Jacques Ellul’s ‘Prayer and Modern Man’
CHRISTIAN CLASSICS REVISITED
Does God answer prayer? Christians respond to such a query with a mixture of bewilderment and irritation. Who but unbelievers and those of little faith would even think to pose the question? One need only turn to the Gospel of St. Luke to find Christ’s unequivocal promise: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Secure in the promise, millions of Christians daily beseech God with unquestioning confidence that he will respond to their petitions. A cornucopia of riches awaits those of such unambiguous faith: for two millennia, the faithful have repeatedly testified that God touches the lame, the halt, and the blind, and they are healed; he speaks and the tormented mind is soothed; a question is answered, a need filled, a conundrum solved, a mystery revealed. The devout have no problem with prayer: they have witnessed the shattering of the mundane when God answers the prayers of his children.
One cannot easily gainsay such testimony if one believes in an omnipotent and loving God. Yet I am disquieted by questions that will not disappear. Does wish fulfillment cunningly disguise itself as the voice of God? Does self-delusion distort the minds of those who ask, seek, and knock? Do Christians pounce upon coincidence and proclaim it as evidence of divine intervention? Do they rely upon God for quick and painless solutions for what remain the ineluctable givens of human existence? Materialists and rationalists settle the matter with little difficulty: There is no God; man’s prayers ascend into a cold and empty empyrean that stretches to infinity. As Sigmund Freud insisted, man fabricates the deity to whom he prays.
To be troubled by the means and ends of prayer does not lead one inevitably to assent to Freud’s banishing of God from the cosmos. The greater danger arises from the temptation to ask: Why pray at all? Why bother with an act that has often been perverted by Christians to serve their own narrow desires? Georges Bernanos once wrote that “the wish to pray is a prayer in itself…God can ask no more than that of us”; true in a limited sense, but for most Christians the act of prayer — the active seeking out of God — is an absolute necessity. One cannot lead the Christian life without it.
Jacques Ellul, the French sociologist and Reformed theologian, turns his attention to this problem of prayer in a book entitled Prayer and Modern Man, a volume published in the U.S. in 1973. Ellul brings to this topic the immense erudition and acute discernment with which, in a score or more of books published since World War II, he has analyzed the sociological and spiritual plight of modern Western man. Political ideologues of both Left and Right grow uneasy when confronted with Ellul’s books; neither can easily peg him as friend or foe. Ellul causes similar consternation among religious thinkers: his belief in universal salvation offends the orthodox — be they Catholic or Protestant — and his adherence to a God of might and majesty (what the poet John Crowe Ransom called a “God of Thunder”) dismays the heterodox. Onetime Calvinist, quondam Marxist, now best described as simply a Christian, Ellul has pursued the meaning of man’s relation to society and God with a tough-minded integrity that makes him a party of one, standing alone amidst the proclamations of independence shouted by thinkers who follow the herd while deluding themselves into believing they are leading it.
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