When our view of God changes, it affects how and why we pray. One of the hardest parts of deconstructing our faith is that we lose the comfort and security that praying to an interventionist God can bring. And that can mean that we lose the gift of prayer altogether. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we are willing to embrace an evolutionary approach to prayer, we can discover a whole new richness and power in a renewed prayer practice.
In this episode, I begin a new conversation about prayer from an evolutionary perspective. Beginning with a well-known acronym that guides millions of people in their prayer practice, I subvert some of our traditional ideas about prayer and invite you into a new way of thinking about and experiencing prayer.
Today I want to begin a conversation about prayer and how we can pray meaningfully and authentically from an evolutionary perspective.
And since we’re speaking about prayer, you may want to check out the spiritual practice guide that I published through my other website, Sacredise.com. It’s called More Than Words—Living what we pray. It was originally written as a resource for Lent, but it can be used at any time of the year. Check it out!
And now, let’s talk about a new way of praying!
There is a lot of talk about ‘deconstruction’ at the moment. The ongoing radical decline in Church attendance is accompanied by people redefining their faith. It seems that more and more people across the globe are abandoning the version of Christianity that has become dominant in the last few decades or century.
We can no longer place a simplistic and literal interpretation of the Bible above the findings of science. We can no longer accept that people will spend all eternity in torture in hell just for following the religion into which they were born. We can no longer accept that God rejects people simply for loving in ways that express the diversity of our human experience, rather than conforming to a very narrow and one-dimensional definition of relationships and family. And we can no longer believe in a God that is little more than a superhuman Being sitting on a cloud somewhere up above, watching us from a distance, and swooping in to intervene in our lives if God feels like it.
People are not deconstructing because they’re losing faith. They are deconstructing because they can no longer settle for a simplistic, childish faith that has no connection with the realities and complexities of our universe, our world, and our lives.
But deconstruction isn’t easy and it brings some disturbing challenges. One of the biggest of these is the question of what we do with prayer when our picture of God no longer fits the traditional, theistic, interventionist version that we were taught. When our spirituality is increasingly informed by the discoveries and insights of the sciences, and when we embrace an evolutionary perspective on reality, life, and spirituality, then we can no longer pray as we once did. The truth is, as our faith changes, so our prayer needs to change too. We need a new, evolutionary experience and practice of prayer. And that’s what I’ll be exploring in the next few weeks.
When I first came to faith I was taught to pray using an acronym: ACTS—A-C-T-S. The ‘A’ stood for adoration—expressing praise for who God is. The ‘C’ stood for confession—acknowledging my sin and asking for God’s forgiveness. The ’T’ stood for thanksgiving—expressing gratitude for what God had done for me. And the ’S’ stood for supplication—asking for God to intervene and do things for myself, my loved ones, and the world.
This simple framework was valuable when I believed in God as a Being who was present in the world, but ‘lived’ in heaven which was another realm to which I hoped to go when I died. It made sense when I believed that God only acted through our prayers and that prayer was about showing God my devotion and gratitude, and ensuring that all my sin was dealt with, so that I could convince God to get involved in my life and world.
That kind of prayer no longer makes sense to me. But since it can be helpful to have a simple framework as a starting point for our spiritual practice, I want to adapt the ACTS acronym, reinterpret it, and create a new framework that can give us an entry point into a new kind of prayer, an evolutionary way of praying that embraces a new understanding of God, and invites us into a deeper experience of sacredness in our living and relationships.
In this episode I’m going to focus on the ‘A’ of ACTS—Adoration. And I want to suggest that in an evolutionary prayer practice, we need to shift from adoration to awareness.
There’s a billboard on a main road that is very close to where I live. It says something like this: “Praise your way through – When praises go up blessings come down.” This expresses exactly how I was taught to pray. I remember reading a book in my teens which was all about how praise changes things. How when we praise God, God then intervenes and transforms our lives so that we can be wealthier, healthier, happier. I took it so seriously for a few months. I tried to do nothing but praise God all the time and in everything. But in spite of believing with all my heart, and praying as fervently as I could, I didn’t experience the dramatic results that I read about in the book. I didn’t give up on praise, though. I just made it an ongoing feature of my prayer and worship practice.
