Sunday, March 1, 2009

Transforming Theology Reponse Part #1 - In God's Presence, Chapters 1 and 2

I am currently reading In God's Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki as part of the Transforming Theology Theo-blogger Consortium... basically a bunch of theologians and non-theologians (yours truly being one of the latter) who have volunteered to read and respond to a number of books written by theologians who are currently contributing to the field.

In reading --and in writing about-- this book, I'm reminded of the fantastic Annie Dillard quote from Teaching a Stone to Talk:

"On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?... It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return." p. 40-41

Suchocki's book is housed in the blandest possible cover... tasteful earth tones, soothing blue and brown fonts and pictures of rocks and blue skies create a sort of bland, burlap-couch-in-a-doctor's-office effect. As a result, it took me two weeks to pick up the book, as I anticipated Great Boredom awaiting me between the overly-soothing covers. Sitting on the shuttle bus at Vienna metro, I finally opened the book and fire shot out. Not literally, of course, but I found myself shaking my head at how these contents had been presented in their bland, earth-toned packaging.

Prayer is a delicate subject. No one really gets it, right? We just do it, never as often as we suspect we should, and never quite "right". We vacillate between feeling we're too formal, or not formal enough. We forget to pray for people we said we'd pray for, and we pray haltingly for our own needs, suspecting perhaps that we really shouldn't spend so much time on them and maybe spend more time praying for the poor. Those of us who pray the most can sometimes feel as though we're banging our heads against the wall, that our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. No matter how much we pray, all of us have our stories of prayers answered, and of prayers seemingly ignored. Our emotions are deeply involved in these answered and unanswered prayers. With so much confusion around how prayer works and whether or not God hears our prayers, anyone who takes on a discussion of the topic must do so with some caution.

Suchocki begins her treatment of the topic with a series of questions around what prayer actually is. At this point in history, we know that our lives are set against the backdrop of millennia of lived human experience. We have an awareness of our planet as one small blue hunk of rock hung in a universe huger than our ability to conceive of it. Christians who locate themselves and/or their traditions within so-called Western Christianity have varying degrees of respect for the prayer of other faiths or of syncretic forms of Christianity, but our knowledge of other cultures and faith systems means that we cannot deny that people of all faiths all over the world pray. How does prayer "work"? Does God really care about us and our small prayers? Does He place some sort of primacy on the prayers of some folks over others?

She then goes on to question our conception of the God to which we pray. Why does God require us to pray? Is this simply the nature of the world, that God, despite being all-powerful, requires our prayers for some satisfaction of the Divine Ego? Is He a benevolent King, who requires the submission and allegiance of His subjects before He can or will grant their requests? What if, instead, God were like water, permeating everything in the world, inhabiting it, changing it slowly through the power of its movement?

Furthermore, how do we know what we know about God? On page 6 she states, "...our contemporary understanding of knowledge takes us away from the simpler world of natural and supernatural knowledge. In doing so, it tends to uproot us from that simpler interpretation of the God to whom we pray. Now we know that what we know is determined as much by our human psychic and sensory structures as it is by what we say we know.”

In the midst of her questions about the nature of prayer, and of God to whom we pray, and even about our own ability to "know" anything in an objective way, she inserts her thesis on page 19, a thesis which appears over and over again throughout the book as a refrain:

"This brings us to the basic supposition of a relational theology of prayer: God works with the world as it is in order to bring it to where it can be. Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be. Prayer opens the world to its own transformation. To develop this thesis, imagine that God is not totally independent from the world… our texts portray a God deeply involved with the world and its events, with God wooing the world to deeper modes of community and caring, wooing us toward deeper relation with one another and with God’s own self. So imagine, as the Scriptures suggest, that God is not independent of the world, but interdependent with the world…"

I was already feeling stirred and stimulated by the book, humming with the beauty of the language about God as water, and thrilled and surprised by her frank and unapologetic acceptance of the nature of knowledge as being greatly influenced by the knower; however, this is the point where flames leapt out of the book. In one paragraph, she took out God's omnipotence. Bam. Just like that. I closed the book and looked at the world past my cinged eyelashes, waiting for lightning to come out of the sky and strike me just for reading those words.

Of course, she knew that some of her readers --raised with a healthy fear of God and the unwavering commitment to the idea that God is all-powerful (although it really is hard to live with that and the concept that we have free will and are held accountable for our sins)-- were sitting there considering whether or not they should continue to read this book. So she explains herself. All life exerts some element of power, simply by existing. In the same way that we have the ability to either assist a flower in its growing or destroy the flower, God has power over us. But we cannot be the flower, and we cannot grow for the flower, and in the same way, God does not deny us that amount of agency over ourselves. By definition, there can NOT be a God who is the sole possessor of all power, because all life has, and exerts, power simply by living.

She fleshes this out the implications of this further on pages 24-25:

"...God relates not so some ideal world, but to the reality of this world. If such is the case, then God’s touch to the world in every instant is contextualized not only by the divine character, but also by the conditions in the world that affect the way each element in the world can be. The world is always in the middle of its many stories, so that the reality of God’s touch is in fact the conditioned nature of that touch. As the Quakers put it, God meets our condition."

So God is interdependent with the world and restricted to the circumstances within the world. God requires my prayer in order to enter the world to transform the world, but He does this not as the Great King or Magician wielding His magic wand, but within the circumstances that the world presents Him.

As is often the case, I can feel my multiple theological streams pulling at me. The Reformed Presbyterian balks very loudly at chucking out God's omnipotence. So does the Roman Catholic, only not quite as loudly, since her ability to move God through her acts is indicative of some interdependence. The Episcopalian is feeling fairly neutral about the whole thing and the Mennonite isn't sure why this whole argument is a problem, but she doesn't pray all that much so it's kind of a moot point.. The Pentacostal, however, is raising hell about the whole thing... God restricted by the world as it is?? This is the God who works miracles!!! Who raised the dead and healed the sick and fed the 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fishes!!!

I'm really stuck on this. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense. We pray because God needs our prayers to work in the world. That's just how He's set it up. I also jive with the idea of a God who is interdependent with the world, who moves through the world like water, rather than the idea of a King. The whole King metaphor just doesn't seem to work when we are speaking of Mystery, of The One Who Dwells in Unapproachable Light, who is beyond definitions.

However, I think my ideas of the way God works are very much tied to my concept of the Trinity. God moving through the world like water is the Holy Spirit. The God to whom I pray is God the Father, who is seated on the throne above, and whom I have access to by the work of Christ on the cross, who has bridged the gap between myself and God the Father. The Holy Spirit translates my awkward prayers for the Father with groanings too deep for words. Dr. Suchocki is appealing to scripture for the picture of a God who is deeply intertwined with the world, but I get my ideas of God as a King to whom petitions must be made from Scripture, too.

So I begin my response to this book with an admission that my wheels are spinning a bit. I'm not sure I totally buy the foundational assertion of this book, and having read a few chapters ahead of this, I know the rest of the book depends on this primary argument. Hopefully we'll have a snow day tomorrow so I can return for Response Part #2 inmediamente.

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