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Sep 15 2013

How not to explain the lack of responsiveness to prayers

One of religion’s weakest points is that of prayer. People are urged to pray to their gods and invariably these prayers end up at least partly being requests for things or other forms of divine intervention. Naturally, prayers are not answered (except by sheer coincidence) so it becomes the task of religious leaders to rationalize away this seeming lack of responsiveness on god’s part.

Most of us are familiar with the usual explanations for why prayers are not answered and why even religious people can sometimes feel that they are talking to a void. But I found this explanation by Martin Elfert, a pastor at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Washington who writes on a website called Father Knows Best, new. He was responding to someone who had written to him, asking:

Before my father’s death every time I prayed or thought of G-d I felt his presence, and during the main mourning period my faith helped a lot. So why is it now when I pray I feel nothing, and am replied with nothing, when it feels like now I need him most?

Elfert replies:

Prayer has a whole lot in common with hearing. When we are young, we can both easily hear a broad range of sounds and easily discern G-d in a broad range of places. Witness the extraordinary breadth of pitches that our ears pick up as children: the dog-whistles and ringtones that sounds like silence to grown-ups. Similarly, witness the easy wonder with which a small child finds the handiwork of G-d in rocks, in flowers, in animals and in other people.

As we age, injuries, loud music, power tools and the general traffic of life erodes our hearing. And something similar often happens to our ability to discern the numinous.

These days in my own life, I hear G-d most clearly through the voices of family, of friends and of neighbors. My mother-in-law, for instance, has the awesome (and slightly exasperating) ability to ask “what if?” questions which lend clarity to the very struggles that I am holding before G-d. My children, through their embodied response to the divine, do the same. And sometimes a stranger will say or do something so startling in its insight that I begin to wonder how many angels might actually be walking this earth.

I must say that I found this to be one of the most unconvincing explanations for the lack of a response to prayers that I have ever heard. Asking someone to pick something that some random person says that appeals to you and say that that is your god speaking to you through them doesn’t seem very helpful. Elfert had better improve his game

I am also puzzled by people who write ‘G-d’ instead of ‘God’. I know that some Jews do this but Christians rarely do so. I believe it has something to do with the prohibition to not take their god’s name in vain but it seems a little pointless. Do such people also not speak the word ‘God’ and instead say ‘upper case g dash d’?

21 comments

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  1. 1
    Pierce R. Butler

    It must be nice to have the “god” conditioned reflex in your cranial pleasure centers activated by everyday occurrences and even your mother-in-law. With that many triggers, however, doubts about false-positives have to start accumulating somewhere…

    How long until Elfert starts seeing Jesus in tacos and hearing angels in traffic noise?

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    Prayers do work!! I prayed for god to make my enemies ridiculous, and it worked!!!

    (With apologies to Voltaire)

  3. 3
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Judaism, like many if not most of the religions predating exposure to a strong philosophical tradition (in the case of Europe, the tradition out of Pericles’ Athens, though actual exposure to it occurred in different parts of Europe at different times), equated naming a thing with controlling a thing…or at least with efforts to do so.

    Think about how often your response to hearing your name spoken is unconscious. By speaking your name, I have a tiny bit of control over you: the power to make your head turn and your attention refocus on me. Applied to a god whose point is that he is supreme and subject to nothing, it is judged blasphemous. How dare one attempt to control god!

    Thus the tetragrammaton is not spelled out, you get G-d, and other things occur. And, yes, Jews that take this seriously do not say the word “god” out loud, at least as a name of the ultimate divinity (they might when discussing greek mythology, for instance, it would depend on exactly how the individual views this prohibition).

    Only rarely do you hear a Jew say out loud, “G dash d.” And when you do, it’s almost always meant to be humorous. The movie “The Hebrew Hammer” uses it this way. Although I can’t stand the scene with the dog at shabbat dinner, most of that movie is a great send up of both blaxploitation films and Jewish foibles.

  4. 4
    Marcus Ranum

    As Carlin said – pray to the sun (because you know it’s there and it gives us light and heat and skin cancer) or to Joe Pesci, because Pesci gets things done.

