At the heart of Christian teaching on prayer there is a sense of responsibility. Christ, teaching the disciples to pray, uses language that decenters the one praying. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Within this language, opening its speaker to the divine, there is also a sense of being placed. Prayer creates a rhythm, it orders the world in a certain way. That the language used in the Lord’s prayer, in both the gospel of Matthew and Luke, is political and spatial should lead us to attend to a certain reality of prayer. Prayer is a subjective activity, yet it is also more than that. It pertains to the real rhythms of life, to particular geographical spaces. By this I mean the physical geography of the earth, but also the human geography – that is, the way human individuals and communities engage with these physical spaces changing them and being changed with and because of them. The rhythms of prayer are not those of an isolated self, nor of a mere intersubjectivity, certainly not of a politics of recognition. The problem, as we shall see, is that neither individuation nor collectivity are simply givens. Within our actions the elements of intentionality and creation are matched by confusion, misunderstanding, and weakness.
I have a friend whose mother is dying. She has lost both her hearing and her vision. Every morning she begins with prayer. In praying, says her son, she names and orders the world she no longer experiences through the senses. Prayer, as an act of naming and of recognition, is about place. Christ’s declaration of the temple as a house of worship once again names the spatial reality of prayer. Prayer, in its individual and collective forms always names and orders the world in a particular way. This is not to say that prayer is in itself a creation ex nihilo of the world. Liturgical rhythms, the rhythms of prayer, are always a matter of human decision and agency, yet they arise within a certain context and are formed within particular situations. Prayer, then, reveals a rhythm of existence, resounding through physical and psychic terrain inextricable from the fabric of life itself. One can, therefore, speak of a geography of prayer, though never as an external observer. As language prayer is an awareness of its incompleteness. It is a language of response, and not of totality.
Recent years have seen an explosion of writing on the relationship between theology and politics from various points on the political and religious spectrums. In a certain sense this is nothing new. If faith is thought to have any bearing on material existence then politics and theology must come into dialogue. The form this conversation takes, however, can vary quite radically with very different results and degrees of intelligibility. The complexity of what is under review in these conversations, particularly regarding the legitimacy of distinctive ways of being in the world, is confronted with a twofold temptation. On the one hand a reification of identity and meaning into static and uniform patterns, and on the other an all too easy relativism which negligently assumes a total convergence of all, or at least many, forms of identity. In the contemporary jargon we could classify these as fundamentalist polemics and liberal tolerance respectively. Both of these positions are ultimately incoherent. Nevertheless their aesthetics have proved captivating with the result of a diminution of social, political, cultural and ecological space. As the rhythms and spaces of life are ill attended to its existential refrains harden, and we are reduced from the resonance of a cosmic symphony to the weak repetitious echo of our isolation. A faint cry for help.
To raise the conversation anew we can do no better than to cite Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “The body of Christ takes up space on earth. This is a consequence of the Incarnation.” This simple statement offers up a powerful challenge on every level. It bears witness to a body whose very physicality is borne out in divine mystery. Attending to this mystery therefore requires a thoughtful engagement with the physical and human geographies which bind us. Simply to assume these geographies as inert fields over which we, the human actors, exert our efforts of will is a gross violation of reality. Reducing human beings to exertions of wilful force – whether individual or collective makes no difference – ignores the complexities of a will that always acts in concert with the faculties of memory and intellect. It is my contention that this reductionism is at the core of what we mistakenly refer to as politics, though not in an overt or obvious fashion. Memory and intellect are, of course, invoked in any decision. What matters is that this be done in an intelligible and truthful way. And this necessarily implicates a consideration of the spatial dimensions of life. Faith and knowledge, belief and decision are not to be found elsewhere than the material unfolding of life.
The renowned French philosopher Alain Badiou, following an insight from the Marxist political tradition, remarks that the essence of the State is that it is not obliged to acknowledge individuals. Bypassing the elements or terms which compose any given historical situation, namely individual persons in their concrete particularities and social formations, the State deals directly with collective subsets of society already structured into cultural, economic, and even political configurations. In classical Hobbesian fashion the State exists to prevent the dissolution of society into a war of all against all. However, in Badiou’s analysis, the State contributes nothing to the structuring of society; it is instead a metastructure operating to ensure the smooth functioning of already structured social space, and to prevent against the dissolution of the structures already in place. Hence the governing apparatus – occupying primarily, if not exclusively, an administrative role – necessarily assumes a fairly rigid human geography.
Every conflict is at some level a contestation of space. What is at stake is not only who occupies or controls a given space but also, and perhaps more significantly, how it is configured. The dialectical relationship of these two concerns should be noted. One of the major failing points of modern political theory is the pervasive disregard for spatiality as an integral and formative aspect of power or authority. That political discourse tends to revolve around a conceptually homogenous space –the “political realm” in which actors are assumed to possess full control and complete freedom in exercising their self-determination – reveals a devastating lack in human understanding. What is missing is an awareness of place and its effects on the formation as well as dissemination of modalities of power. As John Allen, professor of Economic Geography at Britain’s Open University, puts it:
People are placed by power, but they experience it first-hand through the rhythms and relationships of particular places, not as some pre-packaged force from afar and not as a ubiquitous presence.1
Allen goes on to describe some of the curious dynamics of geographies of power wherein the far-off is at times experienced as close at hand and vice versa. Our failure to rigourously attend to these dynamics, he suggests, leads to a misunderstanding of power as ubiquitous presence and an erosion of its particular geographies. The key challenge here is to understand power – and along with it the multiple concerns of human agency, relationality, and justice to name but a few – not as an oceanic flux somehow external to the realm of contingent human decision, nor simply as the effort of the human will exercising its individual preferences. What we must endeavour to realize are the multiple ways in which our capacities for decision and action are embedded within the spatial and material reality wherein we are composed. To do this is to discover, each day anew, the depth and breadth of our own existential coordinates.
This work of discovery is, I believe, the challenge and promise of the Lord’s Prayer. Its simple rhythm has guided and shaped us over two thousand years, expanding and resonating in various ways. What I hoped to have said in this article is merely that the political work of the church is the work of prayer. It is not any other work to which we are called. But prayer is not a mental exercise divorced from existence. It is, in some sense, a material production. It is a work of life. What we taught, from the Lord’s prayer, is a rhythm that relinquishes control while accepting responsibility. Perhaps from this simple prayer we can seek a new political dynamics, one that is aware of its formation, its heritage, its geography, but is also aware that the fullness of these particular places is unending. Ours is the hard work and the joy to learn these songs.
Joshua Paetkau is a barista at The Neighbourhood Bookstore and Cafe in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He recently graduated from Canadian Mennonite University with a bachelor of arts in theology and social science, and is a member of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.
1 John Allen, Lost Geographies of Power (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003), 2.