|Source: Moore (Gareth) - Believing in God: A Philosophical Essay, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1988, Chapter 6.|
|Paper - Abstract|
Talking to God & God's Being There
- Christians pray. The term "prayer" may be used to cover many things, but that Christians pray means at least this: that they talk to God. Does this not mean that Christians believe that there is somebody whom they call God and to whom they talk when they pray? After all, I can only talk to Charlie, or try to, if I believe that there is somebody called Charlie there for me to speak to. Is the case not the same with God? Do I not here have to abandon any talk of God as nothing, as not an existing person? If God is nothing and nobody, then, though Christians may say they talk to God, yet in reality there is nobody there to be talked to. That may in fact be true, but it is surely not what Christians believe.
- I can talk to Charlie. I can also talk to Bill. I can also talk to Charlie and Bill, together. There is no limit to the number of people I can address. But I cannot talk to Charlie and God. If I talk to God, I am not talking to people; if I am talking to people, I am not at the same time talking to God. I can of course pray to God in the presence of people, just as I can talk to people in the presence of God, and I can lead a whole group of people in a joint prayer to God. I can also use the form of a prayer, pretend to be praying, while really addressing my words to those assembled with me. But I cannot actually talk to God and to people together. God cannot be a member with others in a list of those I am talking to. This is not because we are not supposed to talk to God and Charlie at the same time, or because we have found that God will not listen to us if we are talking to people as well.
(p. 186) It is because we do not count anything as talking to people and to God at the same time. It is part of how we teach people about talking to God. What Otto sees when he sees people talking to God (that is part of how he learns what it is to talk to God, how he learns to use the words "talk to God", "pray") is that they are talking but there is nobody there they are talking to. If Otto can see there is somebody there they are talking to, then they are not talking to God.
- Normally, if Alvin is talking to somebody Otto can identify who it is he is talking to. This he will sometimes do by asking Alvin who he is talking to, and sometimes he will just be able to see or hear who it is. Sometimes what Otto sees and what Alvin says may not correspond. Alvin may come up to Otto at the party and tell him he has just been talking to the famous Diana, whereas Otto, who has seen them talking, knows that it was in fact the obscure Brenda. If you are talking to somebody, there arises the question of the identity of the one you are talking to, and you can get it wrong. But if you are talking to God, the question of the identity of the one you are talking to does not arise in the same way. If Alvin says he has been talking to God he cannot be mistaken about who he has been talking to. He cannot mistake somebody else for God as he can mistake Brenda for Diana. Neither can he speak to God under the mistaken impression he is talking to Herbert. If Alvin says he has been talking to God, what he says is decisive. That is the way this part of our language works, differently from our talk about speaking to Charlie. God is not a bodiless Charlie.
- Now suppose somebody wanted to say that that is just what God is, so that when Otto sees Alvin speaking when there is nobody he is speaking to, that means only that things are not as they appear. Can we say that Otto needs the information that there is in fact somebody there who Alvin is talking to, only he is invisible and otherwise undetectable?
(p. 187) Of course, God is there; but does that mean that there is somebody there? If we are trying to teach Otto the way we talk about God, then there is this immediate point: Otto can see no difference between there being somebody invisible there and there being nobody there. But to learn the use of this part of our language, as to learn the use of any words, he needs visible or otherwise discernible criteria to be able to determine when the words are being properly used and to be able to use them properly himself. He needs to be able to see or otherwise detect when it is correct to say that somebody is talking to God. Talk of invisible or bodiless persons is not going to help him learn the language, to be able to use it. (Indeed, he will first have to learn what is meant by such a phrase, when it will be correct to call somebody or something an invisible person or a bodiless person, and there is problem enough there.) Whether there are any such invisible persons around will be quite irrelevant to the use, and so the meaning, of the language.
- If I am to talk to Charlie, he has to be there; and he might not be there. There are criteria for establishing whether he is there. He has a recognizable body, and I can by and large easily tell whether he is there in the same room as me. But things can be a bit more complicated than that. When we talk about somebody being 'there', we do not necessarily mean that they are in any particular place. You do not have to be in the same place as somebody to be able to talk to them - there are telephones. And when we say that somebody is there, we can mean not so much that he is in a particular place, as that he is present as a person at an event, is part of what is going on. To be there - at the party, at the conference - is not just to be in the place where the party or the conference is going on, but to be party to the occasion, to be doing something. Talking to people is an occasion.
(p. 188) When two people talk together, it is not enough that they both be there. The two have to do things — to speak, listen, and so attend, make gestures, give appropriate replies to what has been said. (So we may say to somebody who does not react in the appropriate way when we speak to him, who seems inattentive, "Are you there?" or of him, "He's miles away".)
- But, however complicated our talk of people's being there, there are criteria for whether Charlie is there or not when we talk to him. There are no such criteria for establishing the presence of God. (This is so in Christianity; it is easy to imagine how there might be such criteria in other religions. For example, it may be said that God is present in or through an image, so that you can only pray and be heard in the presence of the image — and that need not be a matter of distance, but of whether you are within the confines of the precinct, however large it may be, where the image is contained. Or you may want to talk to a particular rain god who is only present when it is raining, so that you can only pray and be heard when it's raining.) In Christianity, when you talk to God, nothing counts as God being absent. God is always present when you pray. And nobody ever discovered that. It belongs to what we are taught when we are taught about God. It is part of the concept of God in Christianity. It is not a piece of wonderful knowledge (we did not have to wait for philosophers to prove it to us, before we could be sure of it); it belongs to the language. So you can feel a fool if you are talking to Charlie and realise that he is not there — that the criteria for establishing his presence are not after all fulfilled, as you had thought they were. But you cannot feel a fool by realising that God is not there, for there are no criteria of God's presence that can fail of fulfilment. It is of course possible to come to feel that prayer in general is foolish, but that is to believe that there is no God, that God
(p. 189) is not there to be talked to. But that is to reject the entire practice of prayer. If you accept the practice, there are no occasions on which you feel foolish because you discover that God is not there listening, even though on most occasions he is there. By contrast, when you feel foolish because you realise that Charlie isn't there, this is not a matter of rejecting the entire practice of talking to people, or of talking to Charlie, coming to believe that Charlie does not exist. It is rather to be embarrassed at noting that, on this occasion, the rules governing the practice — which you accept — have not been adhered to.
