PRAYER AS LIBERATION
Thursday, July 7, 1996
Location - FNCA 1996
The opening lines of one of the hymns in our 1950 Book of Worship could serve as a kind of
text for my theme this morning:
Father divine, the dead'ning power control
Which to the senses binds th'immortal soul;
Oh, break this bondage, Lord! I would be free,
And, in my soul, would find my heav'n in thee.
The hymn assumes a belief that we are called to live a spiritual life in a physical world,
and that this may not come naturally. Our theology tells us that the spiritual world is
the world of causes. Our stay here is temporary. The Lord's providence focuses on eternal
issues, and on temporal ones only as they bear on eternal ones. In short, the most
important realities of our lives are realities which our normal senses cannot perceive.
Plato's image of the cave is still apt, the image of dealing constantly with the shadows
of solid things rather than with the things themselves.
I cannot help wondering what Plato would think if he could listen in on present-day
conversations, and I want to spend some time looking at this dilemma before giving
explicit attention to one particular function of prayer. Science and technology have made
extraordinary strides working on severely materialistic and deterministic assumptions.
These assumptions are of critical importance, far too important to be taken for granted,
as they often are. Darwin, for example, did not credit himself with originating the notion
of evolution. He recognized and named other researchers who had studied fossil remains,
observed the hierarchical diversity of the biological world, and concluded that life forms
had developed gradually from the simplest to the most complex. He faulted them, though,
for calling on some mysterious force behind this process, some purpose or providence. He
saw own signal contribution as the theory of random mutation and natural selection, of a
wholly mechanistic process. Darwin credited Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population
(1798) as having suggested the notion of the survival of the fittest.
Actually, the assumption is neither proven nor necessary, and in fact the theory as Darwin
framed it has not stood the test of time. It now seems excessively simplistic. The late
Lewis Thomas proposed that cooperation is as much a factor in survival as competition. No
organism survives which does not in some way benefit others-in Swedenborgian terms, which
does not serve some use. It has been noted that early bacterial life forms shot themselves
in the proto-foot, so to speak, when they developed forms that generated oxygen. Oxygen
was toxic to the bacteria themselves-hydrogen peroxide kills bacteria by releasing oxygen,
and oxygenation is a more expensive but in significant respects more effective method of
water purification than chlorination. By generating oxygen, the algae-like life forms not
only rendered their general environment more hostile to their own survival, they also made
possible the development of organisms that would use them as nutrients.
This would seem to run counter to Darwin's theory, and phenomena like this have led some
biologists to challenge the theory that evolution is totally deterministic, to argue that
there is simply too much evidence of design to ignore. For the majority of scientists,
though, the risks of opening this door seem to outweigh the possible benefits.
Deterministic materialism has worked awfully well, and it is understandable that its
devotees would rather leave some anomalies "temporarily unexplained" rather than try to
deal with questions for which their own rigorous discipline provides no tools.
The decision to rule out consideration of purpose, though, reflects a presupposition
rather than a conclusion. Science itself, that is, has not proved that the universe is
mechanistic and deterministic. Actually, science works by restricting itself to phenomena
that can be explained deterministically, and leaves the rest of human experience
untouched. The whole realm of human aspiration and achievement, of education, art,
religion, and love are "unscientific." That is, they involve so much that cannot be
quantified that they are not amenable to study under the rigorous restrictions of
scientific method. For them, deterministic explanations simply do not work.
There is nothing particularly wrong with restricting one's field of study, or with using
the criterion of applicable method in doing so. It is fairly obvious that different fields
of interest require different methods. One cannot study sound waves with a microscope or
motion with a tape recorder. One cannot study intentions with a stethoscope. Professors of
physics know from experience how much motivation has to do with learning and deal daily
with their own purposes and the purposes of their students. If they were asked to describe
this aspect of their own professional life in strictly materialistic, deterministic terms,
they would be at a loss. They would have to speculate about patterns of neural activity
conditioned by past stimuli, when no one is even close to being able to look at an
electroencephalogram and identify such familiar states as determination or discouragement.
