The Price Of Prayer – Prayer And The Heavenly Palace Of God, Part 1 (Kurt Appel)

Below is a continuation of a series of articles corresponding to chapters of the book Preis der Sterblichkeit: Christentum und Neuer Humanismus (Freiburg im Bresgau: Verlag Herder, 2015), edited by Kurt Appel, translated by Rachel Thomas.  English editor, Carl Raschke.  This volume of essays represents one of the major works in the new Catholic “cultural humanism” from Central Europe. 

The following is the first installment of Kurt Appel’s concluding essay on prayer.

The question of prayer, in my view, is the most difficult and fundamental theological question of our time.

In his religious writings, Jacques Derrida points out that in the thought worlds of onto-theology, whose last representative is Hegel, prayer has no place.[1] In fact, the symbolic order that has prevailed for centuries or millennia that centers around God through prayer, seems to have collapsed.

In his great commentary on the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans, U. Wilckens writes that the real reason for writing this scripture was that in a situation in which the unity of the gospel was at stake, Paul wanted to assure himself of the prayer of the church of Rome.[2] The mighty voice of the Roman congregation was to penetrate into the heavenly palace of God, prompting him to make the strengthened prayer of the apostle his own concern.

 If one thinks of a cartography of prayer, then we are —at least at first sight— one is confronted with two orders. On the one hand, there is our earth and the worshiper, or the community of the worshipers. On the other hand, “heaven”, the addressee of these prayers, is influenced by them and is corrective, helping and sometimes punishing intervene on this earth. It is never certain whether an event is due to prayer or quasi-natural or it also remains unclear how the temporality of prayer and the eternity of God relate to one another. This has led the cunning Leibniz to the idea that our prayers have already been included in the providence of God.

Looking closer at the spatial order of prayer, there were always places, times, spheres, and persons where heaven and earth converged. The heavenly palace of God extended to priestly and parental blessings, to ecclesiastical and liturgical buildings and times, to books such as the Psalter and the Book of Hours, to musical productions, and finally to the hearts of the people praying.

Later I will come back to the fact that the geography of heaven and prayer is more complex than what is outlined here, but what is most important is an experience that has so far, it seems, had too little impact on theology and philosophy — Nietzsche in all his genius is an exception —and even less in psychoanalysis (disregarding Lacan, of course). Historical research and sociology have reflected poorly the massive trauma that the west suffered with the loss of heavenly palace and the associated emptiness of prayer.

This trauma, magnificently denounced in literary form by Jean Paul[3],  and later presented by Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, is connected with a massive upheaval in the symbolic order outlined in this volume by Deibl and Guanzini. While this was previously geared towards a transcendental “you”, which also found a localization and a center with the term “heaven”, it began to circle with the loss of the divine palace around an emptiness that threatens to devour all potentiality for meaning. 

In many so-called pre-modern cultures there is a hostility and a suspicion toward the West because this emptiness is viewed with fear and because in the West the act of prayer, the symbolic locus of all understanding and doing in many cultures, has been cut off from its addressee. We might also make the passing observation that the Catholic Church clings to a concrete localization of the divine – for instance in the form of the tabernacles that can be found everywhere in their church buildings – which distinguishes it from Protestantism and may actually represent a true chasm between the two denominations.

There is one book in the Holy Scriptures which offers an account with unsurpassable drama about the loss of the divine addressee. That is the book of Ezekiel.[4] Having already been told in the introductory chapter how Ezekiel, to whom “the heavens have opened” (Ez 1,1), beholds the glory of YHWH, the ruler over the cherubs, another encounter with the fire and the divine resplendence occurs in chapters 8-10.

This time the heaven does not open in the plain of the river Chebar in Babylon. Rather, the prophet is transported to the temple in Jerusalem through a vision. Localization is thus more complex than the one in the introductory chapter, where the heavenly palace begins to touch the prophet in the plain. For here the antecedent for the meeting of heaven and earth is the transport and de-localization of the prophet, who in a “vision of God brought to Jerusalem at the entrance of the gate of the courtyard, looking north” (Ez 8,3). The heavenly palace connects with the real site of the Temple of Jerusalem, not directly, but through a vision of the raptured, mad prophet.

The scene is thus in-between heaven and earth, between dream and reality, between Babylon and Jerusalem, and between future and past, insofar as the prophet in the vision of a future event (the killing of the idolaters) looks backwards. The central content of the vision, however, is the abandonment of the temple by the glory of YHWH. The scene is portrayed with agonizing torpor:

Then the cherubim, with the wheels beside them, spread their wings, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. The glory of YHWH went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God.

