In 2007, faith and scholarship seem a hard thing to mix. It’s as if there are lines on the social pavement. On the one extreme is atheistic science, zealous ‘superstitionists’ whose life work is the pursuit of (dis)proof. On the other extreme are the minions who live their lives in a kind of double-blind religious zealotry. Somewhere in the middle are the rest of us. —Thank goodness for Stephen Prothero. (Still need to get a copy of his book.)
The split, between the zealous and the zealous, has come to taint the process of learning. Too much learning, it is thought, can only result in a sort of profane nihilism. Yet too little learning, and pretty soon we’ll all be drinking the Koolaid.
In remedy, the Koolaid drinkers seek to carefully control all, the less you know the better. In contrast, science probes all, demanding all ‘disorders’ be disgorged from the body while the mind is forced to accept ‘reason.’ In the middle of this mess we have cheez whiz and twinkies, televangelism, and the evolution vs creationist debate.
There is a fear that serious study of the miraculous will ruin the mystical and metaphysical experience of spiritual worship. Or perhaps the fear is that study will reveal it. Yet there is a long tradition of men and women who have managed to mix extraordinary devotion and fastidious scholarship. People of all faiths. This is before it was about replacing faith with fact and turning church goers into factory workers. And as for me, I am sorry to see us trade the exploration of truth through metaphor, and songs of praise in the morning, for time cards and time clocks, ‘three minute workouts’ and prozac.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am grateful for the gifts of the age of reason, the age of industry, the scientific age. I’m glad not to be fearful of demons under the bed. I’m glad to have a flashlight so I can see the empty darkness for myself. But what now fills that space? Who gifted us with those particles and waves of light? Not science. Science only studied them.
Light is a gift from God. So when I shine that flashlight, when I am reassured that a demon cannot lurk there, I am also glad for the assurance that God is good, and that He has created a intricate and beautiful world. A world revealed both by knowledge and by light.
Recently, I purchased Thomas Cranmer’s The Book of Common Prayer, the one from Everyman’s Library with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s introduction.
[Note to Diarmaid MacCulloch: Your name rocks.]
This is my first brush with the book itself, though I’ve read plenty about it and Cranmer, its author. I was determined to dislike Cranmer’s work, because…well for a lot of reasons. Mostly he seemed to me to be an opportunistic man, and not necessarily a man driven by faith. He seemed more interested in gaining and cultivating power as an end, rather than restoring or nurturing faith as an end. Can such a man produce a ‘holy’ book?
Still, as I read through the book, I have to admit I find worth there. Does the worth spring up because this collection of words, at least in part, has been identified through the ages as being ‘of God’? Or because, like so many texts before it, it attempts to understand man’s relationship with God? With himself? His world? With other men?
Or maybe I just like the prayers?
Like this one, For Rain:
O God our heavenly Father, who by thy gracious providence dost cause the former and the latter rain to descend upon the earth, that it may bring forth fruit for the use of man: We give thee humble thanks that it hath pleased thee, in our great necessity, to send us at the last a joyful rain upon thine inheritance, and to refresh it when it was dry, to the great comfort of us they unworthy servants, and to the glory of thy holy Name; though thy mercies in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I love this little prayer. I love the idea of the “former and the latter rain,” though I am troubled by the concept of ‘providence’ when politicized. I love the image of “joyful rain,” though I worry about phrases like “unworthy servant” and “for use of man.” And I would dearly love to move biblical phraseology and metaphor out of the patristic and feudal ages!
Is it okay to see the prayer in its entirety, as a thing of beauty? Is it also okay to address the bits that trouble us? Because I believe that the study of something does not diminish it, not prayers, not religion, and not our world.
[Note to my sister Justyne: Thank you for your reminder that Jesus was a Teacher.]
For me, it is joyous to discover that living cells are not less miraculous because they are on a slide under the microscope. In fact, life blooms more miraculous when studied, because its elements and properties are even more deeply revealed to us. Study allows us to accumulate knowledge, yet life remains both unanswerable and unquestionable.
Unquestionable. Not in that questions cannot be asked, for they must be! But Unquestionable in that the questions themselves are unknowable, and so unutterable. We nibble at the edges. We are awed—but not ignorant or unthinking. We recognize ‘glory’ at its most basic and humble, and it so amazes our hearts and minds that with all our senses we expand to meet its mystery.
This, then, is why I like this prayer. It is far from perfect, yet it is touched by perfection. It acknowledges both human weakness and human strength. It is rooted in human concerns throughout history. It bends in gratitude for the gift of life through rain, and understands that this essential thing is ultimately a gift unknowable.
And I am grateful for it.
[Note to readers: You can download a PDF copy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer free from the internet here The PDF file is a copy of the work done by Lynda M. Howell, and she has an HTML version on her website.]
[Note to Ms. Howell: Thank you for making this work available!!]