The Arrogance of Prayer

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Teaching / Society / Social Epistemology / Cosmology / Religion /
@ K. 2002 09 07

God guard me from thoughts men think
In the mind alone.
He who sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow bone.

William Butler Yeats

Religion is common throughout human sentience. Non-sentient creatures have no religion that we can tell. Religion comes with thought. Reason tries to improve thought, make it responsible, allow it to get somewhere real. I don’t say that reason succeeds, that reason is well realized; I do say that that’s what it is, what it tries to do. The most reasonable humans may have a profound religious sense; no reasonable human tolerates dogma. Dogmatic religion and advancing reason will always be in conflict. And the most religious men may not “believe” in note”God.”

God is an important word. Wars are fought between peoples with different definitions, few of the definitions worthy of advancing reason (Of course reason can also retreat, be defeated, eclipsed.) Loosely, on the one hand, there’s the god of order. Who could quarrel? (Even if they’d just as soon leave the word god out of it.) On the other hand, there’s the god of magic. (God with a capital G participates in both types of “thought.”) These “gods” are incompatible at some of the higher levels of reason that humans have (on occasion) (temporarily) achieved.

Prayer is an important word. On the one hand, prayer may be a form of meditation. Meditation may listen to silence, to the void … at some deep recess, to the self. Is sanity possible without that form of prayer?

On the other hand, prayer is wheedling, begging … giving orders. Please give me a red bicycle. Please give me a pony: one with a white star on his forehead. This latter form of prayer is appropriate for Santa Claus. (Better to ask Santa than to beg the store owner: unless you brought money.) This latter form of prayer is altogether inappropriate for address to a god of order. A god of order cannot be addressed. (Does it make sense to address Pythagoras’s theorem? the number pi? e? i?)

“Let it be,” sang the Beatles. Was that a form of prayer? Were they issuing orders? What or whom were they addressing? (besides the usual teenies, pot heads, assembly workers?) Isn’t that suspiciously akin to believing that we’re making the sun rise? or the rain rain? (or tweaking the economy?)

Watch out for profound ambiguities that go to the heart of the word-onion.

I pray on it till my knees burn up through my shoulders.
Owen Parry’s Abel Jones novels

2004 12 28 I repeat: the more important a word, the harder it is to define. (Thank you Ogden and Richards.) Now: tie that to religion.

Prayer: The Arrogance!

2002 09 07 … And God bless Mommy and Daddy, and Sissy and Mikey, and Grandma and Grandpa … oh, and Mousie.

Do parents still teach their kids to pray? They used to. Mine did.

But what would have come before that in what my typical imaginary kid was praying?

And thank you, God, for … raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens …

And before that … … Can I have a red fire truck? or And please don’t let that awful Bobby Shaftoe put my hair in the ink well today.

People pray for a variety of reasons. I suppose I prayed for stuff like I’ve exampled above, but what I remember most praying for was … peace on earth or even peace in the Middle East. I also prayed, like Yeats above, for mental states, mental qualities. God guard me from thoughts men think in the mind alone.

I indulge in a slightly more biographical aside before plunging into the heart of my subject:

I always started my prayers with the Lord’s Prayer. It bothered me no end that the prayer was memorized: from Sunday School: what you do by rote isn’t sincere. Surely God could tell fresh prayer from canned. Surely he preferred the fresh. So I concentrated and   concentrated: Our Father concentrate, concentrate who art in heaven … What does that mean? Concentrate. Concentrate on heaven, concentrate on father, concentrate on God, God is the father, God is the real father, the father to all of us, concentrate on God … who … hallowed be thy name.

