PILGRIM

 

Words of Past Experience

Prayer as a Political Problem (1965)

Jean Daniélou (1905-1974) - Neuilly-sur-Seine and Paris, France

 

The following text is excerpted from L'Oraison Problème Politique (Paris: Fayard, 1965) as translated by J.R. Kirwan (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967). The text appears on pages 23-42 of Kirwan's edition.

 

 

Public policy and prayer are two realities not usually brought together.... [I]t seems to me essential to make it clear -- perhaps somewhat provocatively -- that there can be no radical division between civilization and what belongs to the interior being of man; that there must be a dialogue between prayer and the pursuit and realization of public policy; that both the one and the other are necessary and in a sense complementary. In other words, there cannot be a civilization in which prayer is not represented; besides, prayer depends on civilization....

 

The way in which the problems of religion and civilization depend upon each other is shown most clearly in the difficulties experienced in the spiritual life of contemporary man. We all feel that spiritual experience, prayer, is in danger today. For us, who consider that man's relationship to God is an essential part of human nature, and for whom there can be no civilization unless adoration finds a place in it, this problem is a vital one.

 

By prayer in this connection I mean spiritual experience orientated towards God....

 

Prayer cannot exist in the abstract. It can exist only as the act of a particular man at grips with life. So it requires those conditions which alone will render it possible for the majority of men. These conditions can be seen as a function of man's balance in soul and body, and spiritual experience can be assigned its place in the complete life that such balance gives. Civilization is a conditioning factor. The prayer of modern man that of one caught up in the world of technical civilization, with all the profound change which that brings to the rhythm of human existence. The problem which faces us, therefore, is that of the future of prayer in technical civilization....

 

In this context I mean by politics the sphere of the temporal common good. This covers three things.

 

In the first place, we are dealing with man collectively and not with the individual. We shall be speaking, therefore, of the prayer of man involved in social life. It is in this sense that prayer belongs not to the strictly interior life of man -- with which politics has nothing to do -- but to the political sphere.

 

Secondly, politics ought to have the care of the common good, that is to say, the duty of creating an order in which personal fulfilment is possible, where man might be able completely to fulfil his destiny.... If politics does not create the conditions in which man can completely fulfil himself, it becomes an impediment to that fulfilment.

 

Finally, we are dealing with the temporal and not the eternal good. I shall be speaking of prayer, therefore, not in so far as it is an anticipation of eternal life in us, but in so far as it forms a constitutive part of the whole temporal order, of earthly civilization in the full sense of the word. Now the temporal order...includes within it the realm of material goods -- and it is the very first task of politics to assure to all men the material conditions necessary to their existence. Politics also has another purpose -- to make a world in which human relations can flourish in freedom, that is to say, a society in which man does not exploit man, from which racism of every sort is banished, where understanding is open, and peace between nations is possible.

 

But politics limited to these objectives would still not assure a complete temporal common good. I agree with [Giorgio] La Pira in his statement...that the true city is that "in which men have their homes and God also has his...." A city which does not possess churches as well as factories is not fit for men. It is inhuman. The task of politics is to assure to men a city in which it will be possible for them to fulfil themselves completely, to have a full material, fraternal, and spiritual life. It is for this reason that we consider that, in so far as it expresses this personal fulfilment of man in a particular dimension, prayer is a political problem; for a city which would make prayer impossible would fail to fulfil its role as a city.

 

So I shall speak of prayer as a social problem.... To say that prayer is a social problem might seem itself to be paradoxical. Prayer is a personal relationship with God. Does it not, therefore, belong strictly to personal life? It is true that it does, but it is true also that the full development of this personal life is impossible unless certain conditions obtain. To deny this would be to fall victim to that most detestable form of idealism which separates spiritual existence from its material and sociological substratum. It is our profound belief that man is a unity...that there is a fundamental connection between the problems of the body and those of the soul....

