Monday, January 7, 2013

Pray em if ya got em.

Non-believers in the Christian god are sometimes invited to pray what is called the sinners prayer.    The basis of which is Romans 10: 9-10:
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”

The prayer has no set wording but usually involves the following elements – a declaration of personal sinfulness and need for redemption, a confession that Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection provides the means of redemption and a personal acceptance of that gift of salvation.

There are a great many Christians who are critical of this prayer. Some protest that it is not a god-given sacrament of salvation like baptism. Some argue that it creates a type of instant Christian identity that lacks any depth. The sinners’ prayer is most commonly promoted in the fastest growing Pentecostal style churches.  If you are stopped in the street by someone wanting to offer you salvation through Jesus this prayer is likely to be a part of the encounter.

The problem with this prayer from an outsider’s point of view is that expresses a commitment to certain convictions. A non-believer in Christianity by definition doesn’t hold those convictions. So if a non-believer is encouraged to pray the sinners’ prayer anyway it is a promotion of forced “double-think” or deliberate self-programming. It’s not a great recommendation of what a Christian’s faith might be sustained by, to that non-believer. It’s only really suited for people who are already Christians.

So what can a non-believer, specifically in the Christian doctrines, pray? Well firstly we can pray whatever we want. Prayer is a means of expressing oneself to the infinite however that is understood. I for one wouldn’t stand between someone else and their perception of the infinite and demand a perfectly rational conversation occur; feel free to scream nonsense, express anguish, crack a joke, beg for a break, whatever works for you. Pray as much as you like even to something you don’t think is real.

Personally I really value the sentiment that prayer is a road where there is none. When you are stuck with no visible healthy options prayer is an action you can take that is better than flipping out. Any parent ought to consider praying to some benevolent manifestation of the universe as part of their tool kit for those bad days. I’m talking about when your well of good humour is dry and your three year old punches you full force in the kidneys.

However if you feel like those prayers are not generally legitimate for you as a non-believer then you are in a similar position to me. I feel much the same way. Certainly my version of the sinner’s prayer contains more clauses of qualification than a Microsoft warranty. Most of it is treated very metaphorically or discarded. What I call a testing prayer is my more integritous option to the sinner’s prayer and its equivalents. A testing prayer in its simplest form is “God, if you are there, give us a sign.”

Some Christians however argue that the validity of a testing prayer is specifically condemned in their bible. They commonly site Matthew 4:5-7:
“Then the devil took Him (Jesus) to the holy city and had Him stand on the highest point of the temple.  ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down.’  For it is written: ‘He will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’  Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

In fact the testing prayer is very biblical. In the Old Testament such tests are common. In Judges 6:17 -22 Gideon asks for a sign that they are really talking to God. Yahweh (the Jewish God and Christian God the Father) complies by having an angel set fire to an offering. Gideon then asks Yahweh to complete two more miraculous tests involving a fleece over two nights. There is no automatic acceptance here.

Then there is 1 Kings 18 :21-24, in which Elijah insists that people test the god Yahweh against the god Baal. Elijah’s proposal is to make an altar to each and see whose God will light their altar. Elijah also soaks his altar in water so that when it burns it is an absolute proof of Yahweh’s power.

In Isaiah 7:10-12 Yahweh actually demands that the King Ahaz ask for a sign “whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights”. The king refuses by saying he doesn’t want to test God. That refusal is considered to be trying Yahweh’s patience.

It’s worth noting Matthew 4:5-7 mentioned above is a condemnation of testing God by effectively putting one’s head on the train tracks and asking them to stop the train.  Jesus elsewhere is quoted as saying “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father.” (John 10:37) He’s talking about performing miracles. There certainly seems to be plenty of biblical basis for seeking clear evidence for Gods presence. Just don’t be a dick about it is the message of Matthew 4.

If a God fails to answer a testing prayer we are within our intellectual rights to not believe in them. Again we have the bible for support. In Kings 18:27 when Baal fails to set the altar of their worshippers alight Elijah is scathing;
“At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”

I can’t help thinking of the most extreme mocking atheist when I hear Elijah here. His basis for dispelling the people’s belief in Baal is not too different to an argument against Yahweh that a fan of Richard Dawkins might try today.

Logically the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That is to say there are many possible reasons why Baal might not have lit his alter. He might not like being tested. However Elijah’s people are not supposed to keep an open mind about Baal after Baal has failed their test. Elijah would have no time for a Baal worshiper who argued that Baal could have lit the altar but just chose not to.

Likewise if a particular God doesn’t answer our testing prayer then it doesn’t prove absolutely that particular God isn’t there. However it puts us within our rights to believe that such a God isn’t there. We shouldn’t have to investigate a pack of excuses for a regular no-show.

This post up to this point treats testing prayers as if they provide clear answers. Life is messier than that though. What are we to do when a testing prayer sometimes produces a positive result and sometimes a negative one? This is what most God followers that I know experience. They have experiences that give them reason to have their faith in God but they also have experienced the absence of God or the hiddenness of God that is the defining experience for non-believers.

I don’t think it’s easy for those people to know what is an integritous position to take. In fact “those people” is a nice compartmentalization of what’s really a general experience of the divine or transcendant. Very few people ever get that unequivocal miraculous evidence to prove God is listening. Likewise very few people have never perceived anything even potentially and nebulously god-like in the universe. Far more common are those experiences which we have to actively interpret one way or the other.

We ought to admit we are mostly just muddling through our tunnel like existence without as clear proof as Elijah's people. If you believe in a God maybe you are honouring a rare glimpse you caught of something god-like once. That’s got my respect. If your disbelief is born of a too-long prolonged silence from the divine I get that too.

In the past people used to say “smoke em if ya got em” when they called a break. Maybe we should extend that attitude to prayer. I’ve always like this image from the book of Jonah for its pray em, if ya got em attitude;
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship”.  (Jonah 1: 4-5)

For myself I don’t pray except rarely and the sinners’ prayer never at all. I don't think it accurately points us to where God is. That’s a conclusion based partly on the results of testing prayers I have made. I have received no good evidence to suggest there is a God like that prayer claims there is. 

Interestingly that is actually a reasonably biblically endorsed process of investigating God. It has just led me to a non-biblical faith outcome. 

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