Last week DairyStateMom's denomination, The Presbyterian Church (USA), held its biennial General Assembly in the Twin Cities. We did not attend, but DSM especially avidly followed news of the event.
At the beginning of the week a worship service was held that included American Indian elements -- with worship leaders who dressed traditionally and called on the four directions. It was mostly well received, although The Presbyterian Lay Committee (a conservative group that also opposes the denomination's move to open ordination in the church to non-celibate gays and lesbians) seemed scornful and condescending in its online news report on the event.
Yet it is clear to us, based on the accounts of those who experienced it firsthand, that the worship service remained a distinctly Christian one, albeit not looking like the tradition with which most white, Western worshipers would be familiar.
Discussing this with DSM got me to thinking about the issue of Appropriation, a topic about which I've had some things to say in the past. What, I wondered, is the difference between this event and the various uses of rituals and materials from other traditions that occur in Unitarian Universalist worship?
A key distinction is that, for the most part, when UUs take other traditional elements and put our own spin on them, it is just that -- a mostly white, Western act of taking and interpreting for ourselves those other traditions. (I acknowledge that there may be exceptions to this generalization.)
In this particular Presbyterian event, however, it was the reverse: The ceremony was led by American Indian Presbyterians. In essence, they were taking something from their own culture and reinterpreting it in a new context in which they also were participants, namely Christianity. Indeed, I see it as a gift they were giving to their fellow Christians in that time and space (which makes the criticism and scorn of it all the more ungracious, in my opinion).
I've been inclined to mostly defend our UU practice to borrow from other traditions in our worship, and I still largely feel that way. But the distinction of making a gift of one's own cultural traditions to a larger context--such as a worship service--versus "taking" from the cultural traditions of others, is an intriguing one, and one that should lead us to some careful thought as we make choices about how we create and re-create rituals in the context of UU worship.
DairyStateMom's church has an interesting summer discussion group that meets every Wednesday evening for an hour to reflect on chapters in the book Einstein's God, taken from various programs on Speaking of Faith, by Krista Tippett. Last night we discussed her program on Dr. Mehmet Oz.
There's a little bit in the program about research on whether intercessory prayer helps speed recovery for people, and there was very clear acknowledgment on the part of the discussion group that the evidence is contradictory at best and, more likely, doesn't support a scientifically objective claim that prayer "works." (Interestingly, the topic of the medical efficacy of prayer was also the subject of discussion among members of a prayer group at my own church a month or two ago. )
What's always struck me about the research is the way it typically examines what I'll call "distant" prayer -- that is, the patients participating in the research are being prayed for by others who are not there with them, and who don't even know them. (And to avoid the placebo effect, they're not even supposed to know if they are being prayed for or not.)
I think I understand why that is; the argument seems to be that it's an approach least likely to be subjected to a variety of interfering variables that could taint any findings. Yet I'm still troubled by the attempts to quantify the effects through scientific research. I haven't really been able to articulate this point well for myself, but this morning I achieved a small sort of epiphany.
However well-meaning this research might be, in the end it strikes me as mindlessly reductive. If the final, definitive conclusion seems to be that prayer has "no effect," is everyone simply going to abandon the practice?*
I rather doubt that they will. And I think to simply counsel them to do so would be regrettable at best. I've been witness to great comfort experienced by people who have been prayed for, and if that helps some, I think that's enough, whether it's by placebo effect or by some naturalistic mechanisms we don't understand, or thanks to a supernatural intervention (a possibility that I doubt). I also don't think that prayer is only for the person being prayed for. It is for the person doing the praying.
I'm a very strong believer in science. And in truth, I don't pray much at all (although I'm changing that a bit). But I also think there are some subjects and questions that are beyond the means of science, and simply remain in the realm of mystery. And I think this is probably one of them.
* I acknowledge that there are already millions of people who have no interest in it, as is their right.