- If God is always there, this is not as a brute presence, as a book might be present, he is always there to be talked to. He is there as part of the context you establish by talking to him. He is always attentive; there are no criteria for establishing whether he is attentive. Again, this is part of our language about God; nobody ever found it out. So he is always attentive, however many people are talking to him at the same time. God's face is always turned to you, even though it may also be turned to a million others; and he has only one face. This too we know, not through some marvellous discovery, but because it is part of the way we talk about God, and part of the way we use language about talking to God — language which, it is already beginning to be clear, functions in a rather different way from our language about talking to people.
- In Matthew's gospel, Jesus gives some teaching on talking to God, and part of what he says is this:
Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in synagogues and on street corners so as to be seen by men. Amen, I say to you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go into your room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who is in secret will reward you. (6:5f.) (p. 190)
The disciples are enjoined to go and pray in private, alone. So I can talk to God in private just as I can talk to Charlie in private, and I can go and be alone with God just as I can go and be alone with Charlie. Here are more similarities between God and Charlie; but there are differences that surface here, too. If I am alone with Charlie, then Charlie is alone with me; but if I am alone with God, God is not alone with me — we do not say of God that he is ever alone with anybody. So too Charlie and I may be alone together, but God and I are not alone together. More importantly, if I am with Charlie, even if I am alone with Charlie, then I am not alone. But if I am alone with God, then I am alone — indeed, I may contrive to be alone precisely so that I can be with God. In the context of prayer, God is the one I am with when I am with nobody.
- We may say that God is always there. But does that mean that I am never alone? It certainly does if God is an invisible somebody; for, after all, if I say Charlie is always there (he is keeping guard over me) that does mean I am never alone. I may frequently talk about being alone, express a desire to be alone, hate being alone, etc. Do I not really mean all that, if I am a Christian, if I believe that God is always there? Or when I say I want to be alone, do I, as a believer, mean something different from Freddie the atheist when he says he wants to be alone? When I use the word "alone", do I always mean "alone, apart from God"? No. I use the word in exactly the same way as Freddie does, so I mean the same as he does. And when I say "alone" I do not mean "alone with God", for I make a distinction between being alone and being alone with God; I will use the two phrases in different circumstances. I can be alone, and then I can be alone with God, if I start praying, talking to him. That does not suddenly make God appear — for God never appears. It can still be said of me that I am alone. It is not that I am really not alone,
(p. 191) that there is somebody else there with me, only he is invisible. I really am alone, and my being alone with God is not incompatible with my being alone in the way that my being alone with Charlie is. Though we might say, "God is always there", that does not mean I am never alone.
- But Christian language is extremely fluid, and there might, as well, be contexts in which I would want to say that — because God is always with me — I am never alone. Think here of John 16:32, where Jesus says:
Behold, the hour is coming — it has already arrived — when you will be scattered, each to his own, and you will leave me alone. But I am not alone, for the Father is with me.
God is the one who is with him though nobody is with him, when everybody has abandoned him. And what that means is that he will not react as one abandoned. "God is with me" is not used as a report that somebody is with me, but as an expression of confidence in peril. So that God is with me can never be a matter of indifference to me, as it might be a matter of indifference to me if Charlie is with me. "God is always there". This sentence has a use in the context of prayer. It means I can always pray. When I speak to God he is always there to listen, so I can pray even when I am alone, when there is nobody there to listen to me. And there may well be other contexts in which we would want to say that God is always there. But, at least when I pray, he is present as we might say that a person is present at an event, taking part in what is going on; he is there in the context of my prayer. He is not just there as a brute presence, just being there but having nothing to do with my prayer, not attending to me, not listening to me. Do we want to say that God is also sometimes present as a brute presence, just hanging around, as a book might just be there? I can pray when I am alone. God can be with me when I am alone.
(p. 192) But if he could just be there, independently of any context that is established by what I do, that would appear to imply that, contrary to what has already been established, I am never really alone after all, even when I and everybody else think I am.
- There is also this: I may pray when alone, but I also do private things and shameful things when alone, things that would make me ashamed, or just embarrassed, if anybody saw me doing them. So these are things that I have to make sure I am alone before I do them; I make sure nobody is there, apart from me. Then, when I do them, have I forgotten that 'God is always there'? And do I then remember it again when I turn to prayer? No. When I pray, it is no part of what I do that I remember that God is there, as if I had forgotten it. This is established, if it needs to be established, by the fact that I can pray alone at set times; I can set myself to pray at a certain hour; this is a traditional Christian practice. But I cannot set myself to remember something I have forgotten at a certain hour. I might of course prepare myself for prayer at that hour by first doing what I might want to call "remembering God" or "remembering that I am in the presence of God"; but that I can do that at set times only shows that remembering that I am in the presence of God is not a case of remembering something I have forgotten. What I do when I pray, then, is not remember something I had previously forgotten, but establish a context. And when I finish praying, it is not that I promptly forget again that God is there; I dissolve the context in which God was present with me. (How could I, in any case, be plausibly supposed to have such a gymnastic memory?)
- If I am doing something shameful when alone, I may suddenly remember that God sees me, that God is there, as he always is. (So here is another context in which we use the sentence "God is always there".)
