Thursday, November 14, 2013

With whom should you pray?

With whom should you pray?

Pray with anyone who is willing to have you pray with them.

In spite of that answer seeming obvious and difficult to dispute, some people disagree. My first experience of people refusing to pray with other people – all alleged Christians in this instance – occurred in my second parish. The town's small hospital did not have a chaplain. So some of the town's clergy, including me, initiated an effort to establish a program in which the town's clergy would serve, in rotation, as volunteer chaplains. Most of the fundamentalists and Pentecostals refused to have anything to do with the program. One pastor, whose courage I admired greatly, insisted on participating even though many in his Nazarene congregation and denomination objected. He recognized that talking and listening to God (i.e., prayer) has no doctrinal bounds.

That experience set the stage for another: a chaplain colleague, who was a student with me in the Navy's six-week long Chaplain Basic Course, who refused to pray with any of the other 35 chaplains (including me) in our course. This chaplain would not even pray with another chaplain from his own faith group for fear of doctrinal contamination and of offending God with impure prayers. This chaplain obviously had difficulty ministering in the sea services where he had to learn to cooperate without compromising with clergy and laity from a wide variety of faith traditions and no faith.

Thus, I was not surprised to read recently that ultraconservative Roman Catholics were dismayed when Pope John Paul II prayed in public with Muslims. John Paul II was by all measures a theological and liturgical conservative with whom I generally disagreed. Yet even he recognized that prayer transcends theological differences.

Hardline conservatives have consistently expressed bewilderment and consternation that the Orthodox churches have remained part of the World Council of Churches, a body largely comprised of liberal Protestants and a forum in which the participants inevitably pray together.

There is only one God, by whatever name one addresses or refers to the deity. Malaya has lately attempted to parse language in new and divisive ways, making it illegal for anyone but Muslims to use the Arabic word Allah (English translation: the God) in reference to the deity. That law flies in the face of Arab Christian and Jewish usage. Those two religions, for centuries before (as well as since) the advent of Islam, have consistently referred to the deity, when speaking or writing Arabic, as Allah.
Furthermore, mystics – the people of prayer who journey the closest to the deity – describe their experiences in terms that suggest they, regardless of their faith tradition, experience a single, common ultimate reality. In recent years, prominent mystics such as the Christian Thomas Merton and Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh have explicitly acknowledged this commonality. Theologians, such as John Hick and Paul Knitter, have argued for this position as reinforcing, perhaps experientially validating, some of the basic claims of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

In an era of great polarization and dangerous animosities, joining together in prayer represents a positive, bridge-building resource available to people of faith. Genuine prayer liberates, heals, and creates community, gifts no one should fear. The world needs more of such prayer, not less.

(For a fuller exposition of the themes in this post, placed in the context of how Christianity views other religions, you may want to consult my book, Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations.)

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