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09:26 pm: Pray for Japan?
A friend of a friend on Twitter retweeted a comment that we should not pray for Japan:

RT @lowercaserho Don't #prayforjapan. Prayer is the ultimate in slacktivism. If you want to help and are able to, then giving your time or money is better.

I responded with

@lowercaserho I respectfully disagree. Prayer is the most important thing, but while you pray you should also be asking what else can I do?

She replied

@ringbark I am genuinely curious to understand your perspective. Can you explain to me why you believe prayer is so important?

I said:

@lowercaserho It is the means by which we can make requests to the maker all that is, a great privilege. Of course, it can be seen as...
@lowercaserho just slactivism and I would have to say that we cannot *ever* prove that what has happened would not happen if we didn't pray.
@lowercaserho I believe that we have common ground in saying "pray for X" without any concrete attempt to do something else is pretty weak.

Later, she said

@ringbark I find it hard to get my head around any system of thought in which an omnipotent being would act based on human prayer or lack.

I replied with

@lowercaserho I don't doubt you for a moment. I am not claiming that it is easily comprehensible, even for me. I will post more on this soon.

And later on, she said:

Today's lesson of the day: discussion of theology in 140 character snippets is difficult.

And I wholeheartedly agree with that!

So that's what this post is for – a few theological points in rather more than 140 characters.

First of all, I don't know what the theological point of view of my correspondent is. I assume that it is rather different to my own.

Back in the 1980s, before I was married, I was already a Christian and had already been attending an evangelical Anglican church regularly. One weekend, I went to the Leeds Conference ("speakers of excellence for the North") where the speaker was +Graham Leonard, Bishop of London at that time. Although the Leeds Conference was evangelical in its outlook while +Graham was catholic in his, he was nevertheless welcomed to speak on the topic "A Supernatural Gospel in a Secular World". I am sorry to say that I no longer have a copy of this striking talk. If it happens that anybody reading this still does, please get in touch!
One of the most striking points that +Graham made was that we are living in times where the secular influence is strong and said that a common response to a problem is "there's nothing I can do for you but still I'll pray" and he asserted that this is a deeply secular approach.

Far better, he said, and I agree is "I will pray for you, which is the most important thing. Now, what else can I do?" The answer may in fact be nothing, but it may be something.

@lowercaserho suggested that in the case of Japan, a gift to an appropriate charity might be appropriate. I agree.

But prayer is the opportunity for those who love God and have entered into a new and eternal life with him through his son Jesus to enter into the very presence of the God who made everything, seen and unseen, and ask him whatever we want in the same way that a son or daughter might ask his or her own father for something. And in the same way, our father in heaven will answer our request: the answer might indeed be a yes, or a no, or an instruction to wait. Or the answer might be complete, but in a way quite different to what we expected.

I believe that specific prayers get specific answers and vague prayers get vague answers. "Dear Lord, please bless the world. Amen." is the sort of prayer that is an example of the worst sort of slacking that I think both of us object to. Similarly "pray for Japan" is too general to be useful. But we can pray for specific things that we have heard or that we know.

The other point that my correspondent is railing against is the growing trend of slacktivism. This is the idea that doing something without any real effort will make a difference to anything. This is the world of clicking a button on a website or forwarding an online petition to fifty friends or joining a Facebook group. Bill Gates doesn't care how many people have joined a pro or anti group and neither do most of the other people who you might want to be influenced by this sort of thing. In Britain, for a petition to have any chance of being taken seriously, it needs an enormous number of verifiable names on it. Just a pile of email addresses isn't enough. I'm well aware that I am with you on this point, but I will continue. Facebook and Twitter by themselves did not make any change in the Middle East but they helped to provide some of the opportunity for the people to mobilise in real life.

In years gone by, there were great demonstrations against a great many things in Britain, but they have largely died out recently. The most recent protests have been the G20 protest and the student fees protest and I find them encouraging, because it shows that people will still turn out for a cause. Whether or not I agree with the cause is neither here nor there, but the fact that the people still protest in real life gives me hope.

In a recent example from my own circle, and one that did not quite reach the mainstream, let me tell you about Sherif Hassan. He is an Egyptian who converted to Christianity and married an English lady. I am a friend of the English lady and her family, which is how I come to be involved at all. On a recent visit to Egypt, he was arrested on arrival in Cairo and his wife was returned to England on the next plane. Soon after this, their friends set up a website, still visible at http://releasesherif.com which you will surely admit is not the most professional looking site you saw, along with a Facebook group and a Twitter campaign.