(p. 193) And if I do not remember that God sees me, that does not mean that I have forgotten it; if you want to do something shameful, how could you forget that there is somebody there with you, who can see what you do — especially if that somebody is one you know is always there? If my wife is always there, always with me, I will certainly not forget the fact if I want to steal from her purse or commit adultery. If I remember that God sees me, it is not that I have recovered from a temporary lapse of memory, and my reaction is not the same as if I remember or realise that somebody can see me. If I remember that God sees me, then I react with shame at what I am doing; I regret doing it, and am brought to judge my action as shameful. But if I realise that somebody can see me, I may or may not regret doing it. What I regret primarily, in the realisation that they can see me, is just that I have been seen, been caught at it; of course, for it is because I knew I would regret being seen that I tried to make sure I was alone when I did it. And I may regret only my being caught at it, not my action itself: I may consider that I am doing something quite acceptable in having an affair with my secretary, and regret only being caught doing it by the wife, who is tediously narrow-minded about these things. Or I may be a hardened petty thief with no conscience at all, simply a desire to do my deeds without being seen. The thought "God sees me" necessarily leads me to a judgment on my action in the way that the thought "Somebody sees me" does not. Being seen by God is not the same as being seen by somebody. And God can see you when you are alone; God is the one who sees you when nobody sees you. And it is precisely when I am alone that God sees me. If God were somebody who was there with me, he would not see me when I am alone.
Talking to God
- When I speak to God, I do not have to attract his attention,
(p. 194) as I have to when I begin to speak to somebody; I do not have to address him by name, or make gestures in his direction, or raise my voice (I do not actually have to speak at all). All these things, that I normally have to do when I begin to talk to people, are part of what makes it true that I am talking to one person rather than another. In addition, while I am talking to somebody, I attend to him, what I say is directed at him, I mean him; and while I am talking to him or with him I do not normally attend to somebody else. There is a difference between my attending to him and my attending to somebody else, and this is manifested in a number of ways. Generally, I am closer to the one I am talking to than to others, and if I am not, I will generally raise my voice to speak to him; we will look at each other, and may both carry on a play of gesture; when I am talking he will give signals when he wants to interrupt, and I will look out for, them. All these things can be seen or heard; other people can normally tell when I am attending to, talking to, one person rather than another — it is not a matter of something that goes on privately in my head.
- There is behaviour characteristic of talking to God, but it is not the behaviour characteristic of talking to somebody. Not only do I not have initially to attract God's on, but neither do I do any of the things that I do when I talk to somebody. If I do all these things with Charlie, they are part of what makes my talking a talking with Charlie, this man here, rather than with Bill, Matilda or Sebastian, who are scattered about other parts of the room. If all these things are missing in prayer, what makes my prayer talking to God? What makes it true that in my talking I mean, attend to, God? How do I know that my attention has ‘found the right mark'? When talking to people I sometimes devote my attention to the wrong one by mistake. How do I know that I do not similarly make a mistake with God?
(p. 195) Of course, these are not real questions. When I think I am talking to God I can't get it wrong, but that is-because I can’t get it right either. My attention does not aim at any mark. (Or if it does, it is not aimed at God, the one I am praying to. I might while praying fix my attention on a statue or a painting or a crucifix; but if I do I am not praying to it, but before it.) Attending to God is not attending to somebody or something; it is not a kind of attention.
- In talking to somebody, attending to them and having their attention go together. If it is a real question whether my attention ‘aims at the right mark', so it ought to be a real question whether God is attending to me. But, as I mentioned before, this question does not arise; I don't have to attract God's attention when I start to pray, and neither do I have to hold it. In the teaching on prayer in chapter 6 of Matthew, which I have already referred to, Jesus is critical of the hypocrites. What is wrong with them is that they try to attract attention when they pray, to exhibit themselves as praying. What the disciples are to do is not to exhibit themselves; they are to pray in secret, to have no thought of being seen. You can tell when somebody is praying in order to be seen. He does it on street corners, makes extravagant gestures, adopts particular poses when and only when he sees people around. His behaviour is exhibitionistic. The disciples are not to behave in this way; they are not to seek the attention of men, but to go and pray in private, where nobody sees them. Then God will see them and reward them. But they are not seen by God because they behave in such a way as to attract his attention. In going into their room to pray, they are not exhibiting themselves to somebody else, namely God; they are not exhibiting themselves at all. They are not trying to attract anybody's attention; they just go and get on with it. That is why God sees and rewards them.
(p. 196) So when you pray, the situation is quite unlike when you go to talk to somebody. If, when you talk to God, you do not begin by attracting his attention, that isn't because you do not have to, because God is already attentive. It is because you are not concerned about being attended to; you are not showing yourself.
- We normally think of prayer as something people do to get what they want, making requests which will or will not meet with a response. A lot of prayer is like that, and Jesus says, "Ask, and it will be given you" (Matthew 7:7). But note that the prayer that Jesus is talking about in Matthew 6 is not like that. It is ritual prayer, prayer that is enjoined as a practice. It is a good practice, one for which God will reward you when he sees you do it (but only, of course, if you do not do it so as to be seen, for the sake of a reward). It is not a way of getting things by asking for them; what you get is a reward for a practice seen, not a response to a request heard. It is simply a practice that forms part of the life of a Christian disciple and that seeks nothing beyond itself, has no goal. In this respect it is like almsgiving, and so is treated immediately after it in Matthew (followed in turn by fasting, another ritual practice to be performed without thought of attracting attention.)
- If I know how to talk to Bill, then I know, more or less, how to talk to Charlie. But I have to be taught how to talk to God, even if I can already talk to Bill. So Jesus teaches his disciples to pray by giving them the words of the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13. In Luke he gives the words of the prayer in response to the request of the disciples, "Lord, teach us how to pray, as John taught his disciples". (Luke 11:1)) Talking to God is a different practice or range of practices from talking to people, and one of the differences is that in talking to God I can regularly use formulas, even nothing but formulas, such as the Lord's Prayer. And though I might get bored doing that, God does not get bored as people would.
