Dr Lucinda Allen Mosher, ThD

Faculty Associate in Interfaith Studies, Hartford Seminary

Assistant Academic Director, Building Bridges Seminar

This post is Part 2 of an online book panel on Modern Muslim Theology: Engaging God and the World with Faith and Imagination. This online dialogue is hosted by the Christian-Muslim Studies Network. Part 1 may be found here.

As a Christian theologian in the Anglican tradition, a specialist in Christian-Muslim concerns whose formation as a scholar took place (for the most part) in seminaries, I was delighted to see among the themes Martin Nguyen addresses in his theology of engagement is ritual prayer (chapter seven). Why?

Over the centuries, Christians in the Anglican tradition have exhibited a fondness for the motto: lex orandi lex credendi—the law of praying is the law of believing; or, as Leonel Mitchell renders it, ‘Praying shapes believing’.[1] In its longer, more original form, this motto claims: ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi—let the law of asking establish the law of believing. The point is: how we worship builds up belief, more so than beliefs build up that worship. How a community worships reflects, expresses, and shapes the community’s beliefs—its doctrines.[2] The motto is not original with Anglicans, nor is Anglicanism the only segment of Christianity whose theologians reflect upon its meaning. However, it an especially appropriate motto for a branch of the religion whose identity is linked to a liturgical book—and Anglicanism is distinguished from the rest of Christianity by its use of The Book of Common Prayer.[3]

‘The point is: how we worship builds up belief, more so than beliefs build up that worship.’

The centrality of The Book of Common Prayer to Anglican self-definition suggests that, if one wishes to know what Anglicans believe, examine how Anglicans pray. Consider the texts they use, the rhythm they maintain, the hymns they sing. Note their rule of abiding by a lectionary that assigns sets of Bible readings over a three-year period to each Sunday and each Holy Day of the yearly cycle of celebration of Holy Communion, and another lectionary that assigns sets of readings over a two-year period for use at the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. Note as well their routine use of biblical canticles. Note especially the carefully chosen, crafted, and assigned prayers—collects, thanksgivings, and litanies—they read or hear.

My formation as an academic took place in an environment in which the notion that praying shapes believing was taken deeply seriously—in an institution where, to borrow from Martin Nguyen, several-times-daily ‘ritual prayer contravene[d] the rhythms and orders of time imagined by humankind’. [164] Hence, I resonate with what Martin Nguyen has to say in the seventh chapter of his Modern Muslim Theology, in which he argues: ‘If we are to understand what Muslims believe, examine how Muslims pray’. In his reflection on salat—its content, timing, and forms—Nguyen makes clear that how Muslims worship indeed reflects, expresses, and shapes the beliefs of Muslim individuals. By way of a case study, he offers Malcolm X: ‘Through prayer and in prayer’, Nguyen notes, ‘Malcolm was shaping his theology’. [160] Lex orandi, lex credendi: praying shapes believing. 

‘There is a tight relationship between prayer and ethics. Might we claim that praying shapes behavior?’

‘An account of theology’, Nguyen stresses, ‘…is as much about praxis as it is about faith’. [155] Prayer has form, he asserts, even in its simplest (its primal) mode—which is supplication. [165] Yet, he also declares, prayer is much more than mere ritual: ‘To follow the form of prayer is one thing, but to pray with the totality of one’s being—to pray like the prophets—is something else entirely’. [155] He then takes a further step—one with potential to launch a deep interreligious conversation—in asserting that, ‘In prayer one is simultaneously turning to God in faith and against the world in righteousness. In this way are faith and righteousness intimately bound together in prayer’. [157] That is, there is a tight relationship between prayer and ethics. Might we claim that praying shapes behavior? Some years ago, I undertook a detailed investigation of ethical dimensions of particular streams of Christian and Muslim supplication literature. How interesting it would be to visit that devotional material afresh, this time in dialogue with Martin Nguyen, making creative use of his theology of engagement hermeneutic.

[1] Among noteworthy individuals who favored this motto are Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626), bishop and architect of the translation project known as the King James Bible, and Richard Hooker (c. 1554–1600), a priest and sometime professor of Hebrew at Oxford University rightly acclaimed as classical Anglicanism’s greatest apologist. See also Leonel Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985); G. Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 218–50; W. Taylor Stevenson, “Lex Orandi—Lex Credendi,” The Study of Anglicanism, revised edition, eds. Stephen Sykes, John Booty, and Jonathan Knight (London: SPCK, 1998), 187–202.

[2] For discussions of the meaning and relevance of the motto, see Wainwright, op. cit., 218–50; Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology (New York: Pueblo, 1984); W. Taylor Stevenson, op. cit., 187–202; Kenneth W. Stevenson, “Lex Orandi and Lex Credendi—Strange Bed-Fellows?: Some Reflections on Worship and Doctrine,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 39:2 (November, 1986), 225–41. There are many others.

[3] Thomas Cranmer, chief architect of the Book of Common Prayer, is often heralded as Anglicanism’s founding theologian. See Mitchell, op. cit., 1; see also W. Taylor Stevenson, op. cit., 188–89.