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Intelligible Religion by Philip H. Phenix


Philip H. Phenix was educated at Princeton University, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University. He was formerly Dean of Carleton College, and was professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Published by Harper & Brother, New York. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 13: Prayer and Sacrament


The most characteristic religious activity is prayer. If we discover what a man’s prayer is, we know the most important part of his religion. Prayer is religion in operation. In prayer religion is not theory but act. Therefore if we are concerned with outlining an intelligible religion, it is important to understand what prayer is.

Generally speaking, prayer is the process of communication between man and God. More usually it refers only to the communication from man to God. The reverse process, from God to man, is called by such names as inspiration, revelation, or divine guidance. But it is clear that the two processes ought to be considered together. There are many different kinds of prayer. In terms of content, a distinction is often made between prayers of confession, thanksgiving, petition, intercession, and adoration. Prayers may be either informal or liturgical, silent or spoken, corporate or individual. Each type merits its own special analysis and presents its own peculiar problems, yet all these kinds of prayers still possess the generic character of communication of man with God. Our basic task in understanding prayer is therefore to analyze what such communication means.

This brings us back to the problem of the nature of God, which was discussed in Chapter VIII. Communication means the transfer of information from one being to another. The nature of the process depends upon the nature of the beings who communicate and the means of transmission employed. Prayer may therefore be understood only in the light of the nature of God and of the relation of the Deity to man. Now it has been the constant theme of this book that the intelligible basis for dealing with all such problems is to make explicit the fundamental experiences out of which the religious ideas arise. We are invited thus to ask: What does prayer mean in the light of the "fundamentals" of religion described in Part Two ?

We have seen that the meaning of the word "God" can be designated by reference to certain aspects of universal experience. We said that it is appropriate, for example, to use the word in connection with the "shock" of the new or with the recognition of limitless ideal possibilities in every situation. If we have included all of the aspects of experience in which the use of the word "God" is appropriate, we have automatically included those which define prayer, since prayer is one important God-experience. That is to say, the meaning of God and the meaning of prayer are comprehended in the same analysis.

Let us consider, for example, the prayer of confession. A man pours out his admission of guilt, perhaps in a room by himself, where no person can hear him. He speaks as to an unseen Person and believes that he is heard. It makes no difference whether the words are spoken or silent. It does not even matter if the prayer is formulated in words at all. The deeply felt attitude of contrition and repentance is enough. What actually happens in such an act of prayer? In what sense is there any communication involved ? The traditional answer would be that there actually is present a spiritual Being in the room with the pray-er (as well as everywhere else) and that this Being "hears" the words, thoughts, and deepest feelings of the confessor. The trouble with such an answer is that it would be impossible for the believer to convince the skeptic of the existence of any such Being, any more than he could persuade the unbeliever of the existence of a ghost in the house. The simple assertion of the existence of such a Presence is therefore not satisfactory for an intelligible religious view. The problem is solved if an entirely different approach is used --namely, to show that one aspect of the definition of "God" and the understanding of the prayer of confession are simultaneously given in the analysis of the experience of imperfection. It is obvious that confession by itself does not imply prayer. One can admit guilt in a thousand ways without engaging in prayer. Confession becomes prayer when it is made with a consciousness of the limitlessness of the possibilities of goodness against which every human achievement must appear as a relative failure. Confession is prayer when guilt is seen in the light of the consciousness of imperfection. But we have shown that this experience is one of the ways in which God is defined. Therefore the experience of imperfection contains within itself both an aspect of the definition of God and the basis for interpreting the prayer of confession. If "God" is the name applied to that dimension of existence in which its boundless perfectibility is seen, the prayer of confession is man’s response to this recognition, in the face of his own actual performance.

Such a mode of analysis avoids the skeptic’s perplexities. There is no need to cast about for ways in which to exhibit some unseen Presence. For the act of heartfelt repentance in the light of limitless perfectibility is itself the experience in which both the unseen Presence and the process of communicating with that Presence are defined. The trouble with the traditional picture is that it encourages the idea of God on the one hand as a kind of pervasive substance and on the other as a particular Being with whom transfer of thought takes place as with other human beings. Such ideas are crude and confusing pictorial representations which do justice neither to the fundamental religious experiences nor to the realities of the life of prayer.