(p. 197) (How can I say that with such confidence? — Because he displays no signs of boredom. And that is because we do not have the language for him to display signs of boredom; there is nothing that we are prepared to call "an expression of the boredom of God". God escapes boredom, not because of the remarkably full life that he enjoys, but because there is no place for talk of the boredom of God in our language.)
- I can use formulas when talking to God. I can even read them from a book, like the psalter or other collections of prayers. What then is the difference between my praying such prayers, speaking to God with them, and simply reading them? If I really mean them as prayers, how do I mean them? It is not that when I am praying I am attending to somebody called God. My attention is not on anybody; it is on the prayers I am reading. (I can, and should be, also attending to God, but that is not attending to somebody, and it does not conflict with my attending closely and exclusively to the prayers.) I might be reading the prayers for all sorts of reasons — to enjoy the language, as part of a study of English grammar, because I have been given the task of memorising them, as part of a study of Christian beliefs and practices. Or it might just be a whim, to help pass a few idle moments. What shows what I am doing is partly what I say if asked, and partly the context that surrounds that activity. If I am praying the prayers, they play a different part in my life from the one they have if I am, say, memorising them for use in a stage play. If my reading the prayer is also praying the prayer, that may be for a number of reasons: it may be part of an attempt to live a more Christian life, to express penitence, to ask forgiveness, a way of getting something I want, or it may be simply a practice that I have been taught constitutes prayer when it is done in the context of a Christian life, that is, a ritual that forms an element of the lives of Christians.
(p. 198) Whatever account is given here, whatever it is that makes reading or saying words prayer, as opposed to anything else, it is clear that it is not that my attention is directed at somebody called God.
- One of the ways my words must relate to the rest of my life if they are to count as prayer comes out in the distinction that Christians sometimes make between real prayer and empty, merely formal prayer. Though I may say I am praying when I speak or read the words I do, and though the context shows it is not part of a study of English or an attempt to learn a stage role, yet it can still be said of me that I am not really praying. You really pray for what you really want. For example, I pray every day that the plight of the poor in third world countries may be alleviated. But in the rest of my behaviour I show that I do not really want that. I will not support charities that are carrying out sensible aid programmes, I will not buy goods from poor countries even when they are of good quality, I oppose all national and international schemes devoted to helping the poorer nations, I buy shares in companies notorious for exploiting them. Now it may be said of me that I am not really praying for the poor, that my prayers are an empty sham. Or if I pray to be freed from a besetting vice but make no attempt at all to stop my vicious activities, do not show myself uneasy about them, and actually take great delight in them, then I show by my behaviour that I do not want to escape this vice. My prayer is not a genuine petition, expressing what I want; again, it is a sham.
Asking God for Something
- Suppose somebody does pray for something as a means of getting it, asks God for it because he really wants it. For you can ask God for something because you want it, just as you can ask Charlie for something because you want it. In general, I ask Charlie for what I want because I want it and
(p. 199) because I think it is in his power to give it to me and that he will give it to me, if I ask, and because I think it proper to ask him. I ask, both because I assume he does not know what I want or when I want it unless I ask for it, and because he will not give it to me unless I ask for it. And one of the reasons he will not give it to me unless I ask for it (there may be others) is that he does not otherwise know what I want or that I want it. That is, it is in general part of the function of my request to inform him of what I want. (But this will not always be true. Consider, for example, the situation in which a child is being taught the practice of asking for things. Then the mother may know perfectly well what the child wants and be only too happy to give it to him; but he has to be brought to ask for it first.)
- Much of this does not apply to my asking God for things. To begin with, God already knows what I want before I ask for it; there is no question of informing God of what I want. It is indeed part of the practice of prayer to make our requests known to God (cf. Philippians 4:6), but that is not the same practice as making our requests known to Charlie. Neither is it true that God will not give me what I want unless I ask for it. There are many things I want, things which I might pray for, for which however I do not pray, and which yet God does give me. And I do not have to use many words in prayer, even if I want many things; whatever and however much I may want, I can always pray using the same formula—the Lord's Prayer (cf. Matthew 6:7ff.); I may even pray without words (cf. Romans 8:26f.). Asking God for something, then, is quite unlike asking somebody for something, even though similar forms of words may be used. What we are doing with the words is different. When I learn English, I also learn what it is to ask somebody for something, and when it is and is not appropriate to ask for it. I learn the place that the making of requests has in people's lives.
(p. 200) And asking God for something, making a request of God, does not have that place in my life; whatever place it does have, whatever function asking God for something has in my life, it is not that one. It would be a misleading account of prayer to say, "You know what it is to ask somebody for something; well, here it is just the same, only it is God you ask". Asking God for things is a different practice from asking somebody for something. God is not one more person whom we might ask for something.
- So also persistence in prayer, in asking God for something, is not like persistence in asking somebody for something. We learn by experience the results of persisting in asking people for things, and the results vary according to who we are asking, what mood he is in, what we are asking for, what is polite. And very often it is a sign of social incompetence to persist; it is the kind-of thing we are taught not to do. But we are taught to persist in asking God for things (the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, Luke 18:1ff.). And we have to be taught this persistence. We do not learn from experience that it produces results Indeed, this teaching of Jesus seems to be occasioned by people's experience that such persistence does not produce results, for the parable is told "to the effect that they ought always to pray and not to lose heart". Persistence in asking God for things occupies a different place in people's lives from persistence in asking people for things. It is part of a separate practice that is taught. — And the practice taught could have been different. Jesus could have told a different parable, say, to the effect that having asked for something once there was no need to carry on asking for it. (In fact there seems to be something like this in Matthew 6:7.) And would such teaching then be false? Would it fail to 'correspond to the facts about God'? There are no such facts, apart from the teaching. There are no facts about God that govern whether it is wise for us,
(p. 201) e.g. to persist in asking him for something, as there are facts about other people that tell us whether it is wise for us to persist in asking them for something. The practice of asking God for things is in large measure separate from, independent of, the practice of asking people for things. That is why it has to be taught, even to those who already know how to ask people for things, and why many different practices of prayer may be taught.
