Prayer Should Make Us Better, Right?

If all the bowing, kneeling, chanting and pilgrimages do not make a difference to daily life or produce peace loving people, then what is the point?

Rev Dr Clarence Devadass (Visiting Fellow at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, UK), The Malaysian Insight

THE recent incident of the man whose repeated honking during Friday prayers that led to an altercation outside a surau raised mixed views from many people and communities.

Much of the discussion had been centred on how as people living in a multi religious environment, we need to be tolerant and respectful of one another.

All said and done, these are indeed valid points for harmonious living and a good reminder to many of us of the diversity that defines Malaysia.

However, there is something that bothers me more than just learning to live with one another in a spirit of tolerance and respect.

The question that bothers me more after watching the video that went viral is, “Is there a relationship between prayer and life?” The situation that we were presented with is that a community that had been in prayer and in communion with God now had suddenly turned violent against a fellow human being.

Many people who saw the video were quick to lament at how our society, where we once prided ourselves of being a model for multireligious and multicultural coexistence, has now denigrated to alarming and helpless levels.

In its core, what we witnessed is certainly nothing different from many other situations that we hear happening in other communities in Malaysia.

Many of us have witnessed carpark squabbles after a prayer service either in a church, temple and even mosque. We hear of people arguing and even verbally abusing one another just after having performed prayers.

Just after prayer, an irritable driver shows a bad sign to another who cut into his path. The difference here is that it happens among adherents of the same religion and therefore doesn’t get the same media coverage as this unfortunate event. Nevertheless, these events highlight the same “problem”: what is the relationship between prayer and life?

The famous Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who was also considered a theologian, poet, social critic and religious author and widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher had once said, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”

Despite being a strong critic of organised religion, he probably understood what the core of prayer is all about.

Prayer is often considered and practised as a time to ask for divine favours but prayer cannot just be reduced to “favours”. If we do that, then we also reduce God to being ‘Santa Claus’ dishing out gifts.

Based on Kierkegaard’s observations, the question that begs an answer is, how does all the praying make a difference in one’s life? Isn’t prayer, no matter how many times one prays, supposed to make us better people?

It would seem that what happened that day demonstrates something much more than just the need for understanding and tolerance. It points to a deep chasm that has inundated our society – the separation between faith and life. Faith in God does not seem to have any bearing on daily life and leading to what I would term as “religious schizophrenia”.

What I believe, pray, and do within the confines of a sacred place no longer bears impact on the things that I do in the ordinary place – almost demonstrating two different personalities (persons) at work. How is this even possible?

Most of us would agree that there seems to be some form of religious revivalism in Malaysia compared to 30 years ago.

Though the number of adherents frequenting places of religious worship may not have increased by leaps and bounds, there seems to be a greater religious awareness among many communities.

However, we are aware also that in the last 30 years we, as a society, seem to be sliding down a slippery slope – corruption on the increase, intolerance of other communities is more pronounced, the lack of respect for fellow human beings, denigration of human values and many other things that did not cause us anxiety when Malaysia was founded. Today we are troubled and even sceptical, critical and irrational.

If we are to aspire for a better Malaysia, we must go beyond catchy slogans and election rhetoric.

Religious institution rather than spewing seeds of disharmony and discord, must re-look at itself because prayer is not just about fulfilling some pious rituals; if all the bowing, kneeling, chanting and pilgrimages do not make a difference to daily life or produce peace loving people, then what is the point?

Prayer must seek to transform people to become better persons. Mother Teresa who devoted herself to the irradiation of the evil of poverty poignantly points out, “God shapes the world by prayer. The more praying there is in the world the better the world will be, the mightier the forces against evil.”

But if what prayer produces is more evil acts of irrationality, intolerant behaviour and lack of respect for one another, then what we consider as prayer, whether in the traditional form or in any other form, may not actually be prayer which is a spiritual communion with God: “If anyone says, ‘I love God, and hates his brother (sister), he (she) is a liar; for he (she) who does not love his (her) brother (sister) whom he (she) has seen cannot love God whom he (she) has not seen.

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