Saturday, April 16, 2022

Why doesn't God speak English?

Or for that matter, why doesn’t God speak any modern language? Why do you suppose that is? I suspect, no one knows, if they ever even wondered about it. God, however, is given credit for knowing all languages and is quoted in the Bible as speaking audibly in ancient Hebrew and Greek. In fact, even today many around the world claim that they speak to God regularly in prayer and God answers.

I concluded that God did not speak English several years ago while praying in a men’s Bible class in Baptist Sunday School. I suddenly realized that I was doing all the talking in my prayer. I was aware of no audible, or inaudible, “voice” in any language in my head, other than my own; I detected no indications of a presence other than me. Of course, my thoughts were not audible, but they were in English. Basically, I concluded that prayer was a one-sided conversation, and all effort to communicate came from my end. In my view this situation appertains to most every person who prays. Some, no doubt, do hear voices. Those who hear audible ethereal voices have serious problems and need professional counseling. Of course, it might be objected that God does “speak spiritually” to others in their prayers but that God for whatever reason has chosen not to speak to me. My contention, however, is that my situation is no different from the average person.

            If people do receive answers to their prayer, as a great many people claim, could such “answers” arise from the subconscious?1 Our subconscious is aware of what goes on in the conscious mind, while the conscious mind is generally oblivious to what goes on in the subconscious. While the conscious mind prays, the subconscious mulls over the issues raised during prayer, and these subconscious ruminations return to the conscious mind as flashes of insight, which the one who prays interprets as answers to prayer. Such answers may constitute the “still small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12), which Elijah claimed to hear in a cave on Mount Horeb (1 Kgs 19:1-18).

If this speculation has any merit, answers to prayer do not come from outside us but arise from within us. We are not conversing with God but with our subconscious selves. Subconscious thoughts that suddenly break into our consciousness are not God speaking. It is the subconscious summoning us to what we have neglected and/or providing us with answers to problems we have worked out subconsciously. At least such an analysis might explain the awesome silence of our one-sided prayers.

            The apostle Paul describes what may be a similar attitude toward the experience of prayer. He did not seem to think much of a believer’s effectiveness in prayer; he regarded the human spirit2 as simply inadequate at the business of praying:

Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom 8:26-27, RSV).

What Paul describes seems to be a subliminal experience. I have never been aware of the Spirit in my head when I pray. Our stumbling attempts to engage God in prayer are simply inadequate. According to Paul, it is the deep sighs of the Spirit that bring our concerns, requests, and pain before God. God knows the mind of the Spirit; hence, the communication (if any) is not between God and the one who prays, but between God and the Spirit. The one who prays may initiate the process, but the Spirit intercedes.

            I am not sure what to do with Paul’s early directive: “Pray continually!” (1 Thess 5:17).3 If true, we must have the subconscious capacity for prayer while we consciously tend to other matters. The Spirit intercedes, and the subconscious responds with flashes of insight, while our conscious minds meanwhile are occupied with other things.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


2For Paul’s references to the human spirit see Rom 1:9, 8:16-17, 1 Thess 5:23.

3This is the translation of the Revised English Bible, and the NIV. The verse is translated as “Pray without ceasing” by the Revised Standard Version, the New American Bible, and Bart Ehrman. Two rather interpretative translations that remove the idea of continually being in an attitude of prayer (which is implied in the present imperative) are Dewey, et al. (“live with reverence”) and Goodspeed (never give up praying”).

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Piety and the early Christian Tradition

Do you think of yourself as pious? In the practice of religion, the word pious is construed today in contradictory ways. The first definition for pious in my dictionary is: "marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship." The second reads: "marked by conspicuous religiosity." The first definition is positive; reverence for deity (if such there be) and devotion to worship of the divine (if such there be, and if one believes in behaving in such a way) is a positive act. The second definition sounds like "excessive religiousness." How could anything in excess be positive? Too much of anything is not a good thing (nothing in excess is an ancient Greek maximum). The fourth definition is divided into two parts: 4a reads: "marked by sham or hypocrisy"; 4b is: "marked by self-conscious virtue."1 So it seems the definitions for piety range from a humble reverence for deity at one end and conspicuous hypocrisy at the other.