No one has been able, for that matter, to locate an idea on a brain scan, let alone tell
the difference between a true one and a false one .
Not only that, in the life sciences the language of purpose turns out to be very handy.
Bears fatten up in the fall in order to survive the winter. Birds pour out their songs in
order to stake out their territory. Herd animals band together in order to protect
themselves against predators, antelopes run away in order to escape being caught and
killed, scabs form in order to protect a wound while healing takes place, and so on. Any
other form of description would be unbearably cumbersome. Whatever is going on, the
language of purpose is efficient.
The problem comes when this is ignored, when the obvious power of materialistic
explanations leads to the assumption that only materialistic explanations are really,
literally valid, when the effectiveness of technology leads to the belief that everything
else is somehow unessential. When school budgets are cut, it is the "non-essentials" like
art and music that are the first to go. I sometimes imagine a technologically perfect
house, a house with every modern convenience, but totally without art. The television
could carry hard information only, there would be no decorator fabrics, no pictures on the
gray walls, the only books would be scientific textbooks. I wonder how long a human psyche
would survive in such a bleak environment.
In other words, the prevailing mood of contemporary theory prompts us to devalue a huge
and vital side of our own daily experience. Materialism is a tyrannical discipline, a
discipline that says you have to do things this way and no other, you can attend to these
realities and to no others. We come back to the hymn I mentioned at the outset:
Father divine, the dead'ning power control
Which to the senses binds th'immortal soul;
Oh, break this bondage, Lord! I would be free,
And, in my soul, would find my heav'n in thee.
Technology may have liberated us from many burdens, but if it marks our horizon, if it is
the limit of our concern, the locus of our values, we are indeed in bondage.
This is where prayer can come in as the liberator. In his discussion of Islam with Bill
Moyers, Huston Smith spoke warmly of the Muslim discipline of prayer. Five times a day the
devout Muslim lays other activities aside, faces Mecca, and goes through a prescribed set
of prayers. Five times a day, that is, the devout Muslim is reminded of the religious
dimension of life.
The form and the content of the prayers are strictly prescribed. The Muslim is taught how
to kneel, when to touch the forehead to the ground, and of course what words to say. This
is not a time to voice one's own concerns, to ask for help for this particular situation
or to give thanks for this particular gift. It is a time, in fact, to put one's personal
concerns aside and simply be one of the millions of the faithful who are doing the same
thing at the same time. It is a time to get out of the way and let God fill the stage.
If I think of the potential cumulative effect of this over years of practice, I marvel.
It does not matter what is happening-now is prayer time. This means that prayer will not
happen only when I feel the need. Prayer will happen in all kinds of situations and
circumstances, at home and at work, in grief and at play, in solitude and in company, in
peace and at war. There is the constant reminder that what God wants overrides what I
Of course, there is no guarantee that this will work. I'm sure Muslims can manage to use
the discipline of prayer self-righteously. I'm sure it is possible to go through the
routine mechanically. The point is that five times a day there is a break from one's own
preoccupations, an opportunity to change one's perspective. Thanks to this particular
discipline, five times a day the usual bondage to circumstances is broken.
The closest parallel in our own tradition may be the practice of grace before meals, and
given the multiplication of fast food franchises, even for the devoted this practice is
probably not nearly so regular as it used to be. Even if it were, it is unlike the Muslim
practice in being tied to one particular activity. It is better to give thanks for food
than not to give thanks, but there is a great deal more in our lives to be thankful for
Our theology portrays us as living in two worlds at once, but as directly conscious of
only one. The unseen world, the spiritual world, is the world of causes. Our physical
senses tell us only about the effects of those causes. But there is something strange
going on. That is, there are clearly chains of causation on the physical level. There is
horizontal causation as well as vertical, so to speak. My intentions may cause me to dive
off the float toward the river. If I change my intentions in midair, that will not change
my trajectory. Most of us, I'm sure, know what it feels like to wish with all our hearts
that we had not taken some particular step or said some particular thing, that we could
turn the clock back. No, our theology tells us, every least movement of our lives has a
continuous series of consequences, to eternity (Arcana Coelestia, n. 38543).
