Gutting starts off asking Wettstein, "You say you’re a naturalist and deny that there are any supernatural beings, yet you’re a practicing Jew and deny that you’re an atheist. What’s going on here? What’s a God that’s not a supernatural being?"
The discussion hovers around the most basic and primitive notions of prayer, i.e.,the overarching meta-visualization of prayer is that the acts of recitation of prayer texts constitute a dialogue with God.
This is the starting point in discussions of prayer articulated in one way by the former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Sir Jonathan Sacks, who summed this up saying, “Prayer is the language of the soul in conversation with God. It is the most intimate gesture of the religious life, and the most transformative.” Sacks characterized the Jewish prayer book saying, “The Siddur is the choral symphony the covenantal people has sung to God across forty centuries from the days of the patriarchs until the present day.” He called it a “calibrated harmony.”
I have said in my essays that this representation articulated by Sacks and many others before him is the general and foundational meta-visualization of all acts of prayer, the contextual background music in which I find the more detailed and specific visualizations that I discuss in my work.
Gutting and Wettstein discuss this basic issue of prayer and speaking to God in the context of belief and practice. In short Gutting can't seem to accept that it makes sense to speak to a God that you don't believe exists, which is what Wettsteins seems to be saying that he does.
And Wettstein brushes off the question and insists that he is so busy praying to God, that he has no desire to worry about whether or not God exists. Gutting is not satisfied with this posture. Wettstein is happy as a clam with his religious life. Here is one exchange.
G.G.: But you can’t in fact speak to someone who doesn’t exist — I can’t speak to Emma Bovary, although I can pretend to or think I can. Further, why would you even want to pray to someone you didn’t believe exists? On your account praying to God seems like playacting, not genuine religious commitment.Wettstein is determined to rewrite for himself the basic meta-visualization of prayer as primarily an act of achieving an altered inner emotional state, a mood of awe. He does so saying:
H.W.: Were I to suggest that God does not exist, that God fails to exist, then what you suggest would have real purchase. My thought is otherwise; it’s rather that “existence” is, pro or con, the wrong idea for God.
Prayer, when it works, yields an awe-infused sense of having made contact, or almost having done so. Having made contact, that is, concerning the things that matter most, whether the health and well-being of others, or of the community, or even my own; concerning justice and its frequent absence in our world; concerning my gratefulness to, or praise of, God. The experience of sharing commitments with a cosmic senior partner, sharing in the sense both of communicating and literally sharing, “dreaming in league with God,” as A.J. Heschel puts it, is both heady and heartening.Now the problems I have with such limited meta-visualizations is that they do not take seriously the contents of our prayers, the words and phrases and paragraphs and pages of prayers that we recite privately and publicly in religious ritual contexts that make the prayers Judaic.
These prayers and their accompanying visualization make us Jews in much deeper and more complex ways. As Jews, we accomplish all of the following in our prayers:
(1) We profess communication with God (with whom we have a covenant as a people)
(2) We formulate Judaic religious values for personal satisfaction
(3) We articulate common Judaic religious values for the sake of social solidarity
(4) We realize altered inner emotional states or moods
(5) We act out great Judaic dramas, recite poetry, read aloud narratives and sing many songs
Gutting and Wettstein argue a bit about prayer (whether its moods and motivations make sense if there is no God to believe in). Prayer makes sense in any or all of its limited ways, so I don't know what they are arguing about.
However, neither of the two care to take a serious look in this exchange at the contents of Judaism or Judaic prayer. They trail off in the interview to debates over atheism and reductionism. Wettstein doesn't like those. Finally and crucially, Wettstein doesn't tell us why he likes the moods and motivations of Judaism better than those of Buddhism or any other religion.