You're praying to the wrong God: What organized religion gets wrong about prayer

Here's how science and spirituality might find common ground -- and learn something about the universe

Published April 5, 2015 12:00AM (EDT)

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood in "House of Cards"    (Netflix)
Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood in "House of Cards" (Netflix)

Excerpted from "A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet"

The power of praying comes from daring to enter that mysterious place between the emerging God and us. But it’s not an empty space—it’s our own selves on progressively larger size scales, where we are participating in multiple emerging phenomena and creating emergent identities. As the ancient Egyptian world blended outward into the spiritual world, so does ours. And the higher our consciousness goes along the Uroboros of Human Identity, the more it blends into the emerging phenomenon of God. In tuning our ordinary consciousness in to those higher levels that we may have scarcely ever visited before, we approach God.

This may seem bizarre. How can size scales alone control such great mysteries? How can what’s essentially a number have the most profound of spiritual impacts? Well, size is not just a number—size determines cosmic identity. The number that describes a size is not in itself important but is a powerful symbol of the complexity possible on that size scale. Size is a key to the universe. On the Cosmic Uroboros size distinguishes the physical from the spiritual. In fact, in this universe the size or complexity level of a thing or event determines not only its nature but which world it’s operating in and which physical laws control that world.

But all these worlds exist all the time. And our minds now know it. We can’t simply ignore this when we think about God. God fits into this very pattern by emerging.

Prayer is a conversation among different faces of ourselves as we exist on different size scales. We send our ordinary consciousness out to connect to our roles on emergent size scales. Those roles speak back to us if we’re open to their existence. After all, that’s us in there playing them. They expand our sense of self. Their messages sound like thoughts, but in some deep sense they actually are messages, because they come from outside our normal culture-stunted state of mind.

Our God-Capacity

It’s time to crack open the whole idea of talking to God. If we are in a universe now known to span more than sixty orders of magnitude, and God is emerging from the infinite interactions of human aspirations, we have to look at everything anew. We’ve already begun to do this intellectually, but can we do it emotionally? How can we step outside images of God that are many centuries deep and realize that those are only images and not reality?

It turns out all humans have a tool that will let us do this. The perfect name for it was suggested by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. In an interview filmed in the early 1950s Jung was asked bluntly, “Do you believe God exists?” Earlier Jung had written that all people need ideas and convictions that can give meaning to their lives and help them find their “place in the universe” (his phrase). He had written that we have the capacity to satisfy this need symbolically with a god image. He answered the interviewer by saying, “What I know is that all humans have a ‘god-capacity.’” That’s the tool. Our god-capacity.

Religions offer up symbols and images bounteously, but a capacity is something that belongs to us as humans, not as members of any religion. Our god-capacity is not tied to any specific tradition or symbol. It doesn’t require any particular view of God. It’s the ability to scratch the meaning-itch with a symbol. Shouldn’t we want that symbol to represent the highest truth we know?

Public atheists like Richard Dawkins and others assume that unless a supernatural God is out there, ready and willing to answer prayers, there is no point in praying, and since such a God does not exist, praying is self-delusion. To them our god-capacity is not an ability but a liability, because it leads people to believe in the objective reality of their fantasies.

Many people do indeed believe in the objective reality of their fantasies, and doing so can be wildly dangerous in this world, but trashing our god-capacity because some people do this is like trashing love because sometimes it goes wrong.

At this moment in history, what is the highest and best use of our god-capacity?

That is, what is best both for ourselves as vulnerable human beings and for the planet upon which all our lives and all our purposes depend? Like any capacity, the god-capacity needs to be exercised or lost—and is crying out to be exercised as new knowledge comes in and new generations face a changing world. The god-capacity has been used historically for great good and great ill, and it’s still capable of both. Only when we recognize that it belongs to us, not to any religion, will we realize that we could put it to much better use.

We have the power to change our images of God without losing God. This is what we need to do, given the knowledge now available, the needs we have, and the state of our world.

More Than Knowing: Participating in the Universe

What almost everyone wants is to participate fully in a meaningful universe. People who have experienced a spiritual connection, or who have seen enough examples around them to know that it can be experienced, are sometimes willing to pay a heavy price to get it. Anyone who has ever written or avidly read fiction knows this. A character is attractive when she desperately wants something and commits herself to getting it. We want to see her milk life for all it’s worth. We want to see other people’s aspirations. That’s what makes them matter. That’s why we like strong bad characters better than weak good ones. What matters is to be alive. Not to live by half-measures.

In her intriguing book When God Talks Back, the Stanford anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann reports on her study of a group of evangelical Christians. She wanted to understand how sensible people can believe in an invisible, imperceptible being who, as she puts it, “gives none of the ordinary signs of existence.” How can they actually hear their God speaking to them like a person standing next to them, comforting them or giving them warnings or suggestions? What Luhrmann argues is that hearing God talk this way is not, contrary to many outsiders’ assumptions, a crazy belief; it’s a skill that the evangelicals work hard to master. They train their minds to interpret signs and feelings as communications from God and to think of God as a person who loves and speaks to them. They reinforce this picture of reality with the kind of language they use every time they talk to each other.

