Monday, August 21, 2023

Is Prayer a Conversation with God?

In 2022 I published a Blog in which I said that I had discovered that while praying:

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…Prayer was a one-sided conversation, and all efforts to communicate came from my end.1

This likely accounts for my reluctance to sign up for a 30-minute slot at a churchwide day of prayer at my local church recently. Later, I did agree to fill one of the slots and for 40-minutes I found I was still alone in my head. So, on the basis of personal experience, I must conclude that prayer is not a conversation with God; at least I have never been aware of voices responding to the thoughts in my head.

            Do conversations with God ever take place? That is to say: do any of those among us who spend time praying ever “hear” voices in their heads other than their own? Julian Jaynes, a psychologist at Princeton University, argued that the minds of our ancient ancestors worked differently than do our own today.2 Before we humans developed a subjective consciousness, ancient human beings had a bicameral mind (i.e., two compartments). In their left brain they received from their right brain auditory hallucinations from their gods. Jaynes exhaustively tracked the literary evidence for the shift from bicameral mind into human consciousness to near the end of the second millennium B.C.3 The interaction, however, in the bicameral mind between the right brain and the left was not a conversation but the hallucinated divine voices from their right brain directed their subjects to certain actions.4 The biblical prophets of the ancient Hebrews are near the end of the shift, Jaynes argued and reflect the gradual loss of the bicameral mind, and its replacement by subjectivity over the first millennium B.C.5

            A conversation is defined as a talking together, a casual or informal exchange of ideas or opinions between at least two persons. In Hebrew Bible I find few instances of a conversation between God and anyone. God is always the dominant party and the exchange is anything but casual or informal. For example, in Gen 2-3 compare the “verbal” exchange between Adam and God, and that between Adam/Eve and the serpent. The exchange with God is rather formal with God as the dominant party. The exchange between Adam and Eve and the serpent is more casual, more like a conversation. This assessment holds true for the exchanges between God and Cain (Gen 4:9-15), Noah (Gen 6-8; 9:1-17) and Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18). The dominance of God in any exchange is most pronounced in the exchange between God and Job (Job 38:1-42:6). My takeaway from these passages is that God (if God there be) doesn’t casually converse but during “verbal” exchanges, God dominates and directs, similar to Jaynes’ description of the bicameral mind.

            In the New Testament literature, the situation is more complicated because there are at least four divine figures whose “spoken” words are narrated: God (Mark 1:10-11; Mark 9:17), Jesus (Acts 9:3-11), the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2), an angel (Acts10:1-7). Again, similar to Jaynes’ description of the bicameral mind.

On the other hand, in places where people are formally portrayed as praying, God (or another divine figure) is not depicted as responding verbally (for example, John 17:1-18:1; Mark 14:32-42).6 I would describe none of these examples of prayer as casual conversations in which an exchange of ideas and opinions takes place. The divine figure is dominant in every exchange I cited.

            The biblical examples, cited above, suggest that by definition one does not have a casual conversation with God, or any other divine figure. Divine figures are not given to casual conversation. They don’t do a lot of listening, but they are always directing, and human beings do a lot of listening, to judge from Job’s experience.

            So, what is prayer, if one were wanting to describe it from biblical models? To judge from the model prayer Jesus taught his disciples (Matt 6:9-13=Luke 11:1-4), prayer consists of several elements all cast as petitions from the human side: hallow your name; bring in your rule; grant each of us our bread for the day; forgive us our sins; do not test us. Not much casual conversation or small talk in the prayer.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, “Why Doesn’t God Speak English?” Saturday April 16, 2022.

2Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Break-down of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976).

3Jaynes, Origin of Consciousness, 84-125. And

4Jaynes, Origins of Consciousness, 75.

5Jaynes, Origin of Consciousness, 294.

6The situation in 2 Cor 12:7-10 is not a portrayal of Paul in the act of praying with God’s “voice” depicted as responding. Paul is described as relating a prior experience of prayer, but in either case God was directing.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Can you be too Goal Oriented?

