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Thinking About Prayer

 

If God is God, then how can we forgive him for not using his powers to spare us from the misery and pain this life often brings?  If he is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent, as Christians have claimed over the ages, then how can we forgive him for not using his powers to rid the world of misery, pain and untimely death?

Some will recognize this dilemma as the problem of theodicy.  This is a complex, and controversial, theological issue that has been explained in various ways, mostly to no avail. The German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz first coined this term in 1710, and our greatest theologians have struggled with it, in one form or another, for centuries. In his famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981), Rabbi Harold Kushner summed up this problem with the following statement: 

“We can’t pray that God makes our lives free of problems; this won’t happen and it’s probably just as well.”

My first experience with the problem of theodicy occurred when I was just eleven years old.  One Sunday afternoon, my family and I set out in the family car for the home of an elderly couple in our church who were housebound.  As an Elder in the church, my dad had been dispatched to provide the service of Communion to these shut-ins.  As we approached the town where the couple lived, we made a tragic left turn in front of two lanes of on-coming traffic, and our car was hit broadside by a very heavy auto that was traveling at a high rate of speed.  My mother, who was sitting in the front seat on the passenger side of our car, was gravely injured and only lived for about forty-five minutes after the collision.  The last utterance I heard from her, as my dad made that fateful turn, was her frantic scream, “Steve!” As it turned out, I was the only member of my immediate family who was well enough to attend her memorial service.  Trying to comfort me as I viewed my mother’s coffin, my aunt, who was my mother’s twin sister, told me that God loved her so much that he wanted her to come to Heaven and be with him.  My mother was a lovely person, so I could understand why God might want her to be with him, but my aunt’s reassurances did not help.  They only made me angry with God.  And the question that I could not get out of my mind was, “Why did you take her, God?” We were on a loving mission that afternoon, and I thought the God I had been taught to believe in obviously had the power to spare her.

My question that afternoon was but one in the millions of similar queries that have reverberated down through the centuries.  Even the most cursory review of history reveals tragic afflictions visited upon human beings that a caring, all-powerful God should have prevented.  The Helots of ancient Greece, who were used as virtual farm animals by the Spartans; the brave gladiators, who died in the Coliseum as they were being eaten alive by wild animals; the serfs of the Dark Ages, who lived in misery and hopelessness for a thousand years; the proud Africans who suffered the dehumanizing misery and degradation of slavery, here in America, for four hundred years; the millions of Jews who were tortured, starved or incinerated in the Holocaust and, currently, the innocent Ukrainians, whose lives have been shattered by the brutal aggression of their Russian neighbors, all suggest that God is either indifferent to, or unable to, relieve human suffering.

I have always loved, and taken comfort from Isaac Watts’ majestic Nineteenth Century hymn, “O God our Help in Ages Past.”  But in the harsh light of theodicy, its opening affirmations, “O God, our Help in Ages past, our hope for years to come,” sound hollow.  There is a mountain of evidence indicating that, for reasons that theologians are still debating, there is really no reliable evidence that there is a God who provides this kind of care.

I should add, however, that these unresolved questions of theodicy need not necessarily lead to Atheism.  Observing that there doesn’t appear to be a God who provides reliable providential care for us does not mean, in and of itself, that there is no Ultimate.  Nor does it mean that there is no place for prayer in our lives.

Starting as far back as the Ancient Greeks, Communication scholars have identified two broad categories of speech that might be useful in this discussion. They have observed that most human utterances fall somewhere on a continuum that ranges from those that are mainly instrumental to those that are primarily consummatory.  Instrumental communication is designed to effect change, where the consummatory forms achieve their purpose simply upon being consumed, which is to say by being uttered or received.  Most political speech is instrumental, in that it seeks to gain support for a political position, or for a candidate who is running for some office.  Consummatory forms are affective, rather than instrumental; their main purpose is to express and evoke feelings.  Examples of consummatory speech are found in therapy, poetry, theater, oral interpretation of literature and the arts generally. This distinction is usually expressed with a continuum, because most utterances are not purely one or the another.  But it seems self-evident that people can distinguish between asking and expressing feelings.  It is one thing to say, “God save the people of Ukraine” and quite another to say, “Our hearts ache for the people of the Ukraine.”

I believe it would be more healthy, and certainly a lot more honest, for us to understand prayer as affective, rather than as instrumental.  Even though we may not be able to control the actions of the Ultimate through our prayers, we can still use them to express our hopes, our fears, and our gratitude.

Humans are nothing if not emotional, so using our prayers to express our feelings allows us to share them with others and, thus, brings us closer together as communities of people who care.

Difficult as it may be, I believe it is time for us, as Progressive Christians, to admit that we are unable to control the Ultimate through our prayers, claiming, rather, that we value them as a vital means for expressing our personal feelings and our concerns for others.  I suspect this is what most of us are already doing when we pray, so why don’t we simply admit, once and for all, that this is why we pray?

 

Dave was born in Whittier, California, in 1930. He is married and has four daughters, seven grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Dave has been awarded four academic degrees, including the Ph.D. from Stanford University. He was first appointed to the San Jose State University faculty in 1957 and retired in 1997. He has held numerous positions in academic governance, both on and beyond his own campus, including Chair of the San Jose State Academic Senate and Chair of the California State University (CSU) Academic Senate. In addition to serving for three terms (12 years) as Chair of the SJSU Department of Communication Studies, he also held several university-level administrative positions at SJSU. At the system level, he served as the first permanent Director of the CSU Consortium and as President of the CSU Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association.

Retirement has made it possible for Dave to return to his early interest in theological studies. His first academic degree was in Theology. His house church, the United Disciples Fellowship (UDF), is in partnership with the First Congregational Church (UCC) of San Jose, which provided the venue for a ten-year series of distinguished lectures that were hosted by UDF. Dave had the privilege of introducing all of the lecturers to large Bay Area audiences. They included: Paula Fredriksen, John Dominic Crossan, Amy-Jill Levine, James M. Robinson, Bart D. Ehrman, John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Harvey Cox and Thomas Sheehan.

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