 

Just as man is a creature of the flesh, and the work of prayer cannot be considered in him independently of the fact of his body; so he is also a social being, and cannot fulfil himself in prayer divorced from his social nature. At this point there are two things to be said. In the first place, for some individuals a life of prayer is always possible, whatever the circumstances. No matter where they are, or under what conditions, their personalities are strong enough to develop their powers without help from their environment, or even in spite of it. In the second place, there is the special case of those who withdraw from society in order to lead a spiritual life.... [M]onk, in fact, create for themselves the environment in which they can pray effectively.

 

It is this last consideration that brings us to the heart of our problem. If monks feel the need to create an environment in which they will find prayer possible, if they think that prayer is not possible without certain conditions of silence, solitude, and rule, what are we to say of the mass of mankind? Should prayer be the privilege of a small spiritual aristocracy, and should the bulk of the Christian people be excluded from it? The problem with which we are faced is the problem of prayer for everybody, of the possibility of prayer for men at grips with the realities of the temporal life as it is lived today, whether in the family, at work, or in the city. This is what we are up against and in the end it is the only problem that really matters....

 

[A] life of prayer is the only universal vocation. Quite apart from the teaching and demands of Christianity, there is the simple fact that prayer is a constitutive element of human life.... This was taken for granted by Christ when he addressed his message to the poor -- giving to that word the meaning we have already attached to it: all and sundry, the undistinguished and unqualified, the men in the street.

 

We ought never forget that the Church is the Church of Everyman. The salvation which Jesus Christ comes to offer, the life which he comes to give, are salvation and life offered to the poor -- to all -- and what is offered to all must be within the reach of all. Yet today, for most men, given the circumstances in which they find themselves, the realization of a life of prayer is practically impossible. It is evident that society is deformed. It is deformed not only because there are some men who lack bread, nor only because there are human relationships which lack honesty, but also because this world of prayer which is an essential element in man himself cannot expand and grow....

 

I am speaking of prayer in so far as it is bound up with particular social conditions.... Religion as a fact supposes an environment in which it can develop. There are two dimensions in religion which ought always to be considered as complementary. When religion becomes a purely social fact we fall victims to a sociological Christianity which consists of certain gestures, practices, and traditions; and this is totally insufficient. Sociological Christianity ought always to be tending to transform itself into personal Christianity; religious practices ought always to be tending towards prayer, the interior attitude tending always to correspond to the external gesture. But the opposite is equally true. There cannot be a personal Christianity unless there is also a social Christianity. If personal religious life is to be able to flourish, it must have a certain minimum of help from the outside, for without this it is normally impossible for the majority of men....

 

[S]ome people tend to dismiss the idea of sociological Christianity. They usually do so under the illusion that this is a matter of keeping to particular sociological forms of Christianity which are tied to outmoded forms of civilization.... No, what is important is that, with an eye to the future, we take account of the fact that certain sociological conditions have to be realized if the life of prayer is to be accessible to all and sundry. If we fail to do this and detach spirituality from its collective context, we shall be neglecting reality. It is against such a dissociation as this that we ought to react.

 

 

The civilization in which we find ourselves makes prayer difficult. The first thing that strikes one is that our technological civilization brings about a change in the rhythm of human existence. There is a speeding up of tempo which makes it more difficult to find the minimum of freedom on which a minimum life of prayer depends.... Prayer is thus rendered almost impossible for most men, unless they display a heroism and strength of character of which -- we must face it -- the majority of men are not capable. If it is only the shelter of a rule which makes possible the flowering of a life of prayer for professed religious, then the laity, without this shelter and with added obstacles, must indeed be in difficulties....

 

To be a man of prayer, some might say, it is not necessary to consecrate certain times to prayer; men can find God in everything. This is perfectly true. Nevertheless, we begin to be able to find God in everything when we have begun by finding him above and beyond everything. It is practically impossible to lead a life of union with God so long as there has not been that minimum of formal prayer which allows us to acquire spiritual liberty by accustoming us to disengagement from the chains of our environment....