Alongside that, there was much prayer for Sherif as well as a letter writing campaign. That means getting out your pen and paper (or at least your computer printer) and printing letters for sending to MPs, MEPs, the Foreign Secretary, the Egyptian Ambassador and similar.

Sherif was released shortly after the campaign started. Why? I cannot say for sure whether the prayers of the people by themselves made any difference. Nor can I say whether the letters by themselves made any difference. What I can say is that the combination of prayer and action made a difference. It's down to each one of us to decide how to split this. No doubt everyone will split it differently, with some giving 100% of the credit to one side or the other.

Finally, to return briefly to the question of earthquakes, what is the theological justification for them? I am well aware of their geological cause, but I am not an expert in seismology. The issues relate to the fallen world: after sin entered the world, it didn't just have an effect on humanity but on everything. I hesitate to say that "God caused the Japanese earthquake and tsunami" in just the same way that I hesitate to say "God gave my son leukaemia" but when it comes to it, that is the conclusion that must be drawn.

Jesus warns of this in the gospels. In Mark 13:8, we have "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines." There are other striking descriptions in that chapter as well as in the parallel chapters of Matthew 24 and Luke 21. Similarly, there are descriptions of earthquakes in the last days of earth, most notably in Revelation 11.

I hope this gives some insight into my thoughts about prayer and why it is important and also why I agree with you that slacktivism is a scourge of our time. I am sure that I could speak at much more length about this.

Happy to correspond by Twitter, Facebook or LJ comments or in person in London to anyone who would like to explore this further.

Current Location: CH63 0EB
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful


[User Picture]
Date:March 16th, 2011 07:29 pm (UTC)
Hello! Here on LiveJournal I'm not lower case, since I was relatively a much earlier adopter over here so had a much wider choice of username.

Since you mention it, and since knowing it may help ease communication, my theological position is roughly as follows: I was raised as a Catholic but for various reasons it never sat entirely right with me, and I left the faith at age 11 when I switched from a Catholic primary school to a non-religious secondary school. Through my teenage years, I became an especially obnoxious atheist, not unlike Dawkins, but with considerably less tact and consideration, borne from the conviction that I was entirely right which I think only a teenager can ever truly have.

Since then, I have mellowed considerably and come to two conclusions:

1. I can never truly know beyond any doubt whether or not there is a god or gods out there.
2. Even if I could know for certain, I would not have the right to try to stop people from being wrong.

(The latter may seem to contradict the message "don't pray" in my tweet, but that was an artefact of the 140 character limit more than anything else.)

I have also tried to educate myself further on various religions, their histories, and their beliefs, since I'm of the opinion that if I'm going to say that I believe that something is wrong, then I really ought to know what it actually is that I'm disagreeing with.

I am generally of the opinion that the mystic schools of religion are much more powerful, convincing and compelling than those that try to prove the existence of God through rationalist or empiricist world views.

So, long story short is that I'm an atheist with a dash of agnosticism, and a willingness to appropriate ideas from various theologies into my epistemology when it seems appropriate.

To return to the issue of prayer, I'd like to start near to where you ended. You talk about bad things happening and how ultimately you must conclude that these bad things were caused by God. The implication here, as far as I can see, is that God must be doing these things for a reason, presumably for the greater good in the long term, but that you are not able to see what this reason is.

Needless to say, this is not a position that I agree with, but it is one that I can understand. It makes sense.

What I don't understand is how prayer then fits into this. If you accept that God does these things for a reason that is beyond your comprehension but which is for a greater good, then how does it make sense to then ask Him to change what he has done? If God is omniscient then surely He already knows where there is need and where he can fulfil these needs without it negating whatever purpose he had in the beginning?

It's a caricature of what you're arguing, I know, but I'm now imagining someone praying, "please God, can you do this for me?" and God replying with "oops, I hadn't thought of that!"

I understand prayer as a means of giving thanks (again, I don't agree with it, but I understand it) and also as a means for self reflection (and indeed, I do something very similar to prayer except without the belief that I have anyone listening to me for that purpose myself). What I don't understand is prayer to ask for something. It always seems to me to be the ultimate in hubris: "I believe that you know everything, but I also believe that I know better than you what would be good and useful here".

The alternative that I can see is the idea that God knows what is right but is only willing to act on it if a sufficient number of people (which could just be one person) pray for it. This is, I suppose, a self-consistent position, but it is not a satisfying one. I cannot see any deity who would be that callous as being worthy of respect, let alone worship.

This is the root of my problem, I suppose. I assume that you are neither that full of hubris nor inclined to worship a callous God, but I cannot see any alternatives. Which is what I'm asking, really. What is the alternative that I'm missing?
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