I’ll also confess that from early childhood I prayed nightly. Yes, it was a habit: a habit considerably complicated once another habit started to intrude right into the same time slot. I always prayed, as I had been taught, just before sleep. Once I learned to masturbate, that’s what I wanted just before sleep: an orgasm also being the great sleep-inducer. So it was a problem: Do I pray first, and then jerk off? Or jerk off first, and then pray? What if God doesn’t like me to have an orgasm yet? especially not an orgasm every night? Is God offended that I put them right together like that? … No, he can’t be … it’s too good.   So I dealt with God first and then let my gonads fill the universe and then slipped away into the universe, completely at one with it, for another night.

That pattern got complicated once I had girlfriends I didn’t just hold hands with. If I had another body with me at sleep time, then it was God who came last: last, just before sleep. Though I might not get much past the give us this day part before sleep overwhelmed me.

Sober or drunk, coupled or solo, I prayed nightly: make God either the last or the second to last thing on my mind. If I ever forget it would have been as rare as forgetting to make sure the monster was milked came to be.

The drunk-or-sober part came to be a third (and final) complication. There may have been some nights, the area being increasingly hard to remember with clarity, where I didn’t get much past the Our Father.

I’ve had periods throughout my adult life where I slept solo instead of coupled, women coming and going in a pattern that I don’t believe any male can make sense of: we’re saturated with bosom as infants, then there’s none, then there’s lots, and pussy too, then none … By the time I was twenty a female was generally present to make sure the orgasm wasn’t self-induced: but she’d know nothing of the prayer. By the time I was thirty, the female was a certain one: and I had my umpteenth martini in hand by bed time, blurring everything including the prayer.

I was in my late thirties before I made sobriety my nightly as well as daily normalcy. But I bet I was close to fifty before I decided to let God get on without my nightly whining, wheedling, begging, and hectoring. I was no more than twenty when I hoorayed the Yeats character who finally tells God to do whatever he wants, that he, the human, has no business making demands or giving advice. But my habit of prayer didn’t even begin to fade till nearly four decades of pk had come and gone.

Bless Mommy and Daddy … What does that mean: bless? The concept once seemed so clear to me. Now I doubt that it’s a concept at all. Thinking about things divine in the Christian tradition puts everything into a duality, rather a series of dualities: God, Devil; good, bad; light, dark; sacred, profane; blessed, unblessed … Is there an objective universe? and if there is, is there anything that corresponds to “profane”? Is there anything that corresponds to “unblessed”? Is there anything that corresponds to “blessed”? And if there is, if our ontological categories are “real,” what allows the smartest of men, the most prayerful of men, even men who never masturbated, coupled, or got drunk, to think that they are God’s peer, or are even worthy of being God’s supplicant to whine, wheedle, beg, or, God forbid, hector or advise? I can see the lab assistant advising the chemist, I can see the private advising the general, but should the lab dust mote advise the lab’s architect?

Note: One really shouldn’t read any of my many mentions of God or god without having first read my gods, God, & god piece. note

OK, what if we’re not dust motes? What if we’re as intelligent as the universe gets (God forbid)? What if the lab has no architect: the lab grew, or evolved? What if there is no God, so he’s not our peer? What if we have no peers? God forbid.

If there’s no difference between God and Santa Claus, then asking God for a red fire truck makes sense. They’re synonyms. If asking the K-Mart clerk to get the big box down for your from the top shelf and then taking it to the check out counter and paying the $19.95 plus tax for it is the way to get it, then why ask Santa or God for it? Everybody else pays $19.95. What? Do you want it for free?

OK, my prose is getting chaotic in a way I didn’t intend. Time for breakfast. And just in case breakfast takes longer than a couple of minutes, here are my original notes for this file:

if God is wise, just, truthful, etc. (whereas we’re what we are), then why don’t we just mind our own business and let him tend to his? Magic vs. Order. What a phenotype wants should never dictate to the master programmer. Oh, but we don’t dictate. Yeah, then why waste his time and attention even telling him? If he’s so omniscient he already knows what you want. More important: he already knows what’s good (or bad) for you. So just shut up. God doesn’t need me, you — or the Pope — interfering.

God’s business (whether there’s a capital G-God or not) is none of our business.

