December 24, 2020 Category: Religion

Prayer As Divination:

Since time immemorial, homo sapiens have been making appeals to higher powers in an ham-fisted attempt to bring about a desired state of affairs. Incantation is used to make certain things happen. This isn’t so much about beseeching a super-being to do something FOR us; it is a matter of channeling to power so that we can do it ourselves.  With scripted prayer in particular, the aim is to invoke latent cosmic powers via the vocalization of thaumaturgic ideophones (that is: magical incantations).  This is the same logic underlying the casting of spells or the placing of hexes…and the raft of other invocations of (imagined) supernatural forces that have transfixed highly-superstitious people since time immemorial. Thus, prayer is a means of CONJURING.

As we’ve seen, the appeal of ritualized prayer is–in large part–the intoxicating effect it has; and the illusion of empowerment that it confers.  This is especially the case when it seems to involve some sort of magic–whereby one deigns to invoke supernatural forces.  The effect of “divination” can be entirely illusory; as the mere IMPRESSION that such thaumaturgy may be occurring has the power to beguile.  (As we learn from even the hokiest of magic shows, it’s the PROSPECT OF there being magic that transfixes us; no ACTUAL magic required.)

Faith healers, fortune tellers, and stage magicians have learned to exploit this misapprehension.  Whether the practitioner is purportedly engaged in “reike” or palm reading or parlor tricks, the ability to tap into some unseen power is typically considered a CRAFT of which only designated experts (the properly initiated) are capable.

This is the basis for the florid displays and grandiloquent incantations indicative of Theurgy (from the Greek, “theourgia”).  It is no secret that meticulously choreographed rituals have been used for divination since Classical Antiquity.  The idea has always been relatively straight-forward: By performing certain actions and uttering certain phrases, one could conjure magical forces (gods, spirits, or whatever); and persuade them to do one’s bidding.

This was not a passing fad.  Theurgic practices were championed by such significant figures as:

  • Iamblichus of Calcis (in Syria)
  • Aedesius of Pergamum (in Cappadocia)
  • Eusebius of Myndus (in Caria)
  • Maximus of Ephesus (in Ionia)
  • Chrysanthius of Sardis (in Lydia)
  • Proclus Lycaeus of Lydia (in Athens)
  • Priscus of Epirus (in northwestern Greece)

Even Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Julian was obsessed with theurgy.  The allure of such activities is undeniable.  Its tendency to transfix participants has been demonstrated in cultures around the world throughout recorded history.

Divination leaves proponents with the impression that preternatural things are afoot–all in THEIR favor, of course; as they are the ones who are doing it the RIGHT way.  This was the case with sacraments across the world–from the Jewish “Korban” to the Shinto “Onmyodo”. 

Theurgic shenanigans were no more wacky than the enactments we observe in religions today–from the “Eucharist” of Christianity to the “dhabihah” of Islam.  There are myriad ways to become spellbound when one is under the impression that one is harnessing supernatural powers.

Since time immemorial, priest and shamans have specialized in what can be broadly categorized as divination–especially as it involves conjuring, channeling, and prophesying.  They were not necessarily seen as mages (sorcerers endowed with supernatural powers), as were the figures listed in my essay, “Legacy Of Mages”.  Rather that BRINGING ABOUT certain powers, they were simply adept at tapping into that which existed independently of them; or, as the case may be, CHANNELLING those powers.

Perceived efficacy (read: subjective experience) are taken by True Believers as confirmation of their own beliefs (viz. what accomplishes the desired goal).  A sufficiently poignant phenomenological event can have tremendous persuasive power.  How else to get, say, a Jew to think that he’s doing anything but making a complete fool of himself when he engages in frenetic gesticulations–while reciting vacuous verbiage from his preferred “siddur”–before the Wailing Wall?  How else to get a Christian to tremble and weep before a crucifix as he pleads to be forgiven for being human?  How else to get a Muslim to grovel before an imagined celestial monarch five times each day–as if reciting certain verses might possibly be anything other than a complete waste of time?  In each case, the supplicant is spellbound, carrying out a mawkish routine in a ham-fisted attempt to “get in touch with” his own conception of divinity.  The same goes for witch-doctors as they (allegedly) enter their mystical “trance” states–replete with their own signature exhibition of fealty.

Those smitten with such routines are convinced that the best way to get in touch with the divine was by engaging in a prescribed sequence of gesticulations…while uttering a prescribed sequence of phonemes.  From religion to religion, the “song and dance” might change, but the underlying logic remains constant.  To wit: The psychological mechanisms at play are the same regardless of the BRAND of scripted / choreographed prayer.

Residue of theurgical bunkum survives in Hassidic theology in the form of “Tikkun Olam” [“repair of the cosmos”].  This refers to magical acts–sometimes conducted under the auspices of the more generalized “mitzvot” / “tzedakah” (pious deeds); though can only be performed by those who’ve been divinely appointed.

As discussed, if you say something–CONFIDENTLY–frequently enough and long enough to yourself, you will start to believe it.  This is true of simple propositions as well as with narratives.  Memory is funny that way.  An account of an event that has been tailored to suit one’s sensibilities (and to comport with pre-conceived notions of how things SHOULD have been) becomes more and more “real” the more one recounts it.  Each iteration of the RE-PLAY further ingrains the neural pathways by which the memory is inscribed.  (With each replay, the memory itself is affected, typically in a manner that reflects the biases and sentiments impinging upon the recollection.)  Even an entirely fanciful version of something will eventually become one’s (subjective) “reality” if it is vociferously enough asserted over a long period of time. {11}

Eventually a scaffolding of beliefs is erected on this foundation.  A point is reached where to tamper with the foundation entails threatening the structural integrity an entire dogmatic edifice.  Meanwhile, the more extensive the scaffolding is constructed, the more it will–as it were–CEMENT that foundation.  Once enough is built around a dogma, the more robust that dogma will become.

Only upon reconceptualizing “prayer” will those seeking to add a spiritual dimension to their lives eschew daft routines for a more genuine spiritual undertaking.  The Druze offer a model–as, for them, prayer is not a discrete act; it is an ongoing state of mind.  To truly commune with the divine, one no more needs to prostrate one’s body than one needs to prostrate one’s mind.  Getting in touch with the divinity in each of us is ultimately about getting in touch with our shared humanity.

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