The Theology of (Certain) Quarterbacks
A friend of mine put this image up on Facebook:
I thought it was kind of funny, you know, and then someone responded with “So, we should just pray for world peace and nothing else?” in a way that seemed to me (purely delusory, of course, since there’s no way to establish tone or feeling on the internet) a kind of a snotty way, and I started thinking about it, and now I’m going to write about it.
What follows is a lengthy discussion of Christian theology, so I guess everyone but Moff and Carl can check out and come back tomorrow, when maybe Holland will write about Iron Man or something.
Special Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow
So, first things first: does it belittle genuine suffering to pray for touchdowns? Or, maybe let’s approach this in a little less of a charged way and ask: does God concern Himself with touchdowns? When there are smallpox epidemics and Holocausts and millions of people starving around the world, why would God take an interest in whether or not the Denver Broncos win in overtime?
The question itself bespeaks an essential misunderstanding of the nature of God, I think. God is infinite: infinitely knowing, infinitely powerful, infinitely good. God, therefore, has an infinite attention span; all aspects of the universe, divided as a portion of infinity, are the same size — which is to say, “infinitesimally small”. You might as well as, “does God have time to worry about the fact that a few million humans don’t have enough to eat, when he’s got a Universe that’s a billion trillion miles across in order to manage?” Or, “Does God have time to worry about my most recent bowel movement?”
All things are equally small in the eyes of God, and because God has an infinite amount of intelligence and potency, everything, no matter how small or irrelevant, can be given an infinite amount of His attention, which means God is paying as much attention to starving children in Africa as he is to Tim Tebow and to whether or not you pooped this morning.
God is watching everything, all the time, so principally, asking God for help with touchdowns isn’t really in any danger of taking away any of his attention to anything else — it’s not like God is letting children starve in Africa because he took a day off to watch the football game; God is in both places at once: watching children starve in Africa while SIMULTANEOUSLY watching Tim Tebow through a game-winning touchdown.
So, What’s the Problem?
The problem, as always, is us: the issue here is obviously not whether or not God COULD intervene on behalf of the Denver Broncos, but whether or not there’s something essentially distasteful about asking for it. Assuming that prayer really is transactional — that God is more likely to intervene directly in the material world if someone asks Him to — then actually, yes, I think just praying for world peace is pretty good.
Ostensibly, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to pray for victory at football, or success or money or anything else, if you actually believe that you have an immortal soul that will spend eternity in Heaven. After all, anything finite, when divided by infinity, is infinitesimally small, meaning your success at football is, by comparison, essentially irrelevant compared to eternity.
Now, praying for everyone’s heart to be opened up to love and compassion — the only reasonable way to pray for world peace, as opposed to some kind of horrific Pax Christian Theocratic Fascism — is basically the only worthwhile thing to pray for, since it means everybody getting into Heaven, and since everything else is essentially irrelevant.
Ask, and Ye Shall Receive
But is prayer actually transactional? Are you supposed to be asking for God to give you things? In fact, the Bible is pretty explicit about how you should pray, and what exactly you should be praying for (which does raise the question as to where all these other prayers came from, but I’m not a Christian, or even a theist, so I’m going to leave that one alone for right now). It’s called The Lord’s Prayer, and it’s not any of your midrash or your analysis or your Paul opining on what Jesus meant by something: it’s right there in the Gospel, and Jesus himself says flat out that you should pray for these things:
That the Lord’s name be kept holy.
That the Lord’s kingdom will come, and that His will be done.
That we should have some bread.
That we can be forgiven for our trespasses, and forgive those who trespass against us.
That we will be not led into temptation and also be delivered from evil.
You will notice no mention of touchdowns. In fact, of all the requests made of the Lord, only one of them is material: bread. And even this, if we’re permitted to make a moment of analysis, is more about how WE pray, than how we expect the Lord to respond to our prayers. After all, you can’t call the Lord unjust because you asked for bread and He didn’t give you any (I mean, you can, but if you accept that the Lord is infinitely wise, infinitely good, and infinitely powerful, then if He doesn’t give you bread when you ask for it, this action must be “just” by definition).
The real key to it is that you literally are not asking for anything more than exactly as much as you need — it’s a way of saying, “I’ve got a hotline to God through the Jesus, but I’m not going to ask for a single thing except that I have just enough to get by on, so that I can continue living and being a good person.”
Everything else is more in line with, for instance, the famous Serenity Prayer — asking for the spiritual strength to be a good person (though, again, why is there even a Serenity Prayer, when the Jesus Himself set down the prayer you should be saying? I don’t know), rather than the kind of material comforts that would obviate the need for spiritual strength in the first place.
Praying for more than that is, in fact, pretty distasteful — the Lord’s Prayer sets “material well-being” to a bare minimum, in comparison to spiritual well-being; asking for more than the bare minimum of material happiness is to set material happiness higher than spiritual happiness. I’m given to understand that religion places a premium on spiritual happiness, so I’m going to assume that this considered verboten.
