Would Prayer Be Worthwhile?

Would prayer still be worth doing if it had no benefits either for the person doing the praying, for the person being prayed for, or for the God who’s being prayed to? At bottom, what is the reason for praying?

There’s a fun little debate that sometimes arises between Christians: do we pray for God’s sake or for our own? Do we pray so that we will be happy, so that God can give us good things? Or do we pray to make God happy, because God wants to be glorified and our prayer gives God glory?

Even if we believe that there are benefits to be had for every party, the question is still important, and there is indeed at least a case to be made for each side.

“Obviously it’s all about God,” one side will say. If we’re doing our praying for selfish reasons then we put ourselves above God, we make God merely a means to our own ends, we treat God not as God but as a subservient genie who relates to us as the granter of our wishes, however narrow our view of the benefits that stand to be gained from prayer. That’s all quite antithetical to the life of faith.

“Obviously we don’t do it for God’s sake,” the other side will scoff, quite reasonably. God doesn’t need us and God doesn’t need anything from us. God is absolutely complete, lacking nothing, able to receive nothing from us which we ourselves didn’t first receive from God. God is outside of time, eternally unaffected by the ever-changing affairs of human experience. What hubris, to believe that anything we do can in any way improve or detract from the superabundant glory and goodness of God.

As with all matters pertaining to divinity, the capacity of language starts to break down as we get closer to the truth, and so both of these positions, while true enough in themselves, don’t quite manage to grasp the whole truth. Still, I am convinced that it is a good exercise to try to pin down what the reason for praying might be, if we aren’t doing it just for the benefits it might confer on us, and if we aren’t doing it on account of its necessity to or benefit for God.

If we’ve ruled out utilitarian motivations for the moment, what about deontology, and what about virtue ethics? It seems to me that both of these approaches offer a superior account of the reason for praying.

Prayer is a duty. Even if praying brought us nothing but disaster and grief, and even if praying in fact did nothing but degrade God’s honour by pulling the divine down into association with our finitude and sinfulness, we would still be obligated to offer God our prayer and worship, if we accept the classical account of theism. God is the source of our existence and everything good in our lives, and to recognize that as often as possible is only just.

Prayer is virtuous. It is the natural expression of a rightly ordered soul, an unavoidable product of the gratitude, the awe, the terror, the desire that arise within those who are in any measure good and just and wise.

Awareness of God belongs by right in the realm of human existence, and prayer is both an instance of such awareness and also a prompt that helps prevent us from losing such awareness. That is the core of why we pray.

Benefits of Zettelkasten

Last summer a friend of mine introduced me to something called Zettelkasten. It’s a bit difficult to grasp and not the easiest thing to get started on, but once established it confers many amazing benefits. I won’t talk here about what exactly it is or how it works, though some of that will come out in my remarks; if you’re interested to learn more, you’ll have to do some digging, I’m afraid. But I wanted to spend some time reflecting on why it’s become one of the habits that I’m most excited about lately.

There are three interconnected things that together have made me really happy with Zettelkasten and interested in doing more with it.

The first thing is the Zettelkasten itself that is generated as a result of the habit, the network of usable bits of knowledge that will be available to me for the rest of my life (or for however long I have access to the Obsidian app, at least). It’s different from taking notes for a single time-limited project that will disappear once it’s finished (like an essay or a thesis), because such projects can offer only short-term incentive and short-term benefits.

It’s also not like reading for pleasure or for interest and hoping (futilely) that later on I’ll basically remember what I read, or at least remember where I read it so that I can go back and refresh my memory. Doing that isn’t completely pointless, but sometimes it feels like trying to fill up a bottomless hole.

Working on Zettelkasten, by contrast, feels more like attempting a giant paint-by-numbers picture. It’s still a daunting task, but you can focus on one corner of the picture for a while and fill it out and it’ll look pretty good, and once it’s done you can go back and enjoy that section whenever you want. And if you get inspired to wander around and fill in other random bits of the picture it might not look so impressive in the moment, but that’s still getting you closer to filling in the picture as a whole, and you can always go back later and work on the stuff around those bits when you want.

