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Pitfalss of Prayer
A Short History of Prayer
The poet sings, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast."' The reason is that every normal person has wishes and dreams of better things. Within every person there is an intuitive sense of the transcendent, an inner knowledge that there is more to life than one is experiencing, and a yearning to unfold more of that more. No matter how realistic or humanistic we may be, we still look up. We have aspirations and dream "impossible dreams" that here and there have become possible. It is this sense of the transcendent that has lit the fires on every altar, built every temple and shrine, made every creed articulate, and Supported every prayer through all history. It is the Universe calling to human creatures, relentlessly urging them to "come up higher."
It is widely but erroneously believed that religion began with a complete conscious relationship with God, and then in the ages that followed, through weakness and sin, and through the Supposed "fall of man," we lost sight of that first splendid vision. This is a concept that prevails through much of our traditional religion. And it is one of the first religious ideas that the thinking person begins to question, even resist, finding it difficult to accept a theology that is essentially preoccupied with looking backward.
Most religions look back to a golden age of their spiritual giants, a time when "God walked the earth." The Jewish tradition looks back to the days of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Christianity looks backward to the days of Jesus, and to the adventures and writings of Paul. Thus, thetraditionalists of religion invariably deal with worship in retrospect.
Actually, the assembled records of archaeology and anthropology indicate a progressive evolution of culture and consciousness throughout all history, including biblical history. We have nothing to lead us to believe that this evolutionary flow suddenly stopped along the way. When we consider the primitive creatures in their worship of sticks and stones, we are not seeing evidence of religion in decay. We are seeing an early level of consciousness from which later and more elevated forms evolved.
Primitive creatures were fire-worshipers and sun-worshipers. They were terribly insecure creatures, stricken with mortal fear of all the elements, who often created their own gods. But it Would be incorrect to say that they did not pray. A kind of praying impulse was a part of the fiber of their beinga dim perception of their relationship with the universe. However dim or vague, there was that feeling that Longfellow articulates:
That even in savage bosoms,There are longings, yearnings, strivingsFor the good they comprehend not,
That the feeble hands and helpless,Groping blindly in the darkness,Touch God's right hand in that darknessAnd are lifted up and strengthened.
One of the grave mistakes that we make in our Study of Primitive cultures of the far-distant past, and even now in studying undeveloped parts of the world, is to refer to the people as pagans. In the study of religion, the concept of paganism is an unfortunate one. Let's look at this word, understand it, and then make a commitment to eliminate it from our vocabulary. From our Christian or Jewish background, we have used the word pagan to mean nonbeliever, coming from a feeling that " my God" is the "only God," and anyone who believes in any other "god" is stupid-thus a pagan.
The word pagan comes from the same root as village, and peasant. The word was originally used by a sophisticated (?) city dweller in describing a person from a rural area (a "hick from the sticks"). Even before this, it was used in general reference to people who came from the country-the hill areas (hillbillies). In that period, Christianity was sweeping through the world in the predominantly urban areas, even as today liberalism has its greatest support in urban centers, and is slow to take hold in rural farm and ranch areas. So it was common in the early days of the spread of Christianity to refer to those people who came from the hinterlands, and who were still holding to preChristian or non-Christian attitudes and practices, as pagans. At best this was unkind, and at worst it was a dangerous root of prejudice and an ethnic slur. Much of this cultural putdown originated with the Christian missionaries who labeled as pagans people in the cultures of Africa, China, India, and the native Indians in America.
From the earliest of times, people have had a need to symbolize their sense of the transcendent. They have had an instinctive reverence for any power or powers that they believed might help or harm them. So when a bolt of lightning struck and killed a brother, they were possessed by a sudden fear of lightning, which in their primitive mind was interpreted as reverence. The lightning became a god. Soon the primitive creatures built an altar to the new god, on which they made sacrifices of appeasement to prevent the lightning from doing them further harm.
In early times, and even, surprisingly, in relatively sophisticated cultures, the sacrifice was in the form of human flesh. Later, the practice evolved into a mere symbolic gesture. We may have a more realistic understanding of the Bible if we note that the practice of human sacrifice as a form of the worship of Yahweh was still a strong memory as the Bible narrative burst upon the evolutionary scene. A glaring example is that instance where Abraham took his son, Isaac, up on a mountain, with the intent of sacrificing his life to Yahweh. That he was dissuaded at the last moment from this act of human sacrifice