Published: Prayer Does Not Work
Last February I wrote that I had submitted a proposal for a paper on prayer called, Prayer Does Not Work: Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer. Today I just received word that it has finally been published. So without further ado, I will now tease you with the introduction before linking to the full paper that you can peruse at your leisure.
Prayer Does Not Work: Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer
The question “Does prayer work?” is, of course, the wrong question. If one answers “yes,” endless counterexamples can be brought to mind in order to demonstrate the naiveté of such an affirmation. But if one answers “no,” the role of prayer in the lives of countless saints and geniuses is given no explanation. The question does not go deep enough, but as easy as it is to brush the question aside, it is by no means so easy to banish the mindset that gives rise to it. In fact, I take no great risk in assuming that anyone who will eventually read this lives their life characterized by the spiritual mindset behind this badly placed question. I’m right there with you, and it’s killing us.
This is an essay for those for whom prayer has become a problem. I have in mind those who may have grown up with regular times of prayer, but who have long since ceased to pray, perhaps not fully knowing why. Or maybe they do know why. Perhaps at some point it was just sensed that the whole thing just didn’t work anymore, God, prayer, the whole bit. As we grow up, our everyday lives become more and more predominated with a constant attention to how well things are working. Before we go to bed at night, we might hope that the alarm clock works, thereby ensuring we make it to…well, “work” on time. We change the oil on our vehicles, exercise our bodies, work on our relationships. Why? So things keep working. Everyday life tends to be a constant attention to making sure that life in general goes on working. If things stop working, however, we either get to work on a solution, or get rid of it. “It wasn’t working.” Is a perfectly sensible answer to a whole range of questions: “You have a new car! What happened to the old one?”, or, “How come she ended the relationship?” It can even be an answer to the question of why someone might choose to give up the whole project of life itself. And with that, we can see just how deep this goes. Not only can the many particular tasks of our life either work or fail to work, our life as a whole can be viewed in the same way.
Is it any wonder, then, that our prayer life easily finds itself under the purview of this regular and necessary frame of mind? Perhaps now that we’ve looked at a few examples it’s not even quite so clear to us why our original question is so badly placed.
Lutherans in particular have always been wary of works righteousness, and rightly so. But the space between salvation by way of moral effort and the drop-out mantra of “let go and let God” has never been an easy one to chart. When we get the sense that our prayer life is missing something, it’s a great deal easier to vacillate between redoubling our efforts and being more disciplined, or just—to take the other approach to something that doesn’t seem to be working properly—stop bothering with it.
As a young man attending a Baptist seminary while working on my M.A., I had tried and failed enough times at the former path that I was pretty much resigned to living in the later state. But it was at that time that a rather unexpected thing began to happen. Through the writings of a Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, I came to discover a typically Catholic form of prayer. Though in its contemporary form this mode of prayer was after his time, it remains deeply resonant with his thought. I’m speaking here of Centering Prayer and I’ve come to see it as an interesting path between a crude form of sanctification by moral effort and the lazy caricature of “let go and let God.” In either case, I’d want to argue, prayer simply “doesn’t work.” In fact, the very term “work,” I hope to show, is a bad metaphor for what happens in prayer. I’d like to show how the theology of Paul Tillich and Centering Prayer subvert our usual notions of “work” and reorient the question of prayer toward a deeper question of the fullness of life. You can continue reading the full essay here.
 We can think, for example, of Paul’s conflicts with the “Judaizers” who felt he was being too lax on this point, as well as Augustine, who was warmly received by many cosmopolitan Roman citizens, as they felt his theology to be comfortably tolerant of persistent sin.