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.


Marcia said...

Prayer is usually a petition; we are either praying for God to do something or asking God to keep something from happening, which puts God somewhere between Santa Claus and the Bogeyman. I’ve thought a lot about prayer, faith, and what I believe. Our mutual friend John White suggests a better synonym for faith is trust, not belief, which in a convoluted way, brings me back to prayer. As far as I know, God hasn’t spoken to me, so we haven’t had a conversation, as such, but I like ritual, and I find something comforting in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I’m leery of praying for specifics—what if my petition falls on deaf ears? Is it me? Was it something I said? Did wrong? Is there anybody there? But if I don’t remember my family, my friends, who will? Mostly, I just concentrate on thinking about people and their cares and concerns, as far as I am aware of them. If nothing else, it takes the focus off myself, and that can’t be a bad thing.


Anonymous said...

I bought the book on the bicameral mind when it was published. Both my wife and I read and discussed it, and continually come back to it. It is still on the shelves.

In my memoir I recount two occurrences of my hearing a voice in my head. I thought of it not as God but as the deepest part of my sub-conscious speaking to me with some urgency. The first time was after we sent our second daughter off to college. I was repairing the railing on our back porch stairs (certainly a Biblical setting for a "call") and a voice said "This is your life." I knew it meant that I and my wife had work to do for our new childless lives.

The second time was during a communion service in our congregation outside Louisville KY, after I was told that I was being downsized (actually it was "rightsized") from the PCUSA headquarters. The voice came during prayer and so consequently I have always suggested that prayer wasn't speaking to God but listening to God. I don't remember the words but they were encouraging about moving on to greater responsibilities at that time. (I became a presbytery exec and stated clerk a few months later.)

Denny Maher

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

On the subject of whether prayer is a conversation with God, you might be interested in Tanya Luhrmann's research on what evangelicals are doing when they pray, which she has posted on her webpage. She also has a book called When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. She offers a very plausible explanation for how some people come to think that they occasionally hear the voice of God in their head.


Anonymous said...

Prayer I’ve heard is usually a request asking a supernatural force to intercede in the bumps & bruises of the natural world. For a more or less modern worldview, this seems to mix reality with superstition. Prayer of that sort seems like an appeal for a deus ex machina to drop from the heavens to the stage and save the protagonist. There are other purposes of prayer (thanksgiving & praise), but these seem generically included in the prayer. I see prayer as the verbalizing of a wish or hope, but not as communion or conversation with anyone but the one praying and, when applicable, those mortals hearing (like at sporting events or in churches).

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.