This past weekend, our nation was rocked with yet another mass shooting. From what I’ve gathered, the shooting of the nightclub in Orlando has been determined to be the worst mass shooting in US history–with 49 lives having been lost in total. Many candles have been lit. Many prayers have been offered. And many voices have been raised.
There are all kinds of issues surrounding this latest shooting that could be addressed. As the incident has added another massacre to a seemingly unending series of senseless gun crimes in our country, many have called yet again for greater gun control. Others, upon discovering that the perpetrator of the Orlando attack had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, have seen the incident as another call to arms in the fight against “radical Islam.” Further contemplating the issue is that the scene of the crime was a gay nightclub, raising the question as to whether or not this massacre was a hate crime targeted at homosexuals–and how we as a society should respond.
I have opinions on all three of these issues. Some are fairly strong; some are still in the development stage. But, rather than discuss any one of these issues, I’d like to discuss something that involves all of these issues and more. It’s something that has come up at just about every tragedy we’ve encountered. In this post, I’d like to talk about prayer in the face of tragedy.
#PrayForOrlando: Solidarity and Slacktivism
Each time one of these tragedies strikes, our initial reaction is meditative. We mourn. We pray. We hold memorial services. For those of us who have lost people close to us in such tragedies, this behavior seems perfectly natural and completely understandable. For the rest of us, those of us who don’t actually know any of the victims, we mirror this behavior because it shows solidarity with the human race. We’re extending our condolences and offering our prayers, because we’re an empathetic people. We can envision ourselves in the same situation, and it breaks our hearts. So we adopt the posture that is represented by such hashtags as #PrayForParis, #PrayForBrussels, and #PrayForOrlando.
But amidst the grief that arises in the face of such tragedy is another raw human emotion that takes hold of the empathizers: anger. Almost as soon as some people begin offering prayers, there is a backlash against them from others who see the tragedy as something that could have been prevented. Time after time, we endure these tragedies offering “thoughts and prayers,” but nothing changes because we don’t take any action. To these people, prayer isn’t a way to show solidarity; it’s a way to show complacency. So, rather than being a gesture of kindness and love, prayer ends up being part of the problem.
— Natalie King (@n_m_king) June 12, 2016
All these “thoughts and prayers” mean next to nothing.
The Bible says “faith without WORKS is dead.”
DO THE WORK. Fix problems.
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) June 12, 2016
From calls to prayer without calls to action, good Lord deliver us. #PrayForOrlando
— Mark Rowland (@rowlandmark) June 12, 2016
No, I won’t #PrayForOrlando. Thoughts and prayers never translate into real action to change gun laws or help young LGBT people feel safe.
— James Halcrow (@JamHal_) June 12, 2016
#PrayForOrlando prayers to a fictional diety won’t help. Action will.
— James Marsh (@jamesmarsh83) June 12, 2016
You can tweet #PrayForOrlando all you want, but that means absolutely nothing. Action must occur, change must occur.
— Stefanie Cash (@graphic_cash) June 12, 2016
Some of those who are calling for more action and less praying are Christians who take the “faith workout works is dead” teaching in James rather seriously. But many of those who condemn prayer are self-professing atheists. They do not believe in God and, therefore, think that spiritual people are vainly relying on a fictional hero that doesn’t really exist to save them from a devastating problem in the world that actually does exist. It’s like trying to cure cancer with fairy dust; it just doesn’t work.
I am not an atheist, but I can’t deny the argument they’re making against this kind of prayer. If we take it as a given that God doesn’t exist, then the only way things are going to change is if we do something. But if we are counting on a god to answer our prayers we will, at best, do nothing and, at worst, justify travesties as the unfolding of “God’s plan.” God is in control, so if something terrible is happening, we can’t really do anything but ask him to tip the balance in our favor. But, in the end, God’s going to do what God’s going to do because, well, he’s God.
Prayer, Power, and Process Theology
So, should we as religious people just stop praying altogether? If God’s plan is unchanging, it’s kind of pointless, isn’t it? We’re just playing a providential guessing game. God’s mind is already made up, so we’re kind of wasting our breaths getting him to change it. And this is why we preface every plea with an obligatory, “Lord willing.” We’re all pawns in God’s game. Our only confidence lies in our belief that we’re on his side.
Given the transcendent, immutable, all powerful perception of God that is popular in Western religion, it is no surprise that atheists scorn such faith in the wake of tragedy. Faith in this type of God facilitates the notion that we are utterly helpless. We can’t change anything, because we’re all subject to the whims of an all-knowing, all-powerful diety. From this perspective, I think atheists view religious people merely as sycophants–people cowardly clinging to the hope of escaping their fate by worshipping the one they believe to be the author of it.
So, I bet you’re starting to think prayer is pretty awful, huh? If the idea of prayer isn’t starting to make your stomach turn by now, I haven’t accomplished my goal. Because now I want to make a statement that is going to sound a little silly at first, in light of everything I’ve written this far:
Prayer is not the problem.
When we offer up prayers as substitutes for action, the fundamental problem is not our practice of prayer; it’s our model of God. Perhaps our prayer is ineffective because we are calling on God to work in a way that he doesn’t work. We believe in a God who saves us rather than a God who has empowered us to save ourselves.
