By Bruce J. Krajewski

“For a long time I did not understand what prayer is, and I still have trouble.”

                                — Michel Serres, Religion

Michel Serres’s contemporary, the philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996), was raised a Catholic and studied before World War II to become a priest. While Serres (1930-2019) expresses self-doubt about prayer, Blumenberg had no such hesitations. When Blumenberg wrote his 1950 habilitation, he concluded that prayer “extinguish[es] dialogical life” (121) by juxtaposing “dialogical life” to “mystical experience.” The former involves “consent” (152), the latter the ineffable, the apophatic, the esoteric, the God-works-in-mysterious-ways bromide.

For Blumenberg, prayer is not the call and response you find in works by scholars of theology, like Yanbo Zheng, who presents a definition that does its best to make prayer a dialogical activity: “Active speaking towards the Absolute Other [God] is called prayer” (3). For outsiders, Zheng asks readers to believe a conjuring act (the mixing of prayer and magic), a conjuring of another who is not present because omnipresent, but silent in the everyday sense. Note that the speaking is “towards” the “Absolute Other.” “Towards” is a faux directional word since everything is “towards” the-one-who-is-omnipresent.

No need for quibbling with Zheng. The Hebrew Bible shows readers an “Absolute Other” who makes dramatic appearances to engage in dialogue. Who else uses a burning bush as a conversational entrance (Exodus 3)? See Job 38:1 as well. One might argue this is a case of the “Absolute Other” speaking towards a non-Absolute Other. Elsewhere, God’s conversations in the Hebrew Bible look like dialogue (e.g., Genesis 4:6). Most of the features align with those that characterize dialogues between human beings. Not all dialogues are prayers. Calling prayer a dialogue throws up several puzzles. It is no wonder Serres expresses difficulty.

Dialogue, to use Maurice Blanchot’s description, “is founded upon the reciprocity of words and the equality of speakers” (81). Certainly, God is not equal to the person praying. The person praying often needs God’s power to accomplish something. Prayer is no more dialogical than the other seeming “responses” made by congregations at masses. Christian services are almost always monological, a priest or church-approved-designate stands at the altar to speak. No real conversation occurs. No questions from the audience are taken, nor are power and control up for grabs.

As for Blanchot’s “equality of speakers,” precarity is built into prayer – from Latin precārium, a thing granted or lent upon request at the grantor’s will and pleasure. Prayer happens within a context of haves versus have-nots. It is certainly not a communication between equals, if it can be called communication at all.

Prayer’s puzzles attract Blumenberg. For instance, in Care Crosses the River, in a section labeled “Maritime Emergencies,” Blumenberg investigates an anecdote (6-8) about Gottfried Leibniz, philosopher, and developer of calculus, who happened to be traveling around Italy by sea when a storm arose. The sailors accompanying Leibniz believed he did not understand their language. They conspire to rob Leibniz and toss him overboard. A quick-thinking Leibniz breaks out a rosary during the storm. “They see him praying.” One of the sailors tells the others he does not “have the heart to kill the passenger, since one can see he is not a heretic” (6-7).

Blumenberg highlights irregularities with the anecdote and suggests this story could be Leibniz remembering a story from René Descartes’s biography about a boat trip during which Descartes pretended to pray. Framed by a storm, the passage reported by Leibniz’s secretary, Johann Georg Eckhart, reads “as if” (als wenn) Leibniz were praying. While Blumenberg doubts Leibniz told the story at all in the way recorded by Eckhart, Blumenberg spots a puzzle: how exactly is pretending to pray different from praying?

One would imagine Blumenberg consulting J.L. Austin on the matter, the author of “Pretending.” In an essay about problems of representation and intention, Austin says he will not lose sleep by being “too much obsessed by the opposition … between pretending and really being” (265). One of Austin’s clarifying examples: “To pretend to be a bear is one thing, to roam the mountain valleys inside a bearskin rather another” (268). Like Leibniz in a storm, we find ourselves in situations calling us to act extemporaneously (268). Pretence is for the short term, Austin posits. “If there is no sort of urgency,” we are in the realm of “a pose” (268). Recall that Blumenberg situates the Leibniz tale under the heading of “maritime emergencies.” In the end, Blumenberg applauds Leibniz’s relativism, his taking up prayer on the fly in a crisis. Blumenberg admires that Leibniz “follows the local customs” (8), meaning the locals spare Leibniz’s life, believing him to be one of their own, that is, not a heretic, but one who prays during a horrible storm.

Prayer’s extensive wingspan resists being folded into an essay. Prayer’s history extends to the oldest extant works of literature from Babylonian religion, including the story of Gilgamesh (3), to ancient Greece. “One may almost say that the action of the Iliad begins with prayer” (83, εχν). Prayer reaches far back in time and inundates the present. Despite the daily legion of “thoughts and prayers,” sometimes counted on a rosary by people across the world, scholars seem mostly uninterested in prayer. The editors of A History of Prayer explain not only how infrequently learned people are able to define prayer, let alone the Biblical notion of prayer (tefilah), but also how little scholarly research on the topic exists. Even Teresa of Avila, a famous mystic and taxonomist of prayer, gave up on prayer for many years.

Since ancient times, people from across the world “attempted to interpret and communicate with the divine powers of heaven and earth” (1). Practices common to divination and magic overlap with prayer. In fact, those concerned about the history of prayer have benefitted from the research and enthusiasm of scholars of magic. “From the courtrooms of classical Athens to the horse-racing stadia of late Roman North Africa, there is ample evidence for the deployment of magical rituals, objects, and words. Whether we call them spells, incantations, or charms, [they] draw upon a vocabulary closely linked to ‘official’ forms of civic and public prayer” (2). We must resist the temptation to restrict prayer to the category of theology. Carlin Barton and Daniel Boyarin’s Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities reminds us that religion isn’t siphoned off as a category separate from the state until Tertullian (111).  