Then the vision I had seen went up from me (Ez 11:22-24)

This narrative is followed by the gruesome vision of Jerusalem as a cooking pot in which the ruling class is cooked. The situation is connected with the judgment on Pelatiah (“YHWH delivers a remnant”), which is contrasted by the prophecy of a new heart of flesh for the exiles, thus also for a “remnant” of Israel who – perhaps – is not “handed down.” After this interruption the gaze turns again to the glory of YHWH enthroned on the cherubs:

Then the cherubim, with the wheels beside them, spread their wings, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. The glory of YHWH went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God.

Then the vision I had seen went up from me (Ez 11:22-24)

It almost seems that the “glory of YHWH” stops again to bid goodbye, and then vanishing  from the temple and thus the earthly world, that is, to disappear from the human sphere.[5]  It would take reading many more chapters of the book of Ezekiel to speak of a return of the glory of YHWH to the temple (Ez 43: 4), but this remains bound to a visionary future that is like the new Jerusalem from the revelation of John beyond terrestrial space-time.

Excursus: Schelling’s Attempts to Rediscover the Divine Addressee

Our discussion of the overthrow of the symbolic order begs the question of whether the end of the world is connected with the end of prayer and whether the vanishing of the divine throne along with the glory of YHWH from the human point of view is imminent. It is replaced by an infinite melancholy, the traces of which we find in today’s pop music as well as in the great popular narrations and mythologies of the 20th century century such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.[6]

One philosopher, in particular, has struggled against this loss with a tremendous labor of thought, but it is probably no coincidence that his crucial writings, which emerged in the effort to salvage the divine palace, were not published in any significant sense. This one philosopher is Schelling, who as the the forerunner of Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig, Pareyson, and the personal dialogues of Buber and Ebner, struggled in what is known as his “positive philosophy” for a God to whom one can pray.[7] Hegel was Schellings paradigmatic opponent in this regard.  Schelling’s philosophy cannot be treated nearly exhaustively.[8]  But we make a brief digression in mentioning it here because, in all its intellectual magnificence, it exemplifies, in my opinion, a failure that goes together with the attempt to restore the heavenly palace of God as the object of a direct address in the second person.

Catholic theology with its leanings toward neo-Thomism from  A. Günther through H.U. von Balthasar to W. Kasper took the “divine test” of Schelling very gratefully, although they have frequently sought to ignore his provocative passages and forced him into theological trajectories based on traditional metaphysics.[9] Thus they produced little of a truly novel character. Twentieth-century theology in particular then inserted Schelling’s trinitarian ideas, and those of Hegel, into the hypertrophied trope of the trinity of love without “forgetting” to admonish Hegel for being overly attached to earthly reality.

Schelling’s Philosophie der Offenbarung (“Philosophy of Revelation”) has been available for some time now in the clearly structured and readable original text that Schelling himself has corrected.[10] It is intimately associated with the idea of a purely rational philosophy, because of the originality and sophistication of its thought. But, in addition to undertaking a profound examination of the Kantian critique of reason and religion in contrast with many contemporary theological attempts to think God, it must also be considered today as one of the most serious and grand designs to think what it means to have a personal God to whom one can pray. At the same time, there remains a problem in Schelling’s late philosophy, namely that of the language in which Schelling approaches the question of God. Despite the insights that Kant’s transcendental dialectic brought him, and despite the experience of the “God’s fault”[11] (Holderlin), he attempts direct access to the Absolute through his doctrine of potencies.[12]

At the end of the Account of Pure Rational Philosophy, Schelling arrives, after starting with the figure of the transcendental ideal of Kant, at the concept of the absolute, which is characterized by the fact that it is “placed outside something”[13] as the “actu Actus Seyende“and himself as “real (existent) Lord of being (of the world), proving to be a personal, real God”[14]. In the background is the idea that the transcendental ideal in its realization as an idea in individuo is once again negative towards itself as a unitary entity (omnitudo realitatis). It is turned against itself as an absolute subject-object, thus in a sense distantiated from its own rationally accessible concept of the highest being.

For Schelling, the God of prayer, for which he coined the succinct phrase “person seeking a person”[15], demands an ecstasy of reason, namely,  a letting go of any attempt to locate oneself in theoretical and practical, or worldly encounters[16]. Such a God also demands a kenotic turn from the peculiar universality of rationality to a radical individuality, in which one enters into relation with the god of Eschaton, whose reason can and must never be grasped.