I’m all prayed out.
Cinderella Man

pk mixes devotion, meditation, blasphemy, obscenity … Sometimes pk makes even pk uncomfortable. Sometimes I come back and tone down something I’ve written: more readily than I return to finish! I added a possible explanation today.

2008 06 07 This is not the only module I wish I could find time to rewrite, making it two or more modules. As is, I just make a note: I want to return and discuss Servillia’s prayers in the HBO series Rome.

Christians seem to think that “prayer” is necessarily directed at “God.” A Christian would never dream of praying to Mars or to Jupiter or to Venus.

Ares, Mars
Ares, Mars …
thanx theoi

Servillia prays to Dis, the god of discord. It’s a “VooDoo” prayer: a prayer for someone else’s death, misery, destruction, dismemberment …

Nice. Nice irony, that is, to Christians.

2008 06 09 There’s a line in the movie There Will Be Blood I’d like to comment on if I can find time. The oil man’s son tells his father that the little girl on the property they’ve leased for drilling, a girl named Mary Sunday, has said that

Her family beats her if she doesn’t pray.

I plan to emphasize the peculiarity of those Christian theologies that claim that prayer is private. The Roman’s invented privacy, we inherit it: then we imagine that the concept is natural, universal. No, it isn’t. The family that beats the girl’s non-conformity is the broader-based and older tradition. Note however that it is NOT Christian: which is Roman in inheritance, no matter how Protestant or Puritanical.

Prayer Scrapbook follows below.


The Most Religious:

It happens again and again. The most religious kid takes up theology, gets ordained, gets a parish … realizes he’s got to revise his ideas about divinity considerably …

Does any church learn from its best philosophers? its saints? Of course not: no more than the Temple learned from Jesus. The churches have an endless supply of second rate theologians to give the parish to while the saint can go live in the gutter.

It happens in every field: the doctor finally gets the point that he’s joined the killers, not the healers. New killers are pouring out of the med schools. The lawyer gets a hands-on view of the law, wishes he’d taken up carpentry. That’s OK, a jillion new lawyers will sell their mother to get those perks.

My freshman or sophomore year my Contemporary Civilization’s prof had gotten his MD and screamed Whoa! Gotten a Columbia lecturer’s position instead: at about $2,000 per year!

When pk, assuredly as talented as NYU had at first thought, dedicated to literature as few of the tenured can demonstrate, said Whoa, NYU didn’t learn a thing. Applicants were crowding admissions. NYU had clown after clown to give preference to.

What a pk can never know is: what Edison, what Mozart, what Bucky Fuller was going to the garret to make room for me?

Speech, Writing, Rhetoric:

There’s something I’ve been meaning to say that I’ll jot here: but it needs to be expanded and placed in several more important places:

“Know your audience” is advice given to many a writer. Twain, Tolstoy, Halldór Kiljan Laxness, Stephen King … knew or know their audience, actually had, have an audience. Jesus had an audience: he talked Jewish ideas to Jews. But what audience did Kepler have? Kepler’s students didn’t understand a word he said. Neither did Kepler’s colleagues. Neither did Kepler’s bosses. Kepler was a lousy teacher. Ah, but was that Kepler’s fault? His students, colleagues, bosses should have understood what he was fumbling for.They should have, that is, if they wanted improved models of the solar system. (Understand: all “should”s are conditional upon some “if.”)

What audience would Miles have had if he lived before the trumpet was invented? Sure he might have made a good singer, maybe a good architect … (I don’t know: there must have been black architects somewhere. Or he could have just been a stupid junkie, or died at birth.) But that audience could never have heard what I heard. If Gulliver had been as smart as a Houyhnhnm, what could he have said if his audience were all Yahoos? What rhetoric should he have chosen? Or should he have just saved his breath?

