Our Attention, Our Lives

On a whim, I got the chance to spend yesterday evening and this morning attending a Brian Zahnd’s Prayer School, hosted by ClearPath Dallas. I’ve been working on building a (semi-) consistent prayer habit. I’m not always successful, but I find that when I consistently practice prayer (especially common, liturgical prayer) I am generally calmer, more peaceful, and slower to anger.

That’s not to say that I think prayer needs to have some sort of pragmatic, tangible benefit to be meaningful. Only, really, that I think that we are created to be pray-ers. That is to say, we are created in such a way that prayer is required for us to fully express our humanity, to come to terms with not only who we are, but who we have been and who we can be. A consistent refrain that Zahnd repeated throughout the sessions was “The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what you think God ought to do, but to be properly formed. To that end, you cannot be trusted to ‘pray your own prayers.'” I don’t know about you, but this is essentially the opposite of what I was taught throughout my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. I imagine that, to many of my prior charismatic/Pentecostal pastors and teachers, this smacks of self-centeredness. I.e., it sounds an awful lot like “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us.”

Zahnd makes a compelling case during the Prayer School that the ancient Christian methods of prayer were never meant to be about just “talking to God.” The reason Jesus gave us a prayer, and the reason that other prayers, creeds, and the Psalms have been written down and recited for millennia is that the purpose of prayer isn’t to inject our own desires into prayerful practice. Rather, the goal is formation of ourselves, of our desires, under a tradition that we have been given. (I won’t go into all of the details in the school, because it’s meant to be a private, in-the-flesh gathering, where some ancient traditions of the Christian faith are passed along, person to person.)

In this sense, prayer can be seen as evidently counter-cultural in the current moment. Rob Bell, in a recent podcast episode on the underbelly of the internet, says the following about our attention:

Central to living a grounded, centered life is the discernment to know, ‘What should I give my attention to?’ and ‘What shouldn’t I give my attention to?’

Further, he argues that the way the internet is currently built (and this is well-documented) — that billions of dollars are being spent to build algorithms and advertisements that capture our attention, and “keep us clicking.” This isn’t a secret — it’s the basic way that the internet has functioned since the early nineties. Rather than pay for web services, we have elected to sell not only our privacy, but our attention.

Again, I say it: prayer that is intentionally grounded in ancient tradition and Scripture is the way we are given to direct our attention. If what we pay attention to necessarily forms our desires, and ultimately how we envision the good life, our responsibility as human beings is to submit to traditions and liturgies that will properly form us. If we don’t choose, those liturgies will be chosen for us. The question is, do you want consumeristic, nationalistic, violent liturgies to form you? Or do you want to be formed by liturgies that cultivate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control?

Neither Rationalism Nor Empiricism

If Descartes’s rationalism leaves us with despair, Hume’s empiricism doesn’t provide us with anything more compelling.

A purely rationalist model like Descartes’s that finds its basis in radical doubt first leaves us with despair because we cannot have certain knowledge if we affirm that as a basis for our understanding of the world. Hume’s empirical system (we gain “ideas” via “impressions,” or, to put it a little more simply, any knowledge we gain about reality is gained via sense experience) leaves us with an inability to reasonably believe in the transcendent or the existence of ethical norms. How we ought to act is simply a matter or custom and the social nature of human beings.

That’s why Kierkegaard’s claim, a little less than a hundred years later, that “subjectivity is truth” is necessary. Ethico-religious truth isn’t actually knowable rationally or empirically. That realm of human life is off-limits to objectivity, because objectivity necessarily is disembodied. It’s also important to note that Kierkegaard was approving of both a form of rationalism and empiricism (I think this was likely due to a Kantian influence). He understood that the form of rationalism that affirms abstract truth (mathematics and necessary, logical assertions) and an empiricism that seems to bestow approximate knowledge of how the world functions and historical fact are good, necessary things.

We just can’t submit ethical and religious truth to the same level of inquiry, because they are categorically different spheres. “Knowing” these kinds of truth necessarily implies embodiment of those truths. If we don’t embody selflessness, for example, we reveal that we don’t know that selflessness is a worthwhile virtue. If we don’t embody Jesus, the same can be said. Kierkegaard attacked philosophical abstraction, but only at the service of honesty about our current ethical and religious states. This is a different kind of epistemology — a religious one, and one that doesn’t allow the modernist assumptions about the superiority of human rationality to set the standards for truth in all spheres.

Friday Funday // 12.14.2012

I had basically zero time to post this week. Well, that’s not true. I technically had time to write. Alas, we had family in town from my graduation on Friday, and my daughter (lovely as she is) decided to not sleep well this week, which led me to not do much if I did have free time. Anyway, I’m planning on returning to normal blogging next week. Here’s some awesome stuff I found on the internet this week!

I ask this question, not in an attempt to extinguish someone’s faith in the Bible or be the cruel child on the playground who insists “Santa isn’t real,” but because I think we miss something vitally important about the biblical text if we so adamantly insist each and every story must be historically and literally true.

How sad, especially when the Bible they claimed to love and follow teaches that perfect love casts out fear. When we love, we reject shame. We do not use fear to control. Shame is impotent to love or help us grow – it is a prison. We must not succumb to the temptation to hide behind a veil, to pretend to be who we are not.

The excess-supplement is always at work in belief.  There is never simply what is consciously known/experienced; there is always an underside that opposes conscious recognition.

  • I somehow had not discovered Macklemore & Ryan Lewis until this week. Legit Seattle-based hip hop. [warning: some explicit language]

Did you find anything awesome this week? Post a link!