Still, the question arises whether the manifold refractions of philosophical language – Hölderlin into poetry, Hegel into dialectics by means of the figure of the double negation and later Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Deleuze, Nancy, Badiou, Agamben and Bahr different efforts to “think being” – find a counterpart in Schelling. Schelling abandons the path of classical metaphysics with the notion of a reasonable self-abolition of reason, all for the sake of the dignity of the contingent, constructing a frame of reference personal prayer can be made plausible the first place. For what kind of prayer would merely express general and unaddressed thoughts with no concern for the individual and for the contingent?

But the question remains whether his philosophy does not undermine its own concern by recourse to metaphysical questions and intellectual methods, which are not translatable into any direct orientation of thought toward being, An example of this tendency is the desperate search for first causes or principles, for a positive beginning of all things in ancient philosophy, which Kant problematized in his transcendental dialectic.

One might object here that Schelling is consistent here in offering a philosophy that allows immediate access to being, a stance later defined by Heidegger and his followers as the “metaphysics of presence” or “being-thinking of presence”. We detect such a stance even in the eschatological orientation of his positive philosophy, which is reflected in sentences such as “The starting point of philosophy is therefore what will be, the absolutely future”.[17] It true that Schelling’s positive philosophy is not so much an historical as an eschatological philosophy, while negative philosophy remains imprisoned in the notion of “presence”.  Schelling’s philosophical language ultimately aims directly at the coming God, who will have been brought to presence. In this way, too little account can be taken of the fact that the divine palace is hidden in post-Enlightenment times and God can no longer be (directly) located in many who have preserved the faith or remnants of it, neither in the language still in the spaces and epochs of our world.

For the question arises as to whether God does not have to be “liberated” from a metaphysically understood “primordial reason”. The sympathy that theology shows for the “Big Bang” seems to want to preserve a kind of metaphysical echo of such a primordial rationality. But the architecture for such a rationality more than fragile. As current scientific experiments show, even the “big bang” scientific embedded within more comprehensive theoretical architectures.

Following the disconnection of the heavenly palace from the immanence of the world context doubts arise as to whether, a direct line, be it as causa prima or as the transcendental foundation of being, runs between heaven and earth. Last but not least, even the question has become problematic as to whether and to what extent the logos actually gathers reality among themselves or does not aim at a void.[18]

The profound crisis of both the evangelical and Catholic theologies of our day, which apparently have nothing more to tell the world, but also the Eucharistic adoration in the Catholic area, which was once the heart of the Catholic faith, seems to be one of many symptoms of the loss of a locatable God. The same goes for the effort, far beyond Catholicism, to be able to encounter God in places of pilgrimage in order to preserve the localization of prayer, at least in excellent places. The fact that even with the loss of the intersections of heaven and earth, the spatial and temporal concept increasingly leveled out and virtualized, because there is no center, but only more self-dissolving peripheries, represents a wholly other kind of phenomenon.

There are two critical issues that need to be investigated. First, there is the question of the “price of mortality”. For prayer, as will be developed below, is opposed to the idea of ​​a fusion of finite subjects with the infinite subjectivity of God. In other words, where the prayer is addressed directly to God, without detour or displacement, the idea of ​​a union with the divine seems to be in the foreground.

However, when the addressee can no longer aim at his other but only through the detour of a self-revelation, the idea of ​​saying farewell to the self as the center of power, as the first person, and thus the idea of ​​mortality. In the first section of these essays, our emphasis was on the price that man has to “pay” for his own vulnerability. This contrasted with the desire to make a bet with God, to be able to gain immortality by his own power and to make this bet a kind of driving force of history, even at the price of a relapse into meaningless nothingness.  In this last part, after the passage through the crisis symptoms of the language (Deibl) resp. of the symbolic orders (Guanzini), an accent should be placed on “praise”, on the fact that the prayer is also experience of a de-subjectification, posing the question of whether prayer is not praise for the glorification of the gift of mortality.

Second, the temporal form of prayer will have to be considered. It was pointed out in my earlier essay that the Christian tense is an anachronistic one, that the Christian does not coincide with any epoch, but exists in the shifts and breaks of history. An essential expression of this was called “epilogue,” which stated that Christian existence begins where historical figures have become exhausted, where even the antithesis of death and life can no longer claim ultimate validity where the previous world was repealed, meaning, adopted and reconfigured.

Following on from Musil and thus the first part, but also taking into account the contributions of Deibl and Guanzini, it is the aim to tease out how prayer is bound up in an essential way with the “devaluation of all images” and with the new symbolic order to which this has resulted.

The most varied forms of prayer and its facets cannot be exhaustively addressed. But we will show how much prayer and New Humanism, as well as prayer and a speech, are intertwined by God, affirming the thought that J. B. Metz has expressed in the beautiful expression that theology is first a talking to and not of God.[19]

Kurt Appel is Professor of Fundamental Theology in the Catholic Faculty as well as director of the Center for Religion and Transformation at the University of Vienna.  He is the author among many monographs of Zeit und Gott: Mythos und Logos der Zeit im Anschluss an Hegel und Schelling as well as Dem Leiden ein Gedächtnis geben with Johann Baptist Metz.