            Several words for piety from the ancient Greek world appear in the New Testament. The verbal forms (eusebeō and thrēskeuō) and their derivatives receive different translations from scholars. These words appear in what I construe as the later books of the New Testament. The words do not appear in the gospels or the undisputed Pauline letters. In the Bauer/ Danker lexicon eusebeō is translated as "to show uncommon reverence or respect, [that is,] to worship." And thrēskeuō is translated "to practice cultic rites; to worship." Here are some passages that use these verbal forms or their derivatives (1 Tim 5:4, Acts 17:23, I Tim 2:2, 2 Tim 3:5, 2 Pet 1:3, 2 Pet 1:6, Tit 1:1, Acts 10:2; James 1:26-27, Acts 26:5, Col 2:18). These words in the New Testament do not seem to have the strange positive/negative definition found in the meaning of the English word "piety." Likely because they do not address the issue of motivation.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-7:29), created by the gospel's flesh and blood author,2 one finds a short section (Matt 6:1-7, 16-18) directly addressing motivation for religious behavior. (Motivation constitutes the reasons why one behaves as one does.) Matthew does not use eusebeō or thrēskeuō. Instead Matthew uses dikaiosunē a word usually thought of as "righteousness." In its context here it is best translated in English as "righteous behavior,"3 but translators have rendered it variously into English as piety, religion, good deeds, charity, acts of righteousness, and righteous deeds in the few translations I checked. In these few verses Matthew condemns conspicuousness in the practice of religion and directs that charitable deeds, prayer, and fasting should be quietly and inconspicuously done.4 Those who do these acts in order to be seen by others get no credit with God (6:1, 2, 5, 16). Those who do receive credit with God for their righteous behavior are those who do their religious acts "in secret" (6:3-4, 6, 17-18).

            In Matthew's view righteous behavior (think of it as pious acts) in the earliest Christian tradition consisted of unostentatiously giving charitable gifts (alms), praying privately, and inconspicuously depriving oneself of food (i.e., fasting) for religious reasons. In addition, one must do these activities motivated by the right reasons (Matt 7:35 = Luke 6:45). The writer we call James adds to these behaviors, humane consideration for others (1:27-28; cf. Matt 25:31-46):

Devotion to God (threskeia) that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

To judge by Matthew's words our modern ecclesiastical ideas about piety may be misguided. Piety does not consist of church-based religious activities. For example, attending a preaching hour of the church is not a "service" rendered to God. (I assume we attend such a gathering for ourselves.) Piety is an attitude toward deity that may be judged positive, negative, or misguided by its behavioral expression. In other words, piety is expressed in specific activities that are commensurate with a certain attitude toward deity. Modern piety, which seems to consist of serving God through group activities in a church context, differs from piety in the early Jesus tradition, which, idealistically, was a deep reverence toward God expressing itself in certain private acts performed with no pretentiousness—or so Matthew thought.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. "pious."

2There are five addresses by Jesus that the flesh and blood author of Matthew's gospel has arranged throughout the gospel: Matt 5:1-7:28; 10:1-11:1; 13:1-53; 18:1-19:1; 24:1-26:1. Note especially the endings to the addresses: "when Jesus finished these…"

3Some manuscripts use the word "alms" (eleēmosunēn), suggesting the tradition found the word (dikaiosunē), as used in most manuscripts, to be unclear or unsatisfactory.

4Very little of this material (6:3 and perhaps 6:6a) was found to have originated with Jesus by the Jesus Seminar: Funk and Hoover, The Five Gospels, 147-48. Two of these religious acts (giving alms and praying) are found linked in Acts 10:2.