Heathen on earth

Charles Cowling

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Posted by Charles

 

We’ve talked a lot about ritual on this blog recently and, dang it, we’re going to do it again. 

In an article in the Guardian, philosopher Julian Baggini announces:

I’ve recently started praying … This is, I think, a pretty worthwhile practice and it is not something you can only do if you believe you are talking to an unseen creator. Many stoics did something similar and some forms of meditation serve the same kind of purpose. My version is simply a few minutes of quiet reflection on such matters each morning.

Nevertheless, I do think that prayer, like many rituals, is something that the religious get some real benefits from that are just lost to us heathens. One reason is that many of these rituals are performed communally, as part of a regular meeting or worship. This means there is social reinforcement. But the main one is that the religious context transforms them from something optional and arbitrary into something necessary and grounded. Because the rituals are a duty to our absolute sovereign, there is strong reason to keep them up. You pray every day because you sense you really ought to, and it will be noticed if you don’t. In contrast, the belief that daily meditation is beneficial motivates in much the same way as the thought that eating more vegetables or exercising is. Inclination comes and goes and needs to be constantly renewed.

Also, practices that are created ex nihilo can fail to have the same purchase as those which have a long history and are validated by tradition and doctrine. I once spoke about this and after the talk a woman came up to me and explained how she had tried to instigate a secular grace before her family meals. This is a kind of prayer I feel is particularly valuable. In a world of waste and taken-for-granted western plenty, to remind ourselves of our good fortune before a meal seems to me morally right. The trouble was that as an invented ritual, it seemed artificial, whimsical. In the end, she gave up. Had the family been religious, no one would have had to have asked why are we doing this, and if they had, the reason would have been clear enough, even if it would not stand up to close scrutiny.

We heathens may be proud that we have refused to sell off our reason to pay the unacceptably high price of faith. But we should admit that as a consequence, others are enjoying the rewards of their purchase while we have to make and mend do with alternatives that are adequate, better in some ways, but very possibly inferior overall.

This is a very abridged version of what Baggini wrote. Read the whole article here

The example of the invented ritual of the mealtime grace is interesting. It failed, in my opinion, not because it is ‘artificial, whimsical’ but because the woman simply lacked perseverance and conviction. Dammit, I might even take it up myself.

In the context of funerals I think Baggini is plumb wrong about the inferiority of heathen prayer. Prayer can be used for many different purposes: to offer praise, say thank you, beg a special favour, ask for guidance, confess sins, proclaim belief… 

In the context of heathen funerals, the most useful form of prayer might be communal, public declaration. For example, mourners might make a vocal, communal pledge of commemoration. They might also, communally, offer up thanks. 

Heathen funerals tend not to be good at involving audiences. Vocal, unison prayer would help. Only don’t call it prayer, too confusing, call it, erm…

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RICHARD NEWMANJenny UzzellsweetpeacharlesRichard Rawlinson Recent comment authors

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RICHARD NEWMAN
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RICHARD NEWMAN

Yes, exactly.

Jenny Uzzell
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‘Amazing Grace’ actually talks about everlasting life, not eternal life. (always found it a little daunting myself) Something that is eternal, does not merely inhabit a never ending linear time track, it is actually outside of time so that the concept of time ceases to have any meaning. A different proposition altogether.

sweetpea
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sweetpea

When working with a family, I almost always explore the idea of ‘non-religious words of thanksgiving’. Where the circumstances of a life and death are conducive to feelings of gratitude, it is a notion which is very well received and acted upon. There is almost always an overwhelming sense of delight that we are able to thank the person directly for their life, or even just express our gratitude in more general terms. People seem to imagine that a secular funeral will be devoid of such sentiment, but in practice many seem to me to be simple and heart-felt expressions… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
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Richard Rawlinson

In an interview, Mother Teresa was asked what she says to God when she prays. “I don’t say anything,” she said. “I just listen.”
Then the interviewer asked her what God says to her.
“He doesn’t say anything,” she responded. “He just listens.”

RICHARD NEWMAN
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RICHARD NEWMAN

ERRATUM:Last paragraph should read “but when prayers are being conducted I practice mindfulness”.

RICHARD NEWMAN
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RICHARD NEWMAN

In the late 1980’s I lived for four and a half years in a lay monastic community among a transient population that included Franciscans (who had their own monastery but came to us for tips about running their own house and livestock) The Sisters of The Love of God and ‘The poor claires’ (or is that Claire I’m never quite sure) not to mention the exiled Chaplain of the Zairan Army. We didn’t go the whole hog like Terse but each morning I arose to a bell summoning me to the chapel for morning prayer, before lunch and especially the… Read more »

Jenny Uzzell
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There are two kinds of Unitarianism. The Unitarian Church is monotheistic. Is is broadly Christian but rejects the godhead of Christ and several other doctrines. Unitarian Universalism grew out of this movement. Universalists seek spiritual growth and personal truth but reject all doctrine and draw on a number of theologies. They are non-theistic rather than atheistic in that there is no one single model of God that all Universalists subscribe to. Something similar has happened within the Quaker movement.

Jenny Uzzell
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They call it prayer, but there again, Unitarians are not atheists.

Jenny Uzzell
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I think the problem here may well be the use of the word ‘prayer’. Its just the wrong word, dammit. Prayer is very specifically comunion with the Divine. I might even go so far as to say communication with a personal Deity. For someone who has no belief in such a being prayer is simply nonsensical. ‘meditation’ has no such connotations, it may or may not involve a divine being, it certainly doesn’t have to.In terms of ‘saying grace’ or declaring, at a funeral for example, that you will remember someone, the purpose is different. It is to remind yourself… Read more »

Rupert Callender
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I know several people who say a secular grace before eating. It is the easiest and simplest way to sneak a moment of contemplation into a daily routine.

gloria mundi
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Fascinating stuff, thanks Charles. Communal, public declaration – valuable thought. I suppose something along the lines of “(celebrant:)In the winds of autumn and the frosts of winter, (all:) we will remember him; in the…”etc might do two things for us. It may help tie our lives and their inevitable ending to something larger, the turning of the earth and the passages of the seasons; and it is also a kind of “communal pledge of commemeoration.” We WILL remember him. And I daresay they do. It seems to have gone well when I’ve used something like that, once they get over… Read more »