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The Power of Prayer
Another investigation of the social impact of wished-for Leviathans.
I recently got the jab. Moderna.
They sat me in the office for 15 minutes afterward to see if I might keel over. 32 hours later, a lot of my Facebook friends knew and one of them offered prayers. The person who did so is one of the most queer individuals I know, not in the modern sexual connotation of the word although that actually might apply. But when I knew him back in highschool he seemed to be almost childlike in his naiveté. He is now a college professor, a Catholic apologist and quite keen on posting historical notes about various saints. I appreciate his prayers.
When it comes to prayer and solemnity attending religious services and rites, I have a checkered history. I don’t think I’ll ever nail it down. As the Crossover Kid I grew up in an essentially godless household that was culturally Marxist if anything. That flipped a U-y (as we say in California) when my youngest brother survived spinal meningitis at birth and my mother got in with the Pentecostal Movement. Suddenly this new character named Jesus was in my life. I learned that when I accepted him as my personal savior, I could pray to him any time I liked. I liked this Jesus guy. He agreed with everything I said. My mother on the other hand informed me that a peace sign was a ‘broken cross’ and I had to change the drawings on my notebooks. I didn’t get bogged down on the matter of symbols. I knew Jesus was about peace too.
When I learned Catholics had a different version of the Lord’s Prayer which the priest made us stop reciting 3/4 of the way through so he could goose up its intercessionary value, I started listening more critically to what was being said in all of these churches. Learning from the Jesuits that there were multiple authors of the Pentateuch was one of the first meldings of logic and analysis to the morality of faith. I considered myself fortunate to learn this at the age of 13. Thanks Donna Wanland. I had a great deal of formal religious education by the time I decided to go with the Episcopalians for my confirmation. I had also watched a lot of people pray in many different ways.
For the longest time, especially since I paid most attention to liturgy and who was leading services in what directions for what length of time, I refused to close my eyes for a second. Closing my eyes allowed me to have an instantaneous communication with my own personal savior whose morality and mine were housed in the same mind and heart. That is what it means to let Jesus into your heart. Where the Catholics, Pentecostals and Episcopalians differed most had to do with 2nd order epistemics; what you told other people. So paying very strict attention eyeball to eyeball when possible as the rector delivered his sermon was the highest respect possible, despite what ironic sacrilege might be taken by others with their eyes on you when all eyes are supposed to be closed. In any prayer circle with bent heads and closed eyes, mine were open and staring down the person speaking the words.
That changed about 15 years ago, roughly when I determined I had done a good job raising kids and being a good man. There were very few prayers, sermons, allegories and intercessions I have not heard before. In the same mellow spirit of not needing to be first in line at the BBQ for the big pieces of chicken, I had done quite enough scrutinizing; I let my eyes close in passive relaxation.
I wasn’t always so causally reverent, or reverent at all. For many years in my mid 20s after having ingested a bit of Ishmael Reed, Pacifica Radio, Amnesty International and Borges I internalized the notion that the proper consideration for the Crossover Kid was to be polytheistic. I think there was an essay by Gore Vidal with something about ‘sky gods’ and monotheism that pushed me over the edge. So for some time I found it amusing to call myself a pagan or barbarian or some-such. Heathen. That’s the word. Dear me that was a long time ago. But I wasn’t godless and I didn’t consider myself damned. I just figured, with some good reason, that I had done quite enough to make sense of plenty of moral dogma and even had enough finishing school to suffice. Now puttering around with loas and spirits was extra credit. I used to say, with a serious acknowledgement of religion as humanity’s first formal education, that I believe in every god every human ever believed in, and they all pretty much converge. I’m even more convinced of that now but with the subtlety and nuance lacking in my 28 year old self.
It was the matter of institutional speed that caught my attention around that same time. Religion was something quite fixed and unchanging. Dogma lasts for hundreds of years. Governments and law move much faster, but policy is still relatively slow, though faster than constitutional amendments. Industries move faster than governments. Markets move faster than industries. Fashions and gossip move faster still. I haven’t figured out where academia fits in that puzzle - faster than government I suppose. But much of the Ed biz, as Tom Lehrer called it, is now basically industrial. Given the slow pace of religion, I didn’t see much need to think too hard about my Christian ethics. Given that, I couldn’t honestly see the great advantage that Protestants had over Catholics as Christians although maybe the Orthodox guys had something we could all learn about praxis. I basically considered myself as Christian as I ever needed to be. I enjoyed the ritual.
