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On Praying to an Abstract God

When a priest, rabbi, or minister is asked to offer a blessing at some public event – something that happens less and less frequently these days – how should he pray on that occasion? Should he pray as he normally does in his congregation? Or should he assume the role of a “general” cleric who, along with his audience, abstracts from the way he prays before his own assembly?

This issue is not St. Paul before the Athenians “unknown” god for whom he presumed to speak. (Acts 17:23) The “unknown” god in Greece was not an “abstraction.” He was presumed to be an existing entity whose exact dimensions had not yet been figured out by the locals. The Hebrew God defined Himself as “I am”­ – no abstraction.

No “general cleric” assigned to no specific group exists in our law or customs. In the military, chaplains of differing denominations are expected to pray at certain general occasions when all troops are required to be present. Each recognized clergyman belongs to some denomination that, in turn, authorizes his ecclesial function.

“Atheist” clergymen and even a “Satanic” religion have recently appeared. Some 20,000-30,000 Protestant congregations are said to exist. Few suppose an equivalent number of gods, though pagans had quite a few, as do Hindus. Usually in polytheistic situations, we find greater and lesser gods.

This country has no official religion. It does (or did) encourage and respect most religions that have no obvious flaws. It prefers that each clergyman pray after the manner of his own religion. We all agree to listen respectfully, even if it is not exactly our way.

Trinity icon by Andrey Rublev, c. 1400 [Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

The more recent claim is that, because I “disagree” with a given religion, it is offensive to me to “hear” any prayer in public that I do not like. (Catholics once used this argument about prayer in public schools). Therefore, no public prayer should be allowed because someone is offended by most anything. This understanding is simply a form of censorship exercised in the name of my view of the gods. It is contrary to the meaning of religion in this country where no “abstract” god is recognized. We can, however, as an act of mercy, ask a cleric used to giving hour-long invocations to cut it to two or three minutes without offending anyone’s deepest convictions.

But what concerns me here is the notion that, if we abstract enough from particular beliefs about God, we will eventually arrive at some “god” on whom we can all agree. We can then appoint some empty-minded clergyman to represent him before all the people, none of whom has anything specific to uphold about the nature of the divinity.

Citizens now apparently have a prior “right” not to hear anything about any gods if it is upsetting to any member of the citizenry. Vague assurances are given that this abstract “god” to whom the clergymen address our petitions can be “worshiped” by everyone. This public “god” refers to some abstraction about which nothing much can be said.

Researchers assure us that, in human history, including today, most people believe in a God of some sort. The current problems usually arise over whether we can all believe in the same entity that the Muslims call Allah. Here is where the abstraction problem most comes to the fore.

Allah is one. The Qur’an specifically tells us that Christ was not divine, was not crucified, and that the Trinity is polytheism. To affirm these teachings constitutes blasphemy. Islam comes after Christianity in time. For Muslims, it corrects Christianity’s basic errors.

In order to foster “dialogue” and “peace,” however, we are told that all religions at bottom worship the same God. This proposition seems highly unlikely on the basis of actual text and experience.

We are told that, if we abstract from the differences in religions, we arrive back to a common source. Either all Abrahamic religions or all religions once held to this one and the same God, Allah, in this case. Therefore, we all “believe” in the same God. All we have to do is prescind from the specific beliefs of any given religion, which were “later” additions.

This abstract god rejects “violence.” Logically, when a religion does specify that violence can be used in the name of its god, it cannot be a religion. It must be called a sect of terrorists or something to that effect. If what is revealed does promote violence, then either religion is false, or the theory that no religion promotes violence is in error.

So, can we pray to an abstract “god” hoping thereby to avoid any judgment about what god, in particular, we believe in? I suspect not. We cannot avoid the logos, the God that is, by abstracting all the elements that reveal God to be God, or which, on the contrary, make it clear that this particular god is not God.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.