In fairness to Bruni, I think his argument was not that prayer per se would get in the way, but that political (and other) ideology that rises to the level of theology is irrational and destructive if followed in a simplistic fashion.
But let me play along with the question.
Is prayer counterproductive? Those who believe in its efficacy will not even entertain the question, so I speak to those who doubt it, who believe those who pray are mumblin’ sumpthin’ to a non-existent (or perhaps merely disengaged) deity. Such behavior, they might say, is not merely a waste of time; it is, rather, a decisive avoidance of responsibility, a choice to throw Hail Mary passes when you really need to ground ‘n pound.
You may have heard of people being “so heavenly minded they’re of no earthly good.” The problem with that notion is, as one of my seminary professors sagely pointed out, very few people are like that. I can think of one, perhaps two people who’d fall into that category, and in my line of work I’m probably more likely than most to encounter them.
It turns out that prayer has a number of benefits which ought to be appealing even to those who see it as a pointless ritual. For one thing, prayer develops humility; on your knees beseeching a superior being, you are more likely than not “to be glad to be holden vile and nought,” as Thomas a Kempis put it. I do not believe our present economic difficulties spring from an overabundance of humility.
For another, prayer tends to spur appropriate inaction as well as appropriate action. When we “give it to God,” or “lay it at the feet of the cross,” or as Peter put it in his first epistle “cast all our anxieties on him” then we convert unproductive worry into productive petition. There are plenty of things that we’re concerned about that we are powerless to change. So we bring them to somebody who is, and then go about doing the things we can do – in Niebuhr’s famous serenity prayer, having “the wisdom to know the difference” between what we can and can’t change. In prayer the supplicant brings a confused mess of worries and allows God to untangle them; or, if you prefer, the supplicant unloads emotional baggage on an imaginary friend and feels better about things she can’t do anything about. Most likely it’s a win either way.
A third benefit I’d submit to you, gentle reader, is the way prayer can soften the heart of the person praying. As Elizabeth Scalia puts it in a lovely piece on First Things’ online blog On The Square, “Being Irish-Catholic, I hold no pious illusions that in merely professing Christ I am somehow immune from the temptation to hate, but I know that I do not “hate” Barack Obama.
I know this because for all I may not understand about the mysteries of God or prayer or love or hate, I do know this: it is impossible to hate someone if you are sincerely praying to Almighty God for their sake.”
It has been my experience in ministry that many of the conflicts we face arise from elevating ideology to the level of theology. It has also been my experience that prayer is the most effective countermeasure to this vain and destructive tendency.
Jason Poling | Aug 10, 2011 11:27 AM