One of the best ways of clarifying what we mean here is to deal with the question about the objectivity of prayer. It is usually maintained that there are only two possibilities: Either God is an objective Being separate from us, to whom we pray, or else prayer is "purely subjective"-- a talking to oneself. This antithesis -- on the surface so obvious -- in point of fact cannot be defended. It is quite analogous -- for the same reasons -- to the familiar antithesis of the individual and society. Some maintain that society is the sum total of the individuals who constitute it. Others reply that the individual is the product of society. The first makes the individual basic and society derivative, while the second reverses the order of precedence. Actually individual and society are both abstractions from the concrete reality of "community" or persons-in-relationship. There is no such thing as a person apart from his relationships, and there can be no human relationships without persons. So it is with prayer. It is neither a purely objective nor a purely subjective process. Prayer is objective in the sense that it involves the participation of the pray-er in the manifold inter-relations which the world in which he lives imposes. For instance, in the prayer of confession the confessor is directly confronted with the objective and unalterable fact of actual existence and the heights of possibility which it contains. The awareness of imperfection is nothing which he generates, as it were, by an act of will, but is borne in upon him as one of the given structures of his experience of life in the world as it is and as it might be. (The relevance for the prayer of confession of the awareness of dependence upon the given structures of existence, as well as of the awareness of imperfection, is evident from these comments). On the other hand, prayer is also subjective in that it is in the act of prayer that the person most fully becomes a subject or a self. Just as it is only in relationship to other persons that one’s selfhood can be achieved, so it is true that full selfhood requires ever wider and deeper relationships -- for example to the possibilities of what might be, and not only to persons who now are. To return to prayer of confession, the act of recognizing guilt in the light of limitless possibilities is a person-creating act. One becomes a self in a deeper sense through such an act. In this sense prayer is the matrix out of which selfhood grows. This brief discussion should make it clear that prayer is neither purely objective nor purely subjective. It is a process in which the one who prays is constantly related in a profound way to his whole objective world (with both material and mental aspects) and is thereby creatively transformed into a mature person.

This means that in the case of prayer a broader concept of "communication" must be employed than is usually the case. In prayer there is no communication in the ordinary sense between two separate beings -- man and God. Nor is man simply "talking to himself" in prayer, as though a genuine transaction involving the objective world were not taking place. Communication in the usual sense requires the use of objective signs or symbols and a medium through which the transfer of information proceeds. Prayer needs no outward signs and requires no medium. Ordinary communication is a transfer in space and time between creatures with specific space-time locations. Prayer, though it takes place in space and time in creatures who are of space and time, is not a matter of transfer through space in time. Transfer is not involved because the act of prayer takes place solely within human experiences in which the person is confronted immediately (i.e., without mediation) with the reality of his own existence and of his world on the deepest levels of awareness (change, dependence, etc.). There is no need to "project", a prayer to a God who is "out there". Prayer is an inward and intimate act. In all these ways it is not communication in the ordinary sense. It is communication only in the sense that in the act of prayer one does "break through" the bounds of preliminary concern and reach an awareness of the ultimate dimensions of life. This implies the establishment of a new relationship of one’s self with his total world, the creation of a new depth of community, or in fact a form of "communication". This broader sense of the word communication thus really follows from the broader meaning of the word community in not being restricted to the harmonious spatial and temporal interrelation of persons. For example, just as there can be "community" of ideas in a well-integrated philosophy, so communication may be taken (as in the analysis of confessory prayer) to mean the establishment of an appreciation of one’s relatedness to the world as endlessly perfectible.

The analysis of prayer provides the best understanding of what it means to say that God is personal. It is possible to speak meaningfully of communication between animals or between man and animals, but in neither of these cases is there the richness of content as in communication between persons. There is a sense, perhaps, in which even plants or rocks communicate with human beings. But this is not to be compared with what takes place between persons. We commonly describe as "impersonal" those situations in which communication in the full sense does not take place. The difference between personal and impersonal encounters is that the former are relevant to the growth and development of persons on the highest levels of achievement and require the exercise of the distinctively human powers of thought, imagination, and concept formation, while the latter do not. From what we have already said about prayer, it is clear that the prayer-situation is one which is supremely relevant to the fulfillment of the highest human potentiality (e.g., envisaging of ideal possibilities) and which calls for the exercise of the distinctively human capacities (e.g., imagination, reflection, deep feeling). Man’s encounter with his life situation in prayer, as described above, is therefore a supremely personal encounter. It is the personal nature of the prayer response that one makes in the religious dimensions of experience which is the ground for saying that God is personal. As already pointed out in Chapter VIII, to affirm this is not to say that God is a person. In usual speech "a person" is a human being. God is not a human being. Nor is it helpful to regard God as a Being who is personal. The statement "God is personal" is rather a way of speaking of the intensely personal character of the "communication" which takes place in the act of prayer. In fact, nowhere else does the self so truly "come to itself" or "find itself" as in the experiences we have called religious. That is what is meant by the statement "God is personal".

