A reader of Andrew W.K.’s Village Voice advice column wrote in frustrated about being asked to pray for an older brother diagnosed with cancer, describing it as “kneeling on the ground and mumbling superstitious nonsense.” W.K. responds this way:
Prayer is a type of thought. It’s a lot like meditation — a type of very concentrated mental focus with passionate emotion directed towards a concept or situation, or the lack thereof. But there’s a special X-factor ingredient that makes “prayer” different than meditation or other types of thought. That X-factor is humility. This is the most seemingly contradictory aspect of prayer and what many people dislike about the feeling of praying. “Getting down on your knees” is not about lowering your power or being a weakling, it’s about showing respect for the size and grandeur of what we call existence — it’s about being humble in the presence of the vastness of life, space, and sensation, and acknowledging our extremely limited understanding of what it all really means.
Being humble is very hard for many people because it makes them feel unimportant and helpless. To embrace our own smallness is not to say we’re dumb or that we don’t matter, but to realize how amazing it is that we exist at all in the midst of so much more. To be fully alive, we must realize how much else there is besides ourselves. We must accept how much we don’t know — and how much we still have to learn — about ourselves and the whole world. Kneeling down and fully comprehending the incomprehensible is the physical act of displaying our respect for everything that isn’t “us.” …
The paradoxical nature of this concept is difficult, but it is the key to unlocking the door of spirituality in general, and it remains the single biggest reason many people don’t like the idea of prayer or of spiritual pursuits in general — they feel it’s taking away their own power and it requires a dismantling of the reliable day-to-day life of the material world. In fact, it’s only by taking away the illusion of our own power and replacing it with a greater power — the power that comes from realizing that we don’t have to know everything — that we truly realize our full potential. And this type of power doesn’t require constant and exhausting efforts to hold-up and maintain, nor does it require us to endlessly convince ourselves and everyone else that we’re powerful, that we know what we’re doing, and that we’re in control of everything.
Morgan Guyton, who works for a Christian campus ministry, asks himself hard questions after reading this agnostic approach to prayer:
There’s so much disdain among my fellow clergy folk for “spiritual but not religious” people. The stereotype we have in our heads is the clueless hippie who thinks that s/he can attain spiritual groundedness by shopping organic and doing yoga. Andrew W.K. makes it hard to write him off as a goofy hippie. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I know that in my own head, my rage against spiritual but not religious people is largely an expression of my deep anxiety about spending the rest of my ministry career on a ship that’s rapidly sinking. What if I’m actually obsolete because people can become a loving, humble, mature community without the grape-juice-soaked chunk of communion bread that I have to offer?
Now that I’m working in a secular university, I’m meeting so many students who seem more compassionate, humble, and disciplined than I am, but they don’t seem to have any inclination or need to be anything other than secular. A response that clergy like me often make to atheists is to say, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in either.” And then we talk about how the silly god-caricatures of popular Christianity are not the same thing as the true God, who is the “source of being” and “a complete mystery.” But how is the mysterious God that sophisticated Christians believe in different than what Andrew W.K. calls “the size and grandeur of what we call existence.”
How much do I know that what I’m doing when I pray is more than what Andrew describes as “gaining strength by admitting weakness” or “turning [myself] over to [my] own bewilderment”?