supernaturalism' in the popular expressions of faith among Thai Christians. The ways in which people pray, their expectations of miracles, the ways in which they talk about God, all suggest to me that some of the thinking about spirits has been transferred and infinitely expanded to cover the idea of a 'Great Spirit' who has power over all other spirits ... to whom one can transfer one's allegiance and seek patronage.”
I agree with Philip, and I remember Karl Jung’s conclusion that should modern theologians ever succeed in removing the element of mystery from Christianity, the religion will crumble into dust. From where I view life here in the valley, neither Christianity nor Buddhism is in danger of that happening.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.