Scruton on “Intransitive” Prayer

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Two years ago, I attended the “Special Divine Action” conference at Oxford University. One of the most powerful presentations was that by Roger Scruton on “intransitive prayer” – that is, prayer without an object, prayer as a posture.

I do not know if he has written essay or book-length treatments of the theme, but it was new to me. I found it thought-provoking, though I’m not sure I agree… I’m still considering it.

His premise was the “intransitive” prayer is valuable, even if there is no god.

In the case of the pious and non-ironic believers, we pray to an Object, of course: God himself. But there is still merit in Scruton’s premise, for at least two reasons:

  1. The positive effects of a prayerful posture are available to atheists, non-believers, the searching, the confused, the backslidden, etc. Why should we who actually believe jealously guard those positive effects and not share them with non-believers? Even in the absence of belief in God or participation in true religion, we can wish that outsiders enjoy the crumbs that fall from our table.
  2. The positive effects of a prayerful posture are beneficial, in addition to God’s answering our prayers or communicating his presence and love to us.

At the risk of opacity, I present the transcribed notes that I took which amount to an outline of Scruton’s presentation. You can just make out the contours of the talk.

Prayer… What does it mean?

  1. Atheist view — prayer is not just futile, but demeaning
  2. Deist view — God is there but doesn’t listen

Intransitive prayer

  1. Not prayer to, but prayer from (Rilke)
  2. Is prayer a kind of projection? (Feuerbach)
  3. Prayer is a kind of thankfulness – as the song of Sieglinde’s gratitude (Wagner, Ring Cycle)
  4. That’s all we have, gratitude born out of suffering.

Prayer and liturgy

  1. There are shared intransitive religions; the Tibetan monastery is built around intransitive prayer. They pray without a personal God, not to someone but from someone.
  2. Prayer as re-orientation of the one who prays, turning towards God/Nirvana/Brahman
  3. Liturgical prayers are precise words, in which affirmation prevails over petition. These prayers are fixed, with precise words.
  4. The Lord’s Prayer: more a promise than a request
  5. The Hail Mary: a very special prayer, which is also a recognition of the difficulties. Desdemona’s prayer, she puts herself to bed after despairing about Othello, and prays the Hail Mary, and then is murdered.

Liturgical prayers

  1. Humility and recognition of weakness
  2. Prayer as purification
  3. Clearing the way for good intentions
  4. The promise to live in another way
  5. The lodger and the piano scales

Petitionary prayer

  1. Spells and magic: the shaman does not ask the god, he commands it — Prospero and Ariel
  2. Alchemy and the search for occult power
  3. Magic is replaced by religion, accepting the world, accepting

The Votive offering

  1. Praying for the impossible
  2. You can only pray if you can hope
  3. Petitionary prayer as hope lifted from the empirical world and offered for blessing at its edge
  4. What difference does it make?

Two types of prayer

  1. First, a prayer for some inner change in me: Praying for strength in the face of temptation; Penitence and the prayer for forgiveness
  2. Second, prayer that asks for some outer change which I cannot effect by any effort of my own; “bidding” prayers, and Voltaire’s ironic response

Being on the side of God

  1. Prayers in the OT and the Koran
  2. God grants victory to those who fight in his cause
  3. Defeat is a sign that you are not on the right
  4. Prayer is therefore a matter of aligning your will with God’s

A Christian Perspective

  1. “Teach us how to pray”
  2. “Ask and it shall be given”
  3. “All things whatever you ask in prayer believing you shall receive”
  4. God’s relation to nature is presupposed here
  5. Freedom means being about to account for ourselves in the first person

Asking and offering

  1. God is love. In prayer, I place myself in relation to that love.
  2. Prayer is not a wish list but fitting my life to that idea.
  3. Grace is the making safe, grace is his response to my acceptance
  4. Our prayers granted by the act of sincerely making them
  5. When prayers are not answered they answered it is often because they are not made in the posture that can be made authentically.

What do you think?

If you are a believer, do you think there is any value in intransitive prayer – or is the very notion impious? If you are an atheist or agnostic or secular humanist, do you think there is any value in intransitive prayer – or is the very notion too pious?

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