Understanding What Doesn’t Make Sense
In my last post I pointed out that Gina Welch, in In the Land of Believers, would have been served by having internalized some sociological or anthropological theories of religion. She approaches many things like the New Atheists do, and as a result misunderstands what sort of social function these things might serve.
For instance, consider the following passage:
Donny told [our group] a story about his brother’s wife, who was pregnant with a baby girl. The baby’s arm was not forming properly. It wasn’t growing past the elbow. And instead of praying for the arm to grow, Donny was praying that if it was God’s will, the arm would grow. If not, Donny wanted God to grant them the ability to appreciate the baby as she was. I would never be able to understand that aspact of prayer—asking God to choose something rather than appealing for moral guidance. Why would you have to pray for God’s will to be done? If it was God’s will, wouldn’t it just happen, since God was in charge? Was I overthinking this stuff? (97)
No, the problem is not that she’s overthinking, but that she’s underthinking.
She’s thinking about this in too straightforward a manner: if their god is going to do his will, why ask for him to do his will? That would be like writing a letter to the IRS every year inviting them to tax us. (I know there are Christian responses to this, but I don’t think they’re convincing.) So, sure, put this way it doesn’t make much sense.
But let’s think about this using a hermeneutic of suspicion: of gods don’t exist and don’t answer prayers, what else might be going on here?
Perhaps these individuals know from experience that if they pray for the girl’s arm to grow it may, in fact, not, no matter what sort of faith they have. Perhaps they have the practical sense to know that it is fruitless to sink emotional investment into hopes that will likely be dashed. In addition, if they pray for their god to make the child’s arm grow, and he doesn’t do so, that could threaten their faith in him.
However, if they pray so generally for something—anything!—to happen, then their faith is confirmed no matter what happens. If they pray for their god’s will to be done, and the baby is born with a truncated arm, then their faith is confirmed: their god’s will was done. In one sense it’s a win-win situation: if you pray for nothing specific then nothing of your faith can be challenged.
So perhaps it makes more sense for them to pray for their god’s will to be done than for them to pray that he heal the baby’s arm.
I don’t presume this is the only or even the best answer for what’s going on in cases like this, but any sort of functionalist explanation would be better than throwing up one’s arms and saying “this just doesn’t make sense!”