The second thing I like about Zettelkasten is that it gives me more reason to find and to read good research. Having the confidence that what I learn in my reading will still be there whenever I need it later on, makes it less difficult to find the motivation to search for the sorts of things that belong in my Zettelkasten. They’re the things I’d want to be reading anyways, but before now I would have found it impossible to make the time to find them and read carefully through them (and the process of digesting them into the Zettelkasten certainly does force me to read them quite a bit more carefully than I otherwise would, which is another benefit).

And then the third thing, the least of the three but still an important one, is how Zettelkasten gives flexibility for being able to move the individual bits of knowledge around and make connections between them. Everything else I’ve said so far would be just as true if I was only reading articles and writing down what I learn in a notebook, but while in some ways that would be a lot easier, it wouldn’t be as satisfying or as useful. Being able to move bits around as needed and to draw connections at will, means that when I come back to all this work a year later or five years later it will be more convenient and workable, and less of a chore to refamiliarize myself with my notes and find my way around them.

If you’ve never heard of Zettelkasten, I encourage you to check it out. If you have heard of it but weren’t sure whether it’s really worth the effort to get it up and running, I encourage you to give it a shot.

Push Yourself Without Injury

Everyone knows that if you train your body too hard, you can hurt yourself. Too much too soon, of cardio or weights or whatever it might be, will do damage, and might undo any of the benefits acquired from the exercise.

It’s easier for us to forget that the same thing can happen in the brain. If we push ourselves too hard mentally, we can get to the point where it habitually hurts to think or concentrate, where we are afraid to think and will avoid it when we can because of the pain it brings. I’ve been there too. I was intellectually (or at least academically) ambitious when I was younger and constantly pushed myself and, looking back, I was often in this state.

These sorts of incidents need to be minimized. When we get inspired and want to do great things we think we need to work harder, longer, with fewer breaks, until we reach our goal. Many motivational speakers say as much. That’s where we start.

But that’s not the way to succeed. If we push ourselves too hard, and we hurt ourselves, we end up losing more time than we gained. If you’re lifting weights and you hurt your shoulder and it takes months to get back to the full functionality needed for an exercise routine, then pushing hard cost far more than it profited.

And it’s entirely possible that once the injury heals, even then we won’t be back on track. That sort of setback steals momentum, steals motivation. It could be years before the pain and shame have faded enough to allow a new flash of inspiration to start the whole process over again.

There are two extremes, and the vast majority of us jump from extreme to extreme on the things we care most about. We try too hard and hurt ourselves, or we give up and stop trying because even our best efforts end in ruin.

The solution, the middle path, is to push ourselves and avoid injury. That probably means having an easy baseline, a bare minimum that we will never fall below, but which we can fall back to whenever we need without guilt. And from that baseline, we can push ourselves to do more, when we’re ready, while being careful not to hurt ourselves.

It’s so easy, so simple, so obvious, and so effective. It’s also astonishingly rare. For some reason, this middle path doesn’t come naturally to us. I believe that applying this approach consistently is the key to lifelong progress toward our goals.

Manliness and More

Different people will mean different things by a word like “manliness,” but one possible interpretation treats the word as referring to a virtue, or a constellation of virtues. Roughly speaking, the idea here would be that there are certain virtues which are good for their own sake without reference to a person’s sex, but which seem to be, on average, more readily acquired by men than women and so have built up a conventional association with masculinity. (See the end of this post for a few caveats and clarifications.)

In a society of minimal virtue, with little love for moral excellence, an admiration of manliness can be a good thing. Men can be made more easily ashamed at having a lack of manly virtue, and conversely, we can be more easily inspired at the thought of progressing in manliness, more easily made proud of our accomplishments in that arena.

If the choice is between no virtue and manly virtue, as the choice very often is, then it’s a clear decision. Manliness must win out, should be fostered and celebrated. It can be the starting point for a journey of virtue, the foundation for a lifetime of further moral growth.

