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Doubt and belief

From the Wall Street Journal’s Houses of Worship column, by the author of When God Talks Back:

in more experientially oriented evangelical Christian communities . . . people expect to have a personal relationship with God. They go for walks with God, have coffee with God, ask God what shirt they should wear in the morning and even what shampoo they should buy. They expect God will talk back. . . . Looking at your closet and asking God whether he’d prefer the black shirt or the blue one is a way congregants [learn which of their thoughts] they should treat as God’s communication with them.

But wait:

evangelical Christians doubt, too. Doubt is part of the experience of faith . . .  People doubt that they understand God rightly; they doubt that the promise of joy they hear from the pulpit really applies to them. And in a world in which they know wise, good people who do not share their faith, they may doubt divinity itself.  [Emphasis added.]

Oh, well, that’s OK, then. 

Why does having doubts about an arguably absurd belief—that the same God who let five people die in this month’s Oklahoma tornado, say, or 16,000 in last year’s tsunami, nevertheless cares about your clothing choices or is worth praying to because you are the center of his multi-centered universe—why does doubt make that belief more respectable, or, in many formulations of the meme, even admirable and courageous?

I consult my horoscope each morning to find out how I should conduct myself or what I should expect from the day, but I occasionally doubt whether the person who authors it actually has done a close reading of the star charts, and, on my despairingly skeptical days, even whether there really are astral influences from some intangible celestial substance that determine human characteristics on a monthly basis and that govern our fate.  But then after wrestling with my doubt, I conquer it.  That’s success?  I realize that the presence of doubt is supposed to show that belief in a loving God is not simply reflexive but rather fully compatible with reason.  But it’s not as if the doubting believer has gone out and done some careful experiments. 

The mother of Trayvon Martin credited Jesus for the indictment of George Zimmerman.  Was she right, in the eyes of conservative believers? And if not, why not?  How can a believer avoid making such mistakes? 






Prayer doesn’t bring rain

If any believers want to hazard a guess as to why God decided to ignore Texans’ official three-day prayer session for rain, it would be illuminating.  Perhaps prayers are sent without any serious expectation that they will be answered (and why is that?), so that when they are not answered, the believer feels no great disappointment and no need to explain the lack of response.  Nevertheless, we are told all the time that God does answer prayers.  Indeed, Governor Rick Perry and his followers would not have appealed to God if they weren’t confident that God, in his concern for human suffering, listens to and responds to such petitions.  So why not these?  

One would have thought that the Texans presented a worthy petition for relief, since the failure to end the drought has resulted in the loss of life and massive loss of livelihood and property.   Perhaps the number of prayers sent God’s way didn’t reach a quorum.   Or were not heartfelt enough.   Or maybe Texans don’t in fact deserve to be relieved of draught. 

Catholic theologians up to the Pope himself stress that God is Reason and compatible with reason.  Presumably, therefore, the causes and meaning of his behavior are accessible to human understanding and not shrouded in capriciousness and mystery.   Still, it’s hard to come up with a reason why he couldn’t have sent some rain in response to the Texans’ request, since he does so many good things for us everyday in response to prayer, theologians like Michael Novak assure us. 

The possible suggestion that God has in fact answered the Texans’ prayers, but we can’t hope to understand how, would be a bit hard to accept here as elsewhere. 

Governor Perry seems to have given up on the divine angle for now, however, and is asking for aid from a more reliable source: the federal government.




America’s unique advantage: religious faith?

On a recent shuttle van ride from the Los Angeles International Airport, I directed the African driver to pause before turning left into a blind intersection.  Instead, he barreled across without looking.  Not to worry, he said, I’m a professional driver and besides I know that my God loves me and will protect me.

That, to me, is the essence of religion: I have a special friend who will keep me safe from the usual disasters that rain down on my fellow human beings (see killer earthquakes and tsunamis, town-destroying tornadoes, fatal car crashes, children born with half a brain, and other Acts of God).



