Monday, November 27, 2006

Wikipedian philosophy lessons

Philosophical paradoxes of prayer

There are a number of philosophical paradoxes involving prayer to an omnipotent God, namely:
* If a person deserves God to give him the thing he prays for, why doesn't God give it to him, even without prayer? And if a person is not deserving of it, then even if that person does pray and request it, should it be given just because of his prayer?
* Is it necessary to pray with speech? Doesn't God know the thoughts of all people?
* If God is all-knowing, then doesn't God already know what we are going to ask for before we pray?
In Christianity, this paradox is acknowledged in the discourse on ostentation, which forms part of the Sermon on the Mount.
* Do human beings actually have the ability to praise an omniscient and omnipotent God? Praising God is difficult to do without describing God, yet how can a person know anything about God's ultimate nature? This question was the subject of heated debate among many religious philosophers; one such debate took place in the 14th century between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria.
* The prerequisite of asking for a favour is faith in the recipient of the prayer. But asking to change an aspect of creation seems to be expressing a dissatisfaction with the way things are - and hence not trusting the "plan." This means faithfully asking for divine intervention is a paradox, requiring faith and displaying a lack of faith at the same time.

Many of these questions have been discussed in Jewish, Christian and Muslim writings from the medieval period onward. The 900s to 1200s saw some of the most fertile discussion on these questions, during the period of Neo-Platonic and Neo-Aristotelian philosophy. See Aristotelian view of God. Discussion of these problems never ceased entirely, but they did fall mostly from the public view for several centuries, until The Enlightenment reignited philosophical inquiry into theological issues.

All of these questions have been discussed in many Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious texts. There was much intellectual cross-fertilization between Jews, Christians and Muslims during parts of the middle-ages, and so there is much convergence among some of the rationalist philosophers of that era. Many of these texts offer proposed resolutions to some or all of these paradoxes.


I am having a particularly hard time this holiday season dealing with the prayerful. Those who believe that their lives are blessed because they pray...that you get what you deserve...that God answers prayers...that God provides and protects...you get the idea.

The implicit judgment in all of it makes me want to hit someone (I'm sure some of my more religious friends will have a field day with that one). I'm jealous. I'm sad. And yes, I'm angry. Do they believe the inverse to be true as well? That you don't get blessings if you don't pray? That you get what you deserve (and bad things happen because you deserve them)? That God answers prayers and sometimes his answer is a big old f**** you (and f*** your children)? That God provides bad things deliberately and withholds protection as punishment? That they are somehow more deserving of good things? That they are better than me and my family? Are they right?

Tis the season for guilt and self-doubt. Fa la la la la...la la la la...

But regardless...how do people answer these paradoxical questions about prayer? I am particularly interested in the last one...faith and prayer...how do you reconcile the two? And please don't tell me that people pray for anything other than intervention. Even when it is dressed up all pretty in the guise of, "pray for strength for so-and-so to make it through this difficult time," it requests mystical intervention in the very fiber of that person's character by the mere request. So if you're requesting ANYTHING of God, doesn't that show an inherent lack of faith? Interesting. Very interesting.

I'm also curious as to why and how many different cultures had polytheistic societies on many different continents. These religions were eventually displaced by monotheistic religions in the majority of those cultures. But what of history? Do we ignore the fact that the Native Americans and the Greek and the African cultures ALL worshipped multiple Gods? I find it strange that such a common thread ran around the world. A common truth, perhaps?

(You can apparently find just about anything in Wikipedia! And I apparently have too much time on my hands.)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

i don't actually have a problem with that particular paradox (asking for something = not trusting to the 'plan'), because i don't really believe there is a plan. I do believe that there is a god and that he can change what will happen, but for the most part i don't know that he does or will...maybe he just leaves it all to chance. Or maybe he just doesn't care.

Oh, there was an interesting story on NPR tonight about the possibility of creating new universes. Scientists creating them, that is. So, if a scientist brews up a new universe in his kitchen sink, does that make him the God of that universe? Yeah, i guess it does...Does that mean the eventual inhabitants of that universe can pray to him and expect results? That one, i would doubt...

Jill said...

I think that the only faith there is, is that there is a god. Anything above and beyond that is a creation of man and church in an effort to maintain order and power.

Any 'plan' is a cop out by people who claim to understand but cannot explain why some things happen. And it wouldn't be a cop out if those people were honest and said they just have no more idea than anyone else.

If I had the time and you had the space, I'm sure we could trawl through the ages citing corrupt churches and officials who have used 'religion' to their own advantages.

Basically, I believe that many of the feelings of betrayal and/or failure by God are because of the constructs of man. In my opinion, if you want to have faith in God then you have to find your own way to him outside of the church and organised religion.

Even the bible was selectively assembled by men. There are many more books to the bible that were rejected. Everything you are questioning are contructs of people both now, and long ago, with agendas.

If you can find a way to have faith in an omnipotent being without all the external static, perhaps that being will guide you.

But as Catherine said, there need not be a paradox in believing in God but questioning The Plan. After all, you only have the word of humans that there ever was a plan.

And as for praising God without describing him, I defer to Shug Avery in The Color Purple for that answer. I paraphrase, but the gist is that by appreciating nature and beauty where ever you see it, that's praising God. You please god by noticing his effort. "I think it pisses God off if you walk past the color purple in a field and don't notice it."

But I think we all agree that none of it is about deserving stuff. Anyone who thinks that has never had the arse end of the stick pointed at them for no good reason.

Sorry to write so much. Like you, I have a lot to figure out with this stuff:)