Prayer When Up Isn’t Up

October 26, 2003



Prayer When Up Isn’t Up (10/26/03)

Rev. Gary Cox – Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This morning’s sermon is actually the completion of last week’s sermon, which was called The Integral Worldview. I want to take a little time and recap some points from that sermon, because if I don’t, today’s message will make no sense whatsoever to those of you who were not here last week. And frankly, this is a very complex subject—the rest of us could probably use an overview as well. I’ve been reading about the idea of an integral worldview for several years, and while I have come to believe it is the most accurate worldview, I still find myself falling back into other ways of thinking about the universe.

And that’s a good place to start. A worldview is the way a person views the world. It’s the way one sees the universe. It’s the way a person thinks about life, and death, and atoms, and galaxies, and time, and space. It’s how we decide what’s real and what’s not. According to theologian Walter Wink, there are five basic worldviews: the ancient worldview, the spiritualist worldview, the materialist worldview, the theological worldview, and the integral worldview.

Now, a big part of what we’re wrestling with here is the relationship between matter and spirit, or as some like to say, between heaven and earth. We each have some basic assumptions about what’s going on here. Why are we here? Where are we going? What is the relationship between my body, my mind and my spirit? Each of us has a worldview, even if we never really stop to think about it, or never put it into a succinct formula.
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Last week, after examining each of the worldviews, I said that this morning we would ask how to pray if we accept an integral worldview. I think the best way to do this is to go back and overview each of the worldviews, and consider how a person with each particular worldview might pray.

First, there is the ancient worldview. For the ancients, the world was flat and stationary. What lay beneath the earth was hard to tell, but probably had something to do with death. And clearly, heaven was up. The spiritual realm, or heavenly realm, and the material realm, were separate, but closely related. When something happened on earth, something also happened in heaven. If good and evil were battling each other on some military battlefield, then the cosmic powers of good and evil were also at war in heaven.

This is the worldview of those who wrote the Bible. That does not take away from their insights into the truth of things. The ancients, from Plato and Aristotle to the authors of the Hebrew Bible and the writers of the New Testament, had brilliant understandings of the relationship between body, mind and spirit. But because of the way they understood the universe—with a flat earth and a heaven that was clearly up there—the spatial metaphors they used to describe the truth were up and down.

Where is God? Up in heaven. An angel came down from heaven and placed the child of God within Mary’s womb. Jesus, after he was crucified, went back up to heaven. The problem begins when we take those ancient metaphors and insist they are literally true. As anybody with a telescope can tell you, there is no such thing as up. When we point up, we are pointing in the opposite direction that we will be pointing if we point up in twelve hours, when the earth has rotated 180 degrees on its axis. This universe is vast, and complex, and spinning about in ways we scarcely understand. Up and down are concepts that work just fine when we sit together in a room such as this. They get lost when we look at the whole universe.

But for the ancients, it was easiest to conceive of God as a being out there—up there—somewhere. And how would one pray to such a God? Well, you would envision something that looked like a human being. It would most likely be a male, with a manly beard and great strength and power. And you would either look to the sky, or fall to your knees, and you would speak to that God the way a child talks to his or her father. This would be, after all, your daddy-in-the-sky.

That worldview is persistent. Because even though the world of science and physics have blown apart this notion of the universe and this understanding of God, it is still the way most people think of God. When we pray, we typically think of something—somebody—out there somewhere who is listening in on our prayers. And that’s okay. There is certainly nothing wrong with praying like that, because God hears all prayer, regardless of the manner in which it is rendered.

And prayer is important and effective with the ancient worldview, because that worldview contains a great truth. There is a heavenly dimension that goes along with our physical world, and when we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are calling on that spiritual world of possibilities; we are opening ourselves to a truth that is not readily apparent. And our dated metaphor does not squelch the power of prayer.

But for many of us, the worldview itself is simply unacceptable. We refuse to put away our telescopes. And even though we don’t find God sitting on some cloud, that doesn’t mean we do away with our belief—our faith—in God. And we certainly don’t give up on prayer.

A second worldview is called the spiritualist worldview. As we discussed last week, this worldview still persists throughout Christian faith, even though it was found to be heretical over the centuries. The spiritualist worldview agrees with the ancient worldview that there is a material reality and a spiritual reality—heaven and earth. But this view claims that the physical world is bad. According to the spiritualist worldview, we are beautiful spirits who have been tragically imprisoned in these terrible physical bodies. And the purpose of life is escape.

