Prayer and existential paradox

I recently spoke to a priest who I have taken to as my spiritual director, and in trying to communicate my story I happened to bring up a particularly spiritually and intellectually difficult time in my life when I was loosing my faith and my sense of awe at God and the Gospel. This all happened back in my evangelical days, particularly when engaged in a significant amount of evangelization (to Muslims as well as to others). I recall coming to a period of existential angst in my search for truth, as I realized that I was periodically being less and less captivated by the Gospel I was supposed to be sharing with others; I became more sceptical, and even with a considerable amount of apologetic formation and ammunition, many deep questions seemed very puzzling to me at the time. I recall coming to several points where, when I found myself without answers to questions which threatened to overturn my Christian faith, and I would turn my angst over to God in prayer, rehearsing all the reasons I had for the confidence I generally maintained in my faith. However, as these troubles and problems increased, and as I continued to dialogue with people in order to share my faith, I became increasingly faced with seriously considering whether Christianity wasn’t wrong after all, and whether I could, in good conscience, really share my faith with a pretended confidence when I was loosing that confidence. Most people would think to turn it over to prayer, but it was around this time that a very dangerous thought occurred to me and settled on my mind for a while to come. I had thought that so many religious people, Christian or otherwise, come to periods of doubt, and then in trying to come to terms with that doubt, will inevitably turn to their religious practice for the comfort of what is familiar, and to remind themselves of the artificial confidence they feel in their religious tradition (I say artificial only because it isn’t based on any epiphany in the sense of having found new and better reasons to believe as they do). When an old Baptist woman is faced with some intellectual issue which threatens her faith, perhaps she will lend her time to singing hymns and praising God more loudly and more fervently, and like a remedy for doubt this alone will strengthen her convictions. If a young Muslim man is struggling with reconciling some feature of his faith with some piece of evidence which seems to challenge it, he may dissolve such an existential angst by praying more fervently the five prayers throughout the day. When I examined myself, I realized that I myself was no different in that, even if I would always search for arguments and reasons above all things, I would often feel free to return to base, so to speak, and regain my confidence by coming to God in prayer and calmly thinking through what reasons I had for believing what I believe, and how the reasons for disbelieving measured up, in my estimation, to those. However, as an Evangelical I had believed what I now recognize to be a very foolish thing: that the heart was always more suspect than the mind, as emotions more than rationality will lead one to entertain false beliefs. I now realize that not only is the heart always involved with the activity of the mind necessarily (simply because of the human condition) but also that if we are created by God that may in fact be precisely how ‘thinking’ is supposed to work. In addition I realize now just how strict rational reflection yields almost unending errors (take a brief survey of the rationalists and the whole enterprise of modern philosophy). However, it must be understood that at the time I was extremely suspicious of emotions, and only really trusted that which my mind could see and grasp with a clarity which could afford confidence. I came, thus, to suspect prayer to be a hindrance in one’s search for truth. If one wanted to be honest and search for truth without merely falling comfortably back into the tradition to which one belonged, then one had to decline the invitation to pray in such a way that we bring our spiritual and intellectual angst to God and ask him for help to work it out.

It followed from these reflections that prayer wasn’t only a hindrance to finding truth, and wasn’t only a dangerous obstacle, but was perhaps ultimately immoral, since it prevented man from finding the truth, putting him in a kind of religious bondage. My ‘prayer’ became simply for the truth at all costs, but I felt morally obliged to cease praying.

How I got myself out of this very dangerous place emotionally, spiritually and intellectually, was a deeper reflection which came to me much later. I realized that not only was prayer itself a moral prerogative if God exists and loves us as Christianity suggests, but moreover, in order to be truly objective about the truth of religion I would have to not only cease praying, but also by that logic I would need to cease sinning. The Hindu tradition was enlightening for me at this point, since it surprisingly agreed with the Christian tradition that sins, particularly carnal pleasures, more than anything else in this world, prevent the mind from finding ultimate truth. When I realized that, I also realized that if Christianity, or anything relevantly similar, were true, then sinning was the greatest obstacle to finding truth. Unfortunately for me, I found ceasing to pray much easier than ceasing to sin, and thus I came to a point where I realized that I was in exactly the kind of existential predicament which I could not postpone making a decision about. I could not think about it in the abstract and act on some decision later; instead, even omission became an action – as the omission of prayer seemed just as dangerous as praying seemed to be.

Therefore, I had to search myself to realize at last that I was, in some deep way, in Love with God. I realized that my faith could and should be tempered by humility as well as confidence. I eventually began to pray again and over time continued my search for truth (ultimately leading me into the Catholic Church, as surprising as that was for me), but I had come to realize just how seminal prayer is, and became comfortable with it again. I realized that I could have spent my entire life in pursuit of truth without prayer and I would be no better off than if I continued the pursuit, bringing my problems to God in prayer and seeking for some solace in the truth.

In the end, I did continue to share my faith confidently with others, while at the same time remaining open to everything which they might have had to say and share with me. Being open in that sense can be a very scary thing, because it means that in religious dialogue you put yourself, and the very source of meaning in your life, on the line, as you open yourself up to possibly being changed. To do this takes courage, as well as patience, respect, and love for your interlocutors. It implies that you should temper all considerations with prayer, and to, as much as possible, engage issues with intellectual sobriety and honesty. If we cannot help but have bias (which, I think it is obvious in our post-modern world, we cannot) then at least we should prevent prejudice from determining our beliefs.

I suppose this light reflection was one I just felt like sharing today, in case it ever proves helpful for anyone else.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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