These are modern people with doubts like anyone else about whether God could actually be standing next to them, but their overwhelming desire to feel a spiritual connection sidelines these doubts. The evangelicals who train their minds in this way have committed themselves to feeling like true participants in the larger reality they believe exists, no matter how hard it may be—but the reason it’s so hard is that their metaphor communicates the wrong “reality.”

“They learn to reinterpret the familiar experiences of their own minds and bodies as not being their own at all—but God’s,” Luhrmann writes. They learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness. . . . They [map] the abstract concept “God” out of their mental awareness into a being they imagine and reimagine in ways shaped by the Bible and encouraged by their church community. (Emphasis is mine.)

And there lies the problem: it’s not that they hear God speak but that they work so hard to hear only from a biblical God. They’re putting all this heartfelt energy and dedication and love into experiencing a prescientific metaphor instead of the reality they’re actually living in.

But the mind training they do could be tremendously valuable and admirable if it were aimed at a different metaphor. Evangelicals have something incredibly important to teach the rest of us, because if it’s possible to train the mind to experience what is not there, then surely it is possible to train the mind to experience what is there. It’s probably easier, because there’s no need to struggle against the evidence.

Just believe the evidence.

As humans on planet Earth we don’t get to choose what reality is, but we get to discover it and, if we’re very lucky, participate fully in it. It is what it is. The question for us is whether we recognize it and come to love it and the way that taking our place in it makes us feel—or whether we instead curl up inside the comfort of old stories and shut out the universe and much of the modern scientific world. There’s nothing like the feeling of fitting smoothly into reality to soothe the torn parts and create peace of mind.

So far hardly anybody has accurate concepts for grasping the spiritual meaning of what lies beyond Midgard. We’ve inherited our notions of the universe from people whose idea of beyond started just a few miles from home and whose God was a lord or king or father. Basically, a man. Science is providing new metaphors that make it possible to use our god-capacity in a new way: to participate in the real universe. Not just to know our place in the universe but to fill it. To be it.

There is a God that’s closer to every one of us than the air we breathe and more powerful than the zeitgeist in which our lives are planted. If we could learn from the evangelicals how to feel as though we’re really in touch with the emerging God in the ways we actually are, we could experience the joy and awe of participation in the universe and see the possibility of prayer as a cosmic blessing.

We have learned from the evangelicals in Luhrmann’s study that if we are motivated enough, it’s possible to train our minds to experience whatever we believe is real. What if we directed toward the real universe and the emerging God even a fraction of the effort that millions of religious people make every day to experience the presence of their image of God?

The techniques that religious people have developed are free for adaptation and redirection. We too can seek to participate in the real universe and try to imagine in our own expanding consciousness what the emerging God might say, if it could speak. This kind of training could be a great leap not just for consciousness but also for conscience, because the God emerging from humanity speaks for humanity, not for my political party or your country. When we start to think from humanity’s point of view, we can’t put our private interests first. We see the big picture and we see from it. The God that’s truly present is not a person, so we won’t be hearing it speak to us like a person, but we can feel its presence as it embraces us deep in our brains and emotions and unveils its perspective.

We can count on a God that is real.

We can use our god-capacity to experience the miracle of our own universe up close and to hear it speak to us through the God that is emerging from the collective. If we draw on our god-capacity to absorb and resonate with this idea of an emerging God, we’ll discover that praying can be powerful. When we pray as a way of unearthing or strengthening our own aspirations, we’re participating in one of the most creative acts a person can do: conjuring up the best in ourselves, sometimes better bests than we ever consciously thought possible.

When we listen for the perspective of the emerging God, we’re putting ourselves in that great river of power that animates the human race and thus ourselves. It’s like a stethoscope: there’s no magic in it—it focuses us and frees our consciousness of distractions.

Prayer can be something creative and wonderful. It’s always been a reaching-out to whatever larger reality people believed or hoped existed. We can reach a lot further now. In fact, one of the greatest experiences of life is to flow in both directions along the uroboros as far as possible but to love our special nook in the expanding universe.

Contemplating the Universe Can Be Praying

It’s often said that prayer is talking to God and meditation is listening for the answer. That can be true, of course, but it’s not the only way. If we meditate on how the universe works as if we actually believed it, that would be a prayer to reality, and reality is the parent of God and everything else. This kind of prayer is a way of harmonizing oneself with the reality that can host an emerging God. We no longer live in an intuitive universe, but most of our words still refer to earthly experiences and, unless we unchain them as metaphors, these metaphors mislead us to think that they accurately reflect reality.

If we want to know how to talk to God, or how God might talk to us, we need to train our minds to live in the same universe as God. Doing so can be prayer.

For example, all educated people today believe, correctly, that the sun doesn’t actually set; it’s Earth that’s turning. Yet hardly anyone experiences being on a rotating planet. It’s as if they know it but can’t believe it. But with a little imagination, it’s easy. Read the following paragraph as slowly as you can.

