Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hauerwas on Spontaneous Prayer

I've been reading Stanley Hauerwas's recently published memoirs, Hannah's Child. This, I confess, is the first Hauerwas book I've read, but it certainly won't be the last. Throughout the book he goes back and forth between narrating the major events of his life and offering theological reflection on them. I found this short paragraph against spontaneous prayer worth sharing:
I do not trust prayer to spontaneity. Most "spontaneous prayers" turn out, upon analysis, to be anything but spontaneous. Too often they conform to formulaic patterns that include ugly phrases such as, "Lord, we just ask you..." Such phrases are gestures of false humility, suggesting that God should give us what we want because what we want is not all that much. I pray that God will save us from that "just." (255)
He goes on to explain that, because of his distrust of spontaneous prayer, he writes the prayers he prays before the classes he teaches and offers the following, a prayer he wrote for a class he would be teaching on Columbus Day, as an example:
Dear God, our lives are made possible by the murders of he past - civilization is built on slaughters. Acknowledging our debt to killers frightens and depresses us. We fear judging, so we say, "That's in the past." We fear to judge because in judging we are judged. Help us, however, to learn to say "no," to say, "Sinners though we are, that was and is wrong." May we do so with love. Amen. (256)


  1. staggering. love it. can't wait until you are done so I can read it!

  2. Are there different sorts of prayer. I agree with the author if you are coming before God as a petitioner (although writing it down first seems a bit much). Having a "prayer list" for daily intercession also seems wise. But what about a soul pouring itself out in agony before the Comforter? Rehearsal or formal preparation seems hollow there.
    Is there conversational prayer? That is, is there communication with God that is just, walking along talking about things? If so, writing it down first would be like pre-writing down a conversation with your wife or child.
    I totally agree with him about the "just". I've been in prayer circles where I wanted to grab the person by the lapels--not very spiritual or humble.

  3. Tell Hauerwas to go read some Psalms, there is plenty of spontenaity there. We are to pray at all times with all kinds of prayers. Hauerwas is out to lunch on this one; or just wrong. I actually feel bad for him; in fact that attitude of piety that he seems to condemn he adopts himself by his well-thought-out prayers --- as if those are any better than spontaneous prayers. W/o the Holy Spirit none of our prayers (Rom 8) would "make it." Sometimes I get tired of reading or hearing theologians theologizing w/o considering what God has actually said in scripture; and this seems to be the case here.

    At first blush this pisses me off!

  4. Steve - I think there are various kinds of prayer. I doubt very much that when Jesus himself spent the whole night in prayer he wrote down what he was going to say all night first (though I wouldn't doubt for a second that much of that time might have been spent praying the Psalms or other memorized prayers). The portions I quoted were not meant to represent a thorough theology of prayer. Part of the reason I resonate with what Hauerwas has said here is that I think we often assume that what matters most in prayer is opening ourselves up to God and pouring out our souls, that such soul pouring is the heart of prayer and what makes the act spiritual, when in reality this might be one of the ways in which we put ourselves too high in our relations with God and we should be more interested in shutting ourselves up and being still before God than pouring ourselves out. Of course writing our prayers doesn't help us much in this regard, but liturgical prayer can. While many evangelicals fear praying the Lord's Prayer repeatedly because of the possibility of it becoming mindless repetition, I have found that it helps me to relate to God through God, bringing before God Words that he has given me to bring to him and thereby enabling me to be caught up in God's relation with himself, the incarnate Son's relation to the Father by the power of the Spirit. I certainly don't think this establishes a law against the kind of conversational prayer you've described - I pray like that all the time - I just think (forgive the 'just') a little suspicion of the value of spontaneous prayer helps to balance our prayer lives. In our house, when the routines aren't disturbed by obnoxious relatives coming to visit, we have tried to begin the day with Bible reading as the kids eat breakfast and the Lord's Prayer before Calvin and I head out the door for school, and then a spontaneous prayer at dinner and another before bed. I'm hoping to rejoin the morning prayer that happens in the chapel on campus at Aberdeen in the fall where we spend half an hour praying various prayers from Anglican liturgy, Psalms, the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles Creed, an OT and NT Scripture reading, and some other stuff (no Hail Marys).

    I'm surprised not to have any responses to the content of the written prayer itself.

  5. Bobby - The idea of the Psalms being spontaneous is a little ironic given their written character and often highly structured poetic form. I don't think Hauerwas is arguing against petition or even emotion in prayer, just the idea of rattling it off from the top of your head as its best form. I totally agree with you about the inadequacy of all prayer, written, spontaneous or otherwise, apart from union with Christ and his intercession through the Spirit which indwells us. But I think you might be being a little unfair to poor Hauerwas by assuming he doesn't read his Bible.

  6. I know what you mean by the comfort of liturgical prayer. I use some of the old hymns that read almost like creeds, like Be Thou My Vision etc.
    The reason I didn't say anything about the prayer itself is that I had nothing good to say. First I disagreed with almost every statement in the prayer--our lives are made possible by murders? Give me a break. And secondly it is so like the preachy prayers I grew up with where the praying person is talking to the audience, not to God. You know the kind of thing--"Oh Lord we know that (3 points of sermon with examples follows)".
    I do think the subject of how we communicate with God needs to be constantly watched over--possibly no other area is so subject to fads and disagreements.