 

[W]e have a problem of rhythm, of the pace of time. We also have the problem of the socialization of our lives. Even as prayer has need of a certain minimum of time, so also it has need of a certain minimum of solitude, a minimum of personal life. In the actual conditions in which men have to live today, this is practically impossible. Urban life sucks people up in a relentlessly collective existence. Père Depierre once said that one of the reasons why working men went to the cinema was to seek silence and solitude. It was only there that they could be free of the necessity of replying to all the demands that were forced upon them, from the moment they began working in the morning to the time when they went home in the evening with their families. The man of today is an alienated creature, one who has lost the possibility of finding himself, who no longer knows who he is, who has had to meet this never-ending barrage of demands from outside himself and who has ended by becoming depersonalized.

 

The problem with which we have to deal here is not simply that of prayer. In a more general manner, we are concerned with the possibility of personal existence. This is not a problem for only the religious man alone. It is of interest to all men, for all are threatened with becoming mere units in a collective existence. It is obvious that some measure of solitude is essential for prayer to the extent that prayer is the meeting of faith and spiritual experience, the possibility, that is, for faith to become really part of a man. To the extent that faith fails to become an inner part of man, it tends to be nothing more than an external practice....

 

Another kind of question arises out of this process of "desacralization" which is now going on in our technological civilization, at least in its present stage. Here we touch on very important and very delicate problems, matters on which Christians themselves are divided, but with which it is absolutely essential to deal. The civilizations of the ancient world were sacral; that is to say, they were civilizations in which the framework of human existence had an ultimate religious foundation. That was true of all of them, of the Greek and Roman as also of the Jewish world. It was true also of all the animist societies of Africa and Oceania. It is still true today of the Moslem world. It is evident, however, that technological civilization and the phenomena it brings in its train (urbanization, for instance) break into and overthrow the old social cultures, separate profane culture from religious life, and destroy a certain balance between the social and the religious dimensions of man.

 

The gravity of this crisis for religion and the State must not be minimized. When collective existence was impregnated with religious values there was formed a world in which the very framework of living provided a constantly renewed contact with sacred things. In its traditional form that state of affairs could not survive the irruption of technological civilization. The West suffered the shock first and has still not recovered from it....

 

One particularly grave aspect of this problem, and one in which our responsibilities are immense, is the irruption of technological civilization into emergent countries such as Madagascar or the countries of Africa.... I am myself terrified by our failure to grasp what is involved. We are aware that technical knowledge is in the process of destroying a whole civilization and we give no thought whatseoever to what is to be put in its place. Of course, it is no more possible to preserve the sacral African forms of as they are no than it was to preserve the traditional forms of Christian civilization. But this in no way detracts from our special responsibility today of finding how to make the religious dimension really present in technological civilization, working through the framework of society itself.

 

We come back always to the same thought. If that dimension remains completely absent from that society, if we accept a complete dissociation of the sacred and profane worlds, we shall make access to prayer absolutely impossible to the mass of mankind. Only a few would be able to find God in a world organized without reference to him. Men move not only in their social environment, but in their cultural environment as well. It is through this cultural environment that they can have access to the realities of religion. A world which has built up its culture without reference to God, a humanism from which adoration was completely absent, would make the maintenance of a positive religious point of view impossible for the great majority of men....

 

Our task is to find new ways by which the world of contemporary thought, and in particular the world of science, can become a pathway to God. In this connection I would like to recall something that was said by Teilhard de Chardin, in which he showed that for him -- and this is one of the aspects of his work that I most admire -- it was perfectly possible to take an optimistic view of the question. Teilhard wrote in Sauvons l'humanité: "As it arrives at a higher degree of mastery over self, the spirit of the world finds within itself a more and more pressing need for adoration. The fact of universal evolution makes God appear greater and more necessary than ever. Nothing could be more mistaken than to regard religion as a primitive and passing phase of mankind's infancy. The more man-like man becomes, the more necessary it is for him to know how to adore and to be able to do it. The fact of religion is an irreversible cosmic fact of the first magnitude."

 

This scholar's declaration of faith that the very progress of scientific evolution ought to bring a greater desire for adoration is one of the most magnificent professions of optimism I have come across. Continuing to use Père Teilhard's illustration, I would go on to say that while humanity's infancy is bound up with a particular type of sacral civilization, atheism does not represent the stage of humanity's adulthood. On the contrary, it represents its adolescence. It comes exactly at that moment when infant humanity revolts against the universe within which it is formed. We know that revolt is essentially an adolescent attitude. With adulthood, on the other hand, comes a higher equilibrium which permits recovery of the fundamental religious values in a new balance of forces.

