Two Ubiquitous Forms of Prayer and Which is Preferred

Forms of Prayer

by Dr. Joe Mulvihill
It seems as if, contra religions’ critics, religious practice is not going anywhere. The presumption stated with almost breathtaking bombast and repeated like a mantra is that as our world is more and more affected by technology and scientific advancement there will be a commensurate drop in religious interest and practice. Even in the Western world where Christianity is declining, interest in spirituality and religions and prayer practice is on the rise. Worldwide, Christianity is exploding and doing quite well, and the number two most believed religion, Islam is in the midst of a significant decline. What is clear is that the secularist presumption is largely mythic, there are even skeptics in America and Europe who admit to praying regularly!
In the great monotheistic religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, prayer is at the very heart of what it means to believe. Muslims are called to pray five times a day, while Jews have traditionally prayed three times a day. Each branch of the Christian church is saturated with various traditions of common prayer, private prayer, and pastoral prayer. Prayer is not, of course, limited to monotheistic religions. Buddhists use prayer wheels, which fling “prayers for compassion into the atmosphere,” in order to knit the spiritual and natural, to relieve suffering, and release kindness. While Hindus may pray for help or peace in the world to any of several gods, the ultimate goal is union with the Supreme Being, Brahman, and escape from the cycles of reincarnation. People in other cultures, such as the Beaver Indians of southwestern Canada and the Papago Indians of the U.S. Southwest, pray through singing. Their poetry and music serve as prayers that unite the spiritual and physical realms. 47 Prayer is one of the most common phenomena of human life. (Keller, Prayer)
There are two basic prayer types common across the world (Biblical Christianity has five main types derived out of the Psalms).
One prayer type is advanced by the family of Eastern religions that are pantheistic and monistic. This is the deeply mystical prayer of contemplation where one finds an inner something that provides a positive feeling of “awareness” and “understanding.” “Understanding and awareness” of what you might ask? The fact that there is no true distinctions or differences in life, that all distinction is an illusion to be cast off by meditation, that all things are really unified and one composite whole. This is a central tenet/idea of the majority of the Eastern religious traditions. We’ll call this internal prayer model “A.”

Pioneers at the fountainhead of psychology as an analytic discipline, like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, declared that this was the more advanced, preferred model of prayer. How could this be since Freud was areligious and Jung a nominal Christian? They agreed on this type being superior to traditional prayer primarily because it was self-focused and self-referencing “prayer” – “prayer” with an inward focus, a prayer model that begins and ends with the individual performing the "prayer."  The practice of Eastern meditation is at home in this prayer model.

The competing, dominant prayer model is common to all monotheistic religious traditions, it is prayer construed as “communication out external to the pray-er and directed to another higher Being (God).” This model encourages self-forgetfulness to the degree it focuses upon God and his purposes. We’ll call this external prayer model “B.”

As an aside, this is yet another reason why just asking-prayers (petition) using this traditional prayer model almost mimics the other non-Christian type of inward, self-focused prayer. Overusing the asking prayer in this way, or put in modern vernacular, “treating God like a cosmic butler or heavenly ATM” actually reverses the trajectory of this traditional prayer type ("B") and converts it to the other (self-focused inner "A") through the overuse of personal needs being everything.

This external traditional prayer model/type ("B") enjoys the further distinction of being the one to which humans most naturally gravitate. Consider that Hindus have to break their pantheism into discreet polytheistic (many gods) units numbering in the hundreds of millions (330 million gods) to simulate an experience of them praying in transactional terms to beings that are not them. That is to say, to experience a personal connection in the prayer life of a devout Hindu that have to temporarily suspend their pantheistic theology.

Budddhists have perhaps the strongest disincentives to pray with either model but still feel drawn to pray in front of a statue of Siddhartha, pray to him after his death though he gave no indication that he survived death or could hear them, nor did he pray to any other while he lived. Even religious “nones” and religious skeptics oddly admit to praying overwhelmingly using the “B” external prayer;
One 2004 study found that nearly 30 percent of atheists admitted they prayed “sometimes,”
and another found that 17 percent of nonbelievers in God pray regularly. The frequency of
prayer increases with age, even among those who do not return to church or identify with any
institutional faith. Italian scholar Giuseppe Giordan summarized: “In virtually all studies of the
sociology of religious behavior it is clearly apparent that a very high percentage of people
declare they pray every day—and many say even many times a day.” (cited in Keller, Prayer)
Daoists and Confucians end up praying and talking to / asking for aid from their departed family
members in a striking further example of the attraction of external prayer model “B.”

Jonathan Edwards assures his readers (when commenting on prayer ) that he is not going down
into himself to touch the impersonal ground of being. He is meditating on the words of God in
the Scriptures, and the resulting experience is not one of just wordless tranquility. This is not the “pure awareness” that gets beyond predication and rational thought. In fact, Edwards is
overwhelmed with the power of the words and the reality to which the words point. I believe
Heiler is right in this
regard—that prayer is ultimately a verbal response of faith to a
transcendent God’s Word and his grace, not an inward descent to discover we are one with all
things and God. (cited in Keller, Prayer)
Prayer is likely here to stay, regardless of how far “advanced” humans get with technology. It seems to be a built-in part of our created nature. Interestingly, there are only a few religions that can explain both the phenomenon of ubiquitous prayer practice AND type “B” external cross-cultural preference. Christianity has explanations for both as we are created in God’s image with a powerful affinity for a love relationship with Him.

John 3:16 - 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever
believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Acts 17:27-28 - 27  God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and
find him, though he is not far from any one of us.  28  ‘For in him we live and move and have our
being.’ [b]  As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
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