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Prayer With an Impersonal God

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One evening, I found myself conspicuously ignoring two of etiquette's basic rules, talking about both religion and politics with a good friend. Veering from one topic to the other, we eventually found ourselves ensconced in a discussion about theology. I was working to articulate my belief in an impersonal God, when my friend presented a profound question: "If you don't believe in a personal God, then why do you pray, and what does it mean to pray?"

My friend was culturally and socially affiliated as a Jew but found the idea of Jewish theology and prayer to be off-putting. "How do you," she asked me, as someone who does not experience God as personal, "find prayer so meaningful?"

The question is an apt one and relates to what prayer itself means to me. Some colleagues and friends within the same denomination have more personal conceptions of God and think of prayer as a time to communicate with the Divine. Given that I do not believe I can speak to God, my experience of prayer is rather different.

My response came from ideas I had previously studied in rabbinical school and had over time woven together with a few of my own. I began with the language and theory developed by my remarkable professor, Lawrence Hoffman. Dr. Hoffman articulated the idea that prayer was a "sacred drama" in which we were all actors. We had roles and parts in communal prayer, and our prayer books were "a kind of dramatic script."

Each of us in that drama plays an important part in communal prayer -- namely ourselves. By playing ourselves, we leave ourselves open to being changed by the words we say, movements we make, and rituals we undertake.

Drama, even when we watch it acted out, has the ability to make us feel and think differently. Many have theorized that it trains our emotions so that we can encounter the drama of our own lives more ethically or with greater insight. As Aristotle explained over 2,300 years ago in the Poetics, which focuses on the role of Greek tragedy as a subset of drama, "It achieves, through pity and fear, the catharsis of these sorts of feelings."

Defining catharsis as something akin to the "purification or purgation of the emotions aroused in a tragic performance" (as does the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), tragedy pushes us to feel more deeply and understand more fully both other people and ourselves. It, like other forms of drama, shakes us out of our routines and forces us to confront anew our worlds and our emotions.

Prayer, at its best, heightens the potential of drama and its influence on our lives. If we are the players in the drama, and consciously playing ourselves in that drama, and doing so with a community of people who are likewise consciously playing themselves in that drama, then that drama can be elevated and take on a feeling that I would describe as sacred. The words we say or sing and the actions we take as part of the drama define the nature of that prayer. (Personal prayer, though at times more akin to meditation or silent soliloquy, likewise has many dramatic aspects.)

The meaning of prayer is shaped by the scripts of our traditions, how we enact them, and who at a given moment is acting them out. Are we pouring our hearts out? Are we seeking healing after a painful or tragic experience? Is it the prayer leader singing or reading, or is everyone present singing or reading? (Is there even a prayer leader?) Are we dancing and clapping, speaking softly, carrying a sacred object, or engaging other senses altogether -- or perhaps limiting sensory perception of one kind by closing our eyes or being silent?

What marks my prayer experience is not merely the chance to reflect -- as Mordecai Kaplan put it, in "a dialogue between our purely individual egocentric self and our self as representing a process that goes on beyond us..." I do not see prayer as a dialogue or conversation at all, but rather as the chance to transcend myself.

In a paradoxical way, it is when I am most present and most aware of others with whom I am present -- and the drama for which we are all present -- that I am able to move beyond myself.

The words I say or sing and the movements I make are as though external to me, at once very much my own and at a remove from the sense of uplift that comes over me. Some might describe this as a mystical experience, while others might describe it as one rooted deeply in my own psyche or biology as a human. But I feel it as one of complete connectedness and, as one rabbi from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality put, it "alignment" with the world.

The drama becomes so much more than just that for me. Even as I gesticulate or rock back and forth, sing or chant, I feel the miraculous nature of my own life as a human and the unbelievable reality of a life with so much order, when measured on a cosmic rather than human scale.

Knowing that my spiritual forbears enacted this sacred and ever-changing drama thousands of years before makes the limitations of my day disappear in a whole new sense of time -- or the lack thereof. In the rhythm of ritual, I feel the pulse of my being -- and then its connection to the ordering force of the universe that I consider to be God. I am praying, not to an impersonal God, but in heightened awareness of God's presence within me and throughout the world.

I would invite you to leave in your comments more for me to think about, as I will try to respond to some of your comments in articles to come. As with all of my pieces, this article represents only my own views and does not reflect the positions held by Hebrew College, the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, or any other organization of which I am a part.