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Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times

William James, Joel Osteen, and the Gray Lady

It was during the prayer for rain, which is really a prayer for life, on the otherwise redundant Jewish holiday known as Shemini Atzeret that I made a general observation about prayer after all these years of failing at it. As the climactic pleadings were chanted, I was pierced by an intuition of the utter impotence, the wrenching sensation of vulnerability, in which prayer originates. Praying, we are all beggars. A prayer is a kind of panic, an exclamation of helplessness. Please give us rain! For this reason there is pathos in every prayer, however outlandish; it is inhumane to scorn such desperation. By transforming a wish into a request, and thereby positing a being with the power to grant a request, the petitionary structure of prayer attempts to build a foundation for hope. This is accomplished by its grammar: the second-person singular, the rhetoric of address, implies a cosmological picture, which comforts the individual whose exposure to an obscure and indifferent reality provokes an imagination of intervention, of rescue. In the logic of prayer, God exists because we need Him. It is, of course, a feeble basis for religious belief. The cosmological picture demands surer grounds. I have always failed at prayer, as I say, not least because I cannot elevate my need to cosmic significance. I am too small to sustain such a self-conception. If the second-person singular is not preceded by a persuasive argument for the existence of its object, then it is too plainly expedient, too transparently an expression of feeling, to be spiritually acceptable. If they are to attain their meaning, some things that are said must also be heard. Prayer without a plausible metaphysics is just me. In such circumstances, the cosmological picture is a cosmological fantasy; and fantasy provides pleasure, not certainty. It trivializes an attempt to change the world, which prayer is, when it suffices with the good feelings that are generated by the attempt. The question of delusion hangs over all good feelings. And so I have always sided with the cautionary observation of the rabbi in the Talmud who wryly warned that “whoever protracts and overly ponders his prayer will arrive at an aching heart.”

But The New York Times has been running promotions for praying in tongues, and for the usurpation of theology by psychology, which is the American innovation in religion. “Why We Talk in Tongues,” was the title of a recent column by T. M. Luhrmann. We? Luhrmann is an anthropologist at Stanford who not long ago authored an impressive study of evangelical religion in America, and it is the evangelicals, and their fervent wordlessness, that she is recommending in her columns to the hardened rationalists at smoked-fish counters everywhere. She notes that “18 percent of Americans spoke in tongues at least several times a year,” as if polling can settle a philosophical matter. She reports on her excitement at a charismatic Christian service in Ghana, where for three hours the worshippers spoke in tongues. They told her that they employed the same technique privately as well. “They said they did so because it was the one language the devil could not understand, but what I found so striking was how happy it seemed to make them.” In another column Luhrmann reported that “as evidence accumulates about the many health benefits of religious practice, prayer is looking better and better.... When people use prayer to enhance their real-world selves, they feel good.” She never explains how God differs from Pilates, or why “feeling good” should be the supreme objective of the soul. Are our “real-world selves” a cause only for celebration? Are we really so terrific? This introspection is rigged for a validating outcome. There is of course another tradition in prayer, a mortifying and abnegating one that rigorously acknowledges our imperfections. But not for Luhrmann, who writes sympathetically about the notion of God as “some benign, complacent therapist.” This is the old pragmatist slackening, according to which what works is true, as if falsehoods never made the world go round and lies never gave joy. A direct road leads from William James to Joel Osteen.

Luhrmann not only studies tongues, she also endorses tongues: “Speaking in tongues might actually be a more effective way to pray than speaking in ordinary language.” The difficulty is that God cannot be adequately captured in language. Religious thinkers since Philo have been wrestling with the incomprehensibility of any concept of the deity that appropriately honors its sublimity. Luhrmann proposes that we give up and babble. “As a technique,” she explains, “tongues capture the attention but focus it on something meaningless (but understood by the speaker to be divine).” Myself, I would rather my nonsense not be sacred and my sacred not be nonsense. “There’s plenty here to alarm secular liberals,” she writes, invoking the stereotype that is designed to embarrass all skepticism. Actually, there’s plenty here to alarm religious conservatives, too. Many of the world’s great religious traditions have consecrated themselves to the ideal of spiritual articulateness, and to the discovery of valid propositional content for the substance of faith. All this, for Luhrmann, is only “abstract and intellectual,” when it is merely the natural activity of thinking creatures who seek.

“The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated,” Luhrmann declares, “as anthropologists have long known.” Who gave anthropology the last word? This is like saying that the role of beauty in art is greatly overstated because there is so much ugliness in art. My fellow Americans, there are questions that do not allow of empirical answers! I leave aside the place of ideas in the evangelicism that Luhrmann adores. Are we really suffering from a surfeit of thoughtful belief? Have we been neglecting our felicity? “Secular liberalism,” with its demand for the justification of metaphysical opinions, has more to offer religion than the immediate gratifications of a credulous joyriding. Luhrmann is peddling another intellectual argument for anti-intellectualism, another glorification of emotion in a culture enslaved to emotion. I choose to shun the unintelligent light and remain in the intelligent darkness, and sweat it.

Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.