In the world of wishful delusion, prayer “changes” us. In reality we’re stuck on this blue flyspeck in space on the edge of a cyclical multi-universe no one understands. In the context of the fraction of the cosmos we can observe sometimes it seems like we are less significant than the parasites inhabiting our intestinal tracts. That notwithstanding I love my wife, children and grandchildren so intensely that I feel compelled to lay my love for them–and the fear of loss that is the dark side of love–at the feet of someone more powerful than me. So I try to protect them by praying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
This ancient “Jesus Prayer” springs from the heart of Eastern Orthodox spiritual mysticism. Yet my compulsion to pray — irrespective of the “form” my prayer takes these days — has survived my flight from the netherworld of evangelical striving and survived my abandoning what I now think were many false certainties.
These days my prayer addiction exists in an inherited shadow land that’s rooted in glimmers of sweet pre-conscious memories of my loving mother praying with me. My fiercely Protestant missionary mother — circa the 1950s-60s when as a young child I was being comforted by her bedtime prayers — wouldn’t have approved my repetitions of the “Jesus Prayer.” To her mumbling this prayer again and again would have sounded “too Catholic” to be right. Her disapproval of written formal “non-spontaneous” prayers notwithstanding, memories of my spiritual awakening at her knee hover in a kindly twilight realm between sleep and waking. I sense love in the place memory takes me, a “place” where the comfort and certainties of childhood are now forever out of reach.
Whatever its source, my “Jesus Prayer” reflex has nothing to do with my religious beliefs any more than my believing in the need to breathe keeps me breathing. For me prayer is a lower brain medulla-controlled state of being, not a theological proposition. And praying has nothing to do with the fact that I choose to label myself as a Christian.
We may label ourselves “Agnostics,” “Atheists,” “Jews,” “Buddhists,” “Christians,” “Muslims,” “Hindus.” We may even sincerely think such words define us. But these belief labels are designed to hide what we actually are: vicious primates.
In the late 1980s when I was living in South Africa and Namibia for a year while directing two forgettable, low budget Hollywood action movies, I became well acquainted with a group of baboons that lived on the rocky cliffs next to one Namibian location. My wife Genie, my children and I were constantly amazed by just how vicious these creatures were to each other, how the dominant males bullied the lesser males and beat and raped their females. Primates are mean, violent and petty. It was strictly “R-Rated” stuff.
“But Daddy, what is that baboon doing?”
“It’s nothing, just some sort of grooming! Pay no attention!”
An article, “Experts Not Surprised by Chimp’s Vicious Attack,” aptly describes primate “moral” conditions:
“[When] Frans de Waal, a renowned primatologist and author… heard of the vicious chimpanzee attack in Stamford last week that left a 55-year-old woman disfigured and possibly in need of a face transplant, [he said] ‘It’s typical of the attack on a stranger… They go for the face, hands and genitals. They do all sorts of nasty things. They sometimes kill neighboring males… One day he was going to explode… a male chimp of that age was going to do something drastic anyway.”
DNA evidence confirms there is only a 1.2 percent genetic difference between us and chimpanzees. And our human primate history is full of people just like us of whom it can be said, “They do all sorts of nasty things.” Primates are into dominance and hierarchies. Aggression is the norm to increase status. And dominance is necessary. It helps to reduce the amount of actual violence, because someone’s “in charge.”
Our chosen or inherited labels neither change nor protect us and they certainly offer no protection of the people we love from our primate viciousness. So when I reflexively find myself praying for the protection of my family by repeating the “Jesus Prayer” I find I’m really begging Jesus to protect them from me.
My prayer compulsion is unconscious but my love for my family is not. At this stage of life I know that whatever the mystery of prayer is or isn’t that if I want my loved ones protected from my dark side I’ll have to answer my prayers myself.
Playacting at virtue is all I can do to “answer” my prayers because human truth is biology not wishful thinking. Biology is biology, not words about biology. And our biology has made us mean. Faith doesn’t fix meanness. The same goes for the word “God.” It fixes nothing nor does theology.
Theology resides in the world of language and language is mere metaphor even when describing the mundane reality of day-to-day existence, let alone when it comes to using words to spin out ideas about invisible “truths” that are supposed to change one’s life. We long for some sort of “revealed” transcendent truth to “explain everything” though deep down some of us suspect that we’re courting delusion.
Even if we aren’t entirely deluded and there really is some meaning “out there” as we seek this “outside-of-us” meaning our only conduit for such “revelation” is ourselves and other primates. And that’s a big problem because primates are real bastards.
