(Un)Answered Prayers: If He is There, He is Silent
In a May 2010 article entitled “Believe It or Not,” theologian David B. Hart addresses the weaknesses that he sees in New Atheism. The tone of his address is dismissive and condescending and the content of his address is as weak as he perceives the New Atheists to be. If his attempt was to argue for a more intellectual form of public atheist, I believe his attempt failed. If religious believers are to find a champion for their cause to battle the New Atheists I would hope, for their sake, that it is not Mr. Hart. However, I do have to thank Mr. Hart for two things. His article has reconnected me with an admired friend and it has inspired this writing and what follows.
In his critique of the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We are Atheists, Hart declares that many of the issues raised in the book are unimportant. With a wave of his hand like a Jedi master he says, in effect, “these arguments are not worth discussing.” He assures that he is not – honestly, he is not – being dismissive. Yet, he is. In two short paragraphs he casually tosses aside the ideas of a dozen essayists. I think this is unfortunate because I find these ideas to be worthy of very honest consideration in any serious discourse on belief and disbelief. It is particularly unfortunate because a common critique of the New Atheists is that they focus upon the lunatic, bible-thumping, fringe of religion to deliver their damnable message of irreligion. However, within these essays are ideas that address some core principles of theistic belief. For example, the idea of the benevolence of the god of Abraham and the efficacy of prayer are not fringe principles. The former is the centuries old problem of theodicy; the latter is a common justification for why believers believe in a god.
I’ll highlight one of these examples here, Hart’s near mockery of Christine Overall who explains the reasons for her disbelief as lying in prayers that went unanswered as a child. I find it hard to believe (and revolting if it were true) that Hart would scoff at a child suffering from physical hunger. So I am surprised and find it unconscionable that as a theologian Hart would scoff at someone who admits to being spiritually hungry and unfulfilled as a child.
I can empathize with Overall in this regard because my earliest memory of prayer is one of disappointment and abandonment. At age 7, I somehow decided that what I wanted most for Christmas was to share my dinner with Jesus. With a singularity of purpose I prayed every night in the weeks leading up to Christmas that Jesus would grace our dinner with his presence. We were assured, after all, that through him all things are possible. As everyone can imagine, I was greatly disappointed on that Christmas morning. My parents and grandparents, trying to make me feel better, assured me that Jesus was, indeed, with us and even set an empty chair and place setting for him at the table. Even at that age it was too much to believe. The results of this episode were twofold. First, long before I ever heard the word “efficacy,” I doubted the efficacy of prayer. This was painful as a child because I often heard other people claiming to have had their prayers answered – often for much more mundane results. Though it did not shake my faith, it was my first memorable feeling of abandonment. Second, I learned to distrust my parents and grandparents.
The fact of unanswered prayers is not just in the realm of the disbeliever. The vacancy and absence that can result from this fact is something to which believers are not immune. Mother Teresa, for example, struggled with this very theme to the point that she admitted to not praying. The responses of Teresa’s confessors to that pain differ from my parents and grandparents only in their experience and skill in religious psychology. And the response of the church to this confession is perhaps even more telling. Teresa’s struggle with feeling nothing when she prayed and consequently not praying is supporting evidence in favor of her beatification according to Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, the priest making the case to the Vatican. The logic is convoluted and strikes me as profoundly similar to our former president claiming that the intensity of attacks against US troops was a sign that we are winning.
Beliefs matter and have consequences. In this case, the seemingly simple belief in the power of prayer led to some negative consequences. What are we to do, after all, if we are assured that he is there, but to you, he is silent? For Christine Overall, it led to disbelief. She is not alone in this regard. For myself, it planted the first seeds of doubt and, perhaps more disastrous for my parents, it led to a distrust of what they had to say about many things. You can imagine how well that went over with them when I hit my teens. For Mother Teresa, it led to her beatification through an argument that at its core says to us all “not praying is one step on the path to sainthood.” This last point bears repeating: to not pray is one step on the path to sainthood.
In “Believe it or Not,” Hart laments the “utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism” and, to be even handed, suggests that this is a “social and spiritual catastrophe.” But what is the greater spiritual catastrophe here? Is it that unanswered prayers (and the problem of theodicy) sometimes still lead believers to disbelief? Or is it that after centuries of intellectual energy being spent on the subject, theologians still have not provided satisfactory answers to important spiritual dilemmas? I would suggest that the latter is the spiritual catastrophe at issue here. And if the theologians of our day have found some compelling answers (perhaps, in a defense of divine apatheia?), the fact that these answers are not making their way to the “flock,” and some believers are consequently turning to disbelief, calls into question the consequentiality of the endeavors of the theologians. Would a thorough explanation of the impassibility of God have filled the void felt by Overall, my childhood self, or Mother Teresa? I can answer for myself an honest and definitive No.
Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin