[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Praying Angry” by Robert Orsi.]
A German perspective on “praying angry” as a reformatory or revolutionary speech act.
Robert Orsi’s essay, “Praying Angry,” addresses a specific theme that emerged from a series of interviews he conducted with survivors of sexual abuse committed by priests. At the center of Orsi’s analysis is a specific “theodicy of praying angry.” This is represented by a certain “Frank H.,” who has become a spiritual advisor to many survivors.
I would like to concentrate on the following passage from Robert Orsi’s text:
Frank’s theodicy of praying angry directly addresses this reality. “What more can God do to you?” he says. To have seen God at God’s worst is to be liberated from the old relationship with an omnipotent God, and this opens a way for a new relationship. Survivors are free not only to express their doubts, their sense of betrayal, and their anger with God, but also to consider the articulation of these feelings as prayer. There is a hard edge to Frank’s theodicy of prayer. Survivors have got God’s number; they meet God without illusions about God. But this does not drive them away from God, or it need not do so in Frank’s theology. Rather, it permits them to pray fearlessly and freely, to pray as they really are as persons, to open their inner lives in all their turmoil and anger to God who must take them as they are.
1. I am not an expert in empirical religious science, but rather in the field of hermeneutics with regard to the European and German traditions of Protestantism. Thus, I want to comment on this passage by referring to two historical documents from my tradition:
It is striking that significant changes in how piety is practiced and understood are often accompanied by their liberation from hierarchical conventions.
“Sometimes the curse of the wicked sounds better in God’s ears than the hallelujah of the pious.” This quote from Martin Luther (taken, not quite accurately, from his commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Romans) was popularized by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who referred to it at several points in his writings. As Eberhard Bethge reports in his masterly biography, Bonhoeffer desired to get into personal relationship with Karl Barth in July 1931. He traveled to Bonn three weeks before his first lectureship in Berlin in order to attend Barth’s seminar. At some point during the seminar, Bonhoeffer brought up Luther’s quotation: “Sometimes the curse of the wicked sounds better in God’s ears than the hallelujah of the pious.” Barth, taken aback by the comment, yet ignorant of who had made it, quickly responded: “Who said this”? A relationship between the two theologians quickly followed.
Luther’s original text puts it as follows: “Because our God is not a God of impatience and cruelty. Not even for the wicked. I am saying this as a comfort for those who suffer from blasphemous thoughts and who fear, although these blasphemy, because the devil put them forcibly into the people against their will, are sometimes more welcome in God’s ears than the hallelujah or any other song of joy.” This is a citation taken from Luther’s commentary on the epistle to the Romans. This lecture from 1515/16 is considered a crucial document of Luther’s way to his breakthrough as the head of the Wittenberg Reformation.
Of course, this is not a general theological statement about prayer, but rather a very existential remark which is determined by the subjective experiences in particular situations in the lives of Luther, Barth, and Bonhoeffer. It is theologically reflected in the following thesis: At certain crucial situations of piety and spirituality, ‘God’ cannot be addressed in prayer anymore. Rather, such expressions of piety as ‘the hallelujah of the pious’ become godless in these situations—and this can also induce a process of self-alienation of one’s personality and of religious manipulation.
In such situations, prayer can become a paradox form of addressing God, as Frank H. says: “…he tells them that their doubts and their anger are their prayers, that the questions are the prayer.” Whereas traditional forms of prayer that suggest speech patterns that can be applied to a wide variety of situations in which praying persons may find themselves in, this paradox form of prayer often seems to develop out of situations of change: “Read the Psalms” Frank H. says: “How angry are they? They’re some of the angriest prayers we have.”
It seems logical to me to connect Robert Orsi’s empirical analyses regarding the prayer routines of survivors of sexual abuse to historical case studies about the practice of prayer in religious reform situations, and thus to pursue the description of liberation in a comparative way: “they meet God without illusions about God. But this does not drive them away from God, or it need not do so in Frank’s theology. Rather, it permits them to pray fearlessly and freely, to pray as they really are as persons, to open their inner lives in all their turmoil and anger to God who must take them as they are.“
2. During the political changes in the fall of 1989, there were—as is well known—prayers for peace in many protestant churches in Eastern Germany which became “transformation rituals.”. For example, Hermann Geyer takes documental material from the Leipzig prayers for peace as the source for his book St. Nicholas Church, Monday at 5 pm: The Political Worship Services of the ‘Wende’ Period in Leizpig. One of his theses regarding ritual theory is:
“As independent form of communicative action, the ritual (of political indoctrination) cannot be criticized or explained on ‘the basis of argumentative discourse’. (It) cannot be questioned by argumentation. At the most, it can be ‘criticized’ or corrected by another ritual.”
This thesis about the transforming function of ritualized prayers for peace during the ‘revolution’ in Eastern Germany in October 1989 needs further discussion. There is not yet a sufficient basis for such discussion.
There are other sources—for example, recordings made by Friedrich Schorlemmer from churches in Wittenberg from the fall of 1989—which have not yet been analyzed (like many sources concerning the political prayers from 1989). They document how people with a strictly atheistic educational background used speech forms from ecclesial intercessory prayer, with which they had formerly been totally unaquainted, to address political demands like free elections and, later on, the German reunification. The shape of publicity and speech conventions of these early stages of political protest were politically evoked, but developed in the framework of a religious speech practice called “prayer for peace” that was tolerated yet closely monitored by police forces both within and without the churches during these dramatic weeks of October in 1989. These circumstances facilitated hybrid forms of protest and prayer in which anger, political manipulation, breaking the pressure and the lies, political awareness, fear of forced cutting off, and the appeal for peaceful behavior and loving the enemy were connected with each other. The source material documenting these events has only in part been analyzed from the angle of theology and religious science (like the Leipzig prayers for peace). Much of the source material still awaits being documented for scientific purposes. It is also important to encourage religious scientists to mount comparative empirical case studies in these contemporary German sources in order to analyze the phenomenon of “praying angry.”