When you see Christians turning away from the problems of the world and consoling themselves with the notion that everything will be just fine and dandy after they die, that is a corruption of the faith. And it’s not that we don’t believe there is something beyond life in this world; it’s just that the Christian faith insists that life in this world is just as important as any life to come. And life in this world is good, and beautiful, because God created it with love and wisdom.

How does one pray if he or she adheres to the spiritualist worldview? Well, you would not pray for healing, or justice for the oppressed, or a joyful life. You would pray for the strength to hang on until that glorious day when you are at last free of this wretched human body and enjoying the bliss of the great beyond. And the God who hears those prayers—what is that God like? First, one has to wonder why that God saw fit to create a universe of matter if all matter is bad. And why would God trap us in these bodies? With this worldview, life isn’t a gift—it’s a trap! And this God is inscrutable, and something to be feared. But this God is also the rescuer. This God is the God who has no time for our questions, but who will rescue us if we adhere to the proper religion. I think we can agree, this is exactly the God to whom many of our Christian friends pray.

The third worldview is the materialist worldview. It is actually the most common worldview for people in the Western World. Remember, the ancient worldview said that heaven and earth are always in relation to each other; the spiritualist worldview drove a wedge between heaven and earth and said, “Heaven good, earth bad.” The materialist also drives a wedge between heaven and earth, but the materialist says, “Earth is real, heaven does not exist.”

This is the worldview many of us have inherited. We live in a world where the ideas of God, spirit, and soul have been pushed to the margins. It’s okay to think about that stuff, but just make sure you’re at a special place when you do it—either a church, or mosque, or synagogue. Polite company would never discuss such things publicly, because anybody with a decent scientific mind—a mind unafraid of the truth—knows that all that religion stuff is a bunch of superstitious nonsense. The materialist worldview is simple, really: if we can’t taste it, smell it, touch it, hear it or see it; and if we can’t reason it from a purely empirical and logical sense; then it does not exist.

Honest prayer is almost impossible with this worldview. We can drop to our knees, and we can start talking, but we know in our hearts that the daddy-in-the-sky isn’t up there. We might as well be blowing soap bubbles. Prayer is a joke. It would make just as much sense for me to invent an imaginary friend and talk to him for a while. For a person with the materialist worldview, that imaginary friend would be just as real as God.

And that leads us to a fourth worldview: the theological worldview. The theological worldview is a response to the materialist worldview. The materialist says, “There’s no such thing as spirit, soul, or God. And you can’t take any of the available scientific instruments and prove there is.” And we can’t! We can’t measure love, and beauty, and spirit, in any sort of quantifiable way. So people with the theological worldview say, “Well, science and theology are asking two different questions. Science asks how things happen, and attempts to measure them. Theology asks why things happen, and looks for meaning beneath the surface of things.”

Most of us have adopted some variation of this worldview. We let science and religion address different questions. And there is some value in thinking that way, but it has some problems, especially when taken to its extremes. The materialists are happy with those who accept the theological worldview, because they figure the theologians are out of their hair, living in some sort of illusion. “Sure—you guys go ahead and study God over there in your field, and we’ll study things that are real over here.”

And then, all too often, people with the theological worldview get stubborn, and insist that science can never stand between them and their religious beliefs. These are often the folks who say the universe was created in 4004 B.C. They’ve added up the ages of all those biblical characters, and decided God took precisely six days to create the universe, and he did it 6007 years ago. And if you think you’ve found dinosaur bones that are millions of years old, or starlight that is billions of years old, then it is you, Mr. Scientist, who is living an illusion.

And what type of God does this person pray to? What sort of God is implied by the extreme version of the theological worldview? Well, this God is a bit of a trickster. This God gives you the brains to see how things are, and then insists you don’t believe your own eyes—eyes which God gave you to see those things with in the first place!

One thing is certain. Like the ancient worldview and the spiritualist worldview, the theological worldview makes us think of God as something out there somewhere. God is wholly separate from us. God is out there, up there, somewhere far, far away. And the prayers we send to this God are the types of prayers we would ask of our big, strong father, who will hear those prayers, and then decide whether or not it is his will to answer them.

And that leads us to the integral worldview. It is called the integral worldview because it seeks to integrate matter and spirit—heaven and earth. Remember, according to the theological worldview, there are two types of truth: spiritual truth and physical truth. Religion seeks spiritual truth, and science seeks material truth. The integral worldview makes this simple claim: Truth is truth. There is only a single universe, and there is only one truth that permeates the universe.