- To investigate what people mean when they say God has answered their prayer, we have first to make a simple distinction between two different senses of "answer" or "response". If I ask you for the salt, you can pass it to me, saying something like, "OK. Here you are". You answer my request both by acknowledging it and assenting to it verbally, and by what you do, by actually passing the salt. But this combination of words and actions is not necessary. You could just pass me the salt in silence, and that would equally count as a positive response to my request. Sometimes it is part of an answer to a request for action of some sort to say you are acting in response to a request, and sometimes the action stands on its own. When God is said to answer prayer, he is said to answer it in the second sense. God does not in any ordinary sense use language when answering people's prayers. If you pray for rain, God is not said to answer by saying, "OK. Here it comes", and sending rain; he simply sends the rain.
- If I pray to God, there may be occasions on which I want to say that God has answered my prayer. Do I mean that somebody has answered me? If Charlie answers my request positively, he gives me what I ask for. If I ask him for a particular book, he gives me the book. (Let us say he hands it to me in silence, or sends it without a covering note.) But he also gives it to me because I ask for it. In the typical case,
(p. 202) that means that he gives it to me when I ask for it — certainly not before I ask for it; and if he gives it to me some time after I ask for it, we give an account of the lapse of time in between, so that the giving and asking are given some mutual connexion — and we would speak of a delayed response to my request. That there is a temporal relation of this kind between the asking and the giving is part of what makes the giving a response to my request, rather than a random act of generosity. And the same goes for God. It is part of what makes what happens God's reply to my request that I receive from him what I do, having asked for it. And generally that means soon after I have asked for it (though here too we will want to allow delayed response, giving something that counts as an account of the lapse of time between the asking and the receiving). That is part of what distinguishes it from random generosity. It is because I have asked that what happens is a reply, a response; the request provides a context for what happens that makes it appropriate to describe it as an answer.
- But, as already noted, there is a difference between God's reply and Charlie's reply. If I had not asked, Charlie would not have given, at least in the standard case; that is part of the function that asking plays in our lives, that it brings it about that other people do things they would not otherwise do, or at times when they would not otherwise do them. Part of the reason I ask Charlie to give me the book is that I believe he will not give to me unless I ask him for it. But God would have given anyway. My prayer makes no difference to what happens, in this sense: I may pray for something to happen because I want it to happen, but not because I believe that God will not grant me it unless I pray for it, that my praying is a condition that God imposes before he will give me what I want. If I ask God to cure my son, it is not because I believe that God will not cure my son unless I ask him to.
(p. 203) And so if I pray for something to happen, and it does happen, I may say that God has answered my prayer, that it happened because I prayed for it; but that explanation does not function in the same way as the explanation that Charlie gave me the book because I asked for it.
- If I pray for rain, and it rains, then I say that God has answered my prayer. Freddie the atheist may see me praying for rain, and see it rain soon after, and yet be unimpressed. From his point of view it is not an answer, for it would have happened anyway: it was a perfectly natural event, with ordinary antecedent causes that can be traced by a competent meteorologist, so there is no need to invoke my prayer and an answering God in order to explain it. That may be all perfectly right, and I may readily agree that the rain has ordinary, ‘natural' causes, so that it would have happened anyway, even if I had not prayed. But I may still insist that it was the answer to my prayer. And here it is not that one of us must be wrong and the other right; it is that one of us has prayed and the other has not. If I pray for an event to happen, and it happens, then ordinarily I cannot but see that as the answer to my prayer; that is part of what prayer is. (Just as, if I ask Charlie for the book and he gives me it, I cannot but see that, ordinarily, as the response to my request.) And if I pray for something to happen, say, for it to rain, that does not mean that I have temporarily forgotten that events have natural causes. I may be inclined to say, even to insist, that all events have natural causes, and yet still pray for an event to happen. Indeed, I may pray for an event to happen of which I myself will be a principal natural cause, if it happens; I may, for instance, pray that I will get a good mark in the examination, or be able to swim ten miles to safety when my boat capsizes, or that my wife will bear me a child. And that does not show that I am hopelessly irrational.
(p. 204) (I may be irrational, but I may be highly rational, and it is the rest of my behaviour that will show that.) It shows that asking God for something is not to be construed completely on the model of asking somebody for something; God is not somebody whom I ask for things.
- This is connected with another important difference between the way that Charlie gives me things and the way that God gives me things. If I ask Charlie for a book and he gives it to me, there are two features of what happens that make us want to say that Charlie has answered my request. First, I get the book, having asked for it (and normally, soon after). Second, Charlie gives it to me; he performs some action that results in my receiving the book, and he performs it so that I may receive the book. If I write a letter to Charlie asking him to send me a book, and I receive it, having asked for it, the first of the conditions is satisfied. I will assume, reasonably enough, that Charlie has given it to me. But it may nevertheless not be true that Charlie has given me the book. For it may be that Charlie received my letter and decided to refuse
(p. 205) my request, or forgot all about it, but that by coincidence my Aunt Matilda decided to send me a copy of the same book (anonymously) at the same time, for a surprise present. Or it may be that Charlie decided to send the book to somebody else, but posted it to me by mistake, or that the postman delivered it to me by mistake, instead of to the person it was intended for. Only if it is true both that I get the book having asked for it and that Charlie has performed some appropriate action directed to that end, and because I asked for it, would we want to say that Charlie has given me the book in answer to my request.
