How often have you heard someone testify from the pulpit that prayer works, that priesthood blessings work, that the gospel works? Well, I heard one of those again today and (as always) it made me cringe. By now I’ve probably proved myself someone who gets a little too caught up in the way people say things and I plead guilty here. I really believe that the sister in my ward who said that the gospel works meant to say much more than her words alone conveyed. But, since this is a blog and not sacrament meeting, I think I might indulge myself in a bit of nitpicking.
The reason I cringe when people say that prayer (etc.) works is because it feels like we are reducing prayer down to nothing more than a tool to get us what we want. It is almost like we’re saying prayer is a machine where all we have to do is put something in one end and the most wonderful things come out of the other end. Nevermind the fact that there is a being involved, or communication, or a relationship. Nor that the being happens to be a Supreme Being, Divinity Himself. All that matters is that I’ve got a neat trick that gets me what I want.
Now of course no one who says that prayer works actually means precisely what I’ve just described (at least I hope not). Yet I do wonder if this attitude might creep in in subtle ways. After all, this sort of instrumental reasoning is far too common in our society.
In my field of psychotherapy, researchers, therapists, and clients alike frequently ask whether a treatment “works,” but seldom question whether a treatment is good, moral, or right. If I can make you less depressed by teaching you that you deserve to have your needs met because you are at the center of your universe and no one else is quite as important as you are, does that make it a good treatment? If I can help you to reduce your anxiety by teaching you that you are the product of your environmental and biological programming and (in a grand contradiction) that you can reprogram yourself, does that mean I’m teaching truth? In most cases, we don’t ask these questions. Perhaps we would come down on the side of the self-centered humanism or the deterministic behaviorism/materialism, but I expect there would (and should) be a lot of debate along the way.
The trouble with instrumental reasoning is that it assumes a morality that goes invisible, and thus escapes examination. The morality is this: what I (the individual) want is what matters and I should use the most efficient and effective means to get what I want. Individualism is implied here because it places the individual at the moral center of the universe. Utilitarianism also shows up in this ethic of ends justifying means. We also have a healthy dash of relativism because most people treat these instrumental situations in terms of what is right for (or relative to) the individual, rather than the individual in relationship to a greater community.
I’m glad to hear from dissenters, but I contend that this instrumental ethic is at odds with Christianity and Mormonism. God does not call to us to simply further our individualistic projects. Christ doesn’t teach us to love others just for the sake of blessings or a bigger mansion in heaven. The Book of Mormon does not portray a people that prospered by seeking their own good.
I could say more here, but I wonder if I’ve already said too much. Let me swing a bit in the other direction then, in conclusion, to say that I do like the pragmatism in the question of whether something “works.” However, why not ask, like William James, what practical difference an action or belief will make if we assume them? I expect prayer to be practical–to bring me into communication with my God and to make us more a part of one anothers’ lives. I expect it to be pragmatically good and right and that its efficiency and effectiveness, as well as its ability to get me what I want, are secondary (or tertiary, etc.). In other words, prayer “works” when it brings us in communion with our God and points us outside of ourselves, when it humbles us. It is nice when God hears our prayers and grants us our desires, and we cannot be grateful enough–but the real miracle is that He is there; that He hears us, loves us, and takes us into His mercy. It seems to me that the fact that we have what we wanted pales in comparison to all of this.
Filed under: Relationships, Theology | Tagged: behaviorism, Christianity, determinism, egoism, evidence-based practice, God, individualism, instrumental reasoning, Latter-day Saints, LDS, love of God, materialism, morality, Mormonism, Mormons, pragmatism, prayer, psychotherapy, reductionism, relationships, self-centered, utilitarianism, William James |