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Blow Ye The Trumpet in Houston

A message from Texas governor, and possible GOP presidential hopeful, Rick Perry:

Fellow Americans,

Right now, America is in crisis: we have been besieged by financial debt, terrorism, and a multitude of natural disasters. As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.

Some problems are beyond our power to solve, and according to the Book of Joel, Chapter 2, this historic hour demands a historic response. Therefore, on August 6, thousands will gather to pray for a historic breakthrough for our country and a renewed sense of moral purpose.

I sincerely hope you’ll join me in Houston on August 6th and take your place in Reliant Stadium with praying people asking God’s forgiveness, wisdom and provision for our state and nation. There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.

Rick Perry,

The language of politics will always reflect the traditions and the culture of the constituency to which it is designed to appeal, but, blimey…

Incidentally, check out Joel 2 (King James Version), if you haven’t already done so. It’s bonkers, of course, but rather beautiful.

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A conservative Republican Congressman from North Carolina’s military and Bible belt, Walter B. Jones, opposed the war in Iraq and is now calling for a pull-out from Afghanistan.  For such a courageous stance against party conformity, he should be congratulated.  Among likely presidential contenders (leaving aside Ron Paul), the stance on U.S. war against countries we have no hope of transforming and no stated desire to conquer ranges from “We’re not doing enough invading” to “We’re not doing enough invading or enough shoveling of tax dollars down the gullet of the Pentagon.”  I heard Tim Pawlenty do his tough-guy routine against the Syrian President—“We give him an ultimatum: ‘You’re gone tomorrow’”—several weeks ago to a group of influential New York neo-cons, who rewarded his promise of aggressive militarism with an enthusiastic round of applause.  All the other major Presidential candidates would have said the same thing.

But however much I admire  Rep. Jones’ intrepid individualism, I cannot help puzzling over his understanding of how he arrived at his anti-war stance.  He voted for the authorization of military force in Iraq in 2002, then started having misgivings about the invasion and in 2005 publicly called for troop withdrawal.   The reason he changed his mind, he said, was that God led him to do so: 

“I thank God that he made me feel guilty about my vote on Iraq,”

he told the New York Times.

This statement raises a host of questions.  If, in Jones’ view, God is anti-war and thus led him to that Godly stance, why are there so many equally devout Americans who are just as convinced of  the justice of the Iraq war?  Is Jones uniquely attuned to God’s will?  The implication is unavoidable that those pro-war believers are mistaken about God’s will—why is that?  Does the fault lie in themselves and in their disordered prayer lives?  It must, since presumably God would not send readable messages about the injustice of the war to some people and inscrutable messages to others.    Or perhaps God sends completely different messages to different people—pro-war to some, anti-war to others–just for the sake of spectator sport? George Bush claimed divine mandate for the Iraq invasion, since freedom is God’s gift to humanity, which he, Bush, was assisting with the Freedom Agenda.  Presumably, Jones would say that Bush was mistaken in his reading of God’s will.   But how does Jones know that he, Jones, is right and Bush is wrong?  Both appeal to the identical and sole piece of evidence: Their personal sensation of God speaking to them.  But again, if Bush is wrong, why did he get it wrong?  If you were God, and the unjustified loss of American lives (we won’t even mention Iraqi lives) were important to you, wouldn’t it be equally important to get the message out, clearly and unequivocally?   Either God screwed up in his messaging or your fellow Christian war hawks are screwed up in their ability to receive God’s will, but I have never heard a believer confront this fact explicitly and either berate God for being coy or accuse his fellow Christians of lacking access to God’s message.  Nor have I heard anyone offer a theory as to why there should be disagreement about something so fundamental as God’s will—about war, in this case.  If the problem is that man’s fallen state prevents him from perceiving God’s clear messages in all their unequivocal splendor, Jones is therefore implying that he is less fallen than his fellow Republican religious war supporters.  (more…)




The solipsism of faith

Human engineering prowess has long sought to protect people from the sorts of natural disasters that have struck the nation’s midsection over the last several weeks.  Some survivors of these recent storms, however, see God’s hand–rather than successful building design or random luck–in their exemption from the devastation that struck down their neighbors.  In Alabama, where almost 200 people were killed by tornadoes at the end of April, a Birmingham minister

spoke of the miracles of the disaster — the people who cheated death; the buildings, like his church, that somehow remained. He talked about trusting in God in times of trouble.