  7. Adam,

    I'm thinking of lament in the Psalms, for example. These obviously come in moments of great distress and from a heart already filled with God's Word; I can't see David sitting down and writing some of that stuff out before he prays it.

    I simply disagree, and the reason this kind of stuff bugs me is that it serves more as a hinderance to prayer than encouragement for it. It is totally at odds with the way Paul, for example, challenges folks to constantly pray (in Eph 6 and I Thess 5 etc). There are too many examples in the Bible of spontaneous prayer (including Jesus Himself) to take what Hauweras thinks (his opinion) seriously. I can see problems with superficiality in prayer, as Jms 4 addresses; but that's different than being able to pray spontaneously; which again scripture encourages.

    I'm sure Hauerwas reads his Bible, what leaves me in a quandry is that he can make the statements he does here after doing so. He's wrong! Anyway, I feel like saying more, but I should stop . . . this really irks me though!

  8. Adam,

    I'm sorry about being so rambunctious on this; please forgive me for that. I feel really strongly about prayer, and Hauerwas' comments really go in the other direction for me. Please forgive my tone in my comments, though.

    Sorry brother,

    Bobby G.

  9. No need to apologize, Bobby. I don't totally disagree with you. I do see the possibility of what he's saying inhibiting prayer and get why it bothers you. I'm a Baptist so its quite against my intuitions as well, I guess I'm just constantly unsure of my own intuitions and am willing to take almost any crazy notion outside of my own camp seriously. Like it took me way to long to realize I thought Michael Moore is an idiot.

    Steve, I definitely agree about the irritation of masking a sermon as a prayer.

  10. The statement that "our lives are made possible by murderers" was made on Columbus Day, and obviously isn't speaking of our existence, but the complicities in past sin that we share as the beneficiaries of Western civilization. Its a staggering and fantastic prayer.

    How can you tell if a prayer in the Bible is spontaneous, anyway? I don't think you can tell that. But what you do have a lot of in the Bible is passed-on prayers.

    Besides, I think Hauerwas real point is not to say spontaneous prayer is to be outlawed, or that you shouldn't feel free to express yourself to the gracious God. He seems to be saying that he doesn't trust prayer to spontaneity because it so often falls into formulaic patterns that he's not sure he even means. If a person is concerned about liturgy (or good habits) becoming formulaic, how much worse if careless jargon (or bad habits) become formulaic! And yet, in my experience (I don't know about anyone else's) of post-liturgical evangelicalism it feels like that's exactly what we've often replaced it with! Ugh.

    Again, however, I just think this is him being fed up with himself, and I find his honest reappraisal of his own prayer life refreshing.

    I don't think it has to be a prescription that threatens the vibrant and expressive prayer life, if you have one, but for me even this small quote reminds me that there is no pressure from God for me to prattle on and on. Too often they end up feeling little more than self-talk. I feel liberated by Hauerwas' comment in a similar way that I feel liberated by Jesus' acceptance of the prayers of the Publican.

    I don't really mean to argue about it. I just feel like the value of the excerpt has been missed. Then again, I'm just basing that on my reading of the excerpt. I can't wait to read the book.

  11. "I'm sure Hauerwas reads his Bible, what leaves me in a quandry is that he can make the statements he does here after doing so. He's wrong!"


  12. Jon, setting aside that the subject here is prayer and not Columbus Day, what does "complicities in past sin that we share" mean? It's fashionable in America these days to feel guilty about what our ancestors did, I've never really seen the basis for it. I never owned slaves, never spit on Chinese laborers, and never murdered a native resident of the "New World". And a lot of people who lived then, didn't either. By this logic everyone who lives in New York shares in the murder of John Lennon.
    Sorry for the digression, but this false guilt thing drives me crazy.

  13. Steve, I'll let Jon answer for himself, but what do you think about God telling King Saul to attack the Amalekites as divine punishment for their having attacked Israel something like 4oo years earlier? In relation to that and the way it seems to reveal how strange the biblical notion of national guilt is to us and how strange our individualistic notion of guilt is to the Bible, I do find Hauerwas's prayer that our lives are made possible by murderers, that we should recognize that, seek to right the wrongs of our nation's history, and do so with love, compellingly biblical. You're right that such postures are fashionable; I'm not sure that makes them wrong. The burden is to make sure our motivations are biblical and not driven by fashion, but that's not always as easy as rejecting what's fashionable.

