A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, May 09, 2014

SCOTUS, Public Prayer, and the Idolatrous God of Ultimate Vagueness

The Supreme Court has recently upheld the constitutionality of prayers at town council meetings. CNN reports,
The Supreme Court gave limited approval on Monday to public prayers at a New York town's board meetings, citing the country's history of religious acknowledgment in the legislature.
The 5-4 ruling came in yet another contentious case over the intersection of faith and the civic arena. It was confined to the specific circumstances and offered few bright-line rules on how other communities should offer civic prayers without violating the Constitution.
Conservatives are hailing this decision as a victory for religious freedom while liberals are decrying it as an unwarranted intrusion of religion into state matters as well as an intolerant act in reference to those who believe differently.

In actuality, I am quite unconcerned about the SCOTUS ruling one way or another, even if they had decided differently. I dislike public prayers because it is just one more form of civil religion in which we pay a passing nod to what Stanley Hauerwas refers to as "the god of ultimate vagueness." It is a god we have created in our own dull and boring image, a god who keeps his distance while we continue to live our lives as practical atheists. I find such a god not only to be uninteresting, but idolatrous because it is not the God revealed to us in the pages of the Bible.

In his book, Prayers Plainly Spoken Stanley Hauerwas tells of the time he was invited to offer a prayer at a luncheon honoring a member of the Duke University faculty. He writes,
"Since I have harshly and repeatedly criticized civil religion, I first turned down the opportunity to pray to a vague God who cannot be named as the Father of Jesus Christ. I knew such a "public" occasion, involving people of many faiths would have people expecting just such a civil religious address of God. but then I reconsidered and I called back saying I would do it. It took me all morning to write the prayer (p. 47).
This is the prayer Stanley offered:
God, you alone know how we are to pray to you on occasions like this. We do not fear you, since we prefer to fear one another. Accordingly, our prayers are not to you but to some "ultimate vagueness." You have, of course, tried to scare the hell out of us through the creation of your people Israel and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But we are a subtle, crafty, stiff-necked people who prefer to be damned into vagueness. So we thank you for giving us common gifts such as food, friendship and good works that remind us our lives are gifts made possible by sacrifice. We are particularly grateful for your servant Reynolds Price, who graces our lives with your grace. Through such gifts may our desire for status and the envy status breeds be transformed into the service that glorifies you. Amen (pp. 47-48).
After Hauerwas' prayer, the next year, they omitted the opening prayer and now have a moment of silence.

At some point, we need to understand that such public prayers to the god of ultimate vagueness are nothing more than exercises in idolatry.


Craig L. Adams said...

I haven't read a lot about this, but I understood Kennedy's decision to be a protest against promoting a "god of ultimate vagueness." Religious leaders are allowed to pray to the god in which they believe — as long as others can do the same thing.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Craig, this is true, but the ruling also insists, "Narrowly defining what is not allowed in such prayers, the Court said they may not be used to praise the virtues of one faith and may not cast other faiths or other believers in a sharply negative light." What this effectively means is that prayers will end up remaining vague so as not to create more problems in the community. I think the best course of action is not to have prayers at all at public events that are "pluralistic" in nature. This whole discussion is nothing more than persons on all sides wanting to lord their beliefs or the lack thereof over others.

Roger Wolsey said...

While I'm opposed to civil religion, there is a time and a place for moments of mass reverence and attempts at unity. Here's my account of the time I gave a public prayer:
"Puny pastor prayers for president?"

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for sharing your experience.

I certainly agree that we should pray for the President and all in authority as Scripture commands, but it seems to me that your prayer would not have been possible without Christendom, and it is Christendom I object to in no uncertain terms.

Thanks for your comments. Let the discussion continue.