Does praying help you find God, or vice-versa?
I’ve been reading a book lately by A.J. Jacobs called “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.”
Jacobs grew up as an essentially non-practicing Jew in New York, though many in his family embraced any number of diverse faith traditions.
Having already penned a successful autobiographical book called “The Know-it-All,” wherein he chronicled the experience of reading the entire encyclopedia, Jacobs was looking for a similar, somewhat richer context for his next project. Claiming agnosticism, he always had been fascinated by those deeply immersed in faith, not in a condescending way, but not entirely covetous of their situation either.
Further, Jacobs recognized, as it’s easy enough to do, that most people who claim a certain faith seem to pick and choose those parts of their religious tradition and doctrine to follow, and which parts to disregard as either outdated or not to be taken literally.
What would a practice of faith look like, then, if he were to adhere as closely to biblical law for an entire year?
The results range from profound to hilarious, as when he tries to adhere to the Old Testament law of stoning blasphemers. Though he concedes that dropping giant rocks on top of passersby is probably not appropriate, he finds a loophole in the ancient law, noting that it doesn’t say anywhere in Scripture how big the stones have to be.
His solution: He carries a pocket full of pebbles around Central Park, pelting people in the temple for breaking the Sabbath and other transgressions. He makes few friends this way, and actually gets threatened with violence a time or two.
A physically safer, but equally challenging, discipline for him was prayer. Aside from the occasional near-accident in the car, Jacobs never really prayed, and he didn’t even know where to start. For him, finding an intellectual point of entry into such a foreign spiritual practice was the soft landing he sought.
He cited the psychological theory known as cognitive dissonance, an example of which involves smiling. By smiling, the theory goes, you actually make yourself happier. So he resolved that, although he had no idea how to pray or to whom he was praying, the best way to begin was by doing it.
Arms spread wide, down on his knees, head pointed heavenward, he recited any prayer he could from memory, as a whole or in part. He felt awkward, even foolish, at first, but in time, he began to sense that there was more to his routine than empty motions.
Could it be God? Was it like a phone conversation, only able to take place if both parties pick up the receiver? Or was it simply a matter of conditioning? Perhaps the repeated behavior actually reoriented the wiring in his brain, causing a phenomenon to take place, simply through repeated patterns of behavior.
Does God wait for our call? Or do we actually invent God by practicing such rituals as prayer, worship, singing and reading Scripture? Do we believe more because, well, we already believe, and hence reinforce preconceptions we already have embraced?
If this is the case, it would seem that no one born into church would ever lose their faith any more than an atheist would find God. The only way this would happen, according to cognitive dissonance, would be if something dramatic took place in our lives to shake us out of our existing paradigm. This resonates for those claiming profound, “born again” epiphanies, and for those so hurt by religion that they shut the “God center” off for good.
Unfortunately this way of thinking gets us no closer to clarity about the nature and existence of God, or about our inclinations as spiritual beings. What it does is reveal something about our nature as humans, and our tendency to hang on to the beliefs we already have, to behave in ways that align with those beliefs and even further reinforce those views.
If anything, cognitive dissonance seems to cause us to drift further apart.
However, in those rare moments when we consciously take a step beyond our traditional boundaries of comfort, we open ourselves to the possibility of experiencing reality in refreshing new ways. Though it may not feel right at first, it’s not supposed to, but faith’s call is not one to comfort, but to tireless longing for more.
Being a little uncomfortable really is the least we can do.