  14. Well, lets see...
    1. I agree that Biblical notions of individual, family, and national guilt (or benefit) are different from today, almost to the point of opposite. But so is the idea of "nation". Nations seem to be only extended families, even carrying the name of their first ancestor.
    2. I think in general that the deficits involved in comparing old covenant Israel with any modern nation far outweigh the benefits.
    3. I'm not so concerned about whether historical guilt is the fashion as much as I am with the fruits of that thinking. A knowledge of deeds in the past is certainly necessary for avoiding them in the present,but the use of such knowledge today seems to be more a way to blame historical others for current failings. The Colombus Day ones I find particularly ignorant since they seem to come from a Rousseauian view of the peaceful noble savage exploited and corrupted by the decadent Europeans. Those who lived here before the European invasion of course had plenty of violence and darkness to go around.
    4. This guilt over the past seems also to be peculiar to Western,northern nations. In fact, no nation on earth, except maybe China, is where it started from. We all invaded someone else at some time.
    5. Let's look around the present and spend our energies righting the myriad injustices of today and maybe when we're done we can worry about 4 centuries ago.
    6. That said, it's also clear from Biblical history that God does not regard the passage of time as material to the question of guilt or innocence. After all, we all live in a fallen world cursed because of our Parents.
    And I agree with you that Biblical presentations of guilt can be mysterious and difficult to come to grips with.

  15. 1. I'm not sure here. That's true as far as the Israelites, Philistines, Amalekites and so on go, but what about Egypt, Babylon and Rome? All of these are ascribed guilt in Scripture and they are certainly more than extended families.

    2. I agree, but I'm not comparing Israel under their old covenant to a modern nation; I'm comparing the Amalekites to America as those whose past guilt has later implications and Israel to the Church as the covenant people given the obligation of understanding God's judgements.

    3. Blaming historical others is certainly fashionable and that kind of fruit is a good test for measuring whether these postures are biblical or not. What Hauerwas is doing is not shifting blame to others but owning the shame of past guilt and praying for God's guidance toward peace. Owning that shame doesn't necessarily depend on a noble savage falacy, though yes those are flying around. It does seem right to me, though, to primarily conscious of the shame (along with the pride) of one's own heritage and not poop on the history of other peoples (though I see how your point 1 does complicate this).

    4. Yes, but maybe this is the product of God impressing our guilt on us for long centuries (the Holocaust might have had something to do with this).

    5-6. It seems to me that the deeper the knowledge of our past is (and mine is quite shallow) and the more we allow Scripture to train us in reflecting on our past in the light of God's self-revelation, the more we are able to deal with present injustice Christianly. The Mexican immigration issue is a great example of this: way too many Christians respond to it by saying "but if we grant currently illegal immigrants citizenship we will be legitimizing their crimes" and when I ask "well, did our ancestors ask the natives for green cards or language lessons when they arrived here?" the response is usually to say something about how long ago that was. I think if there was more of an acknowledgement of our complicity in the injustices of our ancestors (in the sense that our current way of life can be traced back to those injustices) Christians might feel more of a burden to think creatively about the immigration problem and not allow themselves to assume the moral and legal high ground ("deport the illegals!").

  16. I totally agree with you on the current immigration issue. It's sad to see the hardness of heart of so many Christians. And it's always easy to see the faults in others so I think part of the appeal of guilt over the past is you can have the feelings without the requirement of action, and it allows us to ignore the present.
    Your comments on Egypt and Babylon got right in under my defenses--I'll have to think about this a lot more.

  17. I'm happy enough with Adam's answers to leave it as is, and am glad to be reminded by you Steve, of some of the errors that can go along with the fashionable presentations of this way of thinking. I am especially concerned that our recognition of our complicity in past (or even current) large-scale sins not become a cop-out for present responsibilities. I think quite the opposite, that this is indeed one of the ways that we properly orient ourselves, by being truthful about our past. I feel like that's what Hauerwas rightly gets at.

    In Canada we have a major discord between European and Aboriginal Canadian that manifested itself in and still stems from what the UN called "cultural genocide" in the setting up of residential schools. Our current Truth and Reconciliation Commission aims to uproot these still-latent attitudes and also to find SOME healing for those who were victims, recognising that there is no reconciliation without truth. As Christians I think we believe this all the more than our society does, and also we have the bearings in Christ to keep it from being merely the fashionable (and easily abused) mentality.

  18. Hi Adam,
    Coming in late on this one. Very slowly reading Isaac Watts' little book on prayer. It is a little over done, but he was a free churcher. He was against the liturgical prayer method; however, he believed in a definite prayer structure, especially for public prayer, so that prayer would be in good order and edifying for all, so certainly against stammering "We Just..." etc. At the same time, he was for pouring our hearts out to the Lord affectively. He was for educating oneself in prayer, I suppose to remember that God is not our jeannie in the sky, and to effectively worship in prayer. I find the historical perspective with that time/place in reformation interesting. He maybe over developes it just a bit, but maybe teachers over instruct students in hopes they will retain some. The modern edition is "So Amazing So Divine" Isaac Watts
    Published by Paraclete Press 1997. Watts Died in 1746, but I don't know when it was first published.
    In contrast, my pastors message this morning was "Just pray". "Talk to your heavenly Father who loves you and awaits your prayers".
    I think Dr Watts has a good via media (that's greek to me). And in our private time to worship and pray to Our Father and our Lord as our Creator-Redeemer, and Bridegroom of His church.