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Experiencing the Divine through Prayer III

So, where we are. I was talking about how (a) liturgical choices are driven, in part, by the desire to experience the Divine through prayer, and (2) those liturgical choices work through metaphor. The prayer service in some way makes the metaphor experiential—I’m not using the proper terms, here, the phenomenological terms that I’m sure exist for individual experiences in group settings that heighten (but do not literalize) a metaphor.


Rabbi Hoffman was speaking to a Reform Jewish congregation, one that has deep roots to the old movement, and was asserting that the old metaphors simply do not work anymore. Our liturgy is moving away from the old Union Prayerbook, because our movement is moving away from the old metaphors. In part, that’s demographic—he pointed out that the congregation has hardly anybody left that identifies themselves as of German heritage. We’re a pack of Eastern Europeans, now, remnants of the shtetl and of twentieth century immigration, and the nineteenth-century German-Jewish ways of experiencing the world are—not alien to us, exactly, but not exactly familiar, either. And anyway, it’s the twenty-first century—he pointed out that we have already abandoned a lot of the metaphor-heighteners. Our Rabbi chats with us before the service begins, calls us by first name and generally pals around. He said he didn’t believe that the Great Rabbi who was here for half of the twentieth century would do that, and the older congregants laughed… we are living in a more informal time, he said, and a more intimate time, and that is how we are seeking to experience the Divine through prayer.

I do think the metaphors have changed, and that we do not, at this point, look to experience a Divine Creator who is up in Heaven. We dig for meaning, now. We look down and in, not up and out. So there is certainly something to the idea that a successful adaptation of the ritual will have to work through those new metaphors, not the old ones.

But what occurred to me, as I was sitting there listening, was that the dominant metaphor at the moment is that the world is a web. That everything is connected to everything. A network, if you like, rather than a web. Or The Web—I think it’s not wrong to say that the dominant metaphor for our generation in the US is the hypertext transfer protocol. But we it seems to me that we are walking around with the idea that everything is connected to everything. That we can’t walk around without that idea. That it’s inescapable. And, as the saying goes, if you can’t get out of it, get into it.

How? How do we experience the Divine in the connections between things? Well, I’m looking for ideas. There are some things we have already begun. We are calling people up to participate, handing bits of service to one another, connecting among ourselves. We have study sessions, either before the service or after, or plumb smack in the middle of it. The Rabbi, perhaps, sits in a pew with the rest of the congregants rather than up on the bimah. A few weeks ago, we called everybody up to the bimah to say the blessing together and witness the reading—everybody was the cohen and the cohen was everybody. And, of course, there’s singing together. There’s not a lot that emphasizes the connections between people more than singing together. Perhaps we should get used to polyphony or something, to highlight the between-ness.

What else? Well, and that’s going the be the next note. For this one, some questions for you, Gentle Readers all: do you find the web metaphor describes the universe? Do you think you could experience the Divine through prayer in the connections between things? Do you want to propose another metaphor? Is there stuff that your shul or church or prayer group is doing that speaks to this metaphor, or to some other?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


As a nonbeliever, I'm coming at this from a different angle than what I think you're looking for. But I do have a couple of thoughts on this series of posts, especially this post:

When you say (or the Rabbi says) "we," which "we" are you referring to? By which I mean, I think that one of the growing central ideas of our time is diversity; even when talking only about believers, I'm reluctant to say that there's a unity of metaphor or of approachers to worship. The historical discussion seemed to suggest that the idea of a grand cathedral with a high-up far-off Authority was a thing of the past, but I think lots of people still worship in those cathedrals. And I suspect the evangelical metaphors are different from the Lutheran metaphors are different from the Quaker metaphors are different from the Jewish and Muslim and Hindu metaphors, and that the Reform metaphors are different from the Orthodox metaphors, and so on.

