The Theological Message in the Destructive Tsunami

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 5 January 2005 0 Comments
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In a non-theist world is there a place for prayer? What is it? How does it look?


Everywhere I go to lecture across the world, your question is almost always the first question to be posed. I think that is for two reasons: 1. Prayer is an all but universal human experience. 2. Prayer is the ultimate link to the deity we yearn to have protect us in this vast and sometimes apparently empty universe.

When I try to describe or point to a God-experience that does not fall inside the boundaries of the traditional God definition, many of my hearers seem to feel the angst of both loneliness and potential meaninglessness. The role of God, understood as a supernatural being who dwells somewhere beyond the boundaries of this earth, who intervenes to accomplish the divine purpose and who answers our prayers, is our bulwark against that vision of nothingness. So when this understanding of God wavers, so does our understanding of prayer. That, in turn, drives us, I believe, to seek assurance or reassurance.

To begin to address this concern we must, first, examine what these assumptions say about both God and prayer. The God we speak of appears to be in our employ and can, therefore, direct our destinies. That inevitably means that the theistic God is bound to disappoint us for that is finally not the way the world works. Neither God nor prayer saves our loved ones from death in Iraq. Neither God nor prayer will reverse the progress of an inevitable death-producing disease. Neither God nor prayer will change the weather or cause mental illness to decline. Neither God nor prayer will cause one's stocks to rise or guarantee a victory in the lottery. Neither God nor prayer will enable a nation to defeat its enemy. A theistic understanding of both God and prayer has been dying since the writing of Isaac Newton. It was pushed into oblivion by the work of Louis Pasteur. The theistic God to whom people tend to pray began to fade when the size of the universe was discovered in the work of Copernicus and Galileo and God's dwelling place above the sky was obliterated. It was further pushed into decline by the work of Charles Darwin who demonstrated the power of natural selection above supernatural guidance in the evolution of life on this planet. It disappeared from view for man when Sigmund Freud revealed how neurotic most God talk is and when Albert Einstein reduced all talk, including God talk, to relativity.

The question we need to ask, however, is this: When a long-standing human idea of God dies, does that mean that God dies? Of course not! It only means that one of our human definitions of God has proved to be so inadequate that this definition has died. Does this mean that prayer has become meaningless? No! It only means that a particular understanding of prayer has become inoperative. Only those who cannot envision God outside the categories of theism will have problems with prayer.

God is so much bigger than our image of God, and prayer is far more than asking a divine Santa Claus for a favor. We have work to do in this area but to loosen the ties of past theological thinking is clearly the first step. It would take more space than a question and answer column can provide, but let me assure you that I believe in God deeply and I pray everyday. How I understand both my belief in God and the way I pray, I tried to spell out in my book: A New Christianity for a New World. I wish you well on your journey.

-- John Shelby Spong




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