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True Prayer :  God In Us
Written November 1,  2001

Right now, dear reader, I'm doing the same thing that you are doing.  I'm sitting in front of my computer, looking at the screen.

I imagine what it would be like if my friend, the doctor, were here and I could talk to her.

"What are you staring at, Tom?" she would ask.

"Just a blank screen," I would reply.  "I'm going to write another article for my website."

"What subject do you have in mind?  Something about yourself, again, I suppose."

"Well," I answer defensively, "I do call it a personal website, after all.  Most of the articles should be about me, or what's happened in my life."

"But not every article," she chides me.  "Maybe you need to broaden your outlook.  Write about other things.  After all, 'A person all wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.'"

And so my imaginary conversation goes.  I recall her quoting that adage to me in a letter long ago.  I'm remembering what the doctor is like, what she thinks, how she thinks.  Stored in my memory is my own copy of her personality — an imperfect, incomplete, possibly outdated copy, to be sure, but useful nonetheless.  I'll call this copy of her personality "her spirit."

When I hold this imaginary conversation, two characters are speaking.  The lines for my character are created in my mind.  Her character's lines are also created in my mind; I turn her spirit loose and listen to what it says.

What it says can surprise me.  In this case, I'm reminded of the "wrapped up in himself" adage, and I start to think of my planned article in less selfish terms.

Some authors claim that they don't really write dialogue.  They invent the characters, mentally put them into a situation, and then just watch what happens and write it down.

This thing that I call her spirit, this construct in my mind, is not really the doctor.  The real doctor out in Wisconsin has no idea that a conversation is taking place here inside my head.  If I ask a question inside my head, the real doctor won't hear it, won't really respond.

Why don't you try this for yourself, dear reader?  Imagine that a friend of yours has just come into the room and discovered you at your computer.  Have a conversation with that friend.  Go ahead, look away from this screen and talk to your friend!  I'll wait.




Okay, your conversation with your friend was probably quite different from my conversation with mine.  But the principle is the same.

Try it again.  But this time, imagine a conversation with a family member who is no longer living.  Bring your relative up to date on what's happened since the funeral.  Look away from the screen.  I'll wait.


Family Member


Regardless of how real that conversation may have seemed, I hope that you don't think that you were actually communicating with the dead.  Nothing magical was going on, no ghosts.  You were having an imaginary conversation between yourself and the spirit of the dead, using the word "spirit" in my sense:  the personality of the departed, as you remember that personality.  It was all taking place inside your own mind.

Let's try the experiment one more time.  This time, imagine that a fictional character has just walked into the room and discovered you at your computer.  Your visitor might be Sherlock Holmes, or Darth Vader, or Marge Simpson, or whomever you like.  Turn away from the screen and interact with the visitor.  I'll be here.


Fictional Character


That was kind of fun, wasn't it?  And you certainly weren't talking with the "real" Sherlock or whomever, because there is none.  But I'm guessing that the fictional character led you to ideas that you might never have thought about on your own.  Maybe Marge Simpson pointed out the lack of neatness on your desk.

Really, though, you did come up with those ideas on your own.  Everything happened inside your head.  These imaginary conversations are just a device that can be used to direct your thinking.

This brings me to my main point:

I suspect that these
imaginary conversations
are the same thing
as prayer.

I'm not talking about public prayer, of course.  This is ostensibly addressed to God but really meant to be heard by the audience or the congregation.  If the preacher prays, "O God, let us not envy one another," he really means, "O people, do not envy each other."

(As a corollary, as I've mentioned elsewhere:  when fundamentalists argue for prayer in schools, they don't mean personal prayer.  There's no rule against that.  What they want is public prayer — so they can pretend to talk to God but actually preach to the people, using so-called prayer to tout their beliefs and to proselytize others to their cause.)

But in personal prayer, where we perceive ourselves to be talking one-on-one with God, I submit that we are having an imaginary conversation with God's spirit.

We have an idea of what God is like, from all that we have been taught about him and all that we have read.  In our imaginary conversation, we ask his spirit a question, and we imagine the spirit's reply.

The answer that our mind creates will be "in character."  God will probably speak in Biblical language.  He may quote from his Word.  His tone will depend on whether we perceive him to be a stern Old Testament ruler or a comforting, forgiving New Testament father.

Are we communicating with the "real" God?  Can we convince him to alter the course of events?  Can we convince him to change his divine plan in order to do us a favor?  Not necessarily.  We'd like to think so, but there are logical problems.

For example, in sports or in war, if a million X-supporters ask God to let X win, while a million Y-supporters ask the opposite, what's he going to do?  At least a million prayers are going to fail, joining the great multitude of other unanswered prayers down through the ages.

"Most Christians have never read the Bible, or they would know that praying didn't work for Jesus so why would it work for them?  In Matthew 26 [and Mark 14], Jesus is so distraught and sad that he prays and begs to be saved from his fate but is crucified anyway.  In Luke 22, Jesus is in such agony that angels have to comfort him and his sweat falls like great drops of blood, but he is still crucified."

—Jim Osborne, Jacksonville (FL), letter in Free Inquiry April/May 2019

"God does not intervene in spectacularly supernatural ways.  Instead, God uses our prayers to change us.  We pray.  We pray for a softer heart, we pray for a more compassionate heart."

Bishop Edward Malesic, Diocese of Greensburg (PA), July 11, 2017

There's one key point in favor of my concept of prayer as an imaginary conversation with God's spirit:

This concept works
even if God is a
fictional character.

Is God "real," or is he fictional?
Is he a spirit, as I have used the term?




JOHN 4:24

We can have an imaginary conversation with such a spirit.

We can speak in prayer to such a spirit.

Thereby we can receive
insight and guidance
from this character
whose personality
we already know:
the God in us.




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