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God and the Titanic
“Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers”
On the night of April 14, 1912 during her first trans-Atlantic crossing the British passenger liner RMS Titanic rammed an iceberg and sank within three hours, killing approximately 1500 passengers. Prior to this disaster maritime regulations did not require ships to carry lifeboats with sufficient capacity for everyone on board. As a result it became apparent to nearly everyone on the Titanic that night that, barring a miracle, many of them would die. To those travelling with families it must have been a particularly harrowing realization.
Many of those who survived the Titanic recalled praying. In fact, it’s probably safe to assume that at one point in time or another most of the passengers and crew of the doomed ship appealed to God for a miracle that might save them. None was forthcoming. The nearest ship to the Titanic, the liner Californian, could have reached them in time; but the Californian’s radio operator wasn’t on duty. RMS Carpathia received the distress call and raced toward the scene, but reached the liner’s location at 3:30 AM, an hour and ten minutes after the ship foundered. Only those lucky enough to have found a place on one of the Titanic’s lifeboats survived; everyone else drowned or died of hypothermia, in spite of their prayers.
I’ve used the sinking of the Titanic as an example, because it was such an iconic event, but I could have chosen from hundreds of similar disasters – the most recent being the 9-11 attack - in which God could have intervened to save hundreds or thousands of lives, but chose not to. In my opinion these constitute one of the major problems for orthodox religion, on a par with the related question of why evil exists in the world. Such questions are generally subsumed in the branch of philosophy known as “theodicy.” Proponents of religion evidently recognize the severity of the challenge presented by unanswered prayer judging by the number of books and websites devoted to it. Their answers range from the implausible to the downright insulting; but none of them is adequate. Let’s examine a few.
Many explanations for unanswered prayer fall into the “blame the victim” category. As you might expect, these are favored by the more doctrinaire fundamentalists. On the “All About Prayer” website we learn that prayers go unanswered if supplicants are selfish, doubtful, greedy, proud, or stubborn. (1) Such character flaws apparently “hinder God’s desire to answer prayer.” To my way of thinking this makes the Deity seem somewhat impotent; but similar statements are common in religious discussions of theodicy, where assertions that God is all powerful, but can’t do certain things, are believed to involve no contradiction.
On the “Victorious” website (2) Dr. Dale A. Robbins provides more practical reasons for unanswered prayer. For example prayer can fail due to inadequate church attendance or unconfessed sin. Some people pray incorrectly (like dialing a wrong number, I suppose.) Others fail to mention Jesus appropriately, or simply give up too soon!
The most sophisticated (or perhaps merely brazen) approaches to unanswered prayer actually embrace contradiction by claiming that God does answer every prayer, but that his responses are unfathomable to mere mortals. In many cases according to this line of reasoning God’s answer to prayer turns out to be best in the long run, even though short term results are horrible. Since the long run often extends into the afterlife, corroboration of such statements becomes problematical. Although the phrase has fallen out of fashion, I put these rationalizations in the “God moves in mysterious ways” category.
Author Jerry Sittser has written a best-selling book entitled “When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer” (3) that purports to address the problem forthrightly. In fact, it consists of nothing more than a protracted exercise in verbal hand waving and repeated assurances that God loves us unreservedly, wants nothing but the best for us, and is in complete control of our lives, even when every tangible evidence indicates the contrary. To his credit Sittser eventually admits that he has no idea why prayers aren’t answered. “It’s a mystery,” he concludes. Nevertheless his extended circumlocution has received rave reviews. “Jerry Sittser dares to ask the tough question of our age – then dares to deliver the even tougher answers,” exults Patricia Raybon on the back cover.
Explanations for unanswered prayer can be difficult to criticize, not because they’re logical or empirically unassailable, but because they so obviously serve a deep emotional need in those who espouse them. For example, Sittser began to reflect on ineffectual prayer after his wife, daughter, and mother were killed in an automobile accident. As unconvincing as his “answer” may be for the rationalists among us, who would be so churlish as to deprive him of whatever comfort he can fashion for himself … or for others. The same applies to most religious belief in my opinion, which is why I usually avoid debating it. Problems arise for me, when believers seek to impose their faith on others, for example by mandating school prayers or adulterating biology textbooks with religious dogma. For those who find solace in believing that God has answered their prayers, even though their lives are shattered, I have only sympathy.
(3) When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer, Gerald Sittser (2003, Zondervan, Grand Rapids)
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