Speaking Nonsense to No One in Particular?
But still, I believe he is on the cusp of being his most scandalous when he declares about his pending inauguration-related invocation: “I am very clear that this will not be a Christian prayer….” That leaves one wondering, then, to whom it will be addressed and whether it will be a prayer at all.
Who will be invoked?
According to the New York Times reporter Laurie Goldstein, “Bishop Robinson said he might address the prayer to ‘the God of our many understandings….’” Who the heck is that? Is that “god” simply a generic stand-in for some vague deity-like construct that Robinson is not able or willing to clearly name?
Is there any true God that Robinson believes worthy of being addressed and capable of acting on one’s earnest petitions? Or are we just kind of playing at some kind of amusing wish fulfillment in thinking there truly is a God, and so it’s perfectly okay to envision that “god-image” any old way one fancies in order to fulfill a ritualized but actually meaningless tradition in public occasions? Or might it be that in truth there is a whole pantheon of gods, and Robinson’s intended wording is meant to address the whole lot of them equally?
Bishop Robinson has taken the role of a Christian clergyman. One would think that that would entail allegiance to, love of, and devotion to the Christian God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That true God has declared himself the only God, as opposed to the false gods that humankind continually seeks to worship as idols of human construction. This true God rightfully demands that his people “shall have no other gods before me” (see the beginning of Exodus 20).
So why would Bishop Robinson deem it appropriate to pray not to the God of the Universe but to some unnamed and undifferentiated construct or to some handful of idols? In such a “prayer,” he would be vigorously breaking the first and second commandments. Apparently that does not bother Bishop Robinson, who seems more intent on currying public favor than serving the Living God.
What will be said?
And that leads to the second concern: Will it be a prayer at all? A prayer is communication with God. In public, the speaker of the prayer is intended to raise up the devotion, the needs, the petitions, and the praise—if not the confessions!—of the whole people, saying for them as one speaker what needs to be said to God by all. God is the audience. The people are the co-supplicants with the one voicing their prayer.
Thus, if Bishop Robinson will be truly praying, then he will address God with and for the people. His words will be directed to God and not get diverted to a human audience. Certainly people will hear what he says in so public an occasion, but their thoughts ought to be “Yes! That is what I would like to say to God, too!” rather than, “I’m convinced by what you say, Bishop Robinson, and you make a good point!”
The temptation for anyone leading public prayer is to grandstand, to say things to the crowd through the guise of addressing God, to make a statement or wage an argument or wax loquacious. A prayer, however, is an intimate conversation with God. A public prayer is an overheard conversation with God, intended by the one offering the prayer to capture the needs of the people and include the listeners in the experience of addressing God.
Prayer is no exercise between a speaker and a human audience, yet one wonders if that is not Robinson’s bottom-line intent. In addressing no god in particular, Robinson seems not very concerned about the vertical communication but apparently very concerned about his horizontal message to the crowd.
And then again, the whole idea of offering an invocation in a pluralistic society is rather dicey. How can the one praying attempt to speak for a crowd of mixed intent and devotion—or none at all?
It would seem to me that if a person of a particular faith is invited to invoke a deity in an invocation, the expectation should be that the person of faith would invoke the god that person believes in and worships. Typically, those planning occasions seek someone most likely to represent a broad plurality or majority of the crowd, so that the invocation best represents the interests of as many as possible.
Some people, however, will inevitably find the undertaking to be superfluous or meaningless. Those people have every right to quietly, respectfully not participate in the prayer. For instance, if a Hindu spiritual leader were invited to open an occasion with prayer, I would simply wait out the time of prayer with dignity and decency. It wouldn’t speak for me, and I wouldn’t be taking part in the prayer, but that’s okay. I can give the spiritual leader that opportunity to pray as he sees fit.
But what I wouldn’t do is expect the Hindu to tailor his prayer to Christian standards or to abandon his beliefs and pray to some mush god. Neither he nor I would have integrity in such a situation. A spiritual leader can legitimately pray only to the deity in which he or she believes. Anything else is a mockery of prayer, a blasphemy, a false accommodation to syncretism.
But as it looks to me that from what he says, Bishop Robinson is apparently a man who doesn’t have a prayer.