Friday, October 2, 2015


No, this post is not about that rather silly aphorism, 'There are no atheists in foxholes.' The fact is, atheists are to be found in foxholes.

I do, however, want to say something about prayer. Anyone can prayer---even an atheist. Listen to the first two verses of this Christian hymn by the British poet and hymn writer James Montgomery:

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.

‘Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire … unuttered or expressed.’ You don’t have to package or formulate your words in a Christian form. You don’t even have to verbalise your desire. Whatever be your sincere desire---whether for yourself, some other person, or our world---that is your prayer … and a prayer.

Now, there was, in what I quoted above, that pesky little word ‘God’. The word ‘God’, if one uses it at all, means different things to different people. For some, there is no objective referent at all to the word ‘God’, and I respect that position. The important thing to keep in mind is this: ‘The word is not the thing.’ That’s something the Indian spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti [pictured left] used to say over and over again, and he is right. It’s the reality behind the word that matters. In other words, don't get hung up on the word ('God'). Instead, focus on the reality behind, and beyond, the word. Well, I hear some of you say, what is that reality? What follows is my take on it.

Despite things constantly coming and going, waxing and waning, there is something unending and unceasing, something that is beyond time and space itself. It is the ever-present spirit of life---that is, the very livingness of all life, the essential oneness of all life, and the self-givingness of life to itself so as to perpetuate itself. You can call that God if you like. The New Testament says that God is love. That’s pretty good. Some also use the word ‘God’ to refer to our innate potential perfectibility as well. That makes some sense too. The really important thing, if you choose to believe in God at all, is to avoid believing in a tribal, cruel and nasty God. That sort of belief is very harmful to others. The Baptist minister and theologian Dr Harry Emerson Fosdick once famously wrote, ‘Better believe in no God than to believe in a cruel God, a tribal God, a sectarian God. Belief in God is one of the most dangerous beliefs a man can cherish.’ 

Me? These days I neither believe nor disbelieve in a traditional God. I love these words from the Jesuit priest and author Anthony de Mello SJ [pictured right]: ‘The atheist makes the mistake of denying that of which nothing may be said ... and the theist makes the mistake of affirming it.’ But, having said all that, God or no God, prayer is real.

Does prayer really change things? Well, it can change the pray-er, that is, the person praying, and when the pray-er changes other things start to change as well. That is not anything supernatural.

Having said all that, we should never see ourselves as the end and God as the means to that end. Dr Fosdick made another good point when he said, ‘God is not a cosmic bellboy for whom we can press a button to get things.’ I think these words from Venerable Fulton J Sheen are also helpful: ‘We do not pray that we may have good things; we pray rather that we may be good.’

Pray in whatever way makes sense to you, but do more than pray. There is an Indian proverb, ‘Pray to God but continue to row to the shore.’ (I have also seen that proverb expressed as, ‘Call on God, but row away from the rocks.’) There is an Arab proverb that is very similar: ‘Trust God but tie your camel.’ By all means hold on to your desires and hopes, but you---indeed, all of us humans---must do what needs to be done to bring about positive, lasting change in ourselves and our damaged world.

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