I think that's true in the culture at large, too. Certainly the idea of interconnectedness is one of our metaphors, but hasn't that been true for a long time? Hippies were talking about interconnectedness in the sixties, and I'm pretty sure the idea goes back long before that. "Buddhism teaches that all life is interrelated" says one web page. For that matter, I don't really feel like the WWW shows us that everything is connected per se; I think despite the word "web," people are more inclined to think of it as a way to get information fast, to watch funny cat videos, to see porn, and/or to chat with friends. I'm not convinced that people who use the web a lot feel more connected to, say, distant countries that speak other languages and have weird-to-"us" ways of doing things, or even to our neighbors who disagree with us politically. If anything, I think in the US lately polarization and intractability have been bigger organizing metaphors than interconnectedness has.

Anyway. I would agree that the organizing metaphors of our own lives and communities (and of larger cultures that we're part of) have an influence on the way we live and worship, and I think these are all interesting questions to look at; I don't mean to be a wet blanket about the central ideas here or about the project of exploring them. I just think that it's worth looking at some of this stuff as more of a mosaic and less of a monolith.

Your points are valid, although I don't think they get at what I'm looking at entirely. First, by we I'm talking specifically about Reform Jews from the US and Europe, but I'm hoping to bring this stuff up as a framework for other Gentle Readers because I think it's more widely applicable. I think that the Big Metaphors are very widespread, because we all participate in our culture to a greater or lesser extent. It's the water we are swimming in. There will be specific ideas that are more narrowly powerful, but there are bigger notions that are more broadly powerful, and it's hard to see them, because, as I say, it's the water we are swimming in. So, sure, there's no prayer service that is going to work for everybody, but there are big general notions for setting up a prayer service that are likely to work for lots and lots of people in the West.

Now, as for the interconnectedness specifically, I was thinking that it powerful for our generation in part because the hippies started pushing it around the time we were born (more or less) so we grew up with it, and then we started getting it from science with chaos theory and butterfly hurricanes, and then it became a metaphor for the internet. It's not just the World Wide Web--but idea of the hyperlink is a big part of how we think of those things as working, as well as the GPS and the mobile phone and so on and so forth. I probably overstated the extent to which it's about HTTP; I mean that HTTP is a metaphor for how we see the world. The polarization and intractability you talk about is certainly there, but (a) it's a more recent phenomenon, and thus I think not as deep in our cultural mindset, and (2) I interpret our culture as being het up about that stuff in part because it seems like we ought to be more connected than we are. Because, in my interpretation, we assume that the world is interconnected, and having to unfriend somebody because of obnoxious political whatnottage is a violation of norms--those norms are new in our generation, I think, and are part of the basic metaphor of the world as a web.

Or not. I mean, there's a sense in which the cultural issue is that we are Bowling Alone, but we are Bowling Alone with a massively multi-player device that draws attention to both the connection and the distance between the people who are Bowling Alone with us. I think that's what I am talking about.


Hm. "Everything is connected to everything" is not, for me, a metaphor, but an ecological principle. As such, it is having a significant impact on Christian theology, of both Protestant and Catholic flavors (the impact on Protestant theology is more intense at present, as Protestantism's theology has gone much farther down the road to individualism than Catholicism ever did, though the radical submission to God evangelical Protestantism teaches makes it easier to let go of anthropocentrism, while Catholic humanism more stubbornly defines the common good in primarily human terms). If you are curious about such matters, a good place to look on the Protestant side is A New Climate for Theology by Sally McFague.

But that's theology. I am not much good for ideas or insights about liturgy, though I think that liturgical practices that remind celebrants that they are keepers of the Garden are probably becoming more widespread and more meaningful.

There are various bit and bobs of conceptions of God as being in the connections that are floating about in my memory from literature and theology, but the only one I can readily call to mind at the moment comes from a conversation in the Richard Linklater film Before Sunrise from the mid-nineties, so this idea has been percolating in the culture for a while now.

Jed's point that interconnectedness as a religious metaphor has been around for a long time is a good one, although it has been in abeyance in Western religious and social thought for a long time. I think for reasons ecological as well as technological its prominence is rising quite dramatically in U.S. culture now, although it is far from preeminent.

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