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.”