We are delivered from strict determinism, I would suggest, by the fact that these
horizontal chains of causation are not the only ones, that they interact with the vertical
ones. Whether or not an obstacle deflects us from our course depends not only on the size
of the obstacle, but on the strength of our determination, our purpose.
Our purposes, in turn, are in constant interaction with our perceptions. We can be
deterred by things that are not there, by the projections of our own fears. We can walk
blithely into difficulties we would avoid like the plague if we saw them ahead. If we are
aware only of the horizontal dimension of causation, then, we will not be responsive to
the signals that come from "the world of causes." We will try to handle everything by
manipulating matter, so to speak, without recognizing that there are other forces at work.
If we are wholly wrapped up in our own inner world, we will keep barking our shins on a
physical world that refuses to go away.
Life is full of illustrations, and two may serve. At the close of the last century,
intelligent people believed that the discovery of electricity would bring such an
improvement to the lives of the poor that social unrest would vanish. A little later, as
thoughtful and perceptive an individual as Helen Keller honestly believed that once women
were allowed to vote, war would be a thing of the past. We still find ourselves often
persuaded that the roots of social unrest are economic or political rather than spiritual.
This is one of the effects of the deadening power which binds our souls to our senses.
Prayer turns us toward the vertical. It may not tell us what is going on, what spiritual
causes are at work, but it reminds us that these causes are present. It serves a purpose
even if it does no more than shake our horizontal certainty, lead us to suspect that we do
not know everything that is going on. There is, after all, no greater obstacle to learning
than the conviction that we already know all the answers, and if prayer does no more than
jolt us out of that conviction, it has already paid its way. It may not have liberated us
from our bondage to the senses, but it has unlocked the door for us.
OF COURSE horizontal causation is real, and must be dealt with. But OF COURSE the vertical
dimension is just as real. If we want to deal with the real world, we cannot afford to
neglect either. In as materialistic a field as economics, we find an effort to read the
public mood, to discover how people are reacting to the numbers. In as materialistic a
field as advertising, we find an almost universal practice of trying to distract us from
the material facts and tap into our longings. This works particularly well with people who
are not aware of the importance of the vertical dimension of their own lives. We are most
easily manipulated when we are blind to the realm in which the manipulation is taking
Prayer can do more, though, than remind us of the vertical dimension. We tend to think of
prayer as a time when we express our own wishes. That is all very well as long as we
recognize what we are doing. It is good for us to be aware of our wishes. Virtually all
therapies focus on helping the client to deeper and more candid self-awareness. Spiritual
growth centers are likely to find that the most popular of their programs are the ones
that offer self-expression.
There is a find line, though, between healthy self-expression and narcissism, between an
honest effort to understand oneself and allowing one's own concerns to fill one's
horizons. In prayer, this takes the form of trying to change God's mind-without
necessarily recognizing that this is what we are doing-and it should take only a moment's
thought to realize the folly of this. The divine mind is perfect love and wisdom. Any
change would be for the worse. The potential beauty of the Muslim practice of a set,
Quranic form of prayer is that it can serve to focus the worshiper on the divine will.
This sits uncomfortably with contemporary culture. Unvarying forms are often seen as
empty. Maximum value is placed on spontaneity and authenticity. Yet at the same time, the
eastern practices of repetitive chanting and mantras have gained ground, suggesting that
what the right hand takes away, the left hand grasps.
It has occurred to me lately that one of the major factors in the early growth of our
church was the excitement of discovery. The doctrines were new and liberating. As they
became more familiar, the emphasis subtly shifted from exploration to trusteeship. In
recent decades, especially since Wilson Van Dusen came on our scene, it seems that there
are some fresh impulses of discovery. At the same time, I am beginning to suspect that we
might pay more attention to the church's durability.