It’s important not to forget, however, that manliness is neither the entirety of virtue nor the highest part of it. We shouldn’t spend our whole lives focused only on manliness, or assume that the attainment of manliness means the end of our moral striving.

Manliness is only one part of virtue, and if we’re honest with ourselves, it is a fairly brutish portion of the moral life. It is the domain of aggression, swagger, courage, confidence, conquest, strength. There is a place for all this, and in particular an important place for it within a context where traditional social safeguards are breaking down or endangered for some reason. But virtue is much bigger than just this one element.

Manliness should be encouraged, but on top of it gentlemanliness, and where possible, philosophical wholeness. For Plato, only the true philosopher is able to attain real justice and virtue. That should be the goal. For some who are overly concerned with manliness, that goal will be forever out of reach, either because of a fear that philosophy will appear insufficiently manly to onlookers, or out of an apathy generated by philosophy’s apparently inadequate preoccupation with masculine things, or on account of a misguided conviction that only clearly manly things can qualify as true philosophy. To set out with these motivations or assumptions is to travel with blinders on, blinders that will sooner or later hinder us in the pursuit of virtue and wisdom.

In all these cases, a fixation on manliness becomes not a spur but an obstacle to growth in virtue, and that is a great misfortune.

Some clarifying thoughts: To speak of “manliness” as a virtue doesn’t mean that what most men do is virtuous, or that a thing is virtuous because men do it, or that what women do is less virtuous, or that conventionally masculine pursuits are natural rather than conventional. A woman can have an abundance of the virtues associated with masculinity and when that happens it’s a good thing, though subject to the same dangers and temptations that are present for men who possess an abundance of it. There are virtues that come more easily to women than to men, and it is likewise a good thing when men can attain those virtues. Just as there are virtues that may be more closely associated with men, there are vices as well, and probably many more vices than virtues. The distinctively masculine vices are, not infrequently, twisted versions of masculine virtues (warped either through excess or deficiency).

Multiple Possible Interpretations

I think the most important starting point for a fruitful philosophical or intellectual discussion is when each side begins with the recognition that the other side holds a possible, plausible, basically irrefutable interpretive option.

Now, two plus two is four, of course. Anyone disagreeing with that is probably just mistaken. But that’s not what people will generally argue about.

Any event in the past can be explained fully and satisfactorily by innumerable interpretations. It’s possible that little George Washington told the truth about the cherry tree, as the folk story claims. It’s possible that there never was a cherry tree to tell the truth about, and that some later hagiographer made the whole story up ex nihilo. Either version is possible, and each explains the evidence perfectly well.

But those two alternatives don’t exhaust all the possibilities, either. It could be that there was another young person named George Washington who chopped down the tree and the two people were later conflated. It could be that George Washington chopped down the tree and then lied about it but then he or someone else later amended the story to make him look more trustworthy. It could be that the cherry tree story is actually the only true kernel of knowledge that we have about George Washington’s life and that everything else we think we know about his story is nothing but a web of lies woven by early American propagandists.

Those possibilities can’t all be true. They certainly aren’t all equally plausible. But if we want to have an honest conversation between people who disagree, we would need to be able to recognize that they are all possible, that they do indeed all explain the available evidence (or at least they can be made to explain all the evidence), and that they each even have advantages over the others in making sense of what happened. Not one of them can ever be ruled out absolutely, only (at best) shown to be too unlikely for a reasonable person to accept.

This is not something that happens only with events in the past, either. Events in the past are more or less static, usually without a lot of new information coming out about them. Things happening in the present are much more fluid and confusing, and expectations of things in the future are entirely indeterminate. The problem only grows more acute.

Even when we are talking about economics or political theory or natural science, we find ourselves confronted with the same challenge. The reason we gave up on the Ptolemaic model of the universe isn’t because it stopped working. It needed some complicated amendments to remain true to reality, but right up to the point it was abandoned it was able to be articulated in a way that accounted for all our observations. I’m sure that if someone wanted to, it would be possible (though no doubt tedious and difficult) to update it so that it could still explain all the observed phenomena of the physical universe perfectly well.

