Monthly Archives: June 2018

Integrative prayer

By integrative prayer I mean prayer that integrates listening and doing. I.e., the practice of discernment and then action.

Many people seem to think prayer ought to consist of asking God to do things. If it is a part of prayer, this might make sense. On its own, it is probably a mistake.

Jesus was constantly exhorting his listeners to do things. Consider the Our Father, his archetypal prayer. “Thy will be done.” Done by whom? Us. When? Now. We ought to not merely pray for others, but help them, love them, forgive them, and so on. People who miss the dimension of action in their prayers are missing a large point of the spiritual life.

But doing is not enough. Action without discernment is more often than not blind and foolish. Therefore doing implies listening. Prayer centrally involves listening to God, and you can think of this as drawing on the totality of your mental resources. To listen to God is to attune yourself to the information (intuitions, wisdom, reason, empirical data, imagination) within yourself, as illuminated by an on-going, live relationship with or connection to God.

So, the arc is

  1. Discern outcome.
  2. Discern action to take.
  3. Take action. (Note that sometimes this means waiting and letting things play out.)
  4. Repeat.

One part of discernment is not only discerning what action and how to take it, but what it is we ought to be aiming at in the first place. In fact, this part of discernment is probably the most important part.

So, integrative prayer is integrating, or combining, these steps into prayer life on an on-going, everyday basis.

Trusting (‘faith’) God is important for all these steps. If you don’t trust in your relationship with God, why would you turn to Him to discern what you ought to aim for? Similarly, why turn to Him to discern the actions to take once you’ve figured out what to aim for? And if you don’t trust Him, how likely are you to be willing to take (sometimes seemingly risky) actions based on that? So trust is the thread that runs through the steps of integrative prayer.

Trust is gained, like in most relationships, by starting small in the cycle, while simultaneously building a lived, experienced sense of the presence of God in your day to day life. How to do the latter is another, important, topic.

The proper aim of ecumenism

Ecumenism in Christianity aims at unity between branches of Christianity. It’s important to distinguish, however, between unity in spirit and unity in organization.

That Christians have better dialogue, exchange of ideas, and a sense of kinship all sounds like the right approach to me. However, there is also a sense in Christianity that there needs to be unity of organization – one church, say. This to me seems an error.

First, understanding various denominations is important for 3 reasons. 1. It allows you to see what’s working in another approach, and consider how to modify it and apply it yourself. 2. It allows you to see what’s not working in another approach, avoid it, and also give constructive feedback. 3. It allows you to cooperate or coordinate on areas where there is overlap between your approaches.

Having said that, diversity of approaches can be highly useful. The basic idea is the same as in free markets. Different approaches = experimentation = success of certain approaches, iterated. This is similar to various ideas in evolutionary biology – having a certain amount of diversity of approaches is useful.

Therefore, it seems wrong-headed to me for Christians to want all Christians to move to the same church, or even to see it as primarily a competition between churches. Christianity, as a whole, probably benefits from different approaches, learning from other approaches, and being critical of approaches that seem obviously wrong. Understanding what is actually happening in other churches benefits all these points, and ecumenism properly should be about better understanding of other approaches with an approach to unity in spirit.

Christianity is a practice, not a theory

Christianity is a practice, not a theory. Therefore, any objections to it on the level of theory have to be relevant on the level of practice.

For example, I might object to the pacifist philosophy on which aikido is based, and have what I think are knock-down arguments against them. Yet, in the end my objections have to effect the practice of aikido, to be an objection to aikido.

Jesus was very light on theory, and rather all about action, and modern day practitioners of Christianity should heed that – it’s very easy for egg-heads to cause more damage than good, often through unintended side-effects of their proposed theoretical solution.

What’s important

When trying to understand Christianity, two of the most important things are

  1. To distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral and
  2. To distinguish between practical and theoretical.

Consider 1. when applied to scripture. There are many passages in the Old Testament which portray God as a kind of tyrant. Yet, in the New Testament in the person of Jesus, God is portrayed very differently. Christians who try to hold onto both kinds of characterizations intellectually, tend to lose both, because they are incompatible.

If you get clear about what is central, then objections to Christianity based on God supposedly ordering slaughter, for example, lose their import. This is because it is very easy to hold that those characterizations are in some way wrong, even if you don’t know exactly in what way. You have to give up something (scriptural infallibility, say), but you don’t have to give up everything, and the former is a lot better from the perspective of Christianity. You can do this because you have clarity about what is central and what is not, scripturally. Christians risk losing everything if they try to make everything central – they create an intellectually and empirically very fragile worldview. If someone prioritizes aspects of Christianity, however, it is not difficult to create a robust worldview.

Consider 2. There are all sorts of theories about all sorts of things in Christianity (as in life in general). Some of these theories lead to things that cause seeming paradoxes, or perhaps seem to have absurd implications. Many theories that have been prominent in the history of Christianity are also very difficult to test. Practices, however, speak for themselves to a large extent, and tend to be much easier to test qua practices.

For example, it is very difficult to test the Catholic theology regarding the Eucharist and transubstantiation of the bread and wine. However, it is relatively easy to test what kinds of effects regular Communion has on people who do so in a particular attitude. For one to lift weights, it doesn’t really matter if some of the standard consensus about why weight lifting causing increases in muscular strength holds up. It just matters if weight lifting does cause increases in muscular strength. The latter is easy to test, and easy to make use of. It would be ridiculous to not weight lift just because you thought some of the standard theory behind why it works isn’t right.