There are some helpful metaphors for thinking about worldviews, and I want to share a few of them with you. Like all metaphors, they sort of point toward the truth, but fall apart if you insist on overanalyzing them. First, consider the materialist worldview. Envision a ball—a lone ball sitting in a totally empty universe. That is the materialist worldview. There is only the material world—nothing else.

Now consider the other three worldviews we’ve examined—the ancient, spiritualist and theological. For each of those worldviews you can envision two balls. One represents the material world, and one represents the spiritual world; one earth and one heaven; one God and one creation; but in all three of those worldviews there is a substantial difference between matter and spirit.

Now. To think of the integral worldview, we have to think in an entirely knew way. We have to get rid of that notion of a ball or balls altogether. We need a new metaphor. Instead of a ball, how about envisioning a lone coin sitting in an otherwise empty universe. Spirit and matter—God and creation—each form a side of the one coin. One side could not exist without the other. And yet, if we were to somehow stand on one side of the coin and look for the other, we would never see it. We could look to the limits of the universe—we could look at every square inch of the material side of the coin on which we stand—and we would never see the spirit side, even though the spirit side would be built into the very ground on which we stand, as close as the ground beneath our feet, as near as our breath.

One of the most popular metaphors for an integral universe is the Moebius strip. A Moebius strip is a simple thing, but as I was putting this sermon together I discovered it is very difficult to describe with words. Most of us have seen a Moebius strip. You can make one by taking a long, narrow sheet of paper, twisting it once, and taping the ends together. It is a sort of symbol of eternity. If you could travel along a Moebius strip, you would end up covering both sides of the paper. After one revolution you would be back at the same spot, only on the opposite side of the paper. After another revolution, you would be back where you started. The two sides of the Moebius strip represent matter and spirit. They are different, but they form a single reality. One cannot exist without the other. Yet, wherever you are on the Moebius strip, and however far you look in either direction, you cannot tell the opposite side is there.

If that metaphor helps, fine. If not, please don’t give yourself a headache. As I mentioned, metaphors only work to give us a glimpse of the truth.

The most important metaphor is the one we probably need to get rid of—up and down. We have to replace that metaphor with out and in. The integral worldview holds that this point of consciousness that comprises who and what we are can be thought of as the center of the universe. From here outward, the universe seemingly goes forever. But the same can be said for here inward. Is God out there? Yes. But no more than God is in here. God stretches eternally in both directions.

Another metaphor—my favorite metaphor for an integral universe. Envision a box with lots of tiny holes punched in it. Now, place the box over a bright light bulb, and turn off all the other lights in the room. You would see lots of tiny points of light—shafts of light—coming from the box. The light is God. Each of those tiny points of light is one of us.

We have our existence here on the outside of the box, looking outward. But when we look within, we realize that we are all one. We are all part of the same reality, and the foundation of that reality is God. God isn’t so much up there as God is in here—and in there, and in there. Remember the great words of the Apostle Paul—It is in God that we live, and move, and have our being.

How do we pray to such a God? How do we pray when up isn’t up? How do we pray when we pull back the curtain to see God, and suddenly realize that God isn’t out there beyond the curtain—God is in the curtain; God is in the hand that pulls the curtain; God is in the eye that sees the hand pull the curtain.

With this worldview—the integral worldview—prayer becomes central. Hopefully, life itself becomes a prayer. Spirit forms the very foundation of everything. Each person is not like a solitary billiard ball moving autonomously through our life. We’re all part of the same whole, made from the same stuff, children of the same light. And while God remains a mystery, prayer becomes something more amazing than we could have previously imagined.

Walter Wink writes, In such a world, we no longer know the limits of the possible. Therefore we pray for whatever we feel is right and leave the outcome to God. We live in expectation of miracles in a world re-enchanted with wonder.

Well, time to take a deep breath. This has been a couple of pretty challenging weeks, for you and for me. But sometimes it’s good for all of us to stretch ourselves a bit—to rethink some of our basic assumptions. I do believe the words of Jesus—that we are meant to worship God in spirit and in truth. And I believe that honest thinking, and a prayerful heart, are important parts of that.

Still, I recognize that people conceive of God in different ways, and no one has the final say. So I leave you with three short and simple thoughts that I honestly believe are true: First, God loves us, more than we could ever imagine. Second, regardless of how we conceive of God, all we can give to God in return for this gift of life is a grateful heart; and third, if we love life, and love others, we’ve done all God asks us to do.