I think there is something to be said for just “chilling out”; that is, relax and let life happen. My late wife was fond of telling me, “Relax and smell the roses,” but I was always much too busy trying to meet a goal of one sort or another. Goals are inevitably terminal by design. Once accomplished (or unrealized) we move on to set others. Goals proliferate, but occasionally the unexpected happens rendering all our goals insignificant in the face of some life-changing event.

Every goal-oriented person has at least four general periods in which time-sensitive goals are set, whether s/he knows it or not. Quotidian goals are activities that open or mark a given day. For example, most of us set goals for ourselves to meet in our daily routine: such things as a healthy breakfast, socially acceptable hygiene, personal appearance, and on-time arrival at obligations, or job interview. Goals such as these are almost the basic minimum for successful living in community. It would not be easy to eliminate them.

Many of us set short-range goals for ourselves to accomplish in the near-time frame. For example, one becomes dissatisfied with one’s job and starts looking for another, or we decide we want new living accommodations and look for another space. Neither of these is achievable overnight but as short-term goals they might occupy us for weeks, if not months. Short-term goals are part of life’s inevitable change but they also upset our set routines.

Many of us also set long-range goals for ourselves that take years and a lot of work to accomplish, such as working toward college graduation or completing graduate school, or perhaps one wants to make a trip abroad, something that cannot be done in the near-term but by laying money aside and planning we might just be able to swing a vacation on that Greek island of our dreams at some point in the future. Long-term goals usually involve setting many short-term plans that must be met first.

Strategic goals, on the other hand, are something quite different. They come near the end of life and constitute something we have been planning all our lives. Likely the achieving of these goals will only become evident in retrospect. For example, the goal of having a comfortable retirement involves the realization of a great number of other objectives throughout life that require planning as well: what will my final annual retirement annuity be, what will be the amount of my savings upon retirement, will my investments be secure and prosper? A strategic goal is something that one will fret over all through one’s working years.

At some point, given time, we will also ponder our personal mortality. Another strategic goal, expressed here in the most general way, is the hope that we will be found to have satisfied the standards of the considerable powers of the universe with the time we were given. Some of us orient our lives around preparing for that moment of the “dying of the light”—others not so much. It is reported that even Jesus pondered his own mortality before his death (Mark 14:32-42), and the experience was greatly distressing and troubling to him (Mark 14:33-34).1 According to Mark, he acquiesced, by accepting the inevitability of the moment. It is a rational act to accept the inevitably of one’s death. Nevertheless, that does not mean we cannot still “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”2

My point in this odd essay is that if we are ambitious, goals are an inevitable part of life, and so is the end of life. Having too many goals, and the commitments they entail, can clutter our living with immeasurable minutiae, excessive pressure, and a great deal of time expenditure. Such a heavy investment of time may cause us to miss the wonder of Being altogether. So, find a way to relax, smell the roses, and chill out!

Here are three stanzas of a poem that is not writ in any book (perhaps wisely so). They express my own frustrations some years ago when I was feeling the pressure of too many irons in the fires of my own goal making. It seems obvious that I had too much on my plate.

Cloistered Space

Blessed be Free-Spaces

who bestow sanity and peace,

And Holy Passages-Between,

Who grants surcease

From demanding Musts

that loudly fill Silence

With shrill dis-ease,

Debilitating Indolence

Cursed be Duty and Decorum,

Twin Nemesis of Ease,

Those who plunder the House of Idleness

With loathsome and irritating Demands,

Omnivorous, crude, belching Time-Eaters,

Who forage in the Holidays

On Leisure and Repose.

Curse thee, we curse thee, we curse thee.

Oh, Blissful Solitude,

Irenic eye of Charybdis!

Bless us with Hiatus;

Seal us with infinite Vacuity.

From Thrall we seek release.

Baleful Locked-in,

She of the Ireful-Eye,

Chief Guard of Servitude.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Mark composed the story, inventing its dialogue, but there is a kernel of history at its core as a second witness attests (Heb 5:7).

2Dylan Thomas, “Do not go Gentle into that Good Night.”