Friday, May 24, 2013

If God doesn't control the weather then why pray?

Yesterday I posted about piece from Allan Bevere 
talking about why God is not responsible for the
Moore, Oklahoma tornado. The post created a bit of conversation on Facebook and my colleague and fellow blogger Tom Verenna asked some good, but hard questions. Questions for which I frankly don't have answers. 

Today Tom laid out his questions in a post. He does a good job of laying out the problems and raises the questions again. One thing he has a problem with is the way I prayed for the victims on the one hand, but condemned some for suggesting God sent the storm. Here's what he says. 

This is where the whole logic of mainstream Christianity gets a little choppy.  Following the tornado, many Christians called for prayer, but also the condemnation of Pat Robertson and others who are so quick to put the power of the storm in god’s hands.  On the face of it, I see no problems with prayer and I certainly see no problem criticizing fundamentalists who put the blame for tragedy on innocent people.  But let’s consider this for a moment; a lot of people–even Christians–are quick to criticize Pat Robert and Fred Phelps, Jr. because of their interpretations of the events but how many have considered the irony of their own religious ideals in light of the incident?
In one moment there is praying for the families of the victims (which, again, I get and appreciate the implications of it)–presumably to Yahweh, right?–and in the next there is criticism of the people placing the blame on the community for inciting god’s wrath.  Do you, humble reader, see the problem?
I do not mind laying it all out: If god can have control over the weather–I’m presuming he can based upon the Biblical account of god–what good is praying to him *after* the events of the storm?  Additionally, if he can’t control the weather, then what good is saying a prayer? The damage is already done and the souls of those departed are already due to be judged upon their own merits. But there is a far more twisted issue here; the issue that if god can control the weather–why allow tornadoes in the first place? Why not just create a planet where tornadoes aren't a thing? Surely he could do that. If I can imagine it, surely the all-mighty can too.
This is where I just can’t fathom this sort of belief; and while I appreciate the tone of articles like this (Joel Watts) and this (John Byron), I also find fault with the logic of it.  It is a challenge–especially when we’re talking about the death of children. The problem is that this realization–that an all-powerful god that controls the weather allowed this to occur (or had a hand in it) is downright disconcerting for people–it makes them uncomfortable because no god that they’d believe in would be so cruel or apathetic, and so they vehemently disagree to the point where it actually contradicts their own faith-arguments.  And that is a good thing; I’m glad that most Christians are morally astute enough to recognize the Bible’s wrongness about weather patterns and natural disasters.  But that does raise some problems for the believer, doesn’t it?  It did for me.
How would you answer Tom here? Here is a link to his post


  1. I don't have an answer, but I did hear a discussion on theodicy on the show Philosophy Talk out of the Bay Area (amazing show by the way) directed by Stanford University philosophy professors John Perry and Ken Taylor (both atheists) where they interviewed Andrew Pisent of Oxford University. He gave some very unique answers that Perry and Taylor seemed to appreciate (and I've heard them rough up theists on other episodes). It may be worth a listen for those interested:

  2. Dr. John,
    A couple things.
    1) can you provide a link to Tom Verenna's site? It would be helpful to know more about where he's coming from.
    2) No, like you, I can find no easy, pat answers to these questions. Theodicy is difficult to give answers to. This is where the arrogance of people like Piper and Robertson becomes so offensive. They claim to have answers to questions that simply cannot be answered easily. Sometimes it's better for people to just shut up.
    However, like Verenna, I think the fact that we can question God and one another is a good thing.
    As far as problems for believers? No, these events and the questions raised don't cause problems for me. After all, I'm not God.

    1. Mike,

      I added. Thanks for point that out.


  3. FWIW: I do think that the reaction we see against people like Robertson, Piper, et al., has less to do with propositions about God's ability to stop the tornado, or the impact of prayer (or lack thereof) on God's decision whether or not to stop the tornado, and more to do with the declaration that one knows how God acted and why God acted or didn't act as we'd desire. It seems to present God as something (not someone) mechanic, who functions according to certain laws and expectations. If humans do A, God will do B, but if humans do C, God will do D. If there is someone/thing like the God confessed by most theist it seems that there would be (1) caution and hesitancy when it comes to explaining how God acts (which can only be analogous, or anthropomorphic, since we don't really, really know how to explain God's interactions with creation any other way) and (2) a willingness to assume God's freedom, rather than God's mechanical and necessary responses to the world. If God is free then we may take comfort in God's ability to do this or that as God will based on some benevolent knowledge God possesses that we do not posses. When Robinson, Piper, et al., tell us this happened because A, B, or C, it removes God's freedom, disallows mystery, disables eschatological hope (i.e., our ability to relax in the hope/desire that God's methods may make sense some day, even though it is not possible for them to make sense in the present), and makes God a impersonal machine. This seems to me to be the cause of our reactions against those who "know" more than the theories they propose, per se.

