Ethan Vanderleek is currently in the second year of the MA program. He received his BA in English from The King’s University in Edmonton and has come to ICS with a desire to deepen the rich education which began at King’s. Ethan also has an interest in pastoral ministry and has served as a pastoral intern in a number of congregations: Christian Reformed in British Columbia, Anglican in Yukon, and Mennonite in Ontario. His current research examines the relationship between Christian theology and contemporary philosophy with an eye to how such a relationship can serve the church.
“Prayer is the posture of a decentred self,” says contemporary philosopher Merold Westphal. Though short, it is certainly a complex phrase, and questions quickly emerge: What is a “self”? And how is it “decentred” by a “posture” of prayer? Is this an appropriate way to describe what takes place in prayer? I think our desire to call ourselves authentic Christians demands an engagement with these questions. Among many other things, Jesus revealed to the world fresh ways to pray; and so to imitate Christ is (again, among other things) to attempt to understand and experience such prayer for ourselves.
"To be sure, we can try to be self-sufficient or absolutely autonomous creatures, but that is not the way of Jesus."
Philosopher Paul Ricoeur once wrote that “listening excludes founding oneself.” It is this notion of listening that is one of the keys to understanding prayer for Jesus and also for us. Both Westphal and Ricoeur are illustrating a conception of selfhood that does not centre on an isolated individual. To be sure, we can try to be self-sufficient or absolutely autonomous creatures, but that is not the way of Jesus. These claims about listening, prayer, and decentredness are making a certain normative statement, suggesting a possibility for how we ought to understand and discover God and ourselves through prayer.
When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, we should notice he invites his followers to begin by centering their prayer outside of themselves: “hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” Asking for our daily bread and for forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Prayer comes only in the context of opening ourselves to the worship of God, to God’s kingdom, and God’s will.
So surely for Jesus prayer was not only about speaking; it was about listening. The gospels tell us that Jesus often stole away to lonely places to pray, and this was not primarily in order to speak, but to listen and be open to the life of the Father within his body, mind, and emotions, to be decentred in a posture that embraces and accepts our prior belonging to God. Jesus Christ is not isolated, but belongs to his Father in heaven and to his Father’s good creation.
"Encountering God is to also
encounter the world..."
Such an acknowledgement of belonging to God is not abstract; it does not seek to pull us away from our history, from creation, and from the particularities and contingencies of our experience. To believe that a relationship with God pulls us away from these things is to again fall into the trap of isolating ourselves; there is no listening here, only worshiping a God of our own creation and setting ourselves apart from our reality as creatures who exist in a physical and temporal world. To belong to the Father is to belong to a good creation. Encountering God is to also encounter the world, for that is how God speaks to and creates relationship with human creatures, through, though not restricted by, the particular history and context in which we find ourselves.
This does not mean that we should engage the world naively or uncritically. By finding ourselves in a porous relationship with God and God’s good creation we may take on a critical edge of resistance to oppression and injustice, just as God through Moses challenges the oppressive and tyrannically autonomous power of Pharaoh over the Israelites in Egypt, or through Jesus challenges the power of law and death in teachings, healings, and the resurrection. But we do not critique these instances of humans resisting relationship with God from our own self-founded power. Instead, we critique them from a posture of prayerful decentredness, challenging the Pharaohs of our own world to surrender their desire for self-founding and enter into creative friendship with God.
Though prayerful listening is not anti-intellectual, it is surely pre-intellectual or perhaps hyper-intellectual; the intellect is brought to limitation or frustration as we let go of the critical tools of analysis and critique, which are often a scholar’s instinctive way of encountering God and creation. If we are humble enough to release those critical tools from time to time, I suspect we may be surprised at the ways in which the spirit of the risen Christ emerges in our scholarship, in our lives, and in our world.