- But things are different with God. If I ask God for something, and get it, there is no further doubt, no question to be raised, as to whether God gave it to me. If I ask for rain, and it rains, then God has sent the rain in answer to my prayer. There is no possibility that God decided to refuse my request but that my Aunt Matilda made it rain, or some other spirit did, or that God really intended to send snow but sent rain by mistake, or that he intended to send rain elsewhere, but it arrived here instead. How do I know that all these possibilities are ruled out? It is not because I have reflected upon the omnicompetence of God or on the incompetence, in this respect, of my Aunt Matilda. It is rather that the second of the two features mentioned above in connexion with Charlie's giving does not apply to God. If I receive rain, having asked for it, to establish that this is in answer to my prayer it does not also have to be established that God performed some appropriate action directed to that end. What answers my prayer is not that I get what I asked for and that a particular agent, viz. God, does something that constitutes his giving it to me. What answers my prayer is simply that I get what I want. The question of agency does not arise. What happens that constitutes the answer to my prayer is not something that is done by a particular agent. What I pray for when I pray for something is not that a particular agent do something with the intention and result that I receive something; I pray simply to receive it. It is not that I want somebody to do something, but that I want something to happen.
- This can be brought out in the following way. If I ask Charlie for something, it can be because I want it, he has it, etc. But it can also be because I want him to give it to me. If he has taken some money of mine, I may demand it back, and demand it from him. I may say to his friend who offers to repay out of his own money, "No, I don't want it from you. It isn't just the money. He took it: he must give it back; he must right his own wrongdoing". Or what I want may be something that I can easily get from any number of people, but it is important to me that the one I love give it to me. And so on. But if I ask for something from God,
(p. 206) it is not that I am concerned that God and no other give it to me. I may pray, "O God, give me the book I have been searching for all these years"; but I will not add, "And I will accept it from you and no other, as a sign of your love, because it was your fault I lost it in the first place, etc." I know very well the ways that books come to people: they buy them in shops, get sent them for Christmas. And this may be just the sort of thing I have in mind when I pray for the book. I will not reject the book when my Aunt Matilda sends it to me for Christmas, on the grounds that I insist on getting it from God and no other.
- There are circumstances where it looks at first sight as if something like that might happen, as if somebody might insist on God being the agent. For example, if I am a member of a certain kind of religious sect, I may pray for the life of my son who is dying from some disease, and I may in a sense insist that the cure come from God and no other; I may on religious grounds refuse to allow any medical assistance to be given to the boy. But if he then lives, though I may say that this is the answer to prayer (for I did pray), that God saved his life, this is not because I have established that one particular agent and no other has saved him. I have only established, if I have been careful to keep the doctors away, that, though he is now better, nobody cured him. I have not established that a particular agent, called God, has performed certain actions that constitute the answer to my request. What I know, and all I need to know, is that I have received what I prayed for. There is no reason to suppose that I do any inferring here. And it is not mere haste on my part if I neglect to wonder whether the cure might have been effected by, say, a cheeky demon who overheard my prayer and wanted to play a practical joke on me, making me think it was God who had done it, when in reality he had refused my prayer. To say that God has given me something
(p. 207) in answer to my prayer is not to say that a particular agent has given me it; it is not to say that anybody has done anything. But certainly God does things; I know that, since I pray for things and he gives them to me.
- So we can also say that God is an agent. But God is not somebody who is an agent, somebody who acts. When God acts, it is not that somebody acts, not that somebody does something that results in my getting what I pray for. If we want to call God an agent, then he is a spiritual agent. We speak of God's agency in a different way from the way we speak of the agency of Charlie or my Aunt Matilda; and this logical difference is obscured if we list him together with them as somebody who acts.
- This is connected with the fact, already noted earlier, that when I ask God for something I ask for something to happen. I pray that it may rain, that my son may live, that I may become a better person, that the people I love may fare well, that the starving may be fed, that the nations may live in peace. Here there may be no thought of agency at all. In fact, it is hard to see how there could be agency in some cases; it does not rain because somebody does something (not yet, anyway). And where there is agency involved, the agency is not the agency of some invisible being called God, but of quite ordinary, material agents: the starving will be fed if the rich provide them with food; the nations will live in peace if their governments work hard for mutual understanding; I will become a better person if I learn to cope better with the pressures of life, or become less selfish. I may pray that somebody do something, but that somebody is not an invisible agent called God. What God does in response to prayer is either what just happens or what is done by somebody material like Charlie. That is to say, what God does in answer to prayer is not something that is done by anybody; it is what happens.
Praying for a Rise
- I work for Sebastian. Being in need of money, I pray to God that Sebastian give me a rise, and what happens if my prayer is answered is that I get my rise, and that Sebastian gives it to me. My prayer is answered, not by any invisible agent's doing something, but by Sebastian's doing something. There is nothing going on behind the scenes when my prayer is answered, nothing hidden. I can see when my prayer has been answered.
- It might be replied that there is indeed something going on behind the scenes here, something hidden, an invisible act by an invisible agent: God inspires Sebastian to give me the rise. But this is no real answer. It may be right and proper to say that sort of thing in the context of theology or of ordinary religious discourse, but it is not relevant to the philosophical question of how the concept of God's answering prayer works. It simply substitutes for it the question of what we mean when we say that God inspires people to do things. Maybe it is correct to say that theologically the answer to how God answers prayer must include talk of how he inspires people. So maybe the concepts hang together. But bringing in talk of inspiration here will not help us understand the concept of the answer to prayer unless we already understand the concept of inspiration; and we don't. It certainly cannot be assumed that when we say that God inspires somebody we are talking about some invisible activity of an invisible person. (This may be a temptation, but think of the parallel temptation to think of thoughts, sensations, etc., as hidden, invisible occurrences, and see the way Wittgenstein treats it in Philosophical Investigations and Zettel.)
- If we are trying to understand how the concept of God's answer to prayer works, that involves seeing in what circumstances we say that God has answered prayer.
