Karen Armstrong is a prominent scholar of world religions. A former Catholic nun, she has authored numerous works on comparative religion, emphasizing the importance different faiths place on the virtue of compassion. The following excerpt is from her introduction to Every Eye Beholds You, edited by Thomas J. Craughwell, an anthology of prayers culled from the world’s religions.
We tend to equate faith with believing certain things about God or the sacred. A religious person is often called a “believer” and seen as one who has adopted the correct ideas about the divine. Belief is thus seen as the first and essential step of the spiritual journey. Before we embark on a religious life, which must make considerable demands on our moral, social, professional, and personal affairs, we think that we must first satisfy ourselves intellectually that there is a God or that the truths of our particular tradition — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or whatever — are valid. It seems pointless to make a commitment unless we are convinced about the essentials. In our modern, scientific world, this makes good, rational sense: first you establish a principle, and then you apply it.
But the history of religion makes it clear that this is not how it works. To expect to have faith before embarking on the disciplines of the spiritual life is like putting the cart before the horse. In all the great traditions, prophets, sages, and mystics spend very little time telling their disciples what they ought to believe. Indeed, it is only since the Enlightenment that faith has been defined as intellectual submission to a creed. Hitherto, faith had been seen as a virtue rather than a prerequisite. It meant trust, and was used in rather the same way as when we say that we have faith in a person or an ideal. Faith was thus a carefully cultivated conviction that, despite all the tragic and dispiriting evidence to the contrary, our lives did have some ultimate meaning and value. You could not possibly arrive at faith in this sense before you had lived a religious life. Faith was thus the fruit of spirituality, not something that you had to have at the start of your quest.
All the great teachers of spirituality in all the major traditions have, therefore, insisted that before you can have faith, you must live in a certain way. You must lead a compassionate life, transcending the demands of the clamorous ego and recognizing the sacred in others; you must perform rituals (often enshrined in religious law) that make even the most mundane detail of our lives an encounter with the ultimate; all traditions insist that you must also pray. Prayer is thus not born of belief and intellectual conviction; it is a practice that creates faith.
Hindus, Buddhists, Native Americans, African tribespeople, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have very different beliefs, yet when they address the sacred, they do so in strikingly similar ways. It is surprising that prayer is such a universal practice, since it is fraught with problems. Everybody insists that the ultimate and the transcendent — called variously God, Nirvana, Brahman, or the sacred — cannot be defined in words or concepts, and yet men and women habitually attempt to speak to the divine. Why do they do this, and what are the implications of this verbal attempt to bridge the yawning gulf that separates us from the sacred? Many Hindus, for example, see Brahman as strictly impersonal: It cannot, therefore, be addressed as “Thou”; it cannot speak to human beings nor relate to them in a personal way; it cannot “love” or get “angry.” But at the same time, Brahman sustains and pervades us. It is so bound up with our very existence that it is not really appropriate to speak to it or think about it, as though it were a separate entity. And yet Hindus pray like the rest of us. They thank, they beseech, they crave forgiveness.
Prayer, one might think, should be easier for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, since their God is experienced as a personal being. As the Bible and the Koran show, he can get angry and feel love for us; he can speak to us and encounter us. Even so, there are difficulties. Does God really need to be told by us that he created the world and redeemed us and that we are miserable sinners? Surely he knows all this already. Does he demand that we thank him, praise him, and plead for mercy? There is something slightly repellent in this notion, as it suggests a despotic deity who demands endless sycophantic obeisance from his worshipers. And what does it mean to refer, as I have just done, to God as “he”? Theologians constantly remind us that God goes beyond all human categories, including that of gender. Yet it is so difficult to avoid gender words — to say nothing of the limiting and even abhorrent ways in which such qualities as anger, love, and the like suggest a God who is all too human. All talk of and to God stumbles under great difficulties. Is there not a danger that our prayers will anthropomorphize God, making “him” loom in our imaginations as a being like ourselves only writ large, with feelings, intentions, and inadequacies similar to our own? If we are not careful, our prayers can cut God down to size and help us to create a deity in our own images and likenesses. Such a God can only be an idol and hence offensive to the true spirit of monotheism.
When men and women pray, they are in some profound sense talking to themselves. This does not mean that they are not also addressing the ultimate, since all the world’s faiths do not see the sacred as simply Something “out there” but as a reality that is also encountered in the depths of our own beings. But it is also true that people who pray are addressing deep personal needs and fears. We live in a frightening world and are the prey of mortality, injustice, cruelty, disaster, darkness, and an evil that can seem palpable and overwhelming. Unlike other animals, we humans fall very easily into despair. We rarely allow ourselves to voice these deep fears and anxieties. We are all struggling to survive. We cannot afford to admit our weakness and terror too freely. We are fearful of burdening others; we do not want to appear weak or to open ourselves to exploitation in the battle that is life. We protect ourselves in all kinds of ways, especially by means of words. We are cautious and defensive and use language to bolster our sense of self for our own sakes as well as to impress others. We are rarely willing to admit our shortcomings and are quick to respond to a slight with a verbal counteroffensive. We make jokes to ward off our sense of life’s tragedy or to make others (whom we fear or envy) objects of ridicule. We have fits of meanness in which we feel impaired by others’ success. We exalt our own achievements, scuttle over our humiliations, shield ourselves from hurt, and make derogatory remarks about those who threaten our sense of security in ways that we do not always understand. We thus turn our words into weapons that attack as well as defend. All such activity embeds us in the prison of our own frightened egos.
Prayer helps us to liberate ourselves and to use language in an entirely different way. In prayer, we learn to acknowledge our vulnerability, our frailty, our failures, and our sins. By putting our unutterable weaknesses into words, we make them more real to ourselves but also make them more manageable. When we admit that we need forgiveness, we realize in a new way that this will be impossible unless we also forgive. We give voice to our neediness, our longing, our terror. This daily discipline helps us to break through the defensive carapaces that we all form around ourselves, thus allowing the Benevolence and Rightness for which we long to penetrate the prisons of our cautionary being.
But prayer is not only an expression of fragility. Human beings have always experienced the world with awe and wonder. Despite the terrors and sorrows of the cosmos, its grandeur and beauty fill us with delight. It seems that the more we learn about the world, the more this sense of wonder increases. We used to think that science would eliminate this and make the mystery of the universe plain. But this has not happened. Sometimes cosmologists and physicists today appear to be creating a new type of religious discourse, making us confront the dark world of uncreated reality as the mystics did and forcing us to see that the nature of existence exceeds the narrow compass of our minds. Thus science, which can impart a false sense of pride and self-sufficiency, can also impart a humbling experience of our ignorance, smallness, and limitations. It can lead us to that attitude of silent awe of which the great contemplatives speak.
Yet the sheer busyness of our lives often leaves little time for contemplation. The world can become familiar to us. Prayers of praise and thanksgiving help to correct this. When they list the wonders of creation, these prayers are not groveling attempts to flatter the Creator but serve to remind us of the marvels that exist all around us. They thus help us to see what is really there: a mystery that cannot be simplistically defined but that becomes apparent when we learn how to strip away the veil of familiarity that obscures it. Such prayers help to hold us in the attitude of wonder that is characteristic of the best religion.
Adapted from Every Eye Beholds You, edited by Thomas J. Craughwell. © 1998 Thomas J. Craughwell. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.