Moreover, let’s look back at that famous Sermon on the Mount, Words of Christ in Red part of the Bible — you know, the part that is LITERALLY FROM THE MOUTH OF GOD, not from some cat who presumes to be speaking on God’s behalf (you know who you are. Paul.). Where, according to Jesus, are you supposed to pray? Well, not in the synagogue, or on a street corner, like a hypocrite. You are supposed to go inside where no one can see you and pray there — why? Well, I think the implication is clear, but just in case it wasn’t, Jesus kind of makes a point of it: the Lord already knows what you want.
That’s kind of a big deal, right? The Lord is omniscient, which means he knows what you want NO MATTER WHERE you pray; and if a prayer is as good in your closet, or on a street corner, or in a synagogue, (or a football field) then the only reason that you’d pray out in public is because you want to be seen praying. Like a hypocrite.
(Maybe you don’t think Tim Tebow is a hypocrite, and that’s fine, but don’t blame me — Jesus is the one who said it.)
Moving prayer from the private sphere into the public sphere is changing the emphasis of that prayer from the personal, private communion between your spirit and God, to the performance of prayer — that is, your relationship with God is no longer about you and Him, but also about you, God, and your million adoring fans.
(Incidentally and tangentially, the notion of praying in the closet does bring up a good question about why church is a public activity, and should an exception be made in those cases? Frankly, I don’t think so; I think that Christ’s assertion that Peter is the rock upon which he will build his church is indicative that the physical structure of the church is one composed entirely of those who practice its tenets; that is, if the Church of Christ exists in the hearts of all his followers, then what need is there for an actual building? I also believe that the exclusion of the Gospel of Thomas from the Bible, which says more or less exactly that, was a cynical attempt on behalf of the Nicean Council to maintain control over a religion that otherwise would reject any type of authoritarian influence. That aside, though, even if we accept that there is an exception for church, imagine an evangelical church — the kind where people are moved by the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues and flop around down the aisle — and tell me that this isn’t problematic. Sure, I’m not saying those people are faking it, but we can at least agree that the temptation to fake communion with the Holy Spirit in order to be seen as more pious than one’s contemporaries is there, and is strong in the way that only constant social pressure can be. It is for this [I think pretty obvious] reason that the Sermon on the Mount frequently emphasizes the point of behaving virtuously but in secret — so that the focus for the individual can be, for instance, on actually being charitable, rather than the pride one takes in appearing to be charitable, since pride goeth et cetera.)
But Prayer Isn’t Transactional
Isn’t it? Well, let’s assume it’s not, and that the reason that you pray is actually not to get things from God, but simply to thank God for the good things in your life. In fact, Tim Tebow usually Tebows after a success, and not before, indicating that rather than asking for touchdowns he’s actually just thanking God for the touchdowns that he has received. And good, that seems like a pretty strong position, it’d be hard to argue with that position.
Well, maybe you think it’d be hard to argue with that position; I think it’s easy to argue with that position, and I will do so at once.
If you want to thank God for being alive, or you want to thank God for every breath, or every heartbeat, or every second of life, that’s one thing — indeed, that’s probably a pretty good way to pray, because (as in the case of the Lord’s Prayer — which, again, why aren’t you just doing that?) it de-emphasizes material well being. You are thanking God for the barest minimum of material existence; thanking, in other words, God for the opportunity to become a better person.
The big problem with thanking God for your success is that God, by virtue of being omnipotent, omniscient, and infinitely good, is also responsible for your failures. God is in charge of everything, remember? So the question is, why don’t you take a knee and offer a prayer, thanking God for every time you miss your receiver by a quarter mile? Why don’t you offer up thanks to Divine Providence for every football game that you lose?
(Well, maybe he does, and privately, but my opinion is if you’re going to do some of it in public, you should at least have the cojones to do ALL of it in public.)
The thing about the Universe is that it is all part of a Divine Plan, and every aspect of that Plan must be understood as To the Good. It is impossible for God to fail, for Him to not anticipate outcomes, for Him to not realize something, &c., and for that reason we have to understand all suffering, all failure, all misery as part of a plan that cannot be perceived in any way other than universally good.
That we don’t know what that plan is, or how, I don’t know, getting your balls eaten off by a rotweiler is part of God’s perfect divine justice, is probably what you need faith for — not the belief that there is a power greater than yourself (as I have often mentioned, we can’t help but believe in powers that are greater than ourselves — no self-respecting atheist disbelieves elephants), but the belief that there is an ultimate good that is bigger than our ability to perceive good.
And so, failing to thank God for your failures is what? It is your experience of failure, the bad feelings that you suffer as a consequence of that failure, and you prioritizing them above what you necessarily believe (if you’re faithful) must be the profound and ultimate good. To remember God when you succeed is easy — but it equates God with your good luck. To remember God when you fail is the challenge, because otherwise you’re prioritizing your failures above God’s success.
To paraphrase that Jesus cat, why only be grateful to God for your successes? Then you are no different from anyone else. Even tax collectors are grateful when they succeed.
I say to you, be thankful when you fail.