As seen with the horrific attacks in Paris last week tragic events often attract their own pray for hashtag, used by a wide range of people whether it is their habit to pray or not. This leads to questions by both those for who it is normal to pray but also for those who have no faith and cannot imagine why anyone would ever prayer, about why the secular world turns to prayer, or at least the public declaration of prayer if not the act, during such events. As a Christian exploring radical theology, ir/religion and a/theistic faith and the interaction of the secular and religion I have had to explore what prayer may mean if I accept that prayer does not directly affect the material world.
The first answer is that when such huge events unfold that we have no control over prayer gives us agency, there is something that we can do when there is nothing else that we can do. We like to be in control and we like taking action. It’s unnatural for us to sit by and just watch these events take place without doing something. Whenever a friend or relative goes through something difficult the first thing that most of us ask is whether there is anything that we can do to help. Even if it is not within our normal habit to pray, even if we ultimately don’t believe there is a being listening for our prayers at least it is something that we can do.
The first reason is the more likely reason that we do turn to prayer but I’d like to explore a reason why we should turn to prayer even if we accept that it doesn’t have a direct affect on the material world (though the agency of an interventionist being). Prayer doesn’t change God but does change us is a reason that people may offer when exploring the reason that prayers don’t [always] seem to get answered. If we remove this from the world of belief in an interventionist god then we are left with prayer changes us.
True prayer (whether secular or religious) should bring us to introspection – to consider ourselves, our motives and our response. At the Godly Mayhem event last year George Elerick Said “Prayer is dynamic, without physical posture. It is revolutionary discourse – ending with some form of material transformation,” If we enter prayer earnestly, truly and honestly it should lead us to a revolutionary discourse within ourselves as we examine ourselves as well as the outside world. True prayer should challenge us, call us to change and call us to act leading to material transformation – a change in the world that starts with us (what Jack Caputo may refer to as responding to the unheard call). For instance if we are praying for peace then prayer should call us to examine the violence within our own lives and how we may change going forwards, it may call us to action, to donate, to volunteer, to write or speak out etc. Prayer should call us to help make the world a better place. We may not find change easy, we will probably resist it to begin with. It may take many prayers before we soften and listen to the call asking us to respond but if we approach it with the right attitude and an open mind and we are prepared to feel uncomfortable for a while we will find ourselves listening and we will find ourselves responding.
Prayer doesn’t matter because it petitions an all powerful being to make changes in the world – it matters because it works within mere mortals until we are ready to listen and do our part to help make the world a better place.
Radical prayer is inconvenient because it does not allow us to rely on another to do the work for us but calls us to do it ourselves.