Imagine you are lying on your back in the soft grass late on a warm spring afternoon, your feet toward the south, looking up at the sky. Spread out your arms and legs and feel the earth below you. You have nowhere to go. You are just a part of the earth. As the day is ending, slowly turn your head to the right and look west toward the reddening sun. Feel your patch of Earth turning away from the sun, heading into night. Just as the horizon on your right rises to meet the sun, turn your head all the way left. There you see on the eastern horizon the moon, huge and orange, appearing at precisely the moment of sunset. Tonight is the night of the full moon, when sun and moon are in perfect balance. It was in many cultures a night of power. Feel your patch of ground moving slowly toward the moon. The haze of atmosphere through which you saw the moon as you looked across the surface of the planet is moving out of the line of sight. The moon appears to rise and become whiter because you’re seeing it through less and less atmosphere. It seems smaller but only because it is no longer near the horizon and your mind no longer compares it with familiar objects in the earthly landscape. Let time pass. Let Earth carry you around until the last glow of sunlight disappears and stops masking the stars. You have traveled into night with your planet. You are the side of the planet traveling into night.

If you read that slowly enough to feel you were there, then you just prayed, because you brought your consciousness into alignment with the reality where God can be found. We’re often taught that imagination is the opposite of reality, but it’s not that simple. It takes a lot of imagination to see cosmic reality. But not any old kind of imagination: imagining needs to be disciplined by knowledge of what’s not possible and catalyzed by new concepts that suggest what might be. We’ve all said at one time or another, “Anything is possible!” but people who truly believe it are most likely to imagine fantasies and miss most of reality.

We’re truly participating in our universe when we come to feel in our bones that we are part of the story, thoroughly integrated into the big picture. God is emerging from us and bound into us, we know where we stand in the cosmos, and we know what we are.

This feeling has to be constantly reinforced and strengthened. One attempt at this kind of prayer won’t change you but practicing will. Are you watching a gorgeous sunset? You could just enjoy the pretty scene, or you could use its dynamic beauty as a visceral reminder of where we are: we’re immersed in Earth’s transparent atmosphere, which is as thin as the skin on an apple, yet it’s thick enough as we look sideways through it to redden the light of the sun.

It takes a little extra effort to visualize, true, but it’s like the effort we all expended learning to read. Hasn’t that paid off? Far from stripping the world of beauty, hasn’t reading opened to all of us the many beauties and ideas that language can evoke? Can you imagine how much smaller and more fearful your existence would be if you could not read? It’s the same with participating in our universe: we’re smaller and more fearful if we don’t know where we are and can’t feel that we fit in.

Let’s try a different experiment. Once again, read this as slowly as you can. Imagine you have lost your memory. You stare at yourself in a mirror, but there is only this moment. You are unaware of any past. You see your reflection, you’re solid, you’re well dressed, your heart is pumping, but how you got to the spot on which you stand, you have no idea.

Who are you?

You’re not your family background, your personal history, the work you’ve done, your hopes for the future. These don’t exist. With no time dimension you’re like a computer with hormones. You’re listening to the latest music, wanting the coolest products, and taking as reality the latest media reports of the world outside your room. This is all you know. Now imagine that you look into the mirror again, but instantly you see through the momentary you of today back to the you of years ago, to the child you once were, then the toddler. Let your consciousness fly backward through time at lightning speed, illuminating your identity down past your parents and grandparents, past the countless generations before them, your ancestors roaming from continent to continent, your primate ancestors, down through all the animals that preceded them, back through the earliest life, into the first living cell, then plunging down into the complex chemicals that made it possible, down into the molten planet and the forming solar system, back to the birth of your carbon and oxygen and iron atoms in a thousand different stars exploding across the galaxy, back through the evolution of the visible galaxy itself deep inside a giant halo of dark matter, back through the universal expansion to the creation of your elementary particles—that you are made of at this very moment—in the Big Bang.

This is science. And yet it is also a prayer—to align ourselves with the universe so that each of us can experience who we are. Who we are depends on our history. How far back we understand that history—how much of our own identity we claim—is up to us. No earlier generation could even have imagined the scale of our true identity.

On a clear and moonless night, go far from electric lights, let your eyes slowly become adapted to the dark, and contemplate the Milky Way. Using your disciplined imagination, don’t be satisfied with seeing a glowing whitish streak across the dome of the sky, the way the ancients did (that’s why they called it the Royal Road, the Milky Way, the heavenly Nile). Let your knowledge of the galaxy deepen what you see, and it will expand what you are. Look through the Milky Way into its third dimension. Take some time. Suddenly everything will shift and you’ll realize you’re seeing an immense spiral galaxy edge-on—and you are inside the disk.

The galaxy is merely our local geography. There is a whole universe to re-envision, large and small, outside and inside ourselves. Expanding our consciousness to the spiritual realms of the universe is praying.

Excerpted from "A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet" by Nancy Ellen Abrams (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

By Nancy Ellen Abrams

MORE FROM Nancy Ellen Abrams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Atheism Books Excerpts Prayer Religion Science