So far we have illustrated our discussion only with the prayer of confession, which was shown to be especially related to the experiences of imperfection and of dependence. Let us now consider briefly some of the other types of prayer. The prayer of thanksgiving is directly involved in the experience of value and of dependence. Thankfulness stems from a vivid sense of the goodness of life combined with an awareness of its given or derived nature. The prayer of thanksgiving is the human response to this combined experience. Does God hear this thankful expression and is he pleased with it? Obviously there is no "hearing" in the ordinary sense, and God’s "pleasure" must be equally metaphorical. "God hears" in the sense that the giving of thanks is not a dead-end process, but is a creative act which "registers" in terms of consequences which confirm or strengthen community. It is this enhancement of community which also constitutes the divine "pleasure".

The case of prayers of petition is more ambiguous. In common thought prayer usually means simply petition -- asking God for things. Of such prayer probably the first thing to say is that it is in large part an unworthy and superstitious practice. It is fundamentally a self-centered act and therefore an enemy of community. Much petitionary prayer is sanctified magic -- an attempt to employ divine powers to serve human purposes. There is no convincing evidence to show that petitionary prayers are "answered", i.e., that imploring the Deity for things that we wish will of itself hasten their coming. For every case of fulfillment (which is long remembered and often spoken of) there are probably dozens of forgotten disappointments.

There is actually nothing religious except in a conventional and formal sense about prayers of petition as just described. However, petitionary prayer may be genuinely religious in character when instead of asking for what he selfishly wants the petitioner earnestly prays for "the will of God" to be done. In such a prayer all the fundamentals of religious experience are involved: passionate yearning (value), awareness of given forms and structures (order), humility in the face of higher possibilities not yet realized (imperfection), faithful recognition of sources of being (dependence), and expectancy of new shapes of things to come (change). In contrast with selfish petition, the religious petitioner is always open to wider possibilities, is tentative in judgment, and is capable of wonder and surprise. Such prayers are indeed answered, in that such receptive attitudes do lead to maximum fulfillment. Religious petition does not need to be general, in the form of seeking "the will of God" or "the kingdom of heaven" or "the truth". Generally it should not be of this form, but should involve requests for specific goods. What makes such prayer religious is the way in which the goods are asked for. The request should be, in effect, a device for seeking community. It is virtually a hypothesis to be tested. It is as though the asker were to say, "Let us see whether the giving of this for which I have a deeply-felt desire may not serve to extend the cause of community." Desire itself, by which (as we have seen) value is indicated, is an invitation to community. The only question is whether the community so established is restrictive of larger community or is conducive to its fuller realization. What makes a desire into a real prayer of petition is the entertainment of that desire chiefly within the consciousness of the tentativeness and inevitable imperfection of the object of desire.

One form of religious petition is the "prayer for guidance". This does not mean that in prayer one has a source of information not available through the normal channels of desire disciplined by intelligence, experience and imaginative insight. It does mean that through religious awareness new material is provided for the direction of conduct by these normal means. Desires are criticized and transmuted by the vision of higher possibilities, wider dependences and inter-relationships are taken into account, expectation of new forms replaces fixation on determined goals. The prayer for guidance is thus the search for direction within the context of the awareness of change, the acknowledgment of the sources of being, the acceptance of the discipline of form, the response to value, and the vision of limitless perfectibility.

Of all the classic forms of prayer, intercession is perhaps the most difficult to interpret affirmatively along the lines of our general analysis. It seems very doubtful, in our present state of knowledge, that much help can be given to others without any direct communication with them, solely by the act of praying for them. Often such intercession is unselfish, and so cannot be criticized as irreligious on that ground. Whatever value there may be in intercession springs from the fact of inter-dependence. It is the pervasive network of inter-relationships spoken of in Chapter IV which is the ground for any efficacy that intercession may have. There is at least a possibility that forms of influence may be exerted by one person on another without any of the modes of mediation now known. Until such possibilities are better understood, intercession literally interpreted will seem to have little meaning. As a symbolic means of enhancing the other forms of prayer through the imaginative consideration of other persons, it will continue to have considerable value.

