The publication of a small volume by Hans Küng entitled La oración y el problema de Dios [Prayer and the Problem of God] on the www.atrio.org portal as part of the debate on “No-theism and Faith in God” has prompted me to reread it and put forward some reflections on it.
Thirty years have passed since the brilliant Swiss theologian and writer, in the full maturity of his thought, published this text covering barely 100 pages. How much has the global culture of humanity changed in these 30 years, yet how little, if at all, have the language and practices of the mainstream religions changed! The gap between religion and culture, which the recently deceased Swiss theologian never stopped speaking out against and deploring, continues to grow, so much so that it is becoming unbridgeable.
The break with culture –worldview and way of life– entails this glaring consequence sooner rather than later: society as a whole is turning its back on religion, a religion that was born to inspire and encourage, but which neither encourages nor inspires any longer because it is anchored in an obsolete, pre-modern world. What else can people do but abandon the languages, beliefs and norms, prayers, temples and masses –the mass, the quintessential form of prayer and the visible presence of God par excellence, as taught by theologians and clergy…– things they neither understand nor which provide them with anything? Religion is reduced to rubble.
Hans Küng made this observation 30 years ago, and his book aims to respond to this observation, in fact: prayer has been plunged into crisis in the modern age because the theistic image of an external, all-powerful, personal God who intervenes in the world whenever he wants to has been plunged into crisis. Does this signify the disappearance of God and prayer? It depends on what you mean by prayer and by God.
If you pray to God to pass your exam, to be successful in your job or your marriage, if you pray to prevent something that would otherwise be inevitable from happening or to achieve something that would otherwise be unattainable, if you pray beseeching a God who may or may not hear you and who may or may not act –he will have his reasons–, your prayer is about magic, your God is a myth. That God does not exist, and your prayer is alienating, it alienates you in what does not exist. Feuerbach, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, and all atheists are right. And all believers who, like Hans Küng, seek to make faith in God and prayer compatible with reason are right.
So what is prayer, and how can we pray? The brilliant Tübingen lecturer addresses these decisive questions with his customary precision and acuity, while modern reason and various religious traditions broaden the perspective of faith in God and prayer in dialogue. His little book is both enlightening and thought-provoking. However, and despite my admiration for the author, I must confess that, 30 years later, I find that the book still falls short, and not precisely because of its small size. I come up against two problems that are one: prayer and God.
My basic objection is the image of God which, as throughout the author’s work, I find continues to be excessively “theistic”: God, he says, is the “partner” of the person who prays, prayer is a “conversation” (I-You) with God, God “listens to my prayer of supplication”. These affirmations are naïve, to say the least, for many profoundly prayerful people, and are somewhat surprising for a theologian as rational as Küng. And I am struck by the fact that he engages in a blatant contradiction in terms that oppose each other on the same plane: on the one hand, he excludes a “supernatural miraculous intervention from outside”, and on the other hand, he states categorically that the Christian, when he or she prays, must place his or her trust in an “intervention” by God; on the one hand, he declares that “God sustains us, dominates us and surrounds us in a transpersonal way”, and on the other hand, he maintains that “the I-You structure is a constituent element” of prayer. I am well aware that, when speaking of God, we will never be able to resolve all the opposing elements in a univocal language. But Hans Küng could be required to elaborate more rigorously and in a more nuanced way about such opposing assertions.
My second objection concerns the overly clichéd, crude contrast he draws between “the Eastern form of impersonal meditation and the Western form of personal prayer”. He rightly asserts the important presence of the mystical prayer of silence in the Christian tradition; however, he ends up setting mystical prayer, which emphasises emptiness, nothingness, forgetting oneself and nirvana, against “specifically Christian” prayer governed by “the norms of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”, which emphasises plenitude, the conquest of the self, the new being and eternal life. He goes as far as to state that “mystical meditation may be one form among many, but certainly not the highest”. I find these assertions superficial and insufficient.
It is time to go further. To understand and practise prayer as an expression of the depth of life and of all that is real. To speak of God with other metaphors such as Soul, Breath and Heart of the world, of all that is and all that we are.
In Spanish, the word for “prayer” is “oración”, which comes from the Latin orare, to speak. Obviously we need words to speak to ourselves in our presence, and before others, in the universal I-you-we-it web that we form. As speaking beings, we need to put words to all that we are and experience (lack, plenitude and guilt, joy and anguish), in the quest for depth. Words can help us reach the great silence where life flows and where the deepest wounds are healed. So, prayer in words leads to prayer in silence, with or without a method, in the East as well as in the West (beyond our labels and flat geographies, the West is to the East of the East, and the East is to the West of the West: you just have look at a Globe).
Words are necessary, of course, but we speak too much in our prayers –Jesus of Nazareth once said that, and H. Küng rightly reminds us of it–. Our masses, for example, consist of unintelligible, almost intolerable verbiage. Let words fall silent, especially those whose meaning has become absurd and blasphemous, as when during the mass we begin many of the prayers by saying “Almighty God” or we endlessly repeat supplications unworthy of God and the person who prays, such as “Lord, have mercy”, “We beseech you to hear us”, etc. These words and so many others simply need to disappear from the liturgy and from all our spoken prayers, or at least be replaced by others that lead us to the profound Silence –the name of God– from where our life springs forth and is restored. That will be impossible if we continue to cling to our words and their meanings, which never cease to be inevitable human cultural constructs.
Do we pray to God? Yes, we do that, too: we pray to God, i.e. we express ourselves before God, Soul, Breath, Heart of all. In poverty and in times of plenty, in joy and in sorrow, we express ourselves: we give thanks, we plead, we praise, we ask everyone and everything for forgiveness, the All in all beings. When I hug a tree, greet a rock, express thanks for the rain, praise the sun or ask for forgiveness from the one I have hurt… I hug, greet, express gratitude, praise, ask God for forgiveness in all beings. I simply say “here I am”. For beyond categories such as personal and impersonal, beyond any identity and otherness, God is the I of my I, the You in all You, even in the you that I am for myself, he is the Communion of the us formed by all of us beings.
When we pray, just as whenever we speak, we express ourselves dialogically, but when we express ourselves fully, we “pray” –namely, we are and we say to ourselves– “before” God or “in” God, before the All or in the All, in the Depths of the Real beyond unity and duality, in selfness without self-absorption and in relationship without duality. For God and the world are neither one nor two, in a way similar to the brain and consciousness being neither one nor two.
Do we pray to God? Yes, but more than anything God –Soul and Breath and Consciousness of all that is– PRAYS, in us and in all that is he is expressing, he is being, he is causing to be. All things pray, are prayed or express themselves continuously. God is prayed in weeping and in laughter, in birdsong and in the wind, in the music of atoms and galaxies, and in the vibration of the void out of which the universe is continuously born.
Aizarna (Basque Country), 12 June, 2021
(Translated by Sarah J. Turtle)
 Spanish version of the book translated by J. A. Carrera-Páramo (Editorial San Pablo, 2019)