In Joplin, Missouri, hit by the deadliest twister of the season last week, some congregants at the Blendville Christian Church

spoke of their own miracles that kept them alive.
“How many of you have prayed this week?” asked Virgil Eubanks, 60, the pastor.
A chorus of hands shot up. “Oh yeah,” he continued. “If this didn’t catch you up on your prayer life there’s something wrong with you.”

One doesn’t want to deny survivors of cataclysm whatever emotional succor they can find during a period of undeserved loss.  Still, it is always puzzling to me how believers can attribute their escape from calamity to God’s protection without feeling compelled to explain why God did not extend that protection to other people not clearly less deserving than themselves.  If God was capable of working a “miracle” to prevent you from death by tornado in Missouri or Alabama, why didn’t he work that same miracle to save your neighbors?  (We will leave aside the added puzzle of why God would allow the natural cataclysm to proceed in the first place and confine himself to piecemeal, after-the-fact efforts to mitigate its effects for a select number of survivors.)  The implication of attributing one’s own good fortune amid a wave of misfortune to God is inescapable: God cared for me more than for the deceased victims.  Yet only rarely does this implication seem to break through into a believer’s consciousness. 

When it does cast a faint shadow of cognitive discomfort, there are two main strategies for responding. (more…)

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The Archbishop and the Governor

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan is greatly relieved that the pesky matter of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s unCatholic (at least for now) lifestyle is finally behind us.  The divorced Catholic governor has been very publicly living with his girlfriend and taking her to official events.  An advisor to the Vatican’s highest court, Edward Peters, had called for the denial of communion to Cuomo on the ground of his “public concubinage”—a perfectly reasonable interpretation of Catholic doctrine.  

The New York hierarchy, however, immediately closed ranks around Cuomo and brushed off this pesky Vatican busy-body.  The leader of the Albany diocese, Bishop Howard Hubbard, assured Cuomo and the world that the Church fathers would not dream of judging Cuomo’s domestic arrangements:

“There are norms for all Catholics about receiving communion and we have to be sensitive pastorally to every person in their [sic] own particular situation,” Bishop Hubbard said. 

Bishop Hubbard’s logic here is puzzling.  The very existence of  universal “norms for all Catholics” means that they apply to “every person” regardless of his “own particular situation.”    Not any more, it seems:

“When it comes to judging worthiness for communion, . . . it’s not something we comment on,” said Hubbard. 

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan was even more dismissive of the silly idea of stigmatizing Cuomo for his out-of-wedlock relationship.  Cuomo had threatened to cancel a scheduled lunch with Dolan, possibly out of pique at the criticism of his “concubinage” emanating from distant Catholic redoubts. But then Cuomo magnanimously found time in his busy schedule for lunch with the assorted New York priests.  Dolan later reported that Cuomo’s living arrangements never came up, adding:

“Thank God it didn’t, because it was a bit of a tempest in a teapot . . . . We were just happy to be there, and he obviously was, too.”

Lots of jolliness all around, obviously.  Dolan joked that the best part of the fact that Cuomo rescheduled their meeting was that “We got lunch out of it.” 

(How the once fearsome power of the Church has shrunk!  King Phillip in Verdi’s Don Carlo complains that the “throne must always bow to the altar.”  Now the altar creeps up to the throne and is grateful for a few table scraps.) 

One of the core purposes of the “secular conservative” construct, in my view, is to show that traditional morality can be justified on secular grounds alone.   Divine revelation is not needed to argue for obedience to the law and respect for the rights of others.  (more…)




When liberals pray

Opponents of Arizona’s new immigration law have been praying for its reversal in court.  The Wall Street Journal today has a photo of parishioners sitting outdoors on folding chairs at a prayer session for the demise of the law, which asks local police officers to verify the immigration status of individuals they have lawfully stopped if the officer has reasonable suspicion that the person stopped is in the country illegally.  Church coalitions throughout the country have been urging God as well as politicians for help in dismantling SB 1070. 