In the early twentieth century, some theologians began to think about God a little differently. Rather than being understood as the classical rigid, monarchical supreme being operating outside of time and space, thinkers began to consider a god who was an integral part of time and space. Following the work of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, theologians such as Charles Hartshorne and John B. Cobb constructed a new way of thinking about God that has come to be known as process theology.
With this model of God, the future is unwritten. Rather than providentially determining everything that happens, God strives in partnership with his creation to bring about its redemption. I don’t fully understand the theology, but I think that’s it in a nutshell. Nothing is determined; if something is to be, we must make it happen. God is the motive force that inspires us to take that action. God is not the author of our fate. We are the authors of our own fate. God is that strike of inspiration that moves us to write something worth reading.
But What About the God of the Bible?
The God of process theology is both frightening and liberating. He is frightening, because he gives us no clear answers. He doesn’t have it all figured out for us; we must take responsibility for our own fate. And he is liberating for precisely the same treason. The future is not out of our hands. The God of process theology empowers us to build the future we seek rather than simply crossing our fingers and hoping for it.
All of that being said, whether or not the God of process theology is a desirable God is quite beside the point for most professing Christians in America. The real question that many Christians want to know is, “Who is the God of the Bible?”
The answer to this question is beyond the scope of this post, and it presumes a few interpreting norms. When people appeal to the “Biblical God,” they take for granted two rather hefty assumptions.
- The Judeo-Christian canon as interpreted, translated, and preached in the twenty-first century (what we merely call “The Bible”) is the only source of definition for who God is.
- Our Bible has a single, unified understanding of who God is.
I don’t believe either of these things is necessarily true. The Bible is a collection of ancient documents written by different people in different cultures at different times that has been understood in a myriad of ways by subsequent generations. It’s descriptions of God are varied and and complex. Therefore, I will not attempt to demonstrate that “the God of the Bible” is a God who is immanent in creation, working alongside humankind and subjecting himself to the actions of men. But I will offer a few examples from the Scriptures that show that the God of process theology is at least not unbiliblical.
- Noah. In Genesis 6, God looks around at the violence that has become pervasive in humanity, and he is seemingly perplexed. The curious remark is made that he “regrets” having created human beings. It’s as if he didn’t see it coming. So, he decides to destroy everything he had created. But then he notices Noah, a righteous man worth preserving. So, he changes his mind again.
- Abraham. In Genesis 18, God negotiates with Abraham on how many righteous people there would have to be in order for him to spare the city of Sodom.
- Moses. In Exodus 3, God tells Moses that he has heard the plight of the Israelites in captivity and has “come down to rescue them.” But he doesn’t actually come down–he sends Moses. He operates through the actions of men.
- Moses again. In Deuteronomy 9, God determines that he is going to completely wipe out the Israelites and start from scratch with Moses. But Moses please with him and convinces him that it’s not a good idea, so he changes his mind and spares the people.
These are just a few examples. There are many more incidences that demonstrate a God who is not outside of history but, rather, is affected and shaped by it–a God whose course is altered and mind is changed by the workings of his own creation. For those of us who are Christians, we have the ultimate example of God striving with his creation in the doctrine of the incarnation. Our entire faith rests in the story of God surrending the unfolding of his plan to the actions of one man. That man’s name was Jesus.
Pray This; Not That
Understanding God more as integral to creation than apart from it has helped me in my journey of faith. If that doesn’t work for you, then by all means disregard everything I’ve written here. But for those of you who are struggling to maintain faith in a God who seems absent in the face of tragedy, you might want to consider this new vision of God. God is present and God does care–he’s just waiting for you to make your move.
I don’t want to give the impression in this piece that I am discounting the power of prayer. I believe prayer can be an unstoppable force; we’ve just been using it wrong. There are many non-believers who scoff at prayer, because they believe that God doesn’t really exist. While I can certainly understand where they’re coming from, I am not one of those people. I believe in God, and I believe in prayer. I simply believe in praying to a God who does things with us rather than to a God who does things for us.
There’s a huge difference that took place in my prayer life when I started to change my thinking on the nature of God. It became infinitely more actionable. I stopped asking God to make the world a better place and instead started asking for him to show me how I can make the world a better place. I stopped thinking of my prayer list as a list of people who were in need of a miracle from God and instead started thinking of it as a list of people who need help from me. I stopped praying that God would do his will and started asking how I might do his will. Prayer has moved from the realm of desperation to the realm of preparation. It’s no longer a last resort; it’s a pep talk.
So, is it possible–as many of my atheist friends might suggest–to just skip prayer altogether, throw out such naive naive and archaic notions as God, and just get to work on building a better world? My answer to that: maybe it is for you, but it’s not for me. I’m simply not that sure of myself. I’m not always sure that I’m on “the right side.” It’s not always so easy to tell if I’m on the side of the oppressor or the oppressed. I don’t have all of the information. And, even if I do, I know I’m morally flawed and can’t really even trust my own judgment.
So, that’s where God comes in. That’s why prayer matters. I ask not that God would solve all the world’s problems; rather, I ask that God would give me the discernment to identify those things in the world which really are problems and the courage to set about solving them when I do.
I don’t believe in genies.
But I do believe in God.
I’m not sure I believe in miracles.
But I’m absolutely certain I believe in prayer.