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A National Day of Prayer and Reason

05/03/2013 10:28 am 10:28:21 | Updated Jul 03, 2013
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May 2 was the National Day of Prayer. Since 1952, Congress has set aside the first Thursday in May as an annual observance for Americans to pray for the nation.

May 2 was also the National Day of Reason, a competing celebration of philosophy, reason and the separation of church and state. First declared by humanists in 2003, the Day of Reason has been garnering more attention each successive year.

One group argues that America needs prayer more than ever before; the other says that America is in dire need of reason. We've enrolled prayer and reason as weapons in the culture wars.

I'd like to offer a different proposal: How about a National Day for Prayer and Reason? Because there are plenty of Americans who do not want to separate the two.

Although there certainly exist irrational people of faith and atheists who think prayer is talking to an invisible friend, many more of us occupy a middle ground -- those who understand prayer as a way of participating in realities beyond the scope of mere rationality who, at the same time, understand reason as a reflection of divine beauty.

Thoughtful Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus share the same logical -- and even scientific -- understanding that the universe is more than matter, that what we know and experience through reason is a partial view of the great mystery and miracle of the cosmos. Prayer is not about asking heavenly blessings on earthly endeavors. Rather, in its best sense, prayer is joining into a stream of longing for a better world, for abundant life, for goodness, mercy and justice. Indeed, when Jesus directed his followers to pray, he pointed out that prayer was intended to make these desires visible. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven," is not a prayer to gain holy benefit for one's self. Instead, the words open human beings to the possibility that there is a way of life reflecting a universal desire for peace and justice. Prayer is both participation in and the embodiment of a kind of human community that goes beyond what we can immediately comprehend by our senses.

To recognize prayer as important is not to reject reason. Indeed, for many centuries, western religions recognized "the beauty of reason." During the Enlightenment, Christians and Jews acknowledged reason as a powerful, life-changing force. In the 17th century, European religion was moving out of a time when theological passions had resulted in schism, excommunications, exile, witch-hunts, inquisitions and war. Critical thought provided welcome relief from religious excess. Reason muted the fervor of theological hubris and wild spiritual speculation providing each person the capacity to think for him- or herself, to judge rightly, to make good choices. Reason sowed seeds of freedom and human rights. For many Enlightenment thinkers, reason did not oppose religion. Rather, reason softened religion's sharp edges by providing balance, harmony and order in a world ruled by a seemingly capricious God. Reason was beautiful.

It was also mystical. Literature is full of accounts of people transformed by words, ideas and books -- as a growing industry of popular novels taught both men and women that logic and literacy opened the way to full humanity. Priests and professors wore the same garb; the church and the college embraced a common mission. In early modern depictions of reason, angels accompanied reason, crowning it with laurels of wisdom and justice. Often personified as a god or goddess, reason bestowed divine gifts on humankind. Indeed, people were tempted to worship reason as she had opened for them a new way of understanding themselves and ordering society. Indeed, reason was divine.

In our time of foolish fundamentalisms and reactionary unbeliefs, the last thing America needs is competing proclamations of prayer versus reason. But we surely could use a day reminding us that together prayer and reason witness to the limits of what we know and the human capacity to keep pressing the boundaries of what we do. Indeed, a proclamation for a Day of Prayer and Reason might well begin with these words from the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan:

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual ... The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

The first Thursday in May 2014: The First National Day of Prayer and Reason. Join me.