Chapter 1: Prayer and the Modern Man and Woman

Praying Today: Practical Thoughts on Prayer
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 1: Prayer and the Modern Man and Woman

Prayer is not an attempt to fashion the world after our own desires, but is attentive communion with God conceived of as Love. Its end or goal is that men and women shall realize and be enabled to express their God-intended potentialities as they are being "made toward the image of God," in cooperation with and sharing in the divine Love.


Many of our contemporaries, including committed Christian people, have difficulty in understanding prayer and an even greater difficulty in seeing how to engage in it. For them prayer is a problem. So much has changed in the world, so many older beliefs and ideas have been abandoned or if not abandoned then gravely doubted, so much of our modern way of living appears to make prayer unintelligible, that they are puzzled about the whole enterprise.

Prayer is not basically a problem to be solved or a question to be answered; it is something to be done -- older writers spoke of the "practice of prayer." But we do not live in a time when Christians can sing, without any doubts or questions, such a hymn as James Montgomery’s, written in 1818:

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,

Unuttered or expressed,

The motion of a hidden fire

That trembles n the breast.

That hymn affirms that "prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air." Perhaps that ought to be the case; most certainly it is not always the case with modern Christian men and women. They are more likely to find appropriate the very last words of Montgomery’s hymn, "Lord, teach us how to pray"; and they want to know the why as well as the how of it. In Montgomery’s day, people of all Christian communities took for granted the reality of prayer and believed that without prayer Christian life could not be lived nor Christian faith maintained. They may not themselves have prayed often or prayed well; but they accepted prayer as part of their Christian existence. Only a blind observer could say that this acceptance is universal today.

Two hundred years before Montgomery wrote his hymn, George Herbert (the saintly vicar of Bemerton in Wiltshire, England) wrote one of his greatest poems. He piled image upon image to express the importance and reality of prayer. We need quote only the first four lines to remind the reader both of the splendor of Herbert’s imagery and the depth of his conviction:

Prayer, the Church’s banquet, angels’ age,

God’s breath in man returning to his birth,

The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian’s plummet sounding heaven and earth.

For the man who wrote those lines and for those who read them it was an obvious fact that a Christian must and did pray. His prayer might be feeble, imperfect, or misguided; doubtless many who recognized its importance neglected its use. Nonetheless, prayer was both right and necessary. It does not seem so to many in our own day.

What is the cause of our contemporary problem about prayer?

I suggest that there is not one cause but a constellation of them. And the problem must first be faced honestly; only then can we go on to consider the how of prayer, its various aspects, its basic meaning, and its relation to Christian life and faith. In this chapter we shall look at some aspects of the problem and in the next chapter we shall seek to offer an understanding of prayer that combines the two essential points of (1) continuity with our Christian past, so that prayer can be seen as an historically validated enterprise, and (2) sufficient relationship with what we now know about the world and ourselves, and how we can now speak meaningfully about God, so that prayer can be practiced without the feeling that he who prays is running away from the real world in which he lives.

First of all, then, there is the practical aspect of the problem. It is not enough to say that people are simply indifferent or lazy in this business of praying. On the contrary, many are concerned about the matter and want to pray. Let us do them that justice. But the world in which we all live is busy and hurried. It is not easy to find either the occasions or the places where we can be alone. In crowded apartments in housing developments, in the congestion of city life, in the hustle and bustle of daily work, "somebody is always underfoot," as one woman remarked when she lamented the near impossibility of finding the opportunity "to sit down and think for a bit." This situation is so obvious that it need not be spelled out in further detail; it is familiar to most of us all of the time and to all of us much of the time.

Yet we know that when somebody feels that this or that activity is of very great importance, time is made for it and place is found for it. And here we come to the heart of the practical problem in prayer. What seems to be the sheer irrelevance of prayer has so reduced its importance for modern people that they see no reason why they should go to the trouble of making room for it. This is not because they do not care or are indifferent or lazy; it is because they see no practical point in the exercise. They do not recognize the relation of prayer to the exigencies of daily life with its duties and responsibilities. It appears to them to be an escape from the harsh realities of the world, a running away from the responsible concerns that both as human beings and as Christians they know to be theirs.