Looking back, I realize my crew and I weren’t much different than the baboons that romped, stole, raped and killed nearby. Our white South African grip stole his own equipment for insurance purposes and then blamed his black workers and got them arrested. (Charges were dropped when we learned what he’d done.) One drunken special effects coordinator – ironically our “weapons safety officer” – brought a loaded shotgun to the set and carelessly let off a blast that nearly killed my young son. It missed him by millimeters while blowing a hole in our car door. One of our motorcycle chase stunts was designed wrong and we put a stuntman in the hospital for 6 months with a crushed pelvis. And then the South African production manager lied about how it happened to avoid problems with our “completion bond” insurers.
They use words full of bluster like “God says” or “Jesus says” or “the Prophet says.” But when they say, “The Bible says,” what they really mean is, “I say the Bible says.” If they were honest, they’d lace their sermons with statements like this: “When I say ‘God says’ what I really mean is whoever wrote this passage in the Bible (or Koran or Torah) said this and there is no way to know if this represents what any creator real or imagined may or may not want. Nor can I say for sure what the human author of this text even meant let alone who actually wrote this or why we take this writing any more seriously than what’s on the back of a breakfast cereal box.”
Worse, the God merchants tell us that their “holy books” are inspired. They “prove” this by referring to their particular holy book and what it “says” about itself.
This is a neat trick that, as an author I wish I could borrow: “Hey, my books are all perfect because my books say they are perfect! See? It’s so clear! Look it says so right here in Chapter 6, verse 3, ‘This book is perfect!’ And by the way they are all at the top of the bestseller lists too, no matter what you think those lists say! And if you read the bestseller lists and don’t see my books listed there, it’s only because you lack the faith to discern the hidden truths only revealed to people who read my books! You see you need special spiritual eyes to read what’s really on the bestseller list no matter what it says! And the way to get spiritual eyes to discern truth is to read my books with the perfect understanding open only to those who read my books!”
In a backhanded way, the fact religious snake oil salesmen can dupe us with their entirely circular “arguments” is a hopeful sign. It seems we care enough about wanting to change who we are for the sake of those we love that we long for shortcuts to eradicate our true primal nature. And one of the biggest lies we gratefully accept from religious leaders is that we can change what we are through “correct” beliefs that will lead us to experience divine interventions. We gratefully buy into such “life-changing” theologically “correct” belief-based events, such a born-again experience or a trip to get the Pope to bless us or by making a pilgrimage to Mecca, in order to avoid the hard truth best expressed in the words of the inimitable Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The essence of the religion lie is that correct belief (religious or otherwise) can save us from ourselves and, in the case of religion, from the wrath of some “god.” There’s a problem with this idea: life is too short to know anything for certain. And there is another problem: this religious one stop “solution” is like some of the wackier cancer “cures” offered to desperately ill men and women when conventional treatments fail.
When otherwise sensible people are scared stiff of the way their own bodies have betrayed them they will pay to be fooled. And they don’t ask hard questions like the one I posed a well meaning friend who kept calling when my father was dying of lymphoma with her “great ideas” about Mexican herbal folk cures. She wanted Dad to leave the Mayo Clinic and head for some herbalist in Mexico City. She ranted against western medicine and extolled peasant cures using “nature” and “what is in our rain forests.” I finally snapped, “If these alternative folk cures are so great why don’t the actuarial epidemiology public health tables demonstrate that peasants in Central America live longer than middle class North Americans?”
Then there is the wrath-of-God concept. It turns out that this selling point for religion demands of us that we believe that our creator is meaner and dumber than us and is hooked on a cycle of scapegoat sacrifice, sacred violence and retribution– forever. And even if you buy the need to pacify this angry “god” through right belief this “faith” still begs the question of sincerity. How do we achieve enough sincerity to be saved even if we want to believe correctly?
All this notwithstanding we still look for a quick, magical fix because our primal capacity for cruelty is hard to own up to. For instance I’m not proud that in the late 1980s I broke the entertainment industry anti-apartheid boycott and worked in South Africa and South African-controlled Namibia directing movies, because I needed the money. I had just fled my financially secure high paying life in big time American evangelical religion, where I was a minor celebrity and nepotistic sidekick to my famous evangelical leader father. When I walked away, my family was broke. (I’ve explained and/or rationalized this exit in my books Crazy For God and Sex, Mom and God .) Excuses notwithstanding, in my own way I was as exploitative of the apartheid system for my own ends as was that criminal grip.
But I’m not just talking about the “big evils” like doing a small part to enable apartheid. I’m talking about who we are in daily life.
Our primate nature is on display when we slap a child, bully others in school, or spew anger at our lover, partner or spouse. What I regret most deeply when looking back in sorrow isn’t my “big mistakes” (say working in South Africa or spreading the fear-filled mythology of the Religious Right) but the many times I’ve been unkind to my children and cruel to my wife when kindness and good sense would have cost me nothing. So: How to change our primate brains’ biology so the change becomes real?
(To be continued. Look for Part 2 of The Blessed Hypocrisy “Method Acting” of Salvation coming to this space soon.)
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