Prayer and utopia

[This is a late posting from 11-01-2008, so there may be erroneous references.]

Once again, a commentary on religion at the Guardian Comment is Free page (Let us Pray) has sparked hundreds of commentaries. Theo Hobson has a liberal approach to Christianity, so his comments on prayer are an attempt to understand it spiritually and in a psychologically progressive manner:

The atheist account of prayer has very little connection to the reality. The believer does not pray in order to try to influence God's will. Instead, he's trying to influence his own will, to make it conform to his worldview. Prayer is essentially a matter of saying "Help me, God, to be what I should be." The believer acknowledges a conflict between what he is naturally inclined to be, and what he feels he should strive to be. I suppose such a conflict is totally unknown to the atheists, who feel that they effortlessly realise moral perfection in their daily lives.

Also, the believer reminds himself of the worldview he subscribes to. In the case of Christianity, he re-states his belief in the coming of God's kingdom, which is a sort of utopian hope that all will be well. And he acknowledges his own fallibility, the fact that he is part of the problem, in need of radical reform, dangerously prone to evil. And he acknowledges that everything is dependent on God, that he is the absolute authority.

Clearly, Hobson is arguing from his own vantage point, because there are people who pray with the “magical” approach, whose goal is material advancement or whatever. But no spiritual tradition worth its name has not taken account of this mentality and roundly criticized it. But what we are then talking about is really spirituality and not religion, which has its interest in this world. The materialistic approach reveals the “magical” approach to material goals as childish, though it can never fully remove the naive hope that makes life possible. This naivete is no doubt one dimension of religion that cannot be discounted, no matter how superior the so-called realists think they are. Nobody, no matter how great a technocrat, is totally in control.

In some circles it is held that personal belief is somehow salutary, or at least not particularly harmful, but that that problems arise as soon as religion takes on a social dimension. Despite saying that personal religion or prayer and utopianism are connected, Hobson seems to accept that this is a legitimate criticism, and tries to deflect it in the following way:

To believe in God, and to pray to him, does not mean that one subscribes to any form of organised religion. I am a Christian with no institutional allegiance. The atheists don't know how to respond to this. It deprives them of their comfort zone: attacking aspects of organised religion, and pretending that they are thereby attacking religion itself.

This seems to be something of a cop-out. Human beings have to live together, and living together requires frameworks of understanding that function on many levels. Human beings also seem bound to live together, but this has both positive and negative aspects to it. Just because there is trouble in the creation of human society does not mean that our only option is to become hermits. Or, worse yet, dissimulating believers.

The individualistic approach does have a certain merit inasmuch as we seek individual perfection first, with the faith that such a thing is possible. But utopias have to develop slowly through the building of associations that share a common language of individual idealism that carefully grows outward into the group, carefully guarding the effulgent core of spiritual culture.

Hobson describes prayer as a kind of "sadhana" for attaining a moral perfection. In Gita 2.55-72, the realized state is described seemingly as a kind of stoical ideal, but we need to look at it slightly differently. No one truly seeks moral perfection on its own; what we seek is happiness and personal fulfilment. Moral perfection, if necessary at all, is simply a point on the way there. In other words, moral perfection is a means rather than an end.

But if we pray for happiness, I suppose, that means that the atheist critique of prayer as magical thinking is legitimized. So we say we want moral perfection. In fact, we need to understand the state of perfection as a state of personal bliss.

The two are not really separate from one another, because the search for happiness can be a moral debacle for those who do not seek it in the Self, but true happiness is ultimately dependent on a state of individual consciousness and not on the social matrix in which we live. In other words, moral perfection is often a matter of social compromise.

The state of perfection no longer has this anxiety for moral perfection. But as long as that anxiety is there, it often gets projected outwards by immature preachers into utopian dreams, which as one person said, often "begets monsters." This following quote comes from Edmund Burke:

The attempt to build a perfect world based on abstract first principles is delusive and dangerous because it entails the destruction of living and breathing human beings in the name of people who exist only in idea.

Anyway, this post was never completed, but I had a few quotes and notes that I plucked from the above reading. I can't remember any longer what I was getting at, so I just put them here for future reference.

The view that history has meaning and direction is a comforting but potentially disastrous myth. The belief in the attainment of a peaceful and harmonious world breaks down on the contradictory nature of human needs, the incompatibility of human values and the flaws of human nature.(Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. John Gray)

Utopianism is the belief that evil can be permanently destroyed. St. Augustine reinterpreted the end of time in spiritual and allegorical terms, insisted that evil could not be defeated in this world and ensured that mainstream Christianity would have an anti-apocalyptic character.


I have just been listening to a rather inspiring story of a nun (Mother Antonia), who has lived in the notorious Tijuana prison for the past thirty years. who lives inside a prison in Tijuana. She was a rich woman who had a dream that she was in a prison, condemned to be executed. Then Christ came and took her place and she said that she would never leave him. After that, she went to this prison and started her ministry there. Basically, she said, she was there to make a difference. And that difference was to let them know that God never stopped loving them. She said, it is everyone's duty to make a difference.

I suddenly realized that she not just gave love, there are atheists and agnostics who are driven to do good work, but the conviction that "God loves you" is the greatest gift anyone can give.


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