So then we admit that all the explanations are possible but we just have to gravitate toward whatever is the simplest explanation for what we’ve observed, right? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy either. Each person will always be able to find a way to make a preferred account appear simplest from some standpoint, and even whichever is actually objectively simplest (however we’d choose to measure that) has no guarantee of being actually true.

The best thing we can do, I suspect, is to recognize that each explanation is possible and that each will have advantages and disadvantages that have to be weighed against one another, and then to make the best effort we can at seeking truth and being fairminded in a given instance.

And a conversation partner who isn’t willing to commit to such an approach alongside us is, really, no conversation partner at all.

Hearing as Proof of Understanding

If I try to listen to a German audiobook, I strain after phrases and words, picking up little bits with great effort, not able to hold on to the entirety of what is going on well enough to understand it. I’m just not yet good enough to do with German what I could easily do in English.

Something similar happens when I listen to Plotinus’s Enneads in audiobook format. I can pick up phrases and sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, and make sense of them, but it takes real effort and even then I can’t piece them together into a meaningful whole as I’d like to.

I can puzzle out a German passage if it’s on the page in front of me, given that it doesn’t have any vocabulary that’s too unfamiliar. A year and a half of studying German in my downtime has given me that much.

And I can generally follow along with Plotinus’s argumentation when I’m staring at the text. I’ve read enough of him, and about him and the Neoplatonic school, that I am able to see (more or less clearly) what he is trying to say when I can take the time.

Still, there’s no reason why audiobooks should be absolutely unworkable. Someone unfamiliar with Luther’s thoughts and situation and vocabulary might find it very puzzling to listen to something written by him — and yet, I listened to a twelve-hour-long audiobook by him without difficulty, because I’ve studied his thought deeply enough to be able to follow along. I just haven’t quite reached that point yet with Plotinus.

The same is true with second languages. I have friends who learned French as adults, who can follow along with a French radio show or audiobook with little effort. If I keep working on German, and on the other languages I’ve chosen, then eventually I could reach that level of proficiency as well.

For the languages I’m learning, and also for Plotinus, I look forward to the day when I can listen and, in listening, understand. Not only will that give me another angle by which I can continue learning and improving in those objects of study; it will also be a sign of how far along I’ve already managed to come just by being able to listen and understand. It’s a good benchmark to be able to aim for.

Formerly-Christian Celebrities and the Spirituality of Secrecy

I have a theory about non-Christians and former Christians. I believe that some of them, though of course certainly not all, are secretly, consciously Christian.

I believe this because of a teaching of Christ that I think of as the “spirituality of secrecy.” This is the teaching which shows up in the sermon on the mount, when Jesus says that we shouldn’t put ash on hair when we fast, shouldn’t announce our almsgiving with the sound of trumpets, shouldn’t pray on streetcorners but in closets.

A radical way to live out this teaching, a path that would require a depth of faith that I myself cannot imagine, would be to make oneself an apostate in the eyes of the world, while remaining fervently faithful in the secrecy of the heart.

This would be to embrace the life of the hypothetical just man of Plato’s Republic, who remains just even when any temporal advantages of righteousness (such as a good reputation or safety from the fate of lawbreakers) are removed. They would willingly accept that fate for themselves, as their Lord accepted a similar one.

I believe there are secret Christians, whose love of God is on a scale that most of us could never fathom. I believe the greatest saints are probably people whose names will never be known to the world, or who will if anything be known for their estrangement from the Christian community.

I will never know who those people are. I like to imagine that it is any person I know who rejects the label of Christian, or who embraces the label of bad Christian. But by definition, I’ll never find out in this life.

There are some Christian celebrities who exit the faith in a highly visible and public manner. Musicians, novelists, spiritual gurus. I have a few in mind as I write this. I can’t help but wonder if some of them might belong to this group, if the mixed motivations of being a professional Christian, a celebrity worshipper, pushed them to make a decision that would take away all motivations to pray except the purest one.