Why I Pray: Part 4, Identity and Gift

I'd like to share one last reason about why I pray. This reason leans heavily upon the work of Arthur McGill and his books Suffering and Life and Death.

One of the reasons I pray is that it shapes the way I understand my identity. More specifically, it helps me reject what I'd call a Malthusian identity. McGill would call it an identity through possession or domination.

As a biologically contingent creature in a world of real or potential scarcity my existence crackles with survival anxiety (this is the "Malthusian" part). Due to this anxiety I attempt to possess, own or dominate some part of the world to secure the status, health, security and, when push comes to shove, the survival of myself and those I love. Obviously, when we are all doing this human existence becomes rivalrous, competitive, envious, selfish and violent. In short, the "identity of possession" is the source of sin in our lives. Here is a bit of McGill on this point:

What is the center, the real key, to sinful identity? It is the act of possession, the act of making oneself and the resources needed for oneself one's own. This act can be described with another term: domination. If I can hold onto myself as my own, as something I really possess and really control, then I am dominating myself. A sinful kind of identity surely requires aggression or appeasement; it requires defenses against others and against the threat of death as final dispossession. But fundamentally, a sinful kind of identity consists in the act of domination. I am because there is some section of reality which I own, which bears my name and I truly own it; it truly bears my name because I dominate it completely, because it is an instrument of my identity and my will...
Salvation for the Christian is to step out of this trap. If we can step out of the identity of possession we can adopt a non-fearful and non-aggressive stance toward the people around us. Further, and deeper, we can adopt a non-fearful stance toward death, the real threat of dispossession, the real engine of our Malthusian anxieties.

So how does this happen? McGill has us consider the identity of Jesus in the gospels:
In the New Testament portrayal of Jesus, nothing is more striking than the lack of interest in Jesus' own personality. His teachings and miracles, the response of the crowd and the hostility of the authorities, his dying and his resurrection--these are not read as windows in Jesus' own experience, feelings, insights, and growth. In other words, the center of Jesus' reality is not within Jesus himself. Everything that happens to him, everything that is done by him, including his death, is displaced to another context and is thereby reinterpreted. However, this portrayal is understood to be a true reflection of Jesus' own way of existing. He himself does not live out of himself. He lives, so to speak, from beyond himself. Jesus does not confront his followers as a center which reveals himself. He confronts them as always revealing what is beyond him. In that sense Jesus lives what I call an ecstatic identity.

In all the early testimony to Jesus, this particular characteristic is identified with the fact that Jesus knows that his reality comes from God...Jesus never has his own being; he is continually receiving it...He is only as one who keeps receiving himself from God.
The Christian identity is found by stepping into the ecstatic identity of Jesus. To not own or possess your identity, but to receive it. To approach life as open rather than closed, as grateful and peaceful rather than paranoid and anxious. Christians call this "freedom from sin" or "resurrection." McGill on this point:
[B]ecause I no longer live by virtue of the reality which I possess, which I hold, which I master and keep at my disposal, I am free to share myself and all my possession with others. Above all...I can be honest with others. I can be open before them. I do not have to draw a line to mark the boundaries of my reality where I place a sign which says "Keep Out." I do not have to conceal my being behind a wall in order to keep it mine and to prevent others from taking it from me. Since I never have myself, I can never be dispossessed of myself. In short, in all my relations with other people I am freed from the anxiety of having always to keep possession of my own reality in order to be.
Importantly, this received identity doesn't just reformulate how I approach others. It also reshapes how I approach my death. Never really owning my life I cannot "lose it" in the act of death. Rather, as Jesus did on the cross, we return the gift which was never ours in the first place. "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." In this, Death, the final enemy, is defeated.

So this is why I pray. Of all the things I do during the day prayer is that act which defines my identity. Prayer places me in the receptive state, of receiving my identity rather than owning it. And I come back to prayer over and over again to keep my hands open to receive the gift of my identity and to constantly pry back my fingers when I'm clutching the gift too tightly. Because the minute I "own" who I am and all I have my soul beings to curdle and my mind slowly poisons itself.

Thanks for all the comments, encouragement, and feedback about these posts on prayer. There are other reasons why I pray but the three I've discussed--Solidarity, Resistance, and Identity--are the most important for me.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

2 thoughts on “Why I Pray: Part 4, Identity and Gift”

  1. I do not think that healthy identity is found in myth making. Devastation transpires when hopes are dashed over the ashes of personal tragedy, such as Haiti. One cannot say that "God is suffering with them", unless God is passive/agressive.

    Self and other needs affirmation by cooperative means, which means mutual respect, full trust of the other's intent to not damage or deny the rights of power and choice over one's life. Surrender to another who is "all powerful" in their domination over you, is self-destructive, naive, and lacking discernment...much less to say that it furthers the self-interest of the other party. This is why we have "Sunshine Laws", Freedom of Information Act, etc. for ethics to play out in government and affirm all citizens their right to life and liberty.

    Your frame of reference is on the Church' means to solidarity, which furthers to fulfill their own designs, and doing so under the guise of "love". The "love of god"(if one wants to talk in metaphors) must be demonstrated to each individual, for it to be rightly communicated and thus recieved, so it can never be "formed" unless by an individual's choice to believe and submit to such beliefs.

    Power cannot be given away as to the self, unless it is in a voluntary service.

    I really think that religion seeks to give an false identity and myth that breeds destructive tendencies of protectionism itself. Anyone questioning how one understands a "radical's" belief or lifestyle is painted with an "A" on their clothing, which is discriminatory and hateful to the "other".

    So, religion in America must be tempered by its attitude of toleration toward diversity, which otherwise, would breed an environment of radical faith claims about "God's designs" on the nation/world. And that only breeds division and "holy wars"...

  2. I agree with you McGill to the extent that we have to be willing to surrender our identities to Christ; to be willing to allow Him to transform us into His likeness. This does not, however, involve the elimination of boundaries.

    Boundaries are not bad in and of themselves. It is necessary to have some sense of boundary in order to be a healthy self. Otherwise, I become a nebulous blob being absorbed by and conforming with my surroundings.

    Jesus Himself demonstrated proper boundaries by excusing himself at times to go and pray. There were times when Christ didn't want to share Himself with others. He needed "recharging."

    I think His model of differentiation is best, and certainly a reason to pray in itself: "Lord, help me to be more like you in every way. Take hold of me and mold me in your likeness. Given me the strength to stand for you in the face of those who would destroy your kingdom. Give me the humility to serve those who need your peace."

    That's what I pray.

    Thanks for this series. It caused me to examine myself. That's always a good thing.

Leave a Reply