TEXAS FAITH: Why do we pray for Christopher Hitchens?
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Christopher Hitchens is dying. Hitchens is a terrific writer, a bracing thinker and, in recent years, a famous and implacable atheist. He has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which might have slowed his debates with religious figures in support of his book God Is Not Great, but it hasn't tempered his tart observations on life.
Hitchens has, of course, an irreverent take on all the offers of prayer. Why, he asks, should God "be swayed by the entreaties of other sinners?"
"The offer of prayer can only have two implications: either a wish for my recovery or a wish for a reconsideration of my atheism (or both). In the first instance, a get-well card - accompanied by a good book or a fine bottle - would be just as bracing if not indeed more so. (Also easier to check.) In the second one, a clear suggestion is present: surely now, at last, Hitchens, your fears will begin to vanquish your reason. What a thing to hope for! ... My provisional conclusion is that those who practice incantations are doing so as much for their sake as mine: no harm in that to be sure and likely to produce just as much of a result."
So why do we pray for Christopher Hitchens? So he'll get better? So he'll see the light? Or for our own sake, not his? Why do religious people pray for others, even those who don't want the prayers?
Our distinguished Texas Faith panel -- some of whom have crossed paths directly with Hitchens, some of whom have watched him from afar -- reponded in a big way, after the jump:
MIKE GHOUSE, President, Foundation for Pluralism, Dallas:
Our altruistic nature nudges us to wish well for others, and thus we pray for Christopher Hitchens for a speedy recovery. Prayers and wishes are the words to express one's desire to include everyone to be a part of the universal energy that we long for regardless of our race, ethnicity, sex, belief or ability. We are simply wishing him well in our own way that we know of, and I am sure he has the capacity to receive the good on its face value.
A few generations ago most people were not aware of the Wicca tradition, met a Maya or shook hands with an Atheist. It was a taboo to talk with an Atheist, and no one dared call himself one. And now, we have accommodated the atheists as a part of the fabric of our nation. Indeed about 10% of the population identifies themselves as Atheist, Agnostics or Humanists. Even the Saint Mother Teresa doubted the existence of God.
Our belief in the creator arrogates us to believe that our prayers "will make him see the light" and "feel good about ourselves" that we have done our duty in praying without realizing that there is not an element of consideration in a prayer transaction.
Prayer is an effortless way to overcome our own biases and pat ourselves for being a Good Samaritan; it is also an expression of our unselfishness. To save other's life, people have jumped into frozen lakes, on the rail road tracks and have risked beatings by protecting the unprotected.
It is rare for an individual to not pray for the other, particularly a public figure. However the exception was Rev. Pat Robertson when he justified Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's illness to deprivation of God's grace. Despite my difference with his policies, I prayed for Sharon to get well and bring about a positive change for all. My maternal grandfather gave the examples of Prophet Muhammad, who stood up and paid respects to the Jewish and other funerals. There is indeed an inclusive prayer that we recite at least once a day; May God forgive our parents, our teachers, our community, the living and the dead. It is part of bringing the whole humanity into the universal fold. We have come a long way; our language reflects our inclusive attitudes and acceptance of the otherness of other, indeed Jesus, Muhammad, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and several others have paved the way for an inclusive tradition.
The pluralism prayers we wrote a decade ago has now become even more embracive; we rephrased it as pluralistic wishes to be inclusive of those who do not believe in the theist version of the creator. Indeed, we redefined pluralism from "respecting the God given uniqueness of each one of us" to "respecting the genetic uniqueness of each one of us." We are one family and one world as the Hindu Scriptures call it "Vasudeva Kutumbakam".
There is something very powerful about inclusiveness, as the Jewish scriptures say Ve'ahavta la'ger, you must love the stranger for that guaranteed happiness which comes from falling the barriers, it feels home. Wishing well restores the positive energy that gets drained with exclusiveness.
So, we cannot fathom excluding any one from leading a good life and good wishes that are due every soul. The word prayer implies invoking God where as wishes reflect one's desire for the well being of other.
JAMES DENISON, President, Center for Informed Faith and Theologian-in-Residence for the Baptist General Convention of Texas:
An open letter to Christopher Hitchens:
I am one of your many admirers. We debated the reality and relevance of Christianity last year--I found you to be pugilistic on stage and gracious afterwards. I have prayed for you to choose your brother's faith, and in recent days for your physical healing. So our question is addressed to people like me.
What is the logic of praying to an all-knowing, all-loving, unchanging God? Prayer doesn't inform, persuade, or change him. Rather, it positions us to receive what he intends to give. You must be close enough to your computer to read these words. When we pray, we draw close enough to God to receive his gifts.
But what about those who don't believe he exists? It's no surprise that an atheist would view prayer as incantation. Your opinion, however, does not change reality. A man who does not believe airplanes can fly is not likely to see above the clouds.
I am not asking God to violate your God-given freedom to accept or reject his love. Rather, I am asking him to use Christians and circumstances to help you see the reasonableness and relevance of a personal relationship with your Creator.
Nor am I praying that "your fears will begin to vanquish your reason." Rather, I pray that your fears will help you see that what you call "reason" is actually opinion. As C. S. Lewis observed, the man who denies the sunrise doesn't harm the sun. But, I would add, it would be better for him to step into the shade.
KATIE SHERROD, Writer, film producer and progressive Episcopalian activist, Fort Worth
I find immensely sad Christopher Hitchens' conclusion that the only reasons someone would pray for him are "either a wish for my recovery or a wish for a reconsideration of my atheism (or both)." That statement reveals a heartbreaking wizened view of love, an achingly bleak vision of humanity. I suggest that most believers would pray for Hitchens simply because he is a suffering human being. His atheism is irrelevant. God cares for him and so we pray that his suffering may be relieved. It is not in our hands how God might choose to do that.
Besides, I have no idea how one would go about weeding out those who don't want the prayers. Even if we do not pray for Hitchens by name,every Sunday Episcopalians pray a version of this prayer: "For the aged and infirm, for the widowed and orphans, and for the sick and the suffering, let us pray to the Lord." Our daily prayers also include prayers for the suffering.
We pray for others because we are not isolated bits of biology floating about the surface of our planet. We are human beings, bound to one another in a community of mutual responsibility. My existence affects yours, whether or not you know me or I know you