Recently I was having a discussion with a group of friends, in which it was suggested that one could defuse resentments by praying for the object of the resentment, and more specifically by inserting that person’s name into the Third Step Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous. Normally prayed in the first person, as part of the Third Step (turning my will and life over to God as I understand Him), it goes as follows: (from page 63 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous) “God, I offer myself to Thee- To build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!”
It’s a powerful prayer, not specific to any particular religious tradition, and I’ve found it useful in my own life. My own Christian tradition specifically recommends praying for my enemies, and I’ve found that helpful as well. Actually I don’t have any enemies, in the sense of people who target me maliciously. I do have people I dislike, whose actions are compromising my quality of life. They may not modify their behavior in response to my prayers, but the distress I suffer because of their behavior decreases.
My thoughts strayed to a particular individual, and the knowledge that he would almost certainly be very annoyed if he knew I was praying for him to turn his will and his life over to a Higher Power, and most particularly to a higher power of my understanding, which bears a strong resemblance to the God of John Wesley and C.S. Lewis.
The man is not an atheist. If he were genuinely an atheist, he would presumably not care whether or not a person who had no temporal power addressed a nonexistent deity on his behalf. A hostile reaction to a person who is praying for you requires either the suspicion that it is a prelude to compelling you, in real life terms, to act in ways you would rather avoid, or enough belief in divine intervention to worry that a believer’s prayers will somehow interfere with your lifestyle.
So what does my annoying acquaintance believe in? He has quite explicitly rejected the tenets of every major religion but claims to believe in a higher power with which he has a spiritual connection. In other words, he has apparently constructed this surrogate deity from his own experience, in a manner that reinforces business as usual. The will of the higher power of his understanding is whatever he wants, at this particular moment, to ensure a relatively opulent lifestyle and to reinforce his personal sense of intellectual and moral superiority over those less fortunate than he is.
The term “egotheism” occurred to me as a descriptor for this particular theology. The term exists in the literature, though it’s not widely used. I think it’s a useful concept, with wider implications. Narcissistic personalities are attracted to narcissistic belief systems. Whenever there is a reform movement in an existing sect, or an attempt to construct an organized belief system out of bits and pieces of various traditions, the filter of selfishness invariably comes into play. It takes genuine, altruistic spirituality to avoid making one charismatic leader’s self-serving image of God, or the collective image of some narrow special interest, the guiding principle of the new religion. Once this happens, the central role of organized religion in reinforcing a sustainable human community that nurtures all its members is fatally compromised, often in ways that make the old, unreformed belief systems, whose accumulated baggage sparked the initial reform, look benevolent by comparison.
“Weyden Madonna” Wikipedia Commons