 

 

Why is it that prayer is fundamental to politics? As I have already said, politics exists to secure the common good. An essential element of the common good is that man should be able to fulfil himself at all levels. The religious level cannot be excluded. Indeed, the possibility of self-realization at that level is a fundamental element in the common good. The State must make provision for it, for we cannot suppose that a true polity can exist where there is no room for the religious dimension. In the State there must be a place for both service and adoration. Simone Weil was right to protest against today's total secularization of society and the universe, and to insist that a constitutive element which keeps a civilization in balance is the fundamental relationship of society and the universe to all that is sacred....

 

A common humanism which could embrace men of all varieties of spiritual allegiance does not seem to be a practical possibility. Acceptable propositions would have to be so general as not to be capable of supporting any concrete answer. One finds that at the great international conferences men fall into the realm of confusion as soon as they begin to speak of "spiritual values" even though up to that moment argument had been clear and to the point. It would seem that for many men the spiritual is a sphere where all is vague and people can say anything at all, no matter what. For me, the sphere of the spiritual is as rigorous a discipline as that of any of the profane sciences. Theology is just as much a science as physics or linguistics. With it, as with them, only those who are competent can be expected to answer problems meaningfully.

 

This is where the function of religion in contemporary civilization is to be found. It is my belief that the only people who can contribute anything of value here are the authentic representatives of various religions. No one has found an ideology to replace that presented by the great historical religions. So even though the great world religions have problems to settle between them...they have today a common and indispensable function within the technical ordering of civilization. In performing this function they run up against politics, for Churches and religions are collective realities. While politics cannot touch the inner man, for this escapes completely its competence, it can destroy the Churches. It can reach them because they are the collective expression of adoration. Not only can it do this, it does it.

 

The State can act as it does now in Russia: prevent children from entering church buildings; stop the teaching of catechism to groups; forbid even the use of buildings as churches -- it can tear them down; prevent priests from exercising their functions -- it can send them to concentration camps. Of course, there will always be a number of religious souls, but the possibility of access to adoration for the poor, for children, for simple folk, and for families is practically destroyed. To the extent that the realization of their essential objects can be prevented by society, the survival of the Churches in a world of technology is a matter of politics.

 

However, one problem remains. We issue a challenge to politics and to political societies of today when we tell them that it is vital for them that conditions in which prayer is possible be maintained. They can make the same challenge to the Churches. In other words, the Churches justify their existence when they fulfil their function. If it is the function of the Churches to make prayer possible, the Churches justify themselves when through their efforts prayer becomes a reality. Churches which are but sociological remnants of sacral societies and in which mechanical rites continue to be performed; Churches which refuse to face the concrete realities of civilization; Churches enshrining sociological conditions which do not correspond to the claims of personality and within which religion is not personal and does not bear witness to a true interior life -- the State can rightly consider these dead wood.... In other words, the Churches have to establish their claim to a place in the technological civilization of tomorrow. They have to show, through their self-evident vitality, that there is indeed a function in the building of this civilization which they and they alone can fulfil.

 

This is the challenge that faces us. We are well aware that dialogue is two-sided. We have the right to ask for certain things from the earthly city, but the earthly city also has the right to ask certain things from us.... The Church must pardon the State if it wants the State to pardon it. Men on both sides must recognize their faults.... We recognize here the same sort of dialogue as we have with some atheists. Here, as there, we find that religious men are reproached, not for being religious, but for not being religious enough; not for being Christian, but for not being truly so.

 

We are forced to conclude that, on the one hand, political society needs to create the sociological dimension necessary if prayer is to be the force in the world of tomorrow which will prevent that world from being inhuman; and, on the other hand, that sociological Christianity needs to transform itself in the Churches into that authentic life of prayer which is truly a personal meeting with the living God. This is the vital element which can justify the Church in asking the political society of tomorrow to reserve for it its proper place.