Prometheus and Prayer

Cleaning up a room the other day, I picked up a bag and accidentally spilled its contents, mostly papers and articles used for previous Church lessons, all over the floor. As I went through the mess, sorting the papers into stacks of things to keep and things to discard, I discovered a forgotten gem: “Men Against God: The Promethean Element in Biblical Prayer,” by Sheldon H. Blank. The timing of this rediscovery was fortuitous. Our son, who is currently studying ancient Greece in school, had recently asked me, “Dad, who is your favorite Titan?”

“Prometheus,” I replied.

“Prometheus?” he asked back incredulously. “All he did was give us fire, and he shouldn’t have done that.”

I wasn’t sure why Jeremiah was taking the sides of the Olympians on this. I didn’t argue, nor did I bring up the claim that Prometheus provided more than fire: writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science.

I remember watching a movie production of Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound,” with the iron clad Kratos and Bia chaining Prometheus to the mountain in revenge for his defiance of Zeus. With all the suffering in human life, its frailty and shortness, it is hard not to sympathize with the rebel Prometheus against the Tyrant. But it is also hard not to be terrified of Zeus.

Prometheus’ prominence in my psyche arose after reading Albert Camus’ The Rebel. Ever since then I have wanted to do a painting that somehow blended Prometheus chained to a Caucasus peak and Jesus crucified on Golgotha. I had understood that Prometheus was a hero to Romantics–Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example–but I hadn’t seen too many of my co-religionists advocating for Prometheus. But several years ago I ran across Blank’s intriguing article when reading his own book, Jeremiah, Man and Prophet. In the fascinating random walks through our intellectual histories, I had first found Blank’s book while reading the introduction to a beautiful JPS edition of Jeremiah illustrated with wood block prints. The introduction quotes Blank: “Jeremiah is companion to the daring.” Who wouldn’t want to look up such an author!

“Men Against God” commences with the commonsensical observation that not all men pray alike:

Men who pray figure prominently in Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition. But these men do not all pray alike. Some of them pray in a mood of submissive penitence—this is the commoner, the approved way. Others, strange though it sounds, stand up to God in prayer and demand their due. In distress and danger, they defend their rights, the rights of men, against the encroachments of an arbitrary or tyrannical God. We may call these others “Promethean.” In the modern romanticized sense of the term, these men and the spirit of their prayer are Promethean.

Also, these men and the spirit of their prayer do not agree with the prevalent mood of Protestant theology and its doctrine of man. Nevertheless, or for that very reason, these men and their spirit may have some meaning for our times.

To Blank the Promethean heros of the Bible are not to be found among the rebels, among Lucifer and the like, but among the faithful, among Abraham and Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah:

It is not, indeed, among the rebels that we find them, but among the faithful. They hold fast to God even while they question his decrees. Though they defy, they do not deny him.

In addition to Biblical examples of Promethean prayers (generalized), Blank has some entertaining examples from Jewish traditions, including the following aggada (had to look that word up) from the Palestinian Talmud:

When God was about to hand the two tablets of stone to Moses, God still grasping them above and Moses below, the people sinned with the golden calf and God resolved to withhold the gift. Indeed, the precious ten commandments would never have come into man’s possession had not Moses then, at the last moment, with sheer physical strength, wrested the tablets from the hands of God.

This boldness of man confronting God, like Abraham arguing with God over Sodom, seems so alien to our religious sensibilities—“the prevalent mood of Protestant theology,” which I surmise Mormons have inherited more than they would  acknowledge. Why, I wonder, did Blank think this so important for our time? Are we not standing up to God enough? Or are we too complacent in equating “God’s will” with the status quo? I have often said that the way Mormon’s take God’s name in vain is to attribute to God’s will their own actions and preferences. If Blank thought the world saturated with the Protestant worldview of man and God needed to consider the examples of Promethean prayer, could I suggest that Mormons could benefit from it even more? We’re unwilling not only to challenge God, but even to challenge His unquestionably human, and thus fallible  representatives.

Thankfully, there have been voices within Mormonism, that, while perhaps not as bold as most of Blank’s examples, merit attention. Consider this excerpt from Hugh Nibley’s essay “Beyond Politics”:

The question arises, If we decided to do things God’s way will not all discussion cease? How could there be a discussion with God? Who would disagree with im? If we go back to our basic creation story we are neither surprised nor shocked to hear that there was free discussion in heaven in the presence of God at the time of the creation, when some suggested one plan and some another….If we cannot clearly conceive of the type of discussion that goes on in the courts on high, we have some instructive instances of God’s condescending to discuss things with men here on earth. “Come, let us reason together,” he invites the children of Israel. Accordingly Abraham and Ezra both dared, numbly and apologetically, but still stubbornly, to protest what they considered, in the light of their limited understanding, unkind treatment of some of God’s children. They just could not see why the Lord did or allowed certain things. So he patiently explained the situation to them, and then they understood. Enoch just couldn’t see the justification for the mass distruction of his fellows by the coming flood; he too was stubborn about it: And as Enoch saw this, he had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said unto the heavens: I will refuse to be comforted; but the Lord said unto Enoch: Lift up your heart, and be glad; and look.” (Moses 7:44. [Italics added by Nibley])

God did not hold it agains these men that they questioned him, but loved them for it: it was because they were first the friends of men, even at what they thought was the terrible risk of offending him, that they became friends with God.

I really like that last sentence and think it deserves repeating: “It was because they were first the friends of men, even at what they thought was the terrible risk of offending him, that they became friends with God.” This sentiment reminds me of 1 John 4:20

If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?

If, as Nibley argues, God loves people for questioning him, because they had primary concern for humanity, we ought to be somewhat wary of much of our piety and loyalty. Consider, for example, the following:

Elder Lee had agreed to give me counsel and some direction. He didn’t say much, nothing really in detail, but what he told me has saved me time and time again. “You must decide now which way you face,” he said. “Either you represent the teachers and students and champion their causes or you represent the Brethren who appointed you. You need to decide now which way you face.” Then he added, “Some of your predecessors faced the wrong way.” It took some hard and painful lessons before I understood his counsel. In time, I did understand, and my resolve to face the right way became irreversible.

What is facing the wrong way? Is this the way to become friends with God, as Nibley describes? I’d like to read Blank’s response to the above paragraph; even better, I’d like to read the responses from some of the Promethean heros of whom Blank writes.


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