The first Simmons’ Hyperion novel has a wonderful passage in which the Poet goes through a phase where all he can scream are obscenities: by which he meant the highest philosophy, ontology, wisdom …

Who is pk’s audience? pk doesn’t have an audience. If he does, he’s gotten damn little feedback to guide him. What feedback he has gotten has largely told him that in the case of that respondent he was using the wrong rhetorical strategy.

If a religious wants to communicate with an atheist, what rhetoric should he use? How about a string theorist trying to explain hyperspace to a headhunter? Should he save his breath? Should he learn “headhunter”? I once saw a wonderful cartoon that purported to be Shakespeare: in some crio of Afrikaan. I sure couldn’t recognize any Shakespeare in it. The total vocabulary consisted of about two hundred words; not Shakespeare’s tens of thousands.

I was raised to talk about God. I learned to talk well about God. I loved to talk about God. I still do. But what the word means to me has changed and changed and changed some more. Should I just stop talking about God?

Well, sometimes I do. Sometimes I resume, like WC Fields having a drink to celebrate being on the wagon. But largely I’m blindly guessing: how to communicate to an audience: any audience: when almost any audience understands something by the diction.

Laxness was rewarded by speaking Icelandic to Icelanders. He spoke so well I wish I knew Islandic so I could hear him better. (Works pretty well in English too.) But so much of what pk has to say is so much string theory to so many headhunters.

If few are going to understand me no matter what I say or how I say it, I may as well use the diction I’m comfortable with. ‘Cause I can’t shut up. That’s not an option. Unto death.

Prayer Scrapbook

2008 06 22 Christians seem to think that “prayer” is necessarily directed at “God.” A Christian would never dream of praying to Mars or to Jupiter or to Venus. Naiveté may be an indispensable element in any culture.

Wrinkle on the above:

