The Tony Jones Blog at Patheos
In part two of my interview with Lauren Winner about her book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis,, we talk about faith, agnosticism, prayer, and why Lauren pursued became an Episcopal priest.
Tony, Could you elaborate on the difference between “agnosticism”, “doubts”, and “not feeling God”? I view the first as a settled stance towards that which is considered unknowable, the second as a necessary part of the human condition (frequently villainized by religious people of every stripe), and the third as a seemingly universal experience of Christianity. After all, aren’t half the Psalms and numerous prophetic books all about “not feeling God” in the midst of intense national and personal struggle?
I’m just wondering how you qualify “feeling God”? I can’t say that I ever have. I’ve felt happy. I’ve felt joyful. I’ve felt despairing. I’ve felt hopeless. All within the same day, almost every day. But I can’t say I’ve ever felt God. What does he feel like exactly? I’d be curious to know.
Interesting conversation. You both said out loud things I seem to agree with, but have been afraid to admit to myself.
Tony, I loved the interview! Rarely have I seen such authentic commentary on the whole God thing. I was at Lauren’s ordination. She happened to be ordained on the same day as a good friend of mine. It was a moving service, if a little long. I’m glad I went.
I am currently in seminary wondering if the spirit will lead me along the same path. (I am Episcopalian, having grown up Presbyterian.) I’ve also spent the last dozen years working in the church as a youth minister. I feel like Lauren, I was made to be in the church responding to both word and sacrament. But what keeps me in it is that being in it livens me, it quickens my spirit, it makes me whole. To use an overused phrase, it completes me.
I hope there is a part III. And I look forward to your book on prayer.
Another interesting conversation.
I have a question about the premise of your book on prayer, however. I thought that Lauren Winner gave a perfectly reasonable answer on why she prayed, to which you (essentially) said, “Therapeutic prayer is fine, but it’s not biblical prayer.” (Of course, you didn’t disclose what you thought “biblical prayer” is….) So here’s my question: why should I care about “biblical” prayer? In the first place, there are probably multiple understandings of what prayer means in the Bible, and some may even conflict with others. In the second place, even if you could somehow prioritize the multitude kinds of “prayer” in the Bible or even isolate “the biblical model” for prayer, what difference would it make? Maybe “biblical prayer” is conceptually trapped in a worldview that doesn’t make sense today. Maybe in the 21st century prayer is best understood as “therapeutic,” that prayer is about changing me but not changing God. Maybe prayer doesn’t need God at all.
I ask these questions because my religious experience was mediated to me through the Bible and by a community of believers who were inspired by the Bible and who interpreted the Bible in a particular way. But I also know that the Bible has a history and a context and that what counts as a “biblical” interpretation changes over time. Why can’t we just be inspired by the Bible without being a slave to the “biblical teaching,” which is probably a chimera, anyway?
Scot if prayer is about us changing (I agree it is), and if we take God out of the picture, what are we trying to change into? Why do we need to change at all? What standards are we to use to measure our change?
If we take God out of prayer then its just us talking to ourselves which certainly explains much of the “new” theology that is embraced by the immature these days.
Frank, my comment about prayer without God is really an obscure reference to the recent turn in Continental philosophy of religion to God after the “death of God” (e.g., Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Caputo, Kearney, Rollins). In particular, I have been reading Anatheism: Returning to God After God, by Richard Kearney, which is a very provocative book. In addition, I was also half thinking about Meister Eckhart’s prayer to God “to rid me of God.”
While you may wish to dismiss the “immaturity” of this approach, I would argue that it’s the exact opposite. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 13:11-12, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Confident dogmatism seems far more childish than embracing ambiguity and doubt and admitting that “now I know only in part….”
Scot that’s all very nice but you didn’t answer my questions and instead felt the need to defend yourself. Why not let your answers be your defense?
Frank, I thought I needed to explain the very obscure reference for my comment, since it’s pretty clear from your questions that you don’t understand what I’m talking about. I think you’re confusing my explanation with “being defensive.” I’m really just asking Tony a question to which I don’t yet have an answer.
Ok fine you explained you are reading a book that talks about redefining God in your own image. I got it and I get it. It’s not a mystery to see where you are coming from.
If you wanted to have a private discourse with Tony a public blog is not the best choice.
So do you have any answers to my questions?
Frank, it’s pretty clear that you don’t care to understand what I have to say, and you’re incapable of honest discourse (since you habitually and willfully distort what I and others say). So I’ll just follow Jesus’ advice from Matthew 7:6….
Another cop out. I should not expect more from you but I can still hope…
Frank, perhaps you shouldn’t comment on books you’re not familiar with, it makes you look silly. Anatheism is not about “redefining God in your own image”, just the opposite in fact. Scott’s right about it being a provocative (and very good, at least the first half, it drags a bit after that) book. And of course Eckharts prayer is prayer to also for God to rid of us of our idolatrous ideas about God, “God, rid me of God so I might find truth”
Larry I know enough about the book I need to know but thanks for your concern. One only has to read the back cover to see it has nothing to do with Christianity. If Scot and others wish to pursue faith in mysticism and other philosophies that’s fine but don’t pretend its Christianity.
Don’t feed the trolls!
As a biblical scholar, I found Tony’s response to Lauren’s statement about prayer to be puzzling. The concept that we pray because we are made for worship is a sound biblical/theological response. There are many biblical reasons given for prayer but underlying it is a realization that we are at the mercy of God–who is far more powerful than we are.
There is nothing therapeutic about the idea that we are made for worship. Worship is inherently Other-centered. It eradicates the self-centered therapeutic “I want to feel good” mentality. It removes our focus on ourselves because it is the acknowledgement of the greatness and beauty of the Other. It is giving up our own interest to serve the Other. This is true when we honor God in how we speak of God, but especially when worship is a way of life. As Jesus said if we love him (i.e. worship him) we will do what he says which means living a life of self-sacrifice.
If worship seems therapeutic it is probably because in many American churches the “worship” music experience is about feeling good. This is more about an emotional experience that doesn’t impact a person’s life. This is exactly what Amos criticized–people who think they are worshiping because they go to church and offer their “sacrifices” but whose lives clearly show self-absorption and nothing that resembles true worship.
On a slightly different note, I think there is a distinction between authenticity/honest soul-searching, and simply American Christians who are bored in their spirituality. That mentality feels like a privileged Western mentality–one that people who see death everyday don’t have the privilege to indulge in. I don’t know you, Tony, well enough to know, but is this agnosticism truly authentic–authentic in the sense that there has been a true wrestling to understand reality–or is it more a of a bored, resigned, and even self-absorbed place?
Karen, the last thing I am is bored. But thanks for asking.
Tony, I just re-read my comment and realized my last statement comes across as a barb. I am sorry for imposing any judgment on you. I wish you well.
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