Similarly, we might acknowledge that we are too comfortable with prayer, too comfortable with shifting from magic to divination to prayer, as if prayer in the present is the way prayer, more or less, has always been. The philosopher William Marx provides such an acknowledgment of ancient Greek tragedy. “How does Greek tragedy matter to us? In no way: it is totally foreign to us” (xi). We can convert his question about tragedy to prayer and rethink our comfort with deriving spiritual sustenance from prayer. “What if that were exactly the problem? What if the intelligibility we thought we were finding in [prayer] were pure illusion?” (10).

While merely suggestive rather than conclusive, Marx’s point that ancient tragedies have special relationships to specific places (15) also seems true of prayer in the Iliad. As Eugene Strittmayer says, “In many prayers [in the Iliad], especially the more solemn, the god is localized” (87). Walter Burkert’s description of ancient Greek religion corroborates Strittmayer’s claim: “A cult image or sanctuary must always be given a friendly greeting even if one is simply passing by” (75). In general, in our own time, Marx claims that literature has been “delocalized” (14), and it seems the same could be said about prayer. Recall Blumenberg’s praise for Leibniz observing local customs.

From another angle, Victoria Warrior in Roman Religion writes, “Most of the extant information about the rituals of divination, prayer, and sacrifice is found in a political or military context” (18). Has that changed? Far from the context of Roman religion comes a 1944 report about General George Patton insisting that a chaplain write a prayer for good battle weather against the Germans (192). In World War II Britain, the military understood the importance of recruiting those familiar with ancient Rome since “German planners were classicists too and so modelled their divisions according to Roman principles.” So, Britain brought aboard a classicist, J.L. Austin, who helped gather intelligence.

The time warp that links ancient Rome to the 20th century is not lost on the historian François Hartog, who says the West is on “Christian time.” The translation of the Bible from Greek to Latin, according to Hartog (10), meant an elision of a more complex account of time available in Greek, where words like kronos, krisis, and kairos all ended up under one term “time,” due to translation. Kairos, for instance, signals a particular period now often called “end times” (11). Furthermore, only certain categories of people were associated with each of the three Greek terms – prophets, for example, could be expected to make utterances about kairos.

The detour through Hartog points to a temporal dimension important to contemporary prayer. An object like the rosary measures repetitions, not duration. Penitence, the performance of repentance for a sin, is connected to the English word penitentiary, both linked to the Latin paenitentia. Today’s prison (penitentiary) is yesterday’s person (also called a penitentiary), who was often a priest, the person who hears confession and assigns prayers for penance. The secular penitentiary is about duration, with transgressors sentenced to “serve time.” On the other hand, how quickly you finish a “Hail Mary” is your business.

Besides your being able to choose the cadence of your prayer, you also can select the flavor. Carol and Peter Zaleski, authors of a different history of prayer, say, “Conventional wisdom divides prayer into a number of categories: petition, confession, adoration, sacrifice, intercession, contemplation, thanksgiving, vows, and so on. But these classifications disguise the complexity of the world of prayer” (6). For now, let’s attend only to two: petitionary and intercessory prayer. The first kind is when you ask for something, and the other is a kind of celestial intervention. You pray to ease someone’s suffering, to save someone else. The person can be dead (in purgatory) or alive. In other circumstances, people pray for you in the way interventions often occur without prior consent.

Consent bothers Blumenberg. After reviewing ancient debates about prayer, he underscores a new development in history: “Never have so many people become so active for the sake of others without being asked to do so” (64). Blumenberg’s objection sounds reasonable juxtaposed to “proxy baptisms,” or to the controversy over “praying the gay away.” Blumenberg refrains from adjudicating between prayer’s effectiveness and prayer’s impotence in order to concentrate on the matter of consent.

Furthermore, Blumenberg criticizes religious leaders seeking to rescue others without local knowledge. “Thoughts and prayers” go out over social media on behalf of people who haven’t requested prayers. Blumenberg wants us to watch out for those “at the pulpit – with every new medium in full force.” Even if message forums were in their infancy when Blumenberg died in 1996, his point remains: “I see that they don’t care at all whether I need to be rescued” (64).

Readers familiar with Blumenberg’s St. Matthew Passion (1988) expect unorthodox assertions about prayer. For those unfamiliar, here is a St. Matthew Passion sampler from the philosopher dissatisfied with “the arrogance of theologians” (3). He pokes at “modern theologians” who treat God’s word “as if [it] were that of a single author” (13). Blumenberg is also unimpressed by Jesus’s disciples: “Jesus assembled a ‘crew’ that was singularly unsuited for its task: people who until the very end did not quite know what the point of it all was” (118). If this isn’t enough to secure Blumenberg’s credentials as a renegade, we have: “God did not know what he was doing when he created the world” (91).

In contrast to a fumbling God, Blumenberg masterminds his commentary on prayer. He calls the rhetoric of prayer “the most important in our history” (198). Prayer presupposes a God who allows himself to be persuaded, though that benefit can have counter-productive results, such as the see-saw of supplication, say, praying first for rain, then praying again for rain to end when flooding starts. In his essay “Secularization,” Blumenberg finds a telling example from Christianity’s advent: “Sources still allow us to trace how the earliest Christians’ eschatological mood of hope in the last days shifted to an eschatological mood of fear throughout the subsequent epoch. Soon, the community is no longer praying for the Lord’s second coming, but asking for a postponement of the end and a stay of execution” (60). Another case of be careful what you pray for.

Bruce J. Krajewski is editor and translator of Salomo Friedlaender’s Kant for Children (forthcoming in 2024 from De Gruyter).

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Photograph by Paul Varuni on prayer. Creative Commons.