  4. I would answer that Tom's point highlights one of the many problems with religious belief. The New Testament depiction of prayer often includes real time, miraculous answers to appeal. Today, demonstrable answer to prayer (not anecdotal "testimony") is clearly not in evidence. There is an internet meme that asks why we pray for healing from cancer, but we don't pray for an amputation to "heal". The answer is obvious, cancers occasionally go in remission. And sometimes prayer is credited with cancer cures, ignoring all the work that doctors have done. Amputations, on the other hand, do not grow back.

    The simplest answer is that prayers have no effect on external phenomena.

    C.S. Lewis was fond of saying that the effect of prayer is to change the one who prays. A very tidy theological answer, though not one that squares with many biblical portrayals of prayer.

    My guess is that prayer is simply a habit that reinforces supernatural thinking, which is why I stopped praying years ago.

  5. It gets even more complicated when survivors of a tornado claim their survival was the result of fervent prayer during the ordeal. I always wonder about the other fervent prayers for rescue that evidently were not answered. And why does the answer to prayer always take the form of what might be interpreted as luck or just the efforts of dedicated first responders? I've never heard it take the form of a clearly supernatural event. This is not the rant of an atheist but a committed theist who through faith is seeking understanding.

  6. Isn't faith about not knowing the "whys" of what happens here in this world, and still trusting in the God in whom we say we believe in? We seem to always want to be our own gods, and having a world that is under our control, and not the world that is rightfully under God's control.

    But also, are we not all in "this world" that is before "that world" which is to come? Didn't we get driven out of Paradise: the place where God would have protected us from all harm? Are not these the natural consequences of that first act of rebellion, which has been manifesting itself done thru the centuries, our choice to be allegedly autonomous? What are those natural consequences? Death! We all die, because we still, in part, are all are under the reign of Adam. What difference does it make at what point in our life when we die? At the end of the day doesn't it all amount to the same thing; we all die? We act like this world is the "world to come" i.e. the consummated heavens and earth which we as Christians believe is still yet to come!

    I'm not looking at this disaster with no horror; it should cause us to reach out in love for all who suffer.

  7. I'd say he doesn't understand the role of prayer is how I would answer him. God actually takes into consideration our opinions is my view, so I can pray for God( which I did) to stop the darned thing, minimize it's damage now and give grace and help to all affected in all ways.

    Until the restoration, these events are definitely going to occur.

    Things like this while devastating, can be used by God to advance His kingdom, so "bad stuff" can be intrinsic good long term.

    People murdered Jesus, can we not all see the intrinsic GOOD of that? God uses bad stuff at times for the long term benefit of all.

    The martyrdom of our 1st century church is another excellent example.

  8. John, thanks for posting the question and inviting responses. While I can't accept all of the ways that Tom frames the question, I do agree that the conundrum about prayer in his question is an essential and ongoing problem for those of us who practice prayer. My non-final answer would have three parts.
    1. As per the comment above from C.S.Lewis, I find that prayer changes me. I don't pray for this weather or that. I pray for people whose lives are impacted by storms, as well as violence, addictions, illness, etc. It is an act of love that I try to take on their pain and to walk with them through it. To this extent, prayer is more anthropological than theological. When I pray for them as an act of love, I am driven away from making the kind of judgmental statements that one hears from Phelps, Piper, Robertson, etc, and driven toward doing whatever I can concretely, such as donating toward disaster relief, fixing a meal, etc.
    2. I pray and I let others know that they are in my prayers so that they know someone cares and that they do not have to face their journeys alone. Again, this is a human connection, or at least one way that I can connect with someone, especially when it leads me to doing whatever I can concretely as well.
    3. And, there is a theological side to my prayer. I pray for God's will - which I believe is for love and justice to reach each person's life. I pray that those who are living even in the valley of the shadow of death will find courage and strength. I pray for them as I would want them to be praying for me under similar circumstance. What I would not want is for someone to respond to my tragedy by making theological claims that only serve their own agenda.
    I don't know where or how God is, in the middle of it all. I just believe that there is something real and powerfully connective about the world, which is larger than the sum total of its describable parts. I pray to be part of that mystical connection and to find connection with others there.
    These are my provisional reflections on why I pray.