Traditionally, Christians view God as a deity who demands worship. There is a constant call to adoration in the Psalms and it is common for Christians to quote various Psalms and other passages to reinforce this demand for our praise. A classic example that is often quoted and used as the basis for many songs is Psalm 103:1-5:
Let all that I am praise the LORD;
with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.
Let all that I am praise the LORD;
may I never forget the good things he does for me.
He forgives all my sins
and heals all my diseases.
He redeems me from death
and crowns me with love and tender mercies.
He fills my life with good things.
My youth is renewed like the eagle’s!
In the ancient world, such demands for adoration and devotion from the gods made perfect sense. The gods were largely viewed as superhuman beings, with very human emotions, and desires, and responses. Over the centuries—and through the pages of Scripture—humanity’s view of God shifted constantly. But there is a trajectory toward a more complex and nuanced, and less superstitious, understanding of God. And yet in many respects, our picture of God has not changed much since the time of Christ, and popular theology tends to reflect God as a divine being still, not unlike the one reflected in the Psalms.
According to this traditional view of God and prayer, God requires us to praise God, constantly expressing to God how wonderful, great, and praiseworthy God is. We are taught to do this out of obedience and as a necessary part of an intimate relationship with God. But there is also another element to this call to adoration. Praise is a way to get God’s attention, to get God to respond and act in my life. It took a few years for me to get there, but eventually I began to wonder what kind of God would require God’s people to constantly stroke God’s ego before deigning to respond to their requests. While I understand that it is healthy for us to affirm, praise, and celebrate our loved ones in any relationship, the way praise was framed in the faith of my youth felt rather like I was in relationship with a God who was a tad narcissistic.
But what if God never needed praise from us? What if praise is actually supposed to be something we do for our own sakes? What if it’s not about stroking God’s ego, or getting God’s attention, or trying to convince God that we deserve God’s response and action in our lives? What if adoration is actually meant to train us in a different kind of awareness?
I am always moved in those magnificent, medieval cathedrals, with how the high ceilings, especially in the crossing of the transept (the long section where people sit) and the nave (the two arms that form the characteristic cross shape) automatically lift our eyes upward. This is done on purpose, and is designed to shift our awareness from the struggles and ordinariness of our existence to the glory and sacredness of the divine presence. And that’s because we need this shifting of our awareness. We need symbols, and architecture, and practices that train us to remember the sacredness within us and around us. We need to be taught to see the glory in all things and to connect with the Divine presence within ourselves, our neighbours, and our world.
The prayer of praise or adoration was part of how we were supposed to learn this new, divine awareness. But, unfortunately, it got stripped of its transcendence and became nothing more than sucking up to God and trying to coerce God to do our bidding.
So how we do we shift from a dysfunctional and—for many of us—meaningless practice of adoration to a prayer practice that truly shifts our awareness and connects us more deeply with the sacredness we seek?
This doesn’t mean that we never praise the Divine Being. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t express awe, wonder, and appreciation for the beauty, truth, and goodness, the glory and amazement that we encounter in our lives. It simply means that, instead of praising only as a duty or an act of obedience, instead of trying to placate God, we express adoration as a way to notice and engage more deeply with Life, love, sacredness and transcendence. Instead of focussing on the actual act of adoration, we commit to the renewed and expanded awareness that comes from regularly expressing adoration when we are stopped in our tracks by awe and wonder—whether in another person, the natural world around us, a moving work of art or piece of literature or music, or even within ourselves.
Evolutionary adoration is a practice that empowers us to wake up, to open our eyes and truly see—ourselves, others, our world, the universe, and reality as blazing with light and filled with glory and sacredness. Praise is an act of defiance in which we refuse to be defined by the negativity in our world and we commit to choosing hope and sacred sight as a protest against the darkness.
As we seek a new, evolutionary prayer practice, we can embrace adoration as the intentional and consistent practice of noticing and celebrating the light, the good, true, and beautiful, the divine within us and all things—even in the midst of great evil and brokenness. And when we do this, adoration can keep us always open to the sacred and to experiencing and living a sacred life.
In the next episode we shift to the ‘C’ in the ACTS acronym and explore a new, evolutionary practice of confession—which means shifting from confession as an end in itself, to embracing meaningful, life-giving change. It’s an important aspect of our spiritual practice, so don’t miss it!
And that brings this episode to a close. Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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