Consider with me the implications of our intuitions about prayer, and what our actual practice of prayer (or absence thereof) says about what we think of God.
I suggest two ways of thinking about prayer, and resulting views of God. I admit in advance that this is a simplification, but I submit that it’s not an over-simplification. That is, we could talk about nuances in these ways of thinking that could be extrapolated to significant theological differences, but that’s just not necessary to our present purpose.
One: “Prayer,” he smirked.
One way to think about prayer is to regard it as utterly pointless and profoundly retrograde. Retrograde in the sense that it harkens back to a more primitive stage of man, when we were afraid all the time, superstitious, and willingly attributed everything we didn’t understand to things that go bump in the night. We needed our own dark lord to counter those already hiding in the darkness, so we created one and gave him super Niceness powers. And then we prayed to that fiction.
If one holds this view, one should never pray at all. Oh, maybe one bows the head in a ceremonial way with the rest of the crowd, once in a while, because politeness seems to demand it. But that’s not prayer, really. You’re not actually talking to a deity, because there is no deity to talk to. The gesture is just a sop to those who’ve not advanced sufficiently to come out of the murk of ignorance into enlightened understanding.
Now honesty and consistency dictate that a person with this point of view also acknowledge the absolute purposelessness of man’s existence. Our discoveries and striving are all very impressive and interesting, but ultimately there’s no point. We live, we seek acceptance and perhaps praise from our peers for some reason, we propagate if we can, and then we die. The only point of all that seems to be the pragmatic appreciation of good experience, so long as it exceeds bad experience. But at least there’s no wasted time talking to the ceiling.
A second way to think about prayer is that by it we are engrafted into the plans and purposes of God, in ways we don’t fully or readily apprehend. We accept that there is a God, and even more pertinently with regard to the prayer question, we accept that He is immanent and active in the world. Prayer therefore is an interaction with all-powerful God, and has an effect on the cosmos directly, and indirectly by its change in us.
If one thinks of God in this way, then prayer is about the most important thing we can do. We have to eat, of course, and take care of ourselves bodily in various ways, and maintain our relationships, but our relationship with God (experienced most vividly in prayer) is the first among those relationships.
If we think of God as being active in the world in this way, then prayer will be a priority for us. If God is in motion, so to speak, all around us all the time, intervening in natural processes in ways that build His world in four dimensions (space and time), and He takes our interaction with Him into account in doing so, then why would we sit on the sidelines? And why would we not want to progressively merge with His will in ways that build us up in this life, and positively impact those around us, and improve the Place he makes for us in the next life?
If God is like this, then the next life is a certainty. He has a plan, though He holds it largely hidden from us now, and a place for us, individually, inside that plan is available.
The inclusion model does not apply if we perceive of God as the grand Watchmaker, who created it all and then turned it loose to operate according to the mechanisms He set in place. If that’s what’s going on, then there’s no point praying, really. It doesn’t affect us and it doesn’t affect anything else around us. Its only utility is therapeutic.
Even the therapeutic purpose rests on a lie, however, if we have a Deist perception of God, and therefore ultimately fails. If there is utility to prayer as prayer, it only makes sense that it has utility because we believe God is listening and that He responds. If He doesn’t, because He’s sitting back passively watching His creation unfold, then prayer doesn’t have any impact. Knowing that, why do it? There is no reason.
If our prayer life is feeble to non-existent, then it would be good to question why. Many of us who claim to believe in God and in prayer, nonetheless never seem to get around to praying. Or, if we do it at all, we do it from a vague sense of responsibility because after all we say we’re believers, and we understand that prayer seems to go with that self-identification. But if it’s just not happening, we may have slipped, in our mind, from the inclusion model to the absentee model of how we apprehend God’s existence.
That’s bad. It does not mean we can’t come to terms with it and move decisively out of our position of illusory neutrality, however. It’s just a matter of self-diagnosing the condition, and acting upon it. If our prayer life presently consists of occasional, fleeting, “yay God” moments, that doesn’t mean necessarily that our perception of God is irreparably damaged.
It’s a matter of discipline. We should remember that there are only two valid ways of thinking about prayer: that it’s pointless, or that it enables inclusion in God’s movement in the universe. Anything else is just dwelling with cognitive dissonance between those two possibilities. There is no neutral zone in-between. There is only confusion about the real alternatives.