Where many Christians and I parted company was on the matter of worship. It’s a deep subject I wouldn’t mind getting into with a prelate at some time in the future, but for me the short answer is that worship is little more than sanctioned idolatry. It’s a psychological hack that’s grandfathered in, but superfluous to prayer. The best prayer is little more than reflective meditation - a reboot of your moral operating system, an operating system that needs very few patches. Let us stipulate St. Thomas Aquinas as the Torvolds of Christianity.
What then is the power of prayer especially in the context of what I have received over Facebook over my pending immunity or impending severe side effect of the Moderna jab? Well, a prayer is, and is especially considering the source, a vote. It is an expression of sincerity whose currency is as valuable as the commitment of the faithful to their solemn oaths. From some people that may mean less than gesundheit, which we don’t even hear that often any longer. From others it is something of a commitment to bring your plight to the attention of others publicly in church. From still others, it’s an opportunity to stake a claim on your future prospects like a punter’s bet all to bring honor and glory to their ‘system’. So there is an economy of prayer and different types of prayer have different currencies. It boils down, like most things, to your judgement of the person offering their sympathies. For a few, it’s about as cynical as a campaign promise.
That too is in the eye of the receiver. To be dismissive of an offered prayer based upon your own lack of faith is from my point of view, always disrespectful. I reserve a special kind of disdain for people who use the terms ‘Festivus’ and ‘Flying Spaghetti Monster’. Such people are almost always bastards. Although I think it’s reasonable for people who use the term ‘XMas’ and make jokes about Christmas to be assholes who are more socially acceptable than bastards, but assholes nonetheless.
Let’s bring it around to comparative studies, shall we? In the realm of the unknown and desired, all of us are on to some kind of game. We’re either playing in a real monetary economy or an economy of desire & speculation. In the monetary economy wishes are not horses and beggars don’t ride. However in the realm of the unknown and unpredictable, goodwill accounts for non-trivial amounts of influence. This is a uniquely human phenomenon, our ability to communicate matters of sacrifice through literature and conceptual speech. (c.f. Jordan Peterson on the Darkhorse podcast starting at minute 22). Prayer is that currency of the faithful. Some sects use prayer explicitly as a call upon God to Do. Others use prayer as a reminder that one must do for others - a rededication. Some consider prayer to be a communal exercise. “Come pray with us”, they invite.
In my argumentative ways, I have clumped most of these as straight out wishful thinking, which I particularly weigh against. At bottom is my skeptical question of “Who is your Leviathan?”. That is because I sense people engaging in this economy of desire and speculation as expecting some great Power to make their invocations come to fruition. Yes I’m talking about politics, the evangelical pests of which are called activists. Their Leviathan is government policy and law enforcement. They expect democracy or representative government to be the mechanism through which their desires and speculations are made real. Like I said, a prayer is a vote. A prayer is also a donation. A prayer is a social media like. A prayer is an influencer’s plug.
Let us consider then, my categorizations of institutional speed. Religions have been around the longest. Their different types of prayer range through the different ways I have mentioned. I therefore believe, without the benefit of tedious research, they have developed the most mature forms of personal dedication and focus through meditation which ought to be the most considered and respected form of currency of consideration from person to person. Even when money economies have solutions, prayers can exist and exert psychological force in the economy of goodwill, hope and redemption. Intent matters. Leviathans matter. The invention of democracy may be new, but the whispers of senators and men of power are as old as the hills. Their votes matter - but these are horsetraded and cannot necessarily be seen as pure in intent. Move that weight on the balance beam towards needing more Leviathan force. Industries pray for what? Government policy, market fortunes. Markets pray for what? Stability, liquidity. Fashions pray for what? Virality, instant acceptance. All sorts of human activities engage in speculation and wishes.
I have decided to respect prayer a bit more, and as I move further into meditative mindfulness I aim to consider at length all the orders of epistemic effects that are possible. I primarily do so for my own first order epistemics, to calm and declutter my own mind, but I do expect second order epistemic effects. My calmness will make me a better interlocutor, a better writer.
Most of all however, I will use the best expectations of prayer as a benchmark for the kinds of wishful thinking people do that are not necessarily rooted in religious faith but still remain in the realm of hope and dreams. I am very skeptical of them in politics, I admit. But if there is a kind of prayer that is mindful and not playing betting games or evoking Leviathan powers then there may be that kind of vote and that kind of investment of time and money under conditions of uncertainty of causation and correlation. I suspect this is quite deep within the way we think about the world and that doesn’t change simply because we are talking about the instrumentality of different kinds of organizations. I will continue to think of them in terms of the metaphors of religious forms as this will reveal whether or not people are jawboning or tied concretely to the mechanisms of change.
Intent matters. Leviathans matter.