The prayer of adoration is the highest form of all because in it self-concern is lost in the joyous contemplation of the supremely good. The consciousness of guilt is overshadowed by the freshness and beauty of a new awareness of the boundless goodness constantly poured out into the world. The remembrance of particular past benefits received is lost in the sense of profound gratitude to the source of all being. Requests for particular goods desired become irrelevant in the moment when one feels as though he were drinking from the fountain from which all blessings flow. It is like the lover who adores the beloved and is not concerned with this or that advantage or benefit to be conferred. Adoration is the whole-hearted response to the lure of community. As such it is the fulfillment of all the fundamentals of religious experience.

Of the various forms which prayer assumes -- vocal or silent, public or private, liturgical or free -- little needs to be said here. It should only be observed that some forms there must be. There are particular structures of thought and feeling which constitute prayer as a characteristic mode of activity. There are prayer forms which are appropriate in some situations but not in others. The structure of prayer must be determined in each case in such a way as to maximize the fundamental consciousness of change, dependence, etc., and their implications. Any response within such a basically religious awareness is prayer, whether called by that name or not. Doubtless much that passes for prayer is a routine and meaningless exercise dictated by custom. And much that is not called prayer actually has the reality of prayer, in the way we have described it. On the other hand, the purpose of the classical disciplines of the life of prayer -- such as postures, directing of thoughts, or devotional objects -- is to provide what have proved in actual experience to be the most favorable conditions for real prayer. While these may contain valuable suggestions, it remains as a task for every generation to discover new ways in which to deepen and to enrich the basic experiences which make up the creative life of prayer.

This consideration of the forms of worship leads naturally to the topic of sacred acts and sacred objects. In Christianity the most important of these are the sacraments. Roman Catholics name seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, ordination, marriage, penance, and extreme unction. Most Protestants recognize only two: baptism and the Eucharist. The traditional definition of a sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace". The word "grace" here signifies a gift or an endowment. A sacrament is thus an outward, visible vehicle for the imparting of a spiritual gift.

We can understand the nature of the sacraments by the use of the fundamentals of religious experience. Three of these fundamentals are particularly relevant in this connection. The most important one is order. A sacramental act is a very special and particular kind of act. Not just any act will serve as the stimulator of religious experience. There are only certain forms which will serve as powerful reminders of the divine. For example, in the sacrament of baptism there is apparently a special virtue or power in the symbolic washing of a penitent with water. There is a peculiar quality about water -- perhaps its essential purity and its fundamental place in the economy of all life -- which especially fits it for use as a symbol of the forgiveness of sin. Also for this purpose the act of washing or sprinkling is peculiarly appropriate rather than some other use of the water, such as drinking it. The special form of the sacrament of baptism is therefore especially powerful in representing symbolically the inward sense of the obliteration of guilt. In the sacrament of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper there is also a characteristically appropriate form. The inward and spiritual grace to be conferred by it is identification with the risen Christ. For this purpose the appropriate act is the eating of bread and the drinking of wine. The act of eating and drinking implies the closest possible identity -- so that Christ (as represented in the elements) becomes embodied in us in flesh and blood. The wine also stands for enhanced vitality ("spirit") and the bread for the enduring sustenance of life. Furthermore, the form of the sacrament relates the Christian to the historical roots in Judaism in which similar rites in recollection of the deliverance from bondage in Egypt are celebrated. In all these ways the sacramental acts in the Lord’s Supper serve in a unique way to stimulate a sense of the new life in Christ, the conquest of death, and the triumphant fulfillment of the ages-long expectations of God’s people for redemption. The same kind of analysis would apply in the case of other sacraments. For each one it would become apparent that the special form of the symbolic acts and objects has a particular power of generating the type of religious awareness appropriate to it.

The second fundamental which is especially relevant to the understanding of sacrament is the awareness of imperfection. It is of the nature of symbols to point beyond themselves to that which they represent. This means that the symbol is effective when it stimulates a sense of the more perfect, of which it is only a feeble representation. Thus, in baptism there would be no sacrament were the penitent to rest content merely with the purification by water. The act is symbolic because such purification is vividly seen as the very partial reflection of what real purification might be. That is, the limitless possibilities of forgiveness and inner purity are glimpsed in the moment of receiving the partial and imperfect outward purification by water. In a similar way, the Eucharist is sacramental only because the worshipper does not rest content with the mere eating of bread and the drinking of wine. He experiences the vivid awareness of the fragmentary and partial character of the life which these elements impart and in that awareness becomes conscious of the endless possibilities for the fulfillment of life which lie beyond every actual achievement. Thus the awareness of imperfection is also a necessary aspect of the sacramental act. It is this which makes the particular form expressive of a religious dimension rather than merely of its own intrinsic value.

