The way we pray is determined by our image of God. The most popular image in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is that of a supernatural theistic God who dwells somewhere “up there” or “out there” and reigns with unlimited majesty and power. This is the image of a transcendent God—separate from and greater than all of creation, including humanity. The blended God(s) of the Canaanite and Hebrew traditions—Elohim and Yahweh—whom we encounter in the Hebrew Bible, were conceived of in anthropomorphic terms, nearly always with male gender. Ezekiel and Daniel viewed God as a human-like being seated on a heavenly throne (or a flying war chariot) surrounded by a royal court of lesser divine beings. I was taught in catechism classes that the biblical God is omnipresent (present everywhere), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipotent (all-powerful). Because of these characteristics, our prayers are directed to a God who is nearby, accessible, and listening, who already knows what is in our hearts and minds even before we speak, and can answer our prayers by powerful supernatural means when necessary.
For many Christians, a supernatural theistic God is a daily reality in their lives, but for many others, this kind of God is simply not there. They long to feel God’s presence and God’s love, but instead they experience emptiness and isolation. They worship God in church, but find that God is not present in the sanctuary. They pray fervently to God in private moments, but realize that their prayers often go unanswered. In the end, there is only silence. The biblical character of Job cried out to God in despair, “I cry to you God, but you do not answer. I stand before you, and you don’t even bother to look.” (Job 30:20)
Barbara Brown Taylor (b. 1951) describes this emptiness in her book Leaving Church: a Memoir of Faith, in which she relates her experiences at a small Episcopal church in rural Georgia.
On my worst nights I lay in bed feeling like a single parent, unable to sleep because I knew I did not have enough love in me to go around. God was the boundless lover, but for many people God was the parent who had left. They still read about him in the Bible and sang about him in hymns. They still believed in his reality, which made it even harder to accept his apparent lack of interest in them. They waited for messages from him that did not arrive. They prepared their hearts for meetings that never happened. They listened to other Christians speak as if God showed up every night for supper, leaving them to wonder what they had done wrong to make God go off and start another family.
Mother Teresa (1910–1997), who ministered to the needs of the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying in India for over 50 years, felt a similar absence and silence in her life. It began soon after she set up her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in the late 1940s and continued until her death in 1997. She interpreted it as a loss of faith.
If there be a God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
The image of a transcendent all-powerful, interventionist God is still the most prevalent one in America today. But for some people, it has ceased to be a reasonable working hypothesis. Continue reading