Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Godless prayer

A friend shared this link with me:

It's nice to hear a sympathetic analysis of prayer from a leading philosopher. Very erudite. Very intelligent. Very discriminating. Scruton's parents were atheists, yet he himself took an interest in Anglicanism as a teenager, although he drifted. But he's been backing into Christianity. 

The problem with his view of prayer is that it has no place for petitionary or intercessory prayer. He operates with a closed-system view. So there's a fatalistic quality to his position. Prayer is about resigning ourselves to the inevitable. Scruton seems to take a therapeutic view of prayer. 

I'm not sure why he takes a Deistic position. Maybe he thinks there's no evidence that prayer makes an appreciable difference to the course of events. From what I've read, he subscribes to a Kantian epistemology. He seems to be someone who's strongly attracted to Christianity, but can't bring himself to believe that God-talk is meaningful. 

Perhaps he misconstrues the language of divine "intervention". That doesn't mean God is rewriting the plot. Prayer doesn't change what will be. Rather, prayer changes what would be, absent prayer. The efficacy of prayer is counterfactual. Some things happen as a result of prayer that wouldn't happen apart from prayer. Prayer makes a difference in that sense.

In fairness to Scruton, there's a sense in which petitionary/intercessory prayer is hazardous. It's possible to hedge a prayer with so many caveats that any outcome is consistent with the terms of prayer. That way you can never say your prayer went unanswered. The petition was cast in open-ended terms, so that whatever happens or doesn't happen is consistent with the petition.

But I don't think that's a real prayer. If you pray for something specific, you risk disappointment. You can avoid disappointment by avoiding specificity, but then, you're not praying for what you really wish to happen. It's understandable, therefore, that some people stop praying altogether when, in their experience, it makes no discernible difference. 

There's an element of truth to what Scruton is saying, an important truth, perhaps a neglected truth, but a half-truth. There are certainly times when the purpose of prayer isn't to change our situation, but to change us. Times when we should rise to the challenge. Cultivate a different attitude. Trying circumstances are a theater for soul-building virtues. That's a perspective on prayer that some people lose sight of. 

But his position is very one-sided. That can't be the whole of prayer. The Bible is chockfull of prayers petitioning God to deliver the supplicant, or his people, from their ordeal. Petitionary/intercessory prayer is fundamental to the Biblical theology of prayer. Indeed, that distinguishes the true God from know-nothing, do-nothing idol-gods. 

Scruton's position is more Buddhist than Christian. In Buddhism, we suffer because we have an emotional investment in people and things, and due to the transient nature of human experience, we are bound to lose all that we love. 

In Buddhist metaphysics, flux is bedrock reality. That's unredeemable. There is no God. No eschatological compensations. 

Given our intractable circumstances, the best we can do is to develop a coping mechanism. Emotionally divest ourselves of everything we care about. That way, we won't suffer when we lose something or someone. We must make a psychological adjustment to our intractable situation. If the situation is unalterable, then we need to alter our disposition towards the situation. That's logical given the premise, but it reflects a very despairing outlook on life and death. 

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