  1. Her family beats her if she doesn’t pray.
    There Will Be Blood
    In the movie the oil man is leasing property for drilling. He’s been invited to the property by a young man of the Sunday family who’s told the oil man that the oil is seeping right out of the ground. This Sunday fellow wants a donation for his church in payment. Once on the land the oil man’s son reports that cute little Mary Sunday has said that her family beats her if she doesn’t pray.
    Do you think this Sunday family with its daughter named Mary, Mary Sunday!, is Christian?
    If we defined things strictly enough, perhaps nobody would be anything we’ve defined. As it is, human cultures accept inconsistencies and contradictions galore. At best religion is a set of contradictions. (Publicly funded, science will follow suit.) My own “Christian” indoctrination taught me that “my” relationship with “God” was “private” and personal. I doubt if any caveman would have understood any of that. Where people are struggling for survival, nothing is private. Indeed nothing was private until rich Romans invented inner rooms, from which the public could be excluded. Caesar could whisper to Marc Antony with none but his body slave overhearing. (And if Caesar wanted his body slave to get lost he could simply order him out.) And if Adam whispered to Eve it wasn’t private; there simply wasn’t any public yet about.
    Religion (as I have dramatized) is descended from magic. The would-be magician wanted to assure certain patterns: that the sun would “rise,” that the rain would rain. Soon please. The would-be magician tried to invent “causes” that would magically make it happen. The sun, the rain were not private. You want rain? You cut your arm and bled on the ground. There, Nature, see? Liquid descended. Now, dammit, Rain! Human individuals realized they weren’t making it rain, but that didn’t dissuade them from their belief: I can’t make it rain, but that priest: HE has real magic. Or: that priest is a fraud, he can’t make it rain; but that magic animal in the sky, He has real magic. I’ll sacrifice a lamb to him and he’ll make it rain: for ME! For us: for me, Adam, and my Eve, and our little Cain and Abel.
    Prayer would have been just another form of bleeding, of lamb killing: beg the magician for the magic.
    (Don’t get me wrong: prayer, as it evolved, acquired valuable functions: valid psychologically; but Not Magically!)
    Anyway: understand: prayer was Not private in its origins. Prayer became private in Christianity: a Post-Roman religion. Nothing could be private before privacy was invented. There may be analogs for privacy in China, in Japan, among Eskimo … but don’t mistake any such for western privacy: that’s Roman, then Christian.
    So. The Sunday family prays. They pray as a family. That is ancient family behavior. They may pray addressing a Christian God, but that’s mere fashion. What they’re really doing is something ancient: trying to act in concert to control their luck.
    This Sunday family did not look very lucky in this movie. Neither did the oil man: who apparently paid the first Sunday lad, but never paid up on anything else to anybody. Finally he “lived” in a huge mansion, with a private bowling alley in the basement, but the hard-driving, cheating, conniving oil man would take his meal of burned toast and pass out drunk on the hard wood. Some luck, some success. A reflection on the whole culture that gladdens my abused heart.
    Anyway, you see what I mean? The Sunday family couldn’t afford slackers in the family magic: same as Washington DC will shoot pacifists in war time (or any time it feels like it) (oh, I don’t mean officially; I mean in private, in “a dark alley,” the media not looking.) Officially any military force will “shoot” any slacker: any individual not participating in the group magic. Home Land Security.
  2. As I say, I was trained to pray as a child. I continued to do so in private until well into my middle age. I don’t doubt that I continue to, though not recognizably in the form I was trained to. I was trained, perfectly conventionally, to ask for blessings on the rest of the family: “God bless Mommy, and God bless Daddy, and God bless my sister, Beth …” (By age five that family no longer existed; or Daddy was no longer included in it.)
    I wish I could recall in perfect detail when I first learned of magic rites that invoke harms and not blessings. Hollywood has long indulged us in them. But I didn’t encounter any in literature that really got my attention until Stephen Hunter’s Havana: which takes place in Cuba and introduces some nice Afro-Cuban gods of blood, murder, and mayhem.
    Illuminatus! introduces some gods that haven’t received much attention in recent Judeo-Christian culture. The god Dis, for example.
    In its series Rome HBO gives its Judeo-Christian west an eyeful of deliciously non-Judeo-Christian paganism. Petitions to this and that Roman god are everywhere in evidence. Titus Pullo talks candidly about having no attention whatsoever for any god except for the god he’s “doing business with” that particular day.
    Servillia mentions Dis directly in her prayers. More than one of Servillia’s prayers are worth quoting. They were penned by HBO people, but I suspect that their guess is close to right:
    Gods of the Junii, with this offering I ask you to summon Tyche, Megaera, and Nemesis2 so that they may witness this curse. By the spirits of my ancestors I curse Gaius Julius Caesar. Let his penis wither. Let his bones crack. Let him see his legionnaires drown in their own blood. Gods of the Junii, I offer to you his limbs, his mouth, his breath, his speech, his hands, his heart, his stomach. Gods of the Inferno, let me see him suffer deeply, and I will rejoice and sacrifice to you.
    Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. But Servillia is not done: she also hexes Atia, Caesar’s niece:
    By the spirits of my ancestors I curse Atia of the Julii. Let dogs rape her. Let her children die and her houses burn. Let her live a long life of bitter misery and shame. Gods of the Inferno, I offer you her limbs, her head, her mouth, her breath, her speech, her heart, her liver, her stomach. Gods of the Inferno, let me see her suffer deeply, and I will rejoice and sacrifice to you.
    Both of these curses are evoked as she carves them into scrolls of lead. The scrolls are then rolled up and given to her body slave, who then takes the scrolls to hide them within the cracks of the homes of Servilia’s intended victims. Her final curse comes just before her suicide in front of Atia’s front door and is her way of getting in the last word:
    Gods below, I am Servilia, of the most ancient and sacred Junii, of whose bones the seven hills of Rome are built. I summon you to listen. Curse this woman! Send her bitterness and despair for all her life. Let her taste nothing but ashes and iron. Gods of the Underworld, all that I have left I give to you in sacrifice if you will make it so.

Social Epistemology

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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