Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Thoughts on Atheism and Prayer

This was written in response to a friend's blog, who formerly was a believer, but who now, through the "The Truth of Rational Thought" has arrived at "ultimate truth":  that there is no God.  He had a recent post on the "power of prayer," as a response to those in his family, and those of his friends who are praying for him.  He closed the post with these words:  "If you are reading this, and you are one of the ones praying for my salvation, thanks, but no thanks. Why don't you instead go for a walk in nature, or help feed a hungry person, or teach some child to read, something, anything that would be constructive. While I appreciate the concern, you should know that no amount of prayer for me would/could never work, because your prayer's are unheard by anyone but you."

Two thoughts come to mind regarding what appears to be naïve and irrational thinking of people who “excuse” unanswered prayers by saying that “God’s answer is no,” or that “God has something else in store.” It is often caricatured by atheists as being absurd, as well as being inconsistent with a God who said, “Ask and you shall receive whatever you ask for in my name.”

It all runs into the example of Christ, who for any Christian, obviously needs to be the example and source of all thinking on prayer. As you know, when he was asked by the disciples how to prayer, the fundamental request was, “Thy will be done.” All other requests, in the Christian tradition, have this single caveat above all considerations.

When you look at the most poignant prayer that Christ prayed as well, we are confronted with unanswered prayer: “May this cup pass, but thy will be done.” Christ, the self-proclaimed Son of God’spetitional prayer was not answered, but his overarching prayer was, i.e.,, "Thy will be done," so why should the belief that God sometimes says, “no,” be absurd or naïve, in relation to determining whether or not Christianity is true or not? It may be absurd, but it is no case against Christianity since his example is clearly the Christian ideal, and contained within that ideal is unanswered petitional prayer. In his case, it’s clear that the answer was “no,” and it is also clear that God had something better in store, namely the redemption of the world.

It has always seemed strange to me when atheists attack Christian beliefs in prayer because their experience with it is completely consistent both with what Christianity has always taught, and secondly, that it consistently follows the very example that Christ showed in the Garden of Gethsemane. It seems that usually, atheist attacks on prayer stem from arguing against what atheists think prayer should be, if it means anything at all, rather than on what Christendom, stretched out over 2,000 years has always believed and taught about prayer. It seems to be the case in your post as well.

As to suffering, in the prayer that Christ prayed in Gethsemane can be found the answer to suffering that alluded Bart Ehrmann in his book, particularly in his chapter on Redemptive Suffering where he finds the belief that “others might need to suffer for my salvation” as personally repugnant. What he doesn’t get, despite his lauded position at Princeton Theological Seminary, is that “redemptive suffering” has nothing to do with others and their suffering for me, it has everything to do with my personal response to suffering, and what my suffering can do for others. The view of redemptive suffering is an invitation to the sufferer to find a purpose and a dignity in his suffering. He has flipped the entire history of the Church’s teaching on suffering on its head, and so of course it seems absurd to him and his expose against suffering is against something other than the Christian view of suffering.

Christ suffered for the redemption of the world, so the Christian answer is the best and only answer to the question of suffering that has ever vexed the world: out of suffering can come the greatest good, and the only surety that this can, and will happen, is contained within the heart of the sufferer, which in the Christian tradition, as you know, calls the sufferer to unite his suffering with Christ’s. Being a “living sacrifice” entails suffering, so within Christianity, even a man suffering from Ebola virus can rejoice in the very suffering he endures, for the redemptive good that can come from it, for others he loves, just as Christ willingly endured the travails of the Cross out of His love for us.


kkollwitz said...

I reflect on the people I love. Most of what I love about them is intangible and not measurable. Most of what life worth living is likewise not subject to quantification. How anyone manages to say that they are sure (sure!) there's nothing important beyond what our senses or instruments can access is thoroughly unpersuasive to me. I've read Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. Poor people- they seem to have crabbed themselves into a stunted existence of desperate pride.

kkollwitz said...

I should add that in my worldview, Science points to God and adds a fullness to Faith, especially discoveries of the last 100 years or so such as quantum physics and Einsteinn's energy/ mass equivalence,

Dan said...

Yes, I agree with you: they have chosen a stunted existence of desperate pride.

The atheists I know tend to be very angry people, smug in their surety and mocking of those who believe in anything outside of themselves.

It's a despairing world. I spent some time for awhile on an atheist forum, attacking the absurdities I saw, and after awhile I had to leave because it was a dark and dreary place to be.