Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The awfully busy God

Gerard Van Der Leun has a long and thoughtful post about why prayers are answered - or aren’t, as the case may be. Wisely admitting up front that, "We don't know much about God," Gerard basically says that God has free will as do we humans, and that,

Prayer is, in a sense, God's suggestion box; which is why many think that not all prayers are answered and why some, like the Tibetans, think that if you repeat a prayer often enough it gets noticed and answered. This irritating approach to prayer probably cost them their nation even though it hasn't shut them up. In general, it is probably not a good idea, but who am I to criticize? I'll leave that to the Dalai Lama who seems to be carrying on just fine.

But the main thrust of Gerard's piece about unanswered prayer"concerns God's work load.

He's one God who is running a very big universe. Perhaps He's got the whole thing franchised and He's running thousands of universes in a host of different dimensions, all with local variations to the main menu. We don't know. We can't know. But if you grant even one universe to this one God, you've got to admit this would be a very busy Supreme Being. Even being omnipotent and omnipresent and omniscient, You'd still have an In-Box beyond the human mind's capacity for bogglement. ...

The final upshot is that, even if God just steps away from his desk for a quick trip to heaven's free beverage machine, when He gets back he's confronted with at least 4,675,839 prayers presented as pink "While You Were Out Slips."

I submit that even the most omnipotent God cannot deal with incoming requests at this rate. ...

To me this is the most obvious reason that some prayers are answered while most are not. It's simply a question of time and resources, even for God.

Does it really happen this way? God knows.

Now, I like Gerard's writing a lot. He's a better writer than I am. I like Gerard personally, too, having corresponded with him over the years (we've never met).

All of which is an obvious preface to saying that I think he's missed the boat here. I will readily grant that prayers come to God at a rate that we can but poorly imagine - Gerard mentions the scene in Bruce Almighty where Bruce, a temporary deity, is so overwhelmed monitoring the prayer board that he freaks and hits the "yes to all" button. It causes no end of turmoil and even tragedy in the world, of course.

And I will not hide behind the old cliche that "God does answer every prayer, it's just that often the answer is no." This is true, but that's not what Gerard is getting at. He is addressing why so many prayers apparently get no answer at all. They are, as far as mere humans can tell, simply ignored.

But, "too fast, too many" is a reason I cannot accept. Here's why. The English philosopher-theologian Anselm of Canterbury, father of medieval scholasticism, postulated that God is “that than which no greater can be conceived." In philosophical inquiries that definition has withstood the test of time pretty well. (It was fiercely attacked at the time, but that's another posting.) After all, if there is a Supreme Being, then that being has to be, well, Supreme. There can be no greater.

So if God, the Creator of the universe, in unable to keep up with the workload of managing it, then I would not say that God is doing the best he can. I would say that the deity so described is not God.

Some polytheistic religions of the West did separate the Creator from the Manager and postulated that they are two distinct deities. Marcion in the second century was one of the chief intellectual figures of Gnosticism; he identified the God of Abraham as the Creator deity and the God of Jesus as a different deity. That is, the transcendent deity and the immanent deity were two deities. Gnosticism was finally overcome by the concerted efforts of early Church Fathers through strong counter-arguments.

But let us affirm here that the millennia-old traditions of the Jews and Christians is correct, that there is one deity who both created and manages the universe, and that this deity hear human prayers. For this post I'll ignore the issue that seems so important to some, whether God hears the prayers of non-Christians or non-Jews (depending on who is wondering, of course). Let me simply postulate that prayers are received by God.

Why are so many apparently unanswered? "Apparently" is a sort of dodge, of course, even though I do believe that some prayers do get answered in ways we may not recognize. But no more dodging. A couple my wife knew well a few years ago took the baby to the hospital because they found her in her crib not breathing. Life support, prayer vigils, the works. The infant died. Unanswered prayer? Definitely, and no dodging allowed that "the answer was no and God had a reason we can't comprehend." That answer lets both God and us off the hook too easily.

Besides, not all unanswered prayers are matters of life and death. I knew a Navy officer who earnestly prayed to pass her upcoming physical-training tests (maybe if she'd worked out more she wouldn't have needed to pray so much). Student pray before tests. And there is the phenomenon I've heard other pastors call the "weekly organ recital" - the Sunday listing of Aunt Erma's bad kidneys, Uncle Fred's glaucoma, and so forth.

God is not a cosmic vending machine for which prayers are the currency. The longer I spend in the praying business, the less I pray, or see the point in praying, for God to do something, darn it and the more I pray for him to lead me (us) to do something. I pray not that God will conform to my desires or needs of the moment, no matter how pressing they may be, but that I and others concerned in the prayer-situation be conformed more to God in the likeness of Christ.

Yet there is more necessary, I think. Prayer is only one part of engaging God. Remember Lieut. Dan in the movie Forest Gump? He lost both legs in Vietnam, would have preferred to have died, and finally tracks his old subordinate, Gump, to the Louisiana coast after the war. Dan joins Gump in running a shrimp boat. One day they are caught at sea by a sudden storm and Dan remains in the mast with the whipping rain and lightning all around, raising his fist to the storm and railing against God. Like Job, Lt. Dan is unable to dismiss such a God as delusion, even though it would be so much easier to do so. Finally, Dan finds his peace with God.

So many of us decline to encounter God except in storms of life or in pro-forma occasions such as a minute of silence now and then. Yet prayer is not simply some words uttered, no matter how heartfelt or sincere. Prayer is mainly a life lived out in godly ways for godly purposes. It surely can be no wonder that God refuses to acknowledge prayers seeking his miracles when we so consistently fail to acknowledge his call to us seeking our daily service. The conundrum of life-as-prayer is that we come less and less to ask God for an "answer" as for his presence come what may. Finally we realize that God with us and us with God is all the answer we really need.

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