Sunday, June 15, 2008

Origen, On Prayer 3-4

It has been awhile since I've had a chance to continue my series on Origen's On Prayer, but work in May and June has been very busy. Things are starting (just starting) to wind down, so I thought it a good time to get back to work. The passage I'm discussing is here . My own references continue to be from the St. Vladimir edition. The other parts of this series includes an introduction, parts one and two.

This passage is a bit of a hard entry to write on because it presents two problems to someone who is trying to consider its spiritual dimensions. First, in this passage, Origen indulges his own predilections by analysing the Greek words used for prayer and their meanings. His method is, of course, deeply philological: searching out the words in Scripture and discussing their usage in significant passages. Origen is the consummate intellectual and this passage, of course, appeals very much to the intellect. It is a useful passage to see how Origen goes about his scriptural exegesis, but, if one already has a tendency towards over-intellectualization, one could get bogged down in the nuts and bolts and not consider what Origen is trying to teach here.

Second, much of the discussion is centred on the word euche to which, in his philological analysis, Origen gives two basic meanings: intercession and the vow. His argument that the primary meaning is that of a vow- defined in Origen as a a promise to do something if God should do something else for them- is, I think, a bit of a stumbling block for modern readers. While ancient writers like Origen didn't really have a problem with the concept, we moderns do. All to often, we react to the idea of this kind of prayer as primitive or bargaining, so we tend not view it as really 'legitimate'. I don't know how many times I hear that we can't do this kind of 'bargaining' because it is tantamount to forcing God to do what we want or that this is simple wish fulfillment. It is, sometimes, easier to dismiss these passages where a vow is given, rather than take them seriously.

Yet, the thing about this kind of prayer is that it presumes a relationship. That is, this isn't a dictate given by us to God or vice versa, but rather it is something in which God freely participates. If we understand it this way, Jacob's vow on the road to Paddam Aram (to take the first example Origen presents) that God keep him safe and Jacob would take him as his God is an affirmation of a relationship which God initiated. It follows Jacob's vision of the ladder in which God promises to keep Jacob safe. Jacob's vow is an answer to this experience of grace and of the relationship which God initiated.

I wonder if this relational dimension to prayer isn't what we are missing by dismissing this idea of the vow. I'm not sure I've quite overcome my resistance to the idea nor am I sure that I would say all vows of this type are free from attempted manipulation of God. That is the risk we take in all relationships- human and divine. Yet, I wonder if we shouldn't reconsider this resistance. Perhaps this is what Origen can teach us.



Jim said...

I have the same problem, having grown up in Luther land. The idea that we would bargain with God is anathema. And yet, all through the Hebrew Scriptures, not only do people bargain, God does too.

This was especially true in one of my favorite passages; the discussion of the fate of Sodom. God says he will destroy the city, and bargains down from 1000 rigtheous to one in a conversation over the fate of the holy withing an evil place.

There is a presumed relationship there. There is also a sense of God's presence, God is imminent and potent. God can decide that Jacob will be safe, that the floods wont come to my land.

:-) God might moderate or violate God's rules, within certain boundaries. The Cubs are doomed, and England wont ever win a World Cup. Some things are simply set in stone.

Ancient people saw God acting where we see physics. I am not so sure we are correct. After all, it is God's physics. Certainly one sense of relationship is lost when we give up asking for God's intervention.

But perhaps the problem is we don't like the other side of the shilling. After all, Jacob did not merely beg for safety. He also promised something. Covenant is as the Hebrew texts see it, a dual commitment. We promise something, God promises something.

In fact, much of the history is of God keeping one side of a deal while the Hebrews do not. There are inevitable consequences. That seems to be the consistent pattern.

Maybe the problem for us moderns is that we don't want to see an imminent powerful God because we would have to pay the cost of the relationship. It is certainly an interesting idea.


Phil Snider said...

I think you're right about connecting the vow to the covenant. It had occured to me in the back of my head, but I didn't emphasize it in this entry. I think the Genesis passage I discussed in the entry suggests that as well. That does change how we should look at this passage and about vows.

I wonder, sometimes, if our shyness about bargaining isn't a failure in our ability to view our life in covenant with God.


Anonymous said...

Some interesting things about this prayer: It is the first instance of a saint making a vow to God as well as the first request for material blessings from God. Jacob limited that request only to food and clothing, the same things Jesus says in the sermon on the mount we may ask of the Father and may expect of Him when we seek His kingdom and His righteousness. It is also the basic things Paul says we are to be content with in 1 Tim 6.

Jacob did not ask for wealth beyond the basics; but rather, left the amount he would return with up to God by saying "Whatever You give me, etc" It is similar to James' statement concerning business ventures (also beyond the basics), "If the Lord wills, we shall live and do such and such." Starting with Jacob then, "the extras" of life beyond our needs are a matter of God's prerogative to dispense. Leaving up to God's will how much wealth we will have in this life keeps us free from covetousness and the spiritually deadly pursuit of riches that Jesus and Paul warn of so sternly.

As to the "bargaining" aspect of this prayer: Jacob had no recorded experience with God prior to his flight (and he was @77 years old by then). Since God "has no grandchildren," it was vital that Jacob "taste and see that the Lord is good" for himself. There seems to be something proper about proving God in his first encounter with Him. After all, it was God Who promised in the dream to keep Jacob on that journey he was taking. So, Jacob is simply responding to Him concerning the promise he had just been told. So, upon fulfillment of the promise, Jacob would take Him as his God.

In our modern day, we could just as easily say to the Lord, upon hearing the Gospel, "If you will indeed take my sins away, then you shall be my God." For, we would be proving Him in the same way Jacob did.