The answer to the practical aspect of the problem moderns find in prayer, then, must be found in a definition of praying that makes sense in and makes sense of our daily life. We need an understanding of prayer that will bring up to date the truth in the ancient Benedictine maxim: orare est laborare, "to pray is to work," and its converse, ‘to work is to pray." Work and prayer go together; waiting upon God and doing our job can never be separated for a Christian. And our way of looking at prayer must stress this association of the two. Hence the next chapter of this book.

A second aspect of the problem is found in the general acceptance of the modern scientific view of the world. Many years ago an American theologian wrote a book entitled Prayer in an Age of Science. The point he was making remains valid today: ours is an "age of science," whether we like it or not. The question is whether in such an age prayer can effect anything. "Does it work?" we may well ask. Now this seems to me an approach to prayer that simply will not do; as we shall be seeing later on, it rests on a mistaken definition of prayer. Nonetheless, the issue remains: Can prayer have any significance in a world such as science portrays to us?

All of us do accept that picture, with whatever qualifications or reservations. Nobody can live today as if it were not with him all the time. Biblical Christians are as much involved in this as anybody else, since they spend their working lives in just such a world and simply assume its truth for all practical purposes. This age of science takes it for granted that there is a linkage of cause and effect, that it is improper to speak about "intrusions" into it from outside, and that the sequence of events is an orderly and continuous pattern. The way in which we can bring about changes is through observing the so-called "laws of nature"; this maxim, laid down centuries ago by Francis Bacon, is assumed to be true as a general rule to be applied in particular instances, even by those who firmly believe in the reality of God and his care for the world.

When somebody is sick, we send for the doctor or arrange for a surgical operation: why should we pray about the matter? The remedy for famines is better planning of crops through the science of agronomy: what has prayer to do with it? The way to stop floods is by building dams and controlling the flow of rivers; plagues and epidemics are conquered by more precise knowledge about bacteria and viruses: why pray when through the controls made possible by our knowledge of the cause-and-effect linkage we can do for ourselves as much as can be done? This is how it seems to so many today.

Now, quite apart from a proper definition of prayer itself, there is something else to be said. For the popular picture of how things go in a scientific world, of the sort we have just been presenting, is no longer accepted by the leaders in science. Vast numbers of people think that the fact of a relatively settled order of nature, along with the scientific interpretation of change and the description of the inner dynamics of human personality (and much else as well), has ruled out once and for all genuine novelty and made change nothing more than the reshuffling of bits of matter-in-motion. They do not know that at this very moment scientific thinkers have abandoned that older mechanical picture of nature and have come to see, even to insist, that science does not exhaustively describe the whole range of experience nor everything in the world of nature. Science cannot deal effectively with the appreciation of beauty, the enjoyment of personal relationships, judgments of value as to good and bad; its leaders nowadays are modest in their claims, unlike their ancestors in the last century and the early days of this one. Great scientists are humble before the mystery of the world, although they work very hard to solve the specific detailed problems (very different from "mystery," since a problem can in principle be solved, while a mystery is simply there) that the world presents to them.

Furthermore, the evolutionary perspective, which seemed to threaten all freedom and to exclude a religious interpretation of existence, has turned out to be a blessing, since it has introduced us to the picture of an ongoing process in which novelties do appear. Deeper pondering of that process has revealed no machine working automatically but an organism characterized by interpenetration of its several parts, with genuinely new things emerging from time to time, and with a real place for decision by creaturely agents. We shall speak about this at greater length in the next section of this chapter.

At the moment, let us agree that the way to deal with the scientific problem is not by denunciation of science as such. Rather, it is by insisting that while the scientific approach is of inestimable importance in areas where it is relevant, it is not omnicompetent nor inclusive of every area of experience. It cannot deal with ultimate questions of meaning and worth, nor do most modern scientists claim that it can do this. Above all, science’s own discoveries point to a world that is much more "open" and "changeable" than many nonscientists recognize. The "integrative interpretation" (as it has been styled) found in the "life sciences" (biology and its related disciplines) is now coupled with an interrelational view in almost every area of research. In consequence we have a description of the world that allows room for decisions made by particular "occasions" or moments -- and these decisions, whether at the conscious level in man or at lower or nonconscious levels elsewhere, make a difference. In such a world the validity of prayer may very well be granted, although magical notions about prayer’s working must certainly be ruled out. But the great masters of prayer have always protested against popular magical ideas of its efficacy.

