We’ve been hassling about faith and nonbelief here and here at the HU (and special thanks to commenter John Hennings for his Christian point of view on the matter). President Obama’s address at Notre Dame yesterday is being excerpted on the liberal blogs (here’s James Fallows), so of course I’ve stumbled across it. What appears to be a key passage:
… the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.
I guess Obama would be an agnostic theist, but God forbid anyone should hold me to that. Touching on the faith-vs.-reason debate between Noah and eric b. (I think), Obama would appear to identify religious belief with faith: “the belief in things not seen.” But, hey, maybe not!
While I’m here, I might as well give John’s comment for easy reference: (UPDATE: actually, two comments. John followed up with an answer to my question about the context for Christ’s “closet” statement, a remark that, taken on its own, appears to forbid prayer before others. John also tells us a bit about the history of National Prayer Day, concluding “it’s difficult to promote prayer without coming across as self-righteous and Pharisaical, or maybe even becoming so (just a little bit?).” My guess: the people making a fuss about Obama and Prayer Day would have to work their way up to being Pharisaical. But now … John.)
I’m a Christian. I entered this fascinating discussion late. I’d like to take it back to the quoted text (Matthew 6:5-6). The common interpretation of this scripture by those who read it in context is that Jesus is forbidding praying for the purpose of looking pious to others, not necessarily all public prayer. The quote is from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ longest continuous monologue in the Gospels. Among other things, the Sermon on the Mount repeatedly calls people to exercise a purer morality, one that comes from a righteous attitude of the heart. In other words, intent matters as much as action. This was revolutionary in an age and a place where the Pharisees, the leading religious sect, were advocating strict compliance to an externally visible, rules-based religion, and using social opprobrium to enforce it. A tendency toward Pharisaical legalism and its accompanying hypocrisy is endemic to humanity and probably all religion. We want to reduce God to a genie in a lamp. If we follow the rules, we get what we want. The God Jesus is talking about wants a real relationship, and He (for lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun) wants to help us become better than what we are. It’s the difference between an ATM machine and a parent, or between a prostitute and a loving spouse. Correcting this fundamental mistake and enabling real connection with a loving divine creator were what Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection were all about. It’s also why He got so enraged about hypocrisy.
I think communal prayer can be an effective and even instructive part of worship, and it is hugely beneficial to spiritual intimacy and fellowship in smaller groups, as when “two or three are gathered together.” However, trying to please people instead of God is a constant danger in prayer and almost every other aspect of worship or life in general. Consequently, it’s one many of us talk about a lot, like teachers harping on drugs in schools.
Apparent contradictions in the Bible can often be resolved by looking at the text in context — often the immediate context, but sometimes scripture as a whole. That said, Noah makes an excellent point that as in science, there are some things even the most knowledgeable people of faith (e.g., Ravi Zacharias or Norm Geisler) don’t fully understand and can’t adequately explain. I like Noah’s comparison to the mystery of gravity; one of my other favorites is the dual wave/particle nature of light, since it reminds me of the Trinity — a mystery so puzzling that Christians came up with a name for it. It sounds much more impressive to say “Oh, that’s the Trinity,” than to say “We really can’t explain why Jesus talks about God the Father and the Holy Spirit in third person sometimes and first person others, why He claims to be God, and yet He talks to God, and doesn’t contradict Jewish monotheism, etc. It’s a real puzzler.”
First, thanks for the kind words. After all that about pleasing God and not people, it’s ironic that I‘m happy to have pleased you, but I respect your opinions, so I guess it makes sense.
Now on to Tom’s questions.
My argument (with some borrowed bits) that Christ wasn’t forbidding all public prayer goes like this: First, it’s consistent with the rest of the chapter, starting with verse 1: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Second, He himself prayed in front of others in Matthew 11, Matthew 27, and Luke 9, although the first two were VERY brief, and in the other, we don’t know what was said. He also strongly implied that group prayer was okay in Matthew 18, verses 19 and 20: “Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” I know one of these was already referenced, but I think the two verses quoted together strengthen the case. Side note: I am walking right past the theological questions this passage raises, like to whom those verses apply and what it means to be gathered “in His name” – at least for now. I have to go to work eventually.
Finally, the Acts of the Apostles (also written by physician/historian Luke) describe the Apostles and other early Christians as praying both privately and communally. There are recorded instances of the Apostles and early believers holding each other accountable on points of doctrine. Consequently, one would not expect this to go without dispute if at least some of them understood Jesus as totally forbidding prayer in front of others. Paul even called Peter on the carpet once. It wasn’t related to prayer, but it was about trying to please people instead of God (Galatians 2).
Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that the Gospels portray Jesus as habitually slipping off and praying in private. So He practiced what he preached, to the point frustrating the Apostles and others attempting to track Him down.
… the annual National Day of Prayer and national days of prayer in general are intended to promote prayer, especially prayer for the nation. Congress and occasionally the President have been proclaiming them since 1775, although not unanimously. They’re based on the idea that prayer makes a difference in the real world, and until they were made annual, mostly associated with times the U.S. was in a jam. They’ve always been ecumenical and therefore respecting no particular established religion. Also, they’re resolutions, not laws that people have to follow, so most have not had Constitutional issues with them. Being seen as a supporter of prayer was probably also the right answer politically for most of our history. The history of national days of prayer and their more recent promotion by the evangelical community can be viewed on these sites (http://www.religioustolerance.org/day_pray2.htm, andhttp://www.ndptf.org/about/index.cfm). The problem with all this, obviously, is that it’s difficult to promote prayer without coming across as self-righteous and Pharisaical, or maybe even becoming so (just a little bit?). Jesus managed to do it by living as unpretentious, sincere and unselfish a life as one could live (which must have made the occasional claims of deity simultaneously jarring and more credible). If we had more credibility, as we once did, this would be more accepted. It still is accepted on a peersoanl level from Christians with whom people have personal experience and a relationship of trust.