What I’m looking for as I continue reading through Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are those areas where the Christian truth presents itself, however hazy. As I wrote yesterday in Hatred for Hatred, it’s fascinating for me to see the truth presented in a nearly identical way by figures separated by time, location, and culture. It puts me in awe of the universality of truth, seeing people who seemingly have nothing in common reach the same conclusions and aim for the same virtues.
As it turns out, Marcus Aurelius–a pagan emperor of antiquity–has an approach to prayer that many American Christians would be wise to follow.
American Christians are often not Christian in any meaningful sense. Many already–and many more each year–regard the Resurrection as a fairy tale and dismiss those essential parts of the religion that they find tedious or difficult. American Christianity, if it can even be called Christianity, is above all a deeply unintellectual cult of niceness. What does God want for us? He wants us to be nice to each other. What happens? Nice people get to go to heaven. And niceness, of course, has no objective definition. It’s about how you feel about yourself, each man his own judge.
American Christianity forsakes the punishing ideal established by Jesus Christ and his saints and replaces it with a vague personal emotion of "goodness", one that means nothing.
"I’m a good person."
"I’ve never murdered anyone."
"I’m certainly no worse than so-and-so."
Low standards and no brain. This version of "Christianity" has been called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism because its purpose isn’t to make better men, but to make mediocre men feel better about themselves. It is therapy and it is niceness. And what accompanies it is a castrated, empty God who the American Christian treats as a personal butler, ignoring Him unless something is desired, especially something frivolous and unimportant (a new car, straight A’s, etc).
So, what we have is a pagan emperor putting American Christianity to shame when he writes:
Either the gods have power or they don’t. If they don’t, why pray? If they do, then why not pray for something else instead of for things to happen or not to happen.
That is to say, if God, Creator of the Universe, almighty and all-knowing, has the power to answer prayers, why would we waste those prayers asking for material outcomes or events rather than personal theosis or the transformation of our inner lives.
Why would we pray to be better off rather than pray to be better men?
Pray not to feel fear. Or desire, or grief. If the gods can do anything, they can surely do that.
– But those are things the gods left up to me.
Then isn’t it better to do what’s up to you–like a free man–than to be passively controlled by what isn’t, like a slave or beggar? And what makes you think the gods don’t care about what’s up to us?
Start praying like this and you’ll see.
Not "some way to sleep with her"–but a way to stop wanting to.
Not "some way to get rid of him"–but a way to stop trying.
Not "some way to save my child"–but a way to lose your fear.
Redirect your prayers like that, and watch what happens.
If the Christian God is truly the almighty Creator of the Universe, and with Him "all things are possible", then what an incredible failure of the imagination to only ask Him for material goods and outcomes, and only when we most want it. He is not a vending machine, but a catalyst for inner transformation, for becoming Christ-like, deified.
And we are called in 1 Thessalonians to pray without ceasing. Are the believers in niceness under the impression that we’re to ask for new cars and more money endlessly? Or are we, like the pagan emperor, supposed to ask humbly and constantly for mercy, for a dispassionate life, to overcome cowardice, to obliterate anxiety, to transform ourselves to conform to what we are called to be?
This is not generally a culture aimed at virtue, but at consumption, bought identities, weak associations. We’ve forgotten that we are defined by our character, not brands or objects or affiliations. Even a pagan driven by character and aiming at virtue would seem to become more than a self-proclaimed Christian in the most technologically advanced and the most knowledgeable society in the history of humanity.
All that to say, we should be focused on cultivating virtue, on acquiring, through prayer and the mercy and grace of God, things that actually matter.