Timothy Keller,
Prayer: Experiencing Awe & Intimacy With God
(Dutton, 2014)

Let's begin with a quote from Anne Lamott, which Timothy Keller quotes in his text:

Let's say [prayer is to] what the Greeks called the really real, what lies within us, beyond the scrim of our values, positions, convictions and wounds. Or let's say it is a cry from within to Life and Love, with capital L's. Nothing could matter less what we call this force. ... Let's not get bogged down on whom or what we pray to. Let's just say that prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery, or Goodness ... to the animating energy of love we are sometimes bold enough to believe in: to something unimaginably big, and not us. We could call this force Not Me ... or for convenience, we could just say "God."

Lamott's statement is a pretty good description of a contemporary mystical approach to prayer; the force that we call God is the great mystery, which exists within us and without us. It is, to some degree, indefinable but that doesn't matter; defining it is not the important part; finding it and communicating it is.

This is essentially the position taken by the great Christian mystics: Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Marjory Kempe, Hildegard of Bingham, Thomas Merton, William Johnston and the rest. It has a wonderful history and, in our age of quantum physics and our shifting views of reality, a new and fresh application to the way we communicate with the force that we call God.

And, according to Keller, it is mistaken. In trying to discuss Lamott's position, Keller first attempts to find some validation to it by stating that maybe she is "trying to invite people unsure of belief in God to begin reaching out to him." If this is the case, he claims, it is no more than a provisional first step:

Telling someone to pray and not worry about who God is or what we believe about him cannot serve as a sustaining operating principle of prayer, because you cannot grow in a relationship with a person unless you learn who he or she is.

So we are back to the old split: Do we come to know God by experiencing him or her, or do we come to know him by studying, by relying on the word of an authority, such as a minister? In other words, is God both within us and beyond us or is he or she simply beyond?

Keller comes down solidly on the God outside. Prayer, to Keller, is a communication with God, but it is a communication that must follow certain rules. For one thing, because all prayer is responding to God, God has to start the conversation. "In all cases, God is the initiator -- 'hearing' always precedes asking. God comes to us first or we could never reach out to him." Instinctive [mystical] prayer is like an emergency flare in reaction to a general sense of God's reality. Prayer as a spiritual gift is a genuine, personal; conversation in reply to God's specific, verbal revelation."

So in order for us to pray, we must hear the voice of God. How do we hear that voice? Through the scriptures. Any other prayer is just so much mysticism and really doesn't count.

As a full disclosure, I am not a theologian, nor am I a regular attender of a church service. I am , however, a person who suffers from a lifelong curiosity about the unknown, the great mysteries of our history and our times and as such have read widely for most of my life as a student of religion and philosophy. I have learned that it's called the great mystery for a reason; if you try to synthesize the important texts on these subjects, what you learn is that everything is much more complex than we believe and that knowing which questions to ask is every bit as important as the answers.

Maybe Keller has already asked all of these questions and has come up with answers that satisfy him and the members of the church that he leads, but for me, his writing is too rigid, too narrow and too much concerned with declaring that his way is the way. I picture a person whose curiosity about prayer and whose need for prayer in her life has just been awakened picking up this book. My guess is that she would not find her needs satisfied; instead she would be put off by Keller's tone and by his sheer sense of certainty which allows him to blithely dismiss not only Christian mysticism but most of the other approaches to God that lie outside Christianity.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

27 December 2014

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