Friends have been playing with Spotify, which it turns out has a whole load of Matt Redman songs (imagine U2 singing about how Jesus is their boyfriend, and you’ve got it). I heard Redman at Soul Survivor when I went, many years ago. Though the charismatic services were a little bit scary at first, the whole thing fired me up to the extent that I alarmed my parents on my return by saying I was thinking of training for the ministry (I could have been the next John W. Loftus). At one of those services, I ended up wondering whether I should ask for prayer for healing. Looking back, I can perhaps understand how the Neumanns thought it was better to pray than phone an ambulance. The question of what, if anything, God is up to these days is a tricky one, and it’s easy to get it wrong.
Praise the Prophets
A while ago, the Word of Dawkins came unto me, and the Spirit of Rationality rested upon me, and I spake forth, saying: “most believers already know what excuses to make for the apparent absence of dragons or gods, even as they claim belief in them, so they’re keeping a map of the real world somewhere. The believers without the map are the ones other believers regard either as shiny-eyed lunatics, like the folk who don’t go to doctors because God will heal them.” Prophetic, no? (You may say that I’d read about similar cases in the past, but I think you’re bringing a question-begging assumption of metaphysical naturalism to my text).
Rowan Williams has a map. He recently told everyone not to expect God to do much about global warming (by the way, Newsthump’s version of the story is good fun). Likewise, in the Neumanns’ situation, most Christians would call a doctor. So, I don’t think God is going to stop global warming or heal diabetics (much less amputees), and, for the most part, Christians don’t either. Of course, I don’t attempt to excuse the absence of the dragon by telling the story of the man on the roof of his house in the flood. But when you consider what we anticipate will happen, we’re not so very different after all.
When I was a Christian, it seemed there was an unspoken understanding on these matters. God made all that is, seen and unseen; Jesus did all those miracles you read about in the New Testament; the statistical likelihood was that Jesus would, in the fullness of time, come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and bring fresh supplies of lemon-soaked paper napkins. God could do anything. Still, right now, you were more likely to see answers to prayer about work stress and for courage to evangelise your friends than answers to prayers for people to be healed of cancer. Or at least, it was best not to be too surprised that prayers for the big stuff might be “answered in a different way”. (That is, if someone dies, they don’t have cancer any more. No, really, this is not a joke). There were people who asked annoying questions about why God didn’t do more, dissatisfied customers if you will, but I just found them irritating. God obviously existed, so why couldn’t they just realise that?
The Neumanns did without this tacit understanding, which is unfortunate because having the understanding means you have the map: it’s what allows Christians to get along in polite society without, say, being jailed for killing their children. Rather, just as Elijah did, the Neumanns anticipated-as-if God would act. They believed Biblical promises on prayer, as reiterated by their supporters here and here.
So what went wrong? Well, regular readers will know that God isn’t real, though Christians can hardly say so. The usual excuse won’t do, alas: it can’t be that the Neumanns lacked faith. A family with sufficient faith to gather to pray around their ailing child as she lies on her deathbed is surely an example for Christians everywhere, even the ones who believe in doctors. Likewise, even if God has provided doctors, it seems mean-spirited for God to penalise the Neumanns for not using them: which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? We must look for better excuses.
Things not seen
Perhaps those Bible verses aren’t intended to be the promises they seem to be (though they seem pretty clear to me, so if you encounter this argument, I hope you will chastise the person making it for twisting the Scriptures). Perhaps, as the Neumanns apparently believe, God foreknew that the kid would eventually turn away from Jesus, and took her home early to prevent it (though I’m disappointed by their liberalism, in that after their child died, they didn’t slit the throats of the local pastors and turn instead to Baal, Satan or Dawkins, which would have been a more biblical response). Still, both these explanations are at least possible, and if the maintenance of your belief is itself a virtue, that possibility should suffice. As recent convert Sam Harris says:
These people [that is, neo-militant rationalist atheists like Jerry Coyne] are simply obsessed with finding the best explanation for the patterns we witness in natural world. But faith teaches us that the best, alas, is often the enemy of the good. For instance, given that viruses outnumber animals by ten to one, and given that a single virus like smallpox killed 500 million human beings in the 20th century (many of them children), people like Coyne ask whether these data are best explained by the existence of an all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God who views humanity as His most cherished creation. Wrong question Coyne! You see, the wise have learned to ask, along with Miller, whether it is merely possible, given these facts, that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will could have created the world. Surely it is! And the heart rejoices…
Of course, one mustn’t carry this sublime inquiry too far. Some have asked whether it is possible that a mysterious God with an inscrutable Will works only on Tuesdays or whether He might be especially fond of soft cheese. There is no denying that such revelations, too, are possible – and may be forthcoming. But they do not conduce to joy, chastity, homophobia, or any other terrestrial virtue – and that is the point. Men like Coyne and Dennett miss these theological nuances. Indeed, one fears that these are the very nuances they were born to miss.
Perhaps God is not deceased, but merely pining for the fjords. This, too, is possible. And the heart rejoices…