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    Judaism, [...] equated naming a thing with controlling a thing…or at least with efforts to do so.

    What’s with that? Didn’t they have 2-year-olds?

  6. 6
    Marcus Ranum

    I am also puzzled by people who write ‘G-d’ instead of ‘God’.

    I think it’s just to show how special the word ‘god’ is. Because it’s special, and all.

  7. 7
    sailor1031

    I’m not sure I understood this. Was Rev. Elfert saying that prayer is at too high an audible pitch for doG to hear now that s/he is an adult? Well good – if it means s/he (or they) have gotten over those terrible childhood tantrums so gruesomely depicted in the OT.

  8. 8
    oldymoldy

    pretty weird! the G-d thing seems to just add silliness to it.

  9. 9
    Nick Gotts

    Was Rev. Elfert saying that prayer is at too high an audible pitch for doG to hear – sailor1031

    Like Mano, I’m puzzled by the “G-d” thing, but just as puzzled by atheists who write “doG”, or “Jebus”. It’s as if they think the names really do have some magic power.

  10. 10
    hyphenman

    Good afternoon Mano,

    The aspect of prayer that I’ve always found fascinating is that since most religions create a god who is omniscient, praying to a god who knows what you’re thinking before you think, makes no sense.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff
    Have Coffee Will Write,

  11. 11
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Those Jewish friends of mine who adhere to this in oral language use “HaShem” which is Hebrew for “the name”.

    I just make sure we don’t talk religion.

  12. 12
    Randomfactor

    Kids hear Santa Claus better than adults do, too.

  13. 13
    smrnda

    I was taught to say Hashem when referring to G-d. Part was tradition, the other part was that, in the States ‘god’ means the Christian god, and it is important to make sure one is not referring to a competing deity.

  14. 14
    smrnda

    If the idea is that our senses diminish, you’d think an actual god would work around that. I mean, an all-knowing god should pick the means of communication that is most likely to work.

    On kids seeing and hearing things, kids also hear, sense and worry about monsters under the bed. Am I being reckless in that I’m not checking for monsters under the bed where kids so clearly sense this danger? Or we could explain this through psychology that it is all over-active agency detection…

  15. 15
    Frank

    Reminds me of people who call the President “Obummer” or members of the GOP “Rethuglicans.” To my ear it only cheapens their argument, whatever it may be.

  16. 16
    DaveX

    Heh. G-D looks like God-Damned to me.

  17. 17
    jaybee

    Another silliness along the lines of spelling G-d is the practice in some societies where craftspeople will intentionally create a flaw in their work as a sign of humility, for perfection is limited only to God.

    This thought itself is entirely lacking in humility, as it implies that without the intentional flaw that their work would indeed have been perfect.

    Here is a webpage talking about this idea, and some links to specific examples:

    http://ask.metafilter.com/183426/Do-you-recall-the-story-about-the-almost-perfect-carving-with-one-obvious-flaw

  18. 18
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    I didn’t get into the replacements b/c they are many and varied. Elohim, Adonai, etc. are all ways of saying god without saying yud-heh-vav-heh or just “god”.

    When people say “HaShem” that’s generally (though not always) a tell that the person is from a specific group of communities that form a subset of judaism. In reconstructionist circles it’s only the odd rabbi or person who was raised orthodox but found a liberal congregation as an adult. In reform circles, I don’t think I ever hear it.

    but no, “HaShem” is not the way to avoid pronouncing “god” or yud-heh-vav-heh. It’s one way to avoid those words. G-d is a written way, but not the only written way.

  19. 19
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    yep. It has everything to do with communicating a group identity, nowadays.

  20. 20
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    It’s not as if the names have magic power, where do you get this? Does it logically follow from using mocking names that one believes in magic?

    Nick Gotts, you’ve lost me. I don’t think your argument holds together at all.

  21. 21
    deepak shetty

    Do such people also not speak the word ‘God’ and instead say ‘upper case g dash d’?
    And they probably dont watch monty python either.

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