Tuesday, September 29, 2020

I Was Just Funnin' With Ya, Little Lady ...

A Facebook friend from my schooldays passed along this meme today, and I was torn whether to comment on it.  I almost thought she was being ironic, because just a week ago she announced that she'd lost her car key, which had house and other important keys on the same ring.  She spent two or three days looking everywhere while her other friends commented that they were praying for her and made helpful suggestions where she should look.  At last she gave up and replaced the key, at some expense.  The very next day she was working in the garden, and there she found the Prodigal Key.  That's not a Waymaker, it's a Divine Practical Joker.

But I refrained, partly because her husband, who's had major health issues before, was recently diagnosed with cancer.  It appears to be treatable, but it's going to be iffy, and I can understand why she'd want to tell herself that the Divine Practical Joker is on her and her husband's side.  I wonder if she's ever read C. S. Lewis' A Grief Observed, written as he mourned the death from cancer of his wife.  She'd nearly died of cancer once but had a remarkable remission - and then the cancer returned.

It's easy to see why Lewis first published A Grief Observed under a pseudonym, because he went pretty far in venting his pain:

What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H. and I offered and all the false hopes we had. Not hopes raised merely by our own wishful thinking, hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle. Step by step we were ‘led up the garden path.’ Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.

He backed away from the precipice in the very next sentence, but he never really came to terms with his dilemma.  He did recognize that he'd been glib on the subject in his much earlier book The Problem of Pain, because he hadn't really had his nose rubbed in suffering before.  Though he submitted formally by the end of A Grief Observed, his submission seemed forced; his wife's awful death broke him, and he never really recovered from it.

So even though I haven't really suffered like this yet either, I held my virtual tongue about my friend's post - on Facebook anyway.  But I still thought about it, because the claims in that meme are simply false.  The incident of the keys that once were lost, but now are found, underlines their falsity.

There's another issue here: prayer.  A couple of weeks ago, an order of nuns posted in their Twitter account that prayer is not for asking or persuading God to give you something, it's opening yourself to whatever God chooses to give you, including anguish and pain.  This is a common apologetic move to cover the problem that prayers so often go unanswered, but it's callous and false.  It's rooted, I think, in Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane the night before his death, asking Yahweh to spare him from the cross - but 'Not as I will, but as you will."  The trouble is that at other points in the gospels, Jesus assured his followers that all they had to do was pray, and God would give whatever they asked for.  This teaching is a stumbling block for many Christians, and Lewis himself asked a meeting of clergy about it in a talk that was eventually printed in one of his posthumous collections of essays.  He had no answer to the dilemma, because there isn't one.  During his lifetime he published a short piece around the standard apologetic answer, that prayer isn't for nagging God for goodies.  Jesus shut off that escape route, but Lewis pretended he hadn't - for public consumption, anyway.

So, what about all those people praying that my friend would find her keys?  I'm sure that they'd agree in another situation they'd have fallen back on the apologetic excuse, but how interesting that they immediately jumped to pray for a comparatively trivial matter.  It doesn't stand alone: they've also prayed that their grandchildren will be allowed to have a public graduation ceremony, that their grandson's high school football team will win the big game, and so on.  Other people shouldn't noodge the Lord, but they can.  Or at any rate they do, with rather charming unselfconsciousness.  If cornered, I imagine they'd argue that it does no harm to tell God what they want, but even that isn't true according to the nuns, to C. S. Lewis, and very likely their own pastors.  They are testing God by making these frivolous prayers.  I wouldn't want to be in their shoes on the Day of Judgment; I'm going to Hell anyway, I'll see them there, we'll do brunch.

One shouldn't judge religions by their worst adherents, says Marilynne Robinson - but who are the worst, who are the best, and who are somewhere in between?  I wouldn't say that these ladies are the worst Christians, though several of them are pretty bad (racists, Trump supporters); but like Lewis and Robinson, they do reaffirm my atheism.  That meme up there gets my back up with its dares, but mainly it's a pack of lies, on its own terms.

I understand why religious professionals would want to discourage petitionary prayer: contrary to what some of my fellow atheists claim, religion isn't detached from reality.  A practice that is regularly falsified is bad PR for the sect, and it violates many believers' sense of what is reasonable.  But faith endures under disappointment, as believers in science know: even though science often fails, its believers hold fast.  Believing in "aliens" is safer than believing in the power of prayer, because we will never know for sure that there isn't life on other planets.  The persistence of petitionary prayer is assured partly by its prominence in the Bible and in tradition, and it shows that believers aren't "brainwashed" by their leaders.  Like it or not -- and more intellectual believers (and unbelievers) don't like it -- laypeople have minds of their own.