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:
- 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.
- 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?
- Atheist view — prayer is not just futile, but demeaning
- Deist view — God is there but doesn’t listen
- Not prayer to, but prayer from (Rilke)
- Is prayer a kind of projection? (Feuerbach)
- Prayer is a kind of thankfulness – as the song of Sieglinde’s gratitude (Wagner, Ring Cycle)
- That’s all we have, gratitude born out of suffering.
Prayer and liturgy
- 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.
- Prayer as re-orientation of the one who prays, turning towards God/Nirvana/Brahman
- Liturgical prayers are precise words, in which affirmation prevails over petition. These prayers are fixed, with precise words.
- The Lord’s Prayer: more a promise than a request
- 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.
- Humility and recognition of weakness
- Prayer as purification
- Clearing the way for good intentions
- The promise to live in another way
- The lodger and the piano scales
- Spells and magic: the shaman does not ask the god, he commands it — Prospero and Ariel
- Alchemy and the search for occult power
- Magic is replaced by religion, accepting the world, accepting
The Votive offering
- Praying for the impossible
- You can only pray if you can hope
- Petitionary prayer as hope lifted from the empirical world and offered for blessing at its edge
- What difference does it make?
Two types of prayer
- First, a prayer for some inner change in me: Praying for strength in the face of temptation; Penitence and the prayer for forgiveness
- 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
- Prayers in the OT and the Koran
- God grants victory to those who fight in his cause
- Defeat is a sign that you are not on the right
- Prayer is therefore a matter of aligning your will with God’s
A Christian Perspective
- “Teach us how to pray”
- “Ask and it shall be given”
- “All things whatever you ask in prayer believing you shall receive”
- God’s relation to nature is presupposed here
- Freedom means being about to account for ourselves in the first person
Asking and offering
- God is love. In prayer, I place myself in relation to that love.
- Prayer is not a wish list but fitting my life to that idea.
- Grace is the making safe, grace is his response to my acceptance
- Our prayers granted by the act of sincerely making them
- 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?
Leave a comment below.