[1] J. Derrida, faith and knowledge. The two sources of “religion” on the borders of mere reason, in: ders./G. Vattimo, The Religion, Frankfurt a. M. 2001, 28.

[2] U. Wilckens, The Letter to the Romans. 3. Subband. Rom 12-16 (EKK VI / 3), Zurich / Brunswick, 21989, 128-130.

[3] See. the famous “Speech of the Dead Christ from the World Building, that no God is”, in: J. Paul, Siebenkäs, First flower piece, Stuttgart 1983, 295-301.

[4] An impressive comment is from M. Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20

[5] A comprehensive interpretation of Ez 8,1-11,25 is M. Greenberg.See.

M. Greenberg, Ez 1-20, 193-239. The Exodus of the Presence of God from the Temple prepares its destruction; The following earthly judgment on Jerusalem and its temple is already celestially prescribed. However, the Ezekiel book emphasizes that there is a – at least diminished – presence of God in the exile community for which YHWH is a “small sanctuary” (Ezekiel 11:16). This exile community will be given a “heart of flesh” instead of the “heart of stone” (Ezekiel 11:19). a.), so that “YHWH you God and Israel (the exile community) will be his people”. (Edb.).

[6] Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a world abandoned by the gods, who have created an insurmountable intermediate space between their residence and the earthly realm. This is why, despite the book’s religious foundation, there are no prayers and the gods merely return, as embodied in Gandalf and Saruman, in a transformed, weak and ambivalent form. The associated loss, symbolized especially in the doomed elves, lends this work a profoundly melancholy atmosphere, which may have helped make it one of the most-read and most-discussed books of the twentieth century.

[7] A special position is occupied here by Cacciari who, very much like Schelling, strives to imagine the history of the human being. How far even the God of prayers is from being involved in this history would be worth its own investigation. In any case, see I. Guanzini, L´origine e l´inizio. Hans Urs von Balthasar e Massimo Cacciari, Pisa: ETS 2012.

[8] I tried to provide a precise reconstruction of the idea of God in Schelling’s late philosophy in: K. Appel, “Personalität und Alleinheit Gottes. Versuch einer Deutung der Schellingschen Vernunftekstasis”, in: K. Müller and F. Meier-Hamidi (eds.), Persönlich und alles zugleich? Theorien der Alleinheit und christliche Gottesrede (Fides et ratio), Regensburg: Pustet 2010, 81-100.

[9] Kasper criticizes Schelling’s idea of the trinity, for example, for its overly historical connotations. See W. Kasper, Das Absolute in der Geschichte. Philosophie und Theologie der Geschichte in der Spätphilosophie Schellings, Mainz: Grünewald 1965.

[10] F. W. J. Schelling, Urfassung der Philosophie der Offenbarung (2 vols) (Philosophische Bibliothek 445), Hamburg: Ehrhardt 1992.

[11] See J. Deibl, “Der Entzug heiliger Namen”, in: Theologie und Philosophie 4/2011, 523-550.

[12] See K. Appel, Zeit und Gott. Mythos und Logos der Zeit im Anschluss an Hegel und Schelling, Paderborn: Schöningh 2008.

[13] F. W. J. Schelling, “Darstellung der reinrationalen Philosophie”, in: Schelling, Sämmtliche Werke. Ed. by Karl F. August Schelling. First section: 10 vols. [=I-X]; second section: 4 vols. [=XI-XIV]. Stuttgart and Augsburg 1856-1861: Cotta. XI 253-572, here 563.

[14] Ibid, 564.

[15] Ibid, 556

[16] Therefore, the suspicion of A. Franz, that Schelling approaches Augustine in his thinking, is very well justified.See. A. Franz, Philosophical religion. An Examination of the Fundamental Problems of the Spaet Philosophy Schellings, Wurzberg, 1992

[17] F. W. J. Schelling, Urfassung der Philosophie der Offenbarung, 24.

[18] See K. Heinrich, Von der Schwierigkeit nein zu sagen, Frankfurt/Basel: Stroemfeld/Roter Stern 1982.

[19] See the key remarks by J. B. Metz on prayer in: J. B. Metz, “Ermutigung zum Gebet”, in: Metz, Mystik der offenen Augen. Wenn Spiritualität ausbricht, ed. by J. Reikerstorfer, Freiburg: Herder 2011, 98-114.

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