Prayer in the Face of An Obscene Infinity or, No Fear When the Obscene Infinity of Love is Practiced

Recently Scott Pelley referenced the partial U.S. Government shutdown, as Groundhog Day. Shadows were long and everyone was seeing theirs, he noted. I could not help see a double entendre where the second less obvious reference was the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray. Over and again the same day played out.

A friend and I had lunch this week. He shared a story, one of those, “How could they?” We talked about the variables of the story that made the subject vulnerable to mistreatment by those who had been trusted. Those who should hold the promise of hope instead created hardship. Sure there were details to the story that may leave a person thinking that one or more decision up the line could have changed everything. We call that hindsight. In this case it was multi-vision. My friend and I were the added lenses.

Too much of that sort of analysis cheapens the subject and would make of her an object. Armchair quarterbacking another person’s decision threatens to reduce the young lady to little more than an object lesson. We refused that temptation. Instead my friend was/is intent to help find a solution, to offer hope in something better. His hope was/is that the next decision would include someone who would have a greater interest in the outcomes, what would happen to her. Rather than merely leaving the situation to chance of circumstance, even if circumstances of chance created the intersection for his now mentor-like relationship, my friend insists he represent someone of good will, of hope.

We witness too many of those, “How could they?” events and stories. Like Bill Murray’s character, we wake every day to the “infinity” of evil. That is not my idea. Terry Eagleton’s On Evil contains an appearance by Slavo Zizek. Eagleton writes of the recurrence of evil,

Slavo Zizek points out that immortality is usually associated with goodness, but that truth is actually the reverse. The primordial immortality is that of evil: “Evil is something which threatens to return for ever,” Zizek writes, “a spectral dimension which magically survives its physical annihilation and continues to haunt us.”  There is a kind of “obscene infinity” about evil – a refusal to accept our mortality as natural, material beings. Lots of men and women hope to live forever; the damned are those for whom this seductive dream has become atrociously real.” (On Evil,p.50-51)

There have been more stories since that lunch encounter earlier this week – other faces, other circumstances, and other particulars. These stories contain the same recurring participant – evil, or Evil – an “obscene infinity.” Pastors are not the only ones to be invited into such stories but they are those who are drawn into them with regularity. Our risk is to pray. Our fear is to pray.

Here I am thinking of John D. Caputo’s theo-poetics of prayer in The Insistence of God. Rather than the determinate rails along which prayer tends to run in Confessional Theology, Caputo unsettles the practice impiously. He writes with a Cheshire Cat grin. I wish to take a strand of the impious Caputo and suggest that when we are faced with obscene evil, the sort that seems to defy its own death, that we risk prayer. Not just any prayer. But prayer that both funds a hopefulness that it may work out and also braces for the possibility that it may not. Even more, when we realize that it may not work out that we don’t remain transfixed, looking at the mountain for help, but that we take up the activity of God materially – in real life, real time.

Not that we are gods. But, what do we do when things do not turn out? When our prayers not only go unanswered but things actually get worse? My cynic friends find ammunition with which they shoot down the ideas of God’s existence. My skeptic friends take such an event to affirm their conviction that there is no Other. Interestingly my friend, who often fits both categories in varying degrees, takes up the activities that betray cynicism and skepticism. He contacts his network of friends, he holds out the promise of something better, he encourages hopefully. In short, he does not stop to see who else may be coming. His action becomes a prayer of sorts, an impious one to be sure.

When someone we know, for whom we have prayed, gets news worse than before we called on the Name of God, do we return to them with hat in hand to say, “We give up?” No. We affirm that we are for them, we are with them. We tell them we will continue to pray and we do more. We look for ways to encourage, engender strength, to tell stories of promise. We do not sit idly by, or at least many of us do not, we work harder for her or him. We take action in our own bodies to become the Presence of the One to whom we pray.

The prayer of risk, the prayer of fear, is that we face the reality that the answer to our prayer might lie with us. God with us. God in us. We, like those for whom we pray, look at the mountain from which our help comes. We hope for Someone to come to the aid of the other in need. We return to our knees. We look up to see who has come. We invite our prayer group into our agony. Together we look to see who has come. The risk of prayer is that no one comes. The fear of prayer is that you may be the one. God with us. God in us. We want to see evil, Evil, vanquished but it returns, in part, because we keep looking for someone to come and miss that we may be he or she who is the one.

Here we may say, God insists. Caputo has it this way – God insists, we exist. Our activity is in a different register, as he is want to describe it. If we would assert that something is getting done in the Name of God, then our experience of it is in real life, in our existence.

One point of departure with Zizek, and in the phenomenological framework of Caputo, will be that in the Resurrection, and lived out in our Resurrected living, the “obscene infinity” of evil is not that spectre that haunts. But that in the Resurrection, Jesus’ and so ours’, we realize the obscene infinity of Love. We find the real life experience that as evil recurs we offer the obscene infinity of Love. We risk our own prayers and tears as we take up the activity of God in material reality, in our world, and in so doing bear testimony to the God who insists that in our existence Love prevails.

* This is not a review of either Eaglteon’s, On Evil, or of another chapter of Caputo’s, The Insistence of God. Instead, like my mentor, I am mashing up some of the books through which I am plodding as we work to the end of this year’s Lectionary Cycle and its accompanying texts covering Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, the Cross, and Resurrection.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

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