(p. 209) It cannot be one of those circumstances that God has inspired Sebastian to give me the rise, for this is not something we see, and we need visible criteria for the application of concepts, if we are to learn how to use them. If we had to know that God had done something undetectable, namely inspire Sebastian, in order to have the right to say that Sebastian's giving me the rise was an answer to prayer, that is, in order to use correctly the concept of God's answer to prayer in this instance, then we never could use that concept correctly. It cannot be that the correct use of a concept, that is, the correct use of words, has to be grounded in a belief about what is in principle undetectable. What decides whether I have used words correctly are the visible circumstances in which I have used them and the general practice of the use of the words in question. And if there is a practice of the use of words, there must be a correct use of those words, that is a use of those words in conformity with that practice. It might be a matter of argument here just what are the circumstances in which it would be correct to say that God has answered my prayer if I pray for a rise and Sebastian gives me one. There may be no generally agreed practice; it is a feature of religions that people recommend different uses of language to each other; that is part of the nature of theological and doctrinal disputes. But in no case can it be that to use the concept correctly it has to be established beforehand that an event has taken place whose occurrence cannot, by definition, be established. If I pray for a rise and am given a rise, and I say that God has answered my prayer, that is because I have prayed for a rise and have been given one. It is because certain visible events have occurred; they are my criteria. It is not because, as I believe, some hidden, unseen event has taken place. I have no grounds for supposing that such an event has taken place, either.
- (p. 210) It cannot be countered here that I say that God has answered my prayer because I infer that God's inspiration has taken place in Sebastian's heart. For on what grounds would I base such an inference; from what would I infer the occurrence of such an event? It cannot be said that I infer it from the fact that Sebastian has given me a rise, for precisely what is in question here is whether Sebastian's giving me a rise is indeed the effect of God's action, and so is indeed the answer to my prayer. Besides, I do not know what I am supposed to be inferring here; I would not know what the inspiration of God looked like if, per impossibile, I saw it. All I know about it, all I can know about it, is that it is what is responsible for Sebastian's giving me a rise when he does so as a result of God's answering my prayer. Here again what Wittgenstein says in the philosophy of mind is applicable, mutatis mutandis:
If you say he sees a private picture before him, which he is describing, you have still made an assumption about what he has before him. And that means that you can describe it or do describe it more closely. If you admit that you haven't any notion what kind of thing it might be that he has before him — then what leads you into saying, in spite of that, that he has something before him? Isn't it as if I were to say of someone: "He has something. But I don't know whether it is money, or debts, or an empty till". (Philosophical Investigations 294)
The inspiration of God, construed as an event which takes place within Sebastian, inaccessible to me, is like Wittgenstein's private picture (only more so, since the inspiration of God is also inaccessible to Sebastian). It is, as far as an investigation of the concept of answered prayer is concerned, useless; it is another beetle in the box.
(p. 211) That is, talk of the inspiration of God is not to be construed in that way, as a hidden event whose occurrence has to be inferred.
- In any case, what evidence is there that I do actually make an inference here? And why should it be thought that I have to make one? The reason I say that God has answered my prayer when I have prayed for a rise and Sebastian has given me one is just that, not anything that I infer from it. So I may be very impressed and grateful to God that he has answered my prayer, and what I am impressed by and what I am grateful for is not that some undetectable event has occurred in Sebastian's soul, but that I prayed God that Sebastian would give me a rise, and he did. What impresses me and what I am grateful for are visible events, not invisible ones. And I am not impressed by those visible events as evidence, from which I can infer unseen events. I am impressed and grateful because of the importance of those visible events in my life: I needed a rise badly, and now, in desperation, I put my trust in God. If I say, "God has answered my prayer", that is more like a reaction to a sequence of (visible) events than a conclusion based on an (unjustified) inference to the occurrence of some (invisible) event.
- It is because everything here is visible that I can be certain that God has answered my prayer, as religious people very often are; there is no inference involved that would infect everything with uncertainty, no possibly rickety steps from premises to conclusion. I can of course also be uncertain about whether my rise is a matter of answered prayer. It may be part of a subtle trap to bring about my downfall (Sebastian has never been so generous before, and he has always disliked me); it may be that he has heard, as I have not, that a rival is about to try to tempt me away to a better position, and has given me this unexpected rise so that I will feel morally obliged to stay with him. But what gives rise to my doubts are possibilities of the way things may go later — visible things;
(p. 212) they are not doubts about the validity of an inference to something invisible. So I may later, because of events I can see, come to revise my opinion and say that it was nothing to do with my prayer at all that he gave me the rise. (I may do that, but I need not. Once again we have to note that religious language is used very variably. I may want to say, for example, that although he gave me the rise from purely selfish motives, or even out of malice, yet God used his motives to give me a rise in answer to my prayer, or something similar. What I say in such circumstances will probably depend on my general views on prayer and the linguistic practices I would recommend in connexion with it. But in either case doubts about the occurrence of an invisible, unidentifiable event do not enter the picture here.)
- If I am not making any doubtful inferences, neither am I caused to doubt by the consideration that if Sebastian gave me a rise after I prayed to God, that might after all have only been a coincidence. For instance, I do not think anything along these lines: Perhaps when I prayed to God that Sebastian would give me a rise God, for his own purposes or because of my iniquity, refused my prayer, refused to cause Sebastian to give me a rise; but it just so happened that around that time Sebastian decided quite independently to give me a rise. If I prayed for something to happen, then I do not see whether it happens or not as a matter of chance: that is part of the concept of prayer. The event's happening or not happening is not something that I can see as independent of God. If it happens, God has brought it about; and if God does not bring it about, it does not happen. There is no question of other agents intervening or just by chance bringing about the same result. And that can only mean that when I am certain that God has brought about a certain event in answer to my prayer I am not certain that any particular agent, as opposed to others, has brought it about.
