Unitarian Minister Roger Cowan explains what prayer is to him:
- In a desperate moment, I cried out for help, and I was answered. Some years later I am still a humanist [almost synonymous with atheism] – I believe that religion is about this world, about bringing justice and mercy and the power of love into life here and now. Yet I am a humanist who prays, who begins each morning with devotional readings and a time of silence and prayer.
According to Cowan, prayer is not about communicating with a transcendent God. It is all about “this world.” Who then does his prayer touch? Himself! He explains why he prays:
I need quiet time.
I need to express my gratitude.
I need humility.
I pray because – alone- I am not enough and also I am too much.
I express gratitude for the gift of aliveness.
I assert my oneness with you and humankind and all creation.
Prayer is all about the “I.” Well, where does God fit into this equation? It depends upon what Cowan means by “God.” A life-force? A universal consciousness? All life?
I don’t know, but here is what interests me. Cowan values many of the same things that I do – prayer, humility, gratitude, justice, and mercy. All of these reach in God’s direction but then stop short. Cowan rejects God but tries to retain the things of God. However, without God, these become shabby substitutes of the real things:
PRAYER. What a joy knowing that prayer is not a mere self-edifying exercise but conversation with an omnipotent Deity who loves me and promises to never leave me. Although He does not always answer my prayers in the way that I would like, I know that He hears me.
There had been times that I was so depressed and panic-stricken that I could only understand the simplest Bible phrases, but God would reveal to me that He was there and heard me. For example, I read the phrase, “And God heard him!” Suddenly, the truth of this statement became a blast of lightening within my tormented mind, driving away all of the depression and panic. Yes, it would return, but I was now convinced that God heard me when I prayed, even if I didn’t feel this way!
Another Unitarian minister conceded about prayer, “It doesn’t matter whom I am thanking or even whether I am heard. It is enough to be grateful and to be a witness to wonder.”
When life is going well, we feel that we don’t need to know. However, for someone who is barely hanging on to life, knowing the truth is not a luxury but a necessity, as it should be!
HUMILITY. Humility is such a wonderful blessing and so needful that I will not even make a case for it, but will merely ask, “How can a humanist be truly humble?” Before I believed in God, I could not be humble. It was just too painful to face myself. In order to survive, I continuously stoked the self-esteem engines. I had to always be right. Consequently, others were wrong. Of course, this had a disastrous effect upon relationships!
It was only through the love, forgiveness, and assurances of Christ that I slowly began to confront all the ugliness I had buried. Without Christ, this confrontation would have been too devastating.
It makes me wonder how people who don’t know Christ regard humility. Is it something to merely put on, like a tux, to impress others that we are “humble?” After all, we know that conceit is a major turn-off! Does this kind of humility truly address the conceit that dwells beneath the tux?
I don’t think so! Instead, I think that we are so needful to feel that we are significant that we merely suppress the conceit. Instead, I was able to come clean and face my uglies only because I have found a greater significance in Christ.
GRATEFULNESS. We recognize that gratefulness is balm to our troubled souls, but are we merely playing the gratefulness game or do we truly have a rational basis for gratefulness? What if life hurts? What if we long for death? What if we have terminal cancer? What if we don’t have a friend in the world? Can we be grateful if we do not see any rationale for gratefulness?
One gratefulness-guru had written, “Just be grateful! Just get a notebook and write down things for which you are grateful. You might not feel grateful at the moment but afterwards you will!”
For her, gratefulness isn’t a matter of truth. Instead, gratefulness is a mental exercise, a self-manipulation. In contrast, the Christian has many things to be genuinely grateful for. We are beloved by our Savior, washed clean of any sins. Even if we are terminally ill, we have an eternity of bliss awaiting us. Therefore, gratefulness is more than a mental exercise but an embrace of our Messiah.
JUSTICE. Our lives must embody justice and goodness. When we ignore this higher calling, we languish. When we walk in love, we do much better. But to live sacrificially, we have to be convinced that we are indeed sacrificing for a higher cause, an immutable and universal truth. However, only the existence of an omniscient, good, loving, and just God can provide the basis for such a truth. Without God, we lapse into a self-, human-based moral relativism, a creation of ourselves. If we create it, it goes no higher than our culture, feelings, and thoughts. It therefore changes from culture to culture, from time to time. Who then can take it seriously, especially in the midst of life’s hardships! Who will sacrifice for a created concept? If pragmatism is the basis for our morality, then for pragmatic reasons we will also cop-out from its demands.
We value similar things, but we don’t all have an adequate foundation for them. Without this Foundation, we will hold to these ideals as long as they work, as long as they are convenient. Without it, we will be blown from one ideal and commitment to another, looking with blinded eyes for something substantial – the very One we have rejected, the only solid Foundation.