Sacraments also well illustrate a third of the fundamentals -- the consciousness of dependence. The sacrament is the outward sign of an inward grace. Without the recognition of a gift there is no sacrament. The sacramental act is not a way of doing something, but a means by which something is done in the worshipper. In baptism the penitent does not wash himself but is washed outwardly and receives the gift of forgiveness. In the Eucharist the worshipper does not unite himself with Christ, but he receives the gifts of bread and wine by which he expects inner nourishment from the sources of spiritual life upon which he depends.

In Protestant Christianity, although there are generally only two recognized sacraments, "the Word of God" as recorded in the Bible is often regarded as having a sacred character and the reading of the Bible as in effect a sacramental act. The Bible is called a Holy Book and it is usually accorded special veneration. The biblical Word has a sacred character when it succeeds in evoking religious awareness with unique power and clarity. The sacredness of the Bible rests upon the demonstration, through generation after generation within the religious community, that it is able to do this. This is the basis for the uniqueness claimed for the Bible, as pointed out in the previous chapter. Through its visible pages the believer claims he receives the gift of the Holy Spirit opening his inward eyes to the hitherto hidden truth about himself and the perplexing and wonderful world in which he lives. It is this essentially sacramental character of the Scriptures -- the special forms of the words and sentences which give them unique power to point beyond themselves to the sources of being from which untold possibilities spring -- that explains what is meant by the statement that for the believer the Bible is the Word of God.

The essential character of sacrament will be misunderstood unless two points are constantly kept in mind: First, the sacredness of the objects or acts does not lie in themselves. If it did, they would no longer be symbols, the essential nature of which is to point beyond themselves. Sacraments are not fetishes. They are not of themselves filled with sacred power. There is always a danger that sacraments will come to be regarded in this mistaken way. The Roman Catholic view of the sacraments (e.g., the doctrine of transubstantiation, that the consecrated elements in the Eucharist are actually the body and blood of Christ) tends especially to degenerate in this way. The common view of the magical efficacy of baptism is the outstanding example of a degraded view of the sacrament. The other point to be clear about is that sacraments are not merely arbitrary rites agreed upon by social convention, but possessing no inherent symbolic power. This is the opposite error to the magical view just mentioned. It is characteristic of the liberal and rationalistic wing of the Church. Against this view, the special power of sacramental symbols must be affirmed. There is a peculiar fitness of certain forms for the production of religious awareness. These forms may not arbitrarily be created or destroyed. They can only be discovered in the long course of religious development, and while their special power can in some measure be understood it must primarily be accepted as a given fact in the nature of things.

This discussion leads to some concluding remarks about the relation of religious symbols to universal religion. The existence of special religious symbols -- sacraments, rites, holy books, sacred institutions -- is the basic argument by which the particular historic faiths support their universal claim. They argue that, given the nature of things, there are only certain pathways to God and that the forms approved by their special group are the appropriate symbols for representing him and for providing the "means of grace" by which the divine life is mediated to man. In apparent opposition, we have claimed throughout this book that religious awareness is possible in every human experience -- that the fundamentals described in Part Two are universal and central, in the sense that there is no experience to which they are not relevant. There is no necessary opposition between this view and the recognition of the function of religious symbols. It is true that while the fundamentals of religious experience are relevant in every possible situation the nature of things is such that particular kinds of situations may be more conducive than others to the awakening of these fundamental awarenesses. These situations are religiously symbolic. They are the justification for all the special forms, practices, and institutions of organized religion.

Nevertheless, there is a variety of such special forms; no single symbol or set of symbols will suffice to express the ultimate in religious meaning, and any and all of them should serve only to stimulate an awareness of the religious dimension in all experience. The symbols too easily become ends in themselves. As such they are crystallized in the dogmatic finality of an Absolute Church. They are properly only means to an end -- the recognition of the whole world as a "sacramental universe". Particular symbols serve their true purpose only when they lead out beyond themselves, not to the momentary vision of the divine, but to the habitual realization of the religious dimension in every human experience.

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