By Bayo Akomolafe, a re-post from social media (August 9, 2021)
Growing up in an evangelical Christian community meant I was coached to think of prayer as a direct line to heaven – a telephone call I could make anytime I wanted. The problem was: God didn’t always pick up.
How does one make sense of that?
Competing theologies of prayer had different ways of making sense of divine rejection. God said no when we had not atoned for unconfessed sins, intoned one theory. Another theory presumed the pre-eminence of God’s Will, an intelligently composed plan so far-reaching in its consequences, so cosmic in its details, so wise in its objectives, that the only way an omniscient, omnibenevolent deity could ensure its completion was to lovingly reject our counter-proposals scripted in mortal and flawed ignorance. The clergy class therefore exhorted us to “pray in God’s will”: that is, to learn the details of this vast fabric of Being, and thread our petitions through the embroidery of this predetermined material. If the answer we sought wasn’t coming, we were to keep praying anyway (“delay is not denial”). The rumour that God worked in mysterious ways kept things fresh and exciting.
Recently, I have been thinking about the binary terminal points of prayer, wondering whether desire is doing more things than travelling down a double-lane highway that leads to one of two possible answers: yes or no. What if there are other vehicular pathways of prayer in its many modes of migrancy? What if prayer doesn’t just go northward, but side-ward, soil-ward, stone-ward, and awk-ward? Perhaps more critically, what if prayer is not a human capacity or a ritual limited to the devout, but the anticipatory and desirous fields created in agential assemblages that have effects? Could it be that prayer travels like fugitive tendrils, shaping the atmosphere, cavorting with molecular possibilities, experimenting with desire, sermoning with the critters that live between the more discernible “Yes” and “No”? In what sense are we the prayers of lichens and ancestors and errant temporalities? In what way might asking for something be more than just an instrumental one-way street to a predetermined answer? In a time when “the human” is being eroded by ecological turbulence, when God can no longer be conveniently quarantined behind the immutability of a pre-relational “Will”, what might it mean to heed Paul’s call to “pray without ceasing”?
These are of course speculative reconfigurations of prayer in a time of loss and desire. But, perhaps, that’s what we need: a permission to fail, to wander from stable notions of arrival, to speculate. Perhaps that’s what prayer does well: it speculates, it theorizes, it distresses bodies in their assumed independence, it inheres a zoomorphic swirl of dust and spirit in its many dances, it chastises the shore and infiltrates the sea.
God does more than say yes or no to prayer. Maybe that’s because God is prayer.