Monday, May 6, 2013

Pornography and Prayer

A recent Wall Street Journal article talks about the way online pornography quickly develops new neural pathways that are difficult to undo. As the author puts it,
"Repetitive viewing of pornography resets neural pathways, creating the need for a type and level of stimulation not satiable in real life. The user is thrilled, then doomed."
Thankfully, "doomed" may be an overstatement.  As William James and so many others remind us, our habits make us who we are, so we may be able to form new habits to supplant or redirect old ones.  I'm no psychologist, but it seems obvious to me that what we hold in front of our consciousness will synechistically affect everything else we think about and do.   So it is no surprise that the author of this WSJ article reports that viewing porn may lead to viewing women as things rather than as people.

To put it differently, everyone worships something, and what we worship changes us.  This is one of the good reasons to engage in prayer and worship that are intentional. (On a related note, it's a good reason to forgive, too: forgiveness keeps us from internalizing the pain others have caused us, where it can fester and devour us from within.)

(If you read my writing with any regularity you will recognize these as themes I frequently return to.  If you're interested, I've written more here and here.) 

One of the problems of philosophy of religion has been to try to identify that which certainly deserves our worship.  This quest for certainty has often (in my view) distracted us from the more important work of liturgy, wherein we acknowledge our limitations, including our uncertainty.  A good liturgy involves worshiping what we believe to be worth worshiping, while acknowledging our own limitations.  After all, if worship doesn't include humility on the part of the worshiper, it is probably self-worship. 

Another way of putting this is in terms of love.  Charles Peirce wrote about this more than a century ago.  There are many forms of worship, many kinds of prayer.  Without intending to demean the prayer and worship of others, Peirce nevertheless offers what seems to him to be worth our attention: agape love, the love that seeks to nurture others:
"Man's highest developments are social; and religion, though it begins in a seminal individual inspiration, only comes to full flower in a great church coextensive with a civilization. This is true of every religion, but supereminently so of the religion of love. Its ideal is that the whole world shall be united in the bond of a common love of God accomplished by each man's loving his neighbour. Without a church, the religion of love can have but a rudimentary existence; and a narrow, little exclusive church is almost worse than none. A great catholic church is wanted." (Peirce, Collected Papers, 6.442-443)
Notice that Peirce uses a small "c" in "catholic."  He wasn't trying to proselytize for one sect; quite the opposite.  He was trying to proclaim the importance of a church - that is, of a community that shares a commitment to communal worship - of nurturing love.

I am not trying to moralize about pornography.  In fact, I see some good in pornography, just as I recognize goodness in the aromas coming from a kitchen where good cooking happens.  Pornography probably speaks to some of our most basic desires and needs, for intimacy, affection, attention, and love, as well as our simple, animal longings.

Still, like aromas from a fine kitchen, porn stimulates us without nourishing us.  And by giving it too much attention we may be training ourselves to scorn good nutrition.  The WSJ article suggests giving up the stimulation as a means of getting over it.  I think this is incomplete without a redirection of the attention to what does in fact nourish us.  Prayer and worship that refocus our conscious minds on what really merits our attention can prepare us to receive - and to give - good nutrition.  That is, by shifting some of our attention from cherishing need-love to cherishing gift-love - from the love that uses others to the love that seeks their flourishing - we might make ourselves into the kind of great lovers our world most needs.

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