Our discussion of science has brought us to the third aspect of the contemporary problem of prayer. This has to do with our "overall" vision of things, with philosophy. Here there are two issues that require our consideration. The first has to do with language and its use; the second is about what used to be called "metaphysics" or how best to understand the way things really go in the world as a whole.

Probably most of us, most of the time, do not ponder such questions. But the questions themselves are inescapable. What kind of language are we using when we try to address God? Are we talking literal prose or are we speaking in poetical idiom when we say things about our Christian faith? And how does the world really go? Is it a machine in which nothing novel can appear? Is man, with his urgent desires and yearnings, no more than an irrelevancy, like the smoke that issues from a locomotive but has nothing to do with making the engine operate? Or is the world more like a living organism, where new things can happen and where human existence is related with and plays a significant part in what is going on? Questions like these are indeed inescapable; even if most of us do not spend a great deal of time thinking about them, the implicit, unspoken, assumed answers are determinative of how we think and act.

In respect to language, there is no need any longer to fear the challenge of those who used to be called logical positivists. These philosophers said that no meaning whatever could be attached to expressions that did not have a verifiable scientific reference, demonstrable by observation or experiment, or were not merely tautological -- that is, the statement was simply a repetition of itself in other words. Nowadays it is generally recognized that there are other tests for language and that the various different areas of discourse -- ethical, aesthetic, religious, for instance -- have appropriate kinds of talk that need not be, perhaps ought never to be, scientific in character. So it is possible to speak about God, as well as about duty, truth, goodness, and the like.

It may still be asked, however, whether words taken from ordinary speech, familiar to everybody, can appropriately be applied or addressed to God. Are not such words confined in their reference to temporal and worldly events and experiences? And would it not be better to regard prayer as a simple matter of silence, not including any phrasing of our thoughts, desires, and aspirations in verbal form?

But man is differentiated from other creatures by his capacity for making significant sounds; he is a talking animal. And he thinks in words, too, for the greater part of the time. Silence is necessary sometimes; it is important and good. Yet even in the silence found in "First Day Meetings" of the Society of Friends or Quakers, what the worshipers are thinking will very likely be verbally grasped although perhaps never vocally expressed -- but sometimes such expression does take place and the "sense of the meeting" is often stated in that vocal fashion. The significant point about words used in address to God, as well as in all talk about him, is that they are mental or vocal pointers to the suprahuman reality we name when we say "God." Words can never be adequate containers in this area of experience. Traditionally this point has been made by reference to the "analogical" or "symbolical" character of "God-talk." Such talk naturally derives from human experience, contacts, and situations, since those are where we are as men. At the same time, it is evocative, suggestive, allusive, and indicative of that which is more than such human experience, contacts, and situations. It resembles poetry -- provided that we remember that genuine poetry is not "a pretty lie" but is much truer than prose precisely because it speaks from and speaks to the deepest levels of our experience and awareness. This is true about religious affirmations ("God is Father," "God is ‘pure, unbounded Love,’ "God redeems us," etc.); it is equally true about our address to deity in our praying.

The metaphysical question in philosophy has to do with how the world goes. An older metaphysic spoke about God as so much a supraterrestrial, unconditioned, and unrelated "being" or "ultimate reality" that it made the world of time and space seem unreal and unimportant. God’s only connection with the world, in that view, was the logical fact of his having been its creator or the "ground" of its existence. In recent years there has been a great revolt against all such ideas, sometimes to the point of denying that there is anything other or more than the world. The earlier idea, in which God was simply alien to the creation, turned God into a static being, with whom everything was "already made"; hence prayer could have no real effect and its practice was nearly impossible -- how can one address oneself to self-contained and self-sufficient being with any hope of being heard? The later idea, with its denial of anything beyond this world, made prayer senseless because there was nobody to address.