(p. 213) There is, because I have prayed, no question of having to identify the correct agent; I am just not interested in agents here. And that means that when I speak of God as an agent, I do not speak of another agent, one additional to those in whose existence Freddie believes. If God were such another agent, then it would after all be possible for what looks like an answer to prayer to be only a coincidence; that is, it would be possible for me, having prayed, to wonder whether my rise had anything to do with God or was a mere coincidence, attributable solely to Sebastian or to other human agents in addition to Sebastian. (Though we would still be left with the problem how the two cases could be distinguished. There would be no visible criteria, no criteria by which one who prayed could distinguish between them. And that means also that there would be no criteria by which a learner could learn to distinguish them. They could not arise as separate concepts. Since they are learned as separate concepts, it is possible to distinguish between them; so God cannot be a separate, additional agent.) In fact, the notion of coincidence has no place within the language of prayer. To raise the possibility of coincidence here is not to throw doubt on whether in the particular case what happened was the answer to prayer, as it seemed to be; it is to bring into question the whole idea that God might answer prayer, the whole practice of prayer. If I pray for something, I cannot regard the outcome as a matter of chance, which might or might not yield a coincidence; if I do see it as coincidence, then I do not pray, and if I am inclined to see it as a matter of chance then I am inclined not to pray. If I pray for something and it happens, and I say, "Perhaps it was just a coincidence", rather than, "God has answered my prayer", that marks a loss of confidence in a particular form of expression, and hence also in the practice — prayer — and the way of life in which it is embedded.
(p. 214) If I doubt, my doubt is not whether a particular agent brought about what I prayed for. It is about whether my prayer had anything at all to do with what happened. — ‘Had anything to do with': not that I postulate some causal relationship. There is an obvious, though not causal relationship: that what happened is what I prayed would happen. The question is now whether this relationship any longer constitutes for me a satisfactory explanatory one; that is, whether I would be happy to offer "Because I prayed for it" as an answer to the question, "Why did this happen?" That will no doubt depend on the general state of my religious beliefs, how firmly I believe in God, and what I believe about God.
- But there is some place — a different one — for talk of coincidence with respect to prayer. Alvin really hates Christopher. Most of the time he tries, as a Christian, to be nice to him and to wish him well. But one day it all becomes too much for him. He prays, "0 God, please let Christopher lose his wife, his job and his home, let him be struck blind and then die slowly and in agony of a horrible and incurable disease". And behold, soon Christopher does lose his wife, his job and his home, is struck blind and then dies slowly and in agony of a horrible and incurable disease. Alvin is grateful and triumphant, and tells Brian how God in his goodness has answered his prayer. Brian is horrified.
- A: I prayed for it, and what I prayed for happened. What more do you want?
- B: But God just doesn't answer prayers like that.
- A: Yes he does. He just has.
- B: It was just a coincidence.
- (p. 215) A: Now you're talking like an atheist. You yourself have prayed for things, and when they happened you didn't talk about coincidence. You believed your prayer was answered and gave thanks to God. I'm doing the same.
- B: No. I prayed for peace, and I prayed that the drought might come to an end. Our Lord teaches that peace and the relief of suffering are good things in God's eyes. So they are good things to pray for; and they are in accordance with the command to love. That is why I can say God answered my prayer. Your prayer was not loving. It was a terrible thing you prayed for, and it was a terrible thing to pray for it.
- A: I know Jesus says that, and of course God will not answer prayers if they are not in accordance with his will. But if I pray for something and it happens, especially such an unusual thing, how can I not believe that God has answered my prayer? It must be that Jesus is wrong here.
- B: You can't think that Jesus is wrong, surely — not to mention the whole tradition of the Church. It is only because you accept them that you pray at all. However impressed you might be, you have to accept that this is a coincidence. The fact is, you shouldn't have prayed such an awful prayer in the first place.
- A: I see your point. But I did pray this prayer, and what has happened has made me think again. It has revealed to me something new about God. I can't just go on believing what I have been told.
- B: Well, I'll pray for you.
This inconclusive exchange illustrates a number of points. First, the importance in religion of what is authoritatively said. Although here Brian is not an authority for Alvin, he can appeal to authorities they both accept;
(p. 216) this is part of the procedure of persuasion in religious arguments. But what has happened to Alvin, inclining him as it does to heterodox beliefs, also makes him in part inclined to reject those authorities.
- Second, since Alvin has prayed for something to happen and it happened, he cannot, of course, see it as coincidence. His position here is exactly the same as that of one who claims to have had an orthodox prayer answered. It is perfectly reasonable, given what has happened, for him to say what he does, even to be compelled to say it. But for the orthodox Brian it cannot but be a coincidence, a mere chance conjunction of events with no significance. What is or is not to be called a coincidence is determined by your system of beliefs, and what happens to you can incline you, perhaps compel you, to change or abandon your beliefs.
- Third, because of this, orthodoxy is connected to orthopraxy. Because Alvin is bound to be impressed if he prays this prayer and Christopher does suffer all these things, it is important that he not pray this prayer. Forbidding prayers like this is not only a way of stopping people doing bad things; it is also a way of preserving beliefs. What is at stake here are fundamental beliefs about the nature of God. If you can believe that God will answer that sort of prayer, you cannot believe that he loves all his creatures, particularly people, in the way that Christian orthodoxy maintains. Because this opinion is not to be held, that act is not to be done. Roughly, what God will not do (what it is against his nature to do) is what it is wrong to pray for. This is only a special instance of the general point, raised before, that what you believe and what you can believe hangs together with how you act or are prepared to act. It also has relevance for talk about the place of morality in Christianity. You are less likely to pray a prayer like Alvin's, and so come to believe the things that Alvin does, if your life
(p. 217) is solidly grounded in the Christian virtues. In Christianity, virtues are not just a matter of living well, but are also linked to believing well. The correct description of the place of the virtues in Christianity must bring out this link with doctrine. There can be no question, for example, of saying that Christianity is ‘really' only a form of morality, that doctrine can be interpreted as a kind of disguised moral teaching. Because there is a close link between doctrine and morality, they cannot be the same thing.
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