If the federal judge now hearing challenges to SB 1070 from the federal government and various advocacy groups overturns key portions of it, all those who have been praying for judicial nullification will claim divine vindication.   How will Glenn Beck, who regularly advises his radio listeners to pray, Sarah Palin, Mark Levin, Newt Gingrich, and every other conservative figurehead or foot soldier who views belief in God as a central component of conservative identity and who supports stronger immigration enforcement respond?  Did God in fact answer the prayers of SB 1070 opponents?  And if so, why?  Because the opponents were more organized in sending their prayer packets to the great pollster in the sky or because God agreed with them on the merits? 

Or will the conservative believers suddenly incline towards skepticism?  Might they ask such questions as: How do we know that God influenced the judge’s ruling and that it wouldn’t have happened anyway?  Where is the control group of judges whose decisions were not prayed about–how did they rule?  And what about those other judicial rulings that have upheld Arizona’s other  immigration laws—requiring verification of citizenship status to vote, for example, or requiring employers to verify the legal immigration status of their workers—why did God allow those laws to stand and not this one? 

More likely, however, religion-promoting immigration restrictionists will not allow such potential complications to cross their minds at all, and will simply go on to the next issue. 

Of course, if U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton upholds SB 1070, the conservative prayer advocates will appreciate God’s understanding of illegal immigration while the law’s religious opponents will, in theory only, face their own theological conundrums.




Syncopation and Thanksgiving

The New England colonists balanced Thanksgiving feasts with petitionary fasting, known as days of “public humiliation and prayer:”

Pleas for rain during spells of drought were the most common reason for fasting. But Puritans also fasted whenever a comet, an evil portent, appeared in the sky; at the start of the Salem witch trials; and throughout the various colonial Indian wars (Mather preached that the horrors in King Philip’s War, against the Wampanoag Indians, had been sent by God to chastise colonists for the sin of wig wearing). . . Puritans believed that expressions of thanks to God for their good fortune helped keep his future punishments at bay.  

It is my impression that educated Christians no longer view a twister in south Texas, say, as signifying God’s anger at human misbehavior (and no, I don’t think that global warming theory represents some atavistic religious impulse).  I may be wrong here: perhaps believers simply keep out of the public realm their view that natural and human affairs refer to them, until such a view erupts from a Falwell or Robertson. 

But if it is the case that God, ghosts, and ancestral spirits have been pushed increasingly towards the margins of our experience, the result is not dreariness but a still enchanted, wonder-filled world.  Musicians and dancers still pursue the agony of grace.  Brilliant white light fills the sky above the southern California coast.  Scientists conquer the squalor of pain and disease, taking medicine out of the domain of unwitting fraud.  And if there is ever a final tribunal of world culture, whereupon each nation will be called upon to document its contributions to the store of human beauty, America will stand tall, shoulder to shoulder with Austria, Italy, and other fonts of loveliness.  “Schubert?  Mozart?” we will say.  “Yes, fine, we acknowledge their genius and bow before them.  But here is Cole Porter; here is Leonard Bernstein; here is Rogers and Hart. Here is swing and the necessity of snapping your fingers to music, released after centuries of hidden dormancy.”  So I am grateful not just for the exuberance of America’s entrepreneurs and for the culmination of Western liberal thought in the American polity, but also for the joyfulness of America’s spirit, so magnificently on display in the American songbook.

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In hand-sanitizers we trust

A letter in the Wall Street Journal today makes a good point:

In response to Lauren Winner’s Houses of Worship article “Swine Flu Spells the End of the Common Cup” (Oct. 9): If we as Christian believers hold to the truth that the blood of Christ takes away sin (Matthew 26:28), surely it will also cover a few germs in a common cup.

Given the boundlessness of God’s power and his willingness to use it in response to prayer, why should anyone worry about the swine flu, or even about diabetes?


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