Happily, things have changed philosophically. Now there is the possibility of a different philosophical attitude, one that takes with utmost seriousness the evolutionary and processive character of the world indicated by science, but at the same time affirms the reality of God as the supreme excellence and perfect goodness in and above (or more than) the world -- in it, because such excellence and goodness is ceaselessly operative to further the world’s development of potentialities; above it (or more than it), because such excellence and goodness is inexhaustible, more than merely creaturely, indefatigable, faithful, unfailing. And this supreme excellence and perfect goodness is personalizing in its relations with men. It makes us, or lures us, toward becoming persons, and hence must itself be personalized, a he rather than an it. In terms of such process thinking (about which I have written in Process Thought and Christian Faith, Macmillan, 1968), God is not thought to be simply the absolute, self-existent, unconditioned reality; there is a sense in which these terms are applicable as adverbs qualifying God’s essential nature -- but that essential nature is God’s concrete love, his unfailing relationship with the world, his self-giving and willingness to receive from that world, his openness to "affects" from the world and from what goes on in it. This newer approach, from the side of philosophy, has its intimate connection with Christian religious insight, as we shall see in a minute; what is important at this point is that a God like this, related to his creation and open to its "affect" upon him, is a God to whom we can indeed pray, since he is a personal and personalizing agent whose specific quality is participation in the affairs of the world and in the situation of his human children. Thus prayer is a genuine possibility and the practice of prayer may make a difference both to those who pray and to the continuing creative advance of the world in and under God’s purpose of love in its widest conceivable sharing.

This brings us to the last aspect of the contemporary problem of prayer: the theological issue. How do we think of God, how do we understand his nature, how do we envisage his way of working in the world? I am convinced that a good deal of talk about prayer is vitiated by the assumption that God is an intolerant, indeed we might say an intolerable, tyrant who must be cajoled rather than addressed; and this is tied in with a picture of his nature or character that is fundamentally unchristian or subchristian, even if many Christian thinkers have fallen victim to it.

We have just now referred to the concept of God as a "tyrant"; we might also have spoken of other false notions of God that have been, and still are, present in the minds of people who profess and call themselves Christians. For example, there is the "imperial Caesar," the dictator who demands tribute from his subjects even if he is benevolently inclined toward them. There is the remote and unconcerned "first cause" or "absolute being," to which reference has already been made earlier in this chapter. Worst of all, perhaps, there is the narrowly moralistic idea, where God is conceived to be the governor of the world who imposes arbitrary laws that must be obeyed or those upon whom they are imposed will suffer ghastly punishment -- a picture of God that some sadistic pervert might have thought up, modeling deity after his own character. Alfred North Whitehead, the great Anglo-American philosopher whose thinking is behind the "process conceptuality" to which some of us subscribe, rightly called such ideas idolatrous, and spoke of them as apostasy from the "Galilean vision" (as he styled it) in which God is "modeled" after the figure of Jesus Christ. We can understand how it came about that these false notions were attached to the supreme excellence and perfect goodness "whose nature and whose name is Love." After all, they were prevalent enough among many pagans in earliest Christian times and it was natural for Christian thinkers as well as simple Christian believers to be influenced by them. The tragedy is that they have been allowed a place, for so long a time, in Christian talk and thought. It is time for us to eradicate them and to make absolutely central to all our religious discourse ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Here is the clue to "God-talk" if it is to be Christian; as I have argued in my Love Is the Clue (Forward Movement, 1968) and Life in Christ (Eerdmans, 1972), we have no excuse for perpetuating a picture, or pictures, of God that either make prayer impossible or turn it into an indecent effort to persuade God to be kind to his children.

Talking with ordinary Christian men and women, one discovers that while they do not have the technical competence nor the verbal equipment of the professional theologian, they do raise what in fact are genuine theological issues. One of these issues has been put to me in words like these: "Altogether too much teaching about prayer, particularly in circles that are highly orthodox and consider themselves also highly biblical, amounts to telling us that we must cringe before, imperial majesty, as if we were in the presence of an oriental despot. What about Jesus’ own attitude and teaching? Did he not imply that we were to make, freely and gladly, a response of loving obedience and obedient love to a heavenly Father who purposes the good of his children, who wants them to be free men and not to act like slaves, who works in them and for them so that they may fulfill their possibilities, and who deals with their misdeeds and failures in a loving way and not in condemnatory judgment?" I am convinced that for men and women who feel something like this, prayer becomes impossible or a sham. They can be greatly helped if we affirm, without hesitation and without doubt, that love is the key to everything about God. What is more, they can be greatly helped if they see that this is indeed the chief stress in public prayer or church worship, so that such social praying is undertaken by a family of God’s children addressing a loving Father (who makes demands upon them, to be sure, but who is no hateful dictator nor absentee ruler nor moral tyrant, but genuinely concerned for their best development as his children), rather than a kind of law-court or imperial audience with a terrifying deity. "God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God and God in him" -- so the Johannine writer put it. And so ought we to think and act and pray, whether in private or in public.

We have now looked at four aspects of contemporary difficulty about prayer: practical, scientific, philosophical, and theological. It is time to move on to a definition of prayer that will be genuinely Christian, in continuity with the past centuries of Christian faith and life, and in relationship with all that we now know about the world and ourselves. What we shall discover, I believe, is that such a definition will not differ very much, if at all, from those put forward in the early days of the Christian fellowship and reaffirmed through succeeding ages by people as different from each other as John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley. But it will not do simply to quote these great Christians and think that the matter is settled. We do not live in their day; we live in our own. That should tell us that we must work our way through to our own way of phrasing the matter. Then we shall find that what we have "invented," in the modern sense of the word (made up or devised), will be very much like what we "invent," in the ancient Latin sense of the word (discover to be already there), although we did not know it and hence had to find it out for ourselves.

Prayer is not an attempt to fashion the world after our own desires. It is not an effort to coerce the powers that be to do exactly what we think would be right because in conformity with our own ideas of how the world ought to go. It is not a denial of whatever regularities or ordering there may be in the created order that scientific research can discover. It is not "pestering the deity," as someone has phrased it, so that he will intrude himself into a world from which otherwise he is presumed to be absent. It is not a final effort to persuade an unwilling God to do what we find we cannot do for ourselves. Prayer, in the Christian sense, presupposes a creation in which human activities, like every other event or occurrence, have consequences and make a difference. It assumes a world in which God is no absentee ruler but a present agent working "in, through, and under" created agencies -- to use a Lutheran phrase originally referring to Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper and the material elements of bread and wine.

The language prayer uses is bound to be figurative, imaginative, and poetic. This is the way we talk in personal relationships one with another; but in prayer the language points toward realities that exceed (although they do not deny) the mundane things with which we are familiar. And prayer is related to this world, with its demands and responsibilities; it is no "flight of the alone to the Alone," as Plotinus put it, but rather it springs from and has to do with man in his inevitable and inescapable involvement in what goes on here and now.

Above all, as we shall see in a moment, Christian prayer is addressed to God as "pure, unbounded Love." It is an intentional and willed relationship with what Dante called "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars," faithfully, intimately, unfailingly at work in the world. Prayer is attentive communion with God conceived as this Love, this Lover. And its end or goal is that men and women shall realize and be enabled to express their God-intended potentialities as they are being "made toward the image of God," in cooperation with and sharing in the divine Love.

If this were understood and implemented in concrete practice, it would be recognized as important enough to require that we give time to it. It would bring about drastic revision of much that is said and done in public worship, in hymns, in spoken prayer, and the like. It would have an appeal to our contemporaries, especially among the young who now turn to eastern religions and esoteric cults to find the reality of prayer. It would indeed be known as "the Christian’s vital breath," to return to James Montgomery’s hymn, precisely because it would be recognized as "God’s breath in man."

The remainder of this book will be given to further and detailed development of the definition just suggested, to the ways in which we may pray in words and in thought, to the place of prayer in public worship and above all in the Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper -- which all Christians save the Quakers and the Salvation Army know to be the central act of public worship, however much they may sometimes slight that importance in church practice -- and finally to see how it all "fits in" -- how faith and action are related to, and find fulfillment in, prayer both private and public.