Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Answers for an Atheist (Part IV)

I'm continuing my response to Hemant "The Friendly Atheist" Mehta's "78 Questions for Christians." This, is the original post and this is the most recent.

The first seven of Mr. Mehta's questions were on salvation. With question eight he begins a new series of questions on prayer.

#8 If you son or daughter were dying (and I hope that never happens) would you just pray for them or would you take them to the Doctor?
#9 And, if you say you'd do both, which one do you think has more of an impact?
#10 Whose prayers does God answer?
#11 And if it's ultimately God's will what happens, why even both praying?
#12 If you have cancer right now, what's going to help you more, drugs or prayer?

First, a brief aside, for Catholics, prayer has four essential purposes. In descending order of importance: adoration (praising God for His intrinsic glory), thanksgiving (of which the meaning, I hope, is obvious),  reparation (apologising and seeking to make up for our sins) and supplication (asking God for things) .

I note this because some evangelical protestants (I'm not suggesting this is true of all or even most, but those who do speak this way tend to be rather prominent) speak of prayer as if prayer simply referred to asking God for things. On Catholic belief (and, I should add, on the views of many protestants) this sort of prayers, prayers in which we make requests of God, are the least important kind. I realise that this doesn't answer Mr. Mehta's questions but it does, perhaps, put them in the proper context.

To answer these, it's important, once again, to state some basics of Catholic beliefs.

Catholics believe that God is both the ultimate cause of the existence of all things other than Himself and that He is also the ultimate source of all change that occurs in the world (This is the essence of St. Thomas' first two proofs of God's existence). So if I, or some hypothetical loved one of mine had a potentially fatal illness, it would be important for me to remember that God is the ultimate source of everything.

The upshot of this is that, if my hypothetical loved one does recover from his or her hypothetical illness, God is responsible, not in the sense that He will necessarily suspend the laws of biology with a miraculous cure but that God is the source of the natural laws  under which a cure will happen and is also the source of the intelligence of the men and women who will make the cure possible.

So, the answer to question #8 is that I would do both.

To answer #9 and # 12, I don't know and I don't believe it's quantifiable. God is all knowing. When God first laid down the laws of nature under which my hypothetical relative got sick and under which he or she will, deo volente, be cured, He knew I would one day be praying for my loved one's recovery. When He gave Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie and all the other genii of history who made modern medicine possible, their prodigious intellects, He knew I would one day be praying for the recovery of my loved one. So, Jason, are you really saying that your prayers were a factor in making Louis Pasteur as smart as he was? I don't know, as I said, I don't see how it could be quantified, but I don't see any a priori reason to reject the notion as impossible.

Having said all of that, even if I knew for certain that my prayers would have no effect on whether I or my hypothetical loved one recovered, I'd still pray. I'd do this because prayer is ultimately essential not as some means of changing God's mind but because of its effect on the one praying. In petitionary prayer I confess and remind myself of my status as a creature and my dependence upon my creator. This would be of value even if I were to be convinced that my prayers would make my desired outcome no more probable.

To answer #10, it depends what you mean by answer. God certainly hears and responds to the prayers of everybody. However I suspect that Mr. Mehta is asking whose prayers God grants. The simple answer is that God, who is, as I said, all-knowing, knows which prayers it will ultimately produce the greatest good to grant and He will grant those prayers which it will lead to the greatest good.

This leads, naturally enough, to question #11. Part of the answer is given above, even if I knew my prayers had no effect on what I was praying for, they would still be worthwhile. Having said that, I believe prayer does effect outcomes. How, a reasonable person may ask, is that possible if it all comes down to God's plan? A full answer to this would involve a lengthy discussion of providence, predestination and the exact ways in which Divine Sovereignty interacts with human freedom, a task beyond a simple blog post.

A short answer, however, is given by St. Thomas Aquinas. God, being all powerful, could, if He wished, have created a world in which He directly accomplished all His plans Himself. God, however, wanted to enable humans to be active participants in bringing about His will. Prayer is one of the ways in which we participate. As St. Thomas puts it, drawing upon St. Gregory the Great:

"For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers in other words 'that by asking, men may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give,' as Gregory says " (S.T. II-II Q. 83. Art. 5. c.f. I Q.23. Art. 8)

I will, (Deo volente) continue with this at some point in the reasonably near future.

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