Thursday, July 19, 2007

The futility of "non-denominational" prayer

So, a Hindu cleric opened the Senate.

Here is the text of his prayer:
Let us pray. We meditate on the transcendental Glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky, and inside the soul of the Heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds.

Lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening. May no obstacle arise between us.

May the Senators strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world, performing their duties with the welfare of others always in mind, because by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. May they work carefully and wisely, guided by compassion and without thought for themselves.

United your resolve, united your hearts, may your spirits be as one, that you may long dwell in unity and concord.

Peace, peace, peace be unto all. Lord, we ask You to comfort the family of former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. Amen.
Seems pretty "non-denominational" and harmless, doesn't it? Like most prayers offered at political events, unless they're deliberately catering to one group or another - and certainly like those offered by the Senate Chaplain, whose website states: The Office of the Chaplain is nonpartisan, nonpolitical, and nonsectarian. (After all, anything else would be unconstitutional. Not to mention dangerous.)

"Nonsectarian" chaplains. The president isn't nonsectarian, of course - even when he might feel the urge. For instance, when he addressed the nation after the Columbia crash, his words included this:
In the skies today, we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see, there is comfort and hope.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.'

The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home.

Not very non-sectarian; although Kalpana Chawla was a practicing Hindu, our practicing Christian president quoted from his holy book. I'm not saying he should have quoted from a Veda (though it would have been a nice gesture, I doubt he could have brought himself to do it and perhaps he shouldn't have to) - but would it have killed him to be non-sectarian?

Judging by the way a lot of people react to "watered-down" prayers, he might have thought so.

But, the Senate Chaplain (and those who are invited) are supposed to be "non-sectarian".

Non-sectarian: Merriam-Webster defines that as "not restricted to or dominated by a particular religious group." Clearly, if you mean to do that, you have to be very vague in your prayer. Rajan Zed was pretty non-sectarian in his prayer (if those Christians who protested hadn't known he was Hindu, I doubt they could have told from these words). "Transcendental" and "the soul of the Heaven" - those aren't commonly heard in Protestant prayers, but they're not obviously Hindu. Yet, pagans who worship a goddess aren't included in prayers to any "Lord", nor are deists or animists... let alone, of course, atheists.

But can you really pray to a god so vague that everyone is more or less satisfied? (I hear the Unitarians manage pretty well. But of course lots of Christians hate Unitarians ... and have for centuries.) Well, it can be done - sort of.

Here's a genuninely nondenominational prayer for a dying person (often called 'The Agnostic's Prayer, it was written by Roger Zelazny for one of the characters in Creatures of Light and Darkness):
"Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen."
Less well known - though shorter, funnier, and singable, is this hymn from a sketch from A Bit of Fry & Laurie:
We worship you, o god or gods,
Whoever you may be.
We realise that you operate
We thank you for the birds and bees,
For creatures live or dead.
But if you actually don't exist,
Then ignore what we've just said.
You see the problem, don't you? As the headmaster in that sketch said, meeting the needs of all his pupils was important - "any religious package that we offer must take account of all those differences under a basic overarching umbrella... What we've done is to sweep away all these old divisions and basically invent an entirely new religion. A kind of religious Esperanto, if you like."

A religious Esperanto.

I don't think that satisfies anyone.

Christians want real Christian prayers; Jews don't want Jesus; and so on. And I mean, we haven't quite reached the stage where we add "if not, then not" clause. Non-sectarian is as unsatisfying to anyone as fat-free or artificial anything else.

No public religion is better than this "one size fits most", isn't it?



At 10:54 PM, July 22, 2007 Anonymous Mike Haubrich, FCD had this to say...

I have never even understood what they are praying for. If it is for Divine Guidance in leading the country towards peace, justice and prosperity for all, it's fairly damning evidence against the power of prayer now, isn't it?

At 10:21 AM, July 23, 2007 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Oh,yes. I do agree. It's all part of the "God is on our side" way of thinking. (Who was it said the important thing was to be on God's side?)

Anyway, IMO, we shouldn't have a Chaplain for the Senate in the first place. If we do, then the more watered-down and non-sectarian he is, the better. Like "In God We Trust, all others pay cash", this sort of "religion" leads to jokes and loss. And the sooner, the better.

At 4:31 PM, March 14, 2008 Anonymous marvin had this to say...

Very stimulating piece. So much so that I posted my own piece and referenced this post there.


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