It is a truism to say that the older members of our church tend to resist change. I would
argue that this is understandable. There is not much left of the world they-which is
getting closer and closer to "we"-grew up in. There is a legitimate need for some
constants in life, and while it is surely true that the real constants are spiritual
rather than material, we may still need the reassurance of some material images of that
In practical terms, then, in our outreach we might be very candid about the fact that we
are looking for serious, long-term commitment. In return, we promise to do our very best
to be there as a church for the long haul. We do not offer quick fixes or short cuts. We
will not cling to anyone who becomes restive. We will try to be faithful to our
understanding of the divine will, to grow in our understanding of the values which that
will entails, to offer an anchor of constancy in a world of accelerating change. We are
looking for people who value that depth of commitment, who want not only to find that
center of constancy but also to support and offer it.
That constancy is an integral part of our own being. There is a striking statement in
The soul is the human form, from which nothing whatever can be taken away, to which
nothing whatever can be added; and it is the inmost form of all the forms of the whole
body. And since the forms outside it get their essence and their form from inmost things,
[people] are . . . souls. In a word, the soul is the essential person, because it is the
inmost person: its form is therefore fully and perfectly the human form. Still, it is not
life, but is the nearest recipient vessel of the life that comes from God . . . .
Marital Love 315:11
One of the correspondential images of the human mind is that of a house. This house has
three stories, corresponding to the natural, spiritual, and heavenly levels of our
being-and a cellar. What the passage from Marital Love suggests is that our choices do not
make additions to this house or subtractions from it. We close off some rooms and furnish
others, and ultimately decide what part of the house we want to live in. We might think of
the Gospel parables of the house swept and garnished, of the householder, of the housetop,
of the upper room.
To return to the hymn I cited at the outset, there are levels of our being that are not
bound to the senses, that are not in bondage. The deeper or higher level we turn to, the
closer we are to the perfect constancy of the Lord's love and wisdom. Our most earnest
prayers should be that this love and wisdom remain constant, that they not change, for in
a way that may seem paradoxical, our freedom depends on that constancy.
Early in Arcana Coelestia (n. 1937), Swedenborg wrote a long section on "compulsion," the
burden of which is that self-compulsion is the essence of true freedom. If this sounds a
bit odd, we need only to think of people, perhaps including ourselves, who are or have
been slaves to their impulses. Psychology does not speak well of obsessive or compulsive
behavior. We are freest when we are not driven this way and that either by our passing
moods or by changing circumstances, but when we have in view a goal that is of ultimate
worth and so govern our conduct as to move steadily toward that goal. This is the point of
the parables of the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price.
As for the role of prayer in our quest for this freedom, we are offered the Lord's Prayer
as a model. It is a model, I would propose, because it does not ask for any change in the
divine will. It is the divine will to give us the kingdom of heaven, to give us our daily
bread, to forgive us, not to lead us into temptation, and to deliver us from evil. The
prayer offers us an opportunity to align our wills with the Lord's, a chance to break out
of our own preoccupations and remember what this life is all about.
To summarize, then, we might think of two kinds of prayer. One expresses our own wills-our
petitions for ourselves and for others, our complaints, our gratitude. The healthy side of
this is the implicit recognition of our need, a reminder that we cannot go it alone. One
risk is that we deify our own wills, assuming that if we in our best and most loving
states want something, the Lord should agree with us. Another risk is that of fostering
the illusion that the Lord will not know what we want unless we verbalize it.
These risks are counterbalanced by prayer after the model of the Lord's prayer, focused
not on the articulation of our own longings but on recognition and appreciation of the
Lord's perfect understanding of our nature and our circumstances and perfect care for our
well-being. We could benefit from some practice that brings us to this awareness
regardless of what is going on around or within us, not just when we feel like it. That
could help liberate us not only from the tyranny of material circumstances, but from the
tyranny of our own impulses.