Monday, October 30, 2017

If Not for Answering Prayers, What Is God Good for?

            God does not answer prayers—at least not in the way we pick up a ringing phone or stop our car to help a neighbor push hers out of a snowbank. That, at least, was my conclusion in the previous blogpost. So, if God doesn’t answer prayers, what is God good for?

            This, of course, is a very contemporary sort of question, the kind that health and wealth preachers love to wallow in. Modern people want a pragmatic, sensible God who is useful, who blesses us and America (and Canada, too, maybe). God provides salvation in the hereafter, gives the church a reason for being (and a means of providing some with jobs and sometimes even power), and God is useful for unleashing passions that can overcome almost any political obstacle or tribal enemy and even inspire terrorist acts.

            I don’t like this sort of useful God. But if not good for answering my prayers, what is God good for? Why bother?

            Reflecting on this—I, and other theologians, have begun to imagine that God might not exist at all, at least in the sense that God is a person, place or thing as usually understood. I am trying on the idea that (perhaps) God is (certainly) not a substance or essence, a strong arm or a genie who snaps his (almost always “his,”) fingers. This explains all unanswered prayer, at least. There is no person, place or thing to do the answering.

            Instead, maybe God is a Spirit in the Vocative Case, a “weak force,” a cosmic plea hidden in a three-letter puff of air (interpreted, amplified, and corrupted by scripture and its authors), praying to us. God might be an inspiration (or better yet, an expire/ation) rather than a sovereign being who sits on a throne somewhere—even if such sitting is understood to be metaphorical.

            A Spirit in the Vocative Case? What might such a God be (leaving aside for a moment that by “Spirit,” I do not mean some “thing” one could put under a microscope or find with a P.K.E Meter)?

            Well, maybe a Spirit in the vocative case might be something like the call of the wild.

            Almost forty years ago I taught Jack London’s famous novel The Call of the Wild to my grade nine English class. You probably remember the story. A brave, well-trained, and strong dog, Buck, is stolen from his California home. Buck is shipped to Alaska to be a gold rush sled dog. He has a rough time of it. Ugly owners use, abuse, and starve him before he is finally adopted by a good man. This man, in turn, is killed by local Yeehat indians. So, Buck leaves human society behind and becomes leader of a pack of wolves.

            There is both much to commend this book and to condemn it. The Yeehat episode is particularly unsavory and racist. Ultimately, Buck’s life turns out to be a short course in Darwinian evolution, where Buck has to overcome technology and clubs, stupidity and ugly leaders of the pack in order survive. When the book opens, Buck is a pet dog, albeit a big one; by the end he has survived all thrown his way by civilized humans to find his true self. He has answered the call of the wild.

            What is this call? London never stops to define it, though he describes it. Buck “loved to run in the dim twilight of the summer midnights, listening to the subdued and sleepy murmurs of the forest, reading signs and sounds as a man may read a book, and seeking for the mysterious something that called -- called, waking or sleeping, at all times, for him to come.”

            And again, “Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.” 

            This call of the wild, a vocative spirit in its own right, is not a being or substance or essence. It is not the cry of anyone one thing or even of many things. The wild itself, where the call originates, is also ever elusive, some “thing,” (maybe) that cannot be contained. We drag along our canteens and thread and needle repair kits and camp stoves in search of it, but thinking we have arrived, the wild is defeated by paths through the woods, campsites neatly arranged, and fire pits that have been in use (perhaps) for millennia. The wild recedes forever in the presence of our axes and knives and maps and the scraps of garbage we never quite manage to pack out. The closer we get to the wild, the more we realize that we cannot have it, or hold it, or pocket it, ever. And yet it calls.

            And for all the (literary) power of its call (powerful for some, perhaps, but not powerful overall) the wild is weak. It retreats under the onslaught of human tinkering. We cannot preserve it because even the act of preserving is to civilize, theorize about, and nurture—all actions inimical to the wild.

            God is as weak as the wild, and calls to us as the call of the wild did to Buck. God has no army (unless you count Swiss guards or terrorists or misguided nationalist troops), no place to lay his head, no kingdom other than the one that might be planted in your heart. God is weak, and God’s call is for a hope, a dream, an imagining, a utopia, a shalom that God has no power to bring to pass. Unless, perhaps, someone, some tribe, some Horton hears the God’s vocative case for such things. Maybe. And of course, when they hear, they haven’t even begun to understand. And when they understand and build, the thing called for is lost. Still, God doesn’t so much answer prayers as waft over us as a prayer of his or her own (or something’s or no thing’s own. Wouldn’t want to nail God down at this point!).

            Or, as Caputo writes, “God does not exist; God is a spirit that calls, a spirit that can happen anywhere and haunts everything insistently. I have found it necessary to deny existence in order to make room for insistence.”

Monday, October 16, 2017

Is Prayer Bogus?

            Here is the thing. Prayer—at least as imagined or practiced by most people—is bogus. And when they stop to think about it, people get this. In a roundabout way, even Christians understand this. When asked about unanswered prayer they shuffle their feet, scratch their heads, and wring their hands. And eventually they come up with explanations for unanswered prayer that feature mystery, inscrutability, or their own lack of faith—answers designed more to justify prayer while getting God off the hook than they are designed to make sense.

            Non-Christians, on the other hand, laugh. Facebook is full of their memes. A mouse praying, “And please don’t let the cat hurt me.”
Or Morpheus (looking inscrutable himself) saying, “What if I told you prayer doesn’t help disaster victims?” And, of course, there is the Jean-Luc Picard's famous meme, with apologies for the language, "Why the fuck are you praying to the same God who let this shit happen in the first place?"

             Of course, some people believe their prayers have been answered, at least occasionally. So, they keep at it. It looks to me, however, that what is really happening here is intermittent reinforcement. You will remember all about this from your Psych 101 class. A desired behaviour can be cultivated in someone even if that behaviour is only infrequently rewarded. So, for example, a door-to-door salesperson may learn to put up with many disinterested potential clients, and even the occasional slammed door, so long as the salesperson makes at least the occasional sale. Or again, someone may play the slot machines—and even lose a lot over time—in the hope of a big win, especially if that person is rewarded in the meantime with occasional small wins.

            Add in a few Bible texts that seem to suggest that if you pray long enough, with enough energy, and with great faith you will get what you want, and bingo, offering others your “thoughts and prayers,” becomes popular, low-risk pastime.

            I will not argue that there is no place for prayer. When I was in seminary, I was taught that the model congregational prayer, for example, should include adoration, confession and thanksgiving along with supplication and intercession. The Psalmists’ most common type of prayer was actually lament—sad dirges about everything that goes wrong.

            But people usually fast when it comes to confession or lamentation and choose for a steady diet of supplication and intercession instead. When it comes to prayer, if we’re not praying like soldiers in foxholes, we are usually praying like kids in a candy store. Most Christian prayer is mostly about getting what Christians want.

            In a further defense of prayer, though, my wife reminded me this evening that prayer is more than just getting in a word in with God. Prayer can be emotionally satisfying. For example, prayer with another person can be a very, very intimate way of opening your hearts not only to God, but to each other. Prayer alone in your closet can be very cleansing or centering or promote self-examination. And any prayer can make one feel as if he or she is coming into the presence of God—a holy moment, possibly—even if we have no idea what God really thinks of our prayers.

            I agree with her. Though praying for these reasons is not what most people aim for when they pray, and though these motivations for prayer are not often discussed in theologies of prayer, that does not mean they are not good reasons. They are.

            Ultimately, though, the issue for me is that people only intermittently get what they want out of prayer, and then fool themselves into believing that next time they may be more fortunate, all the while rationalizing that such beliefs are somehow consistent with (their favorite) Biblical texts. For me, it looks like prayer is a beautiful idea, like a perpetual motion machine, that just can’t do what Christians usually ask of it.

            And then, leaving prayer aside, I begin to ask the same questions about God in general. As a child, I memorized these words from the catechism. “Providence is the almighty and ever-present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and so rules them that . . . all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.”

            Really? What good father does not heal his children when he can, does not bless them with plenty, or pluck them from tsunamis, or encourage them with success when he can? Even Jesus said, “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11).

            Really? Where is this Father?

            I don’t know, for sure. That is why I’ve turned to John Caputo’s ideas about “the weakness of God,” for answers, of late. You see, maybe the problem with prayer is not that we want good stuff, but that God just can’t deliver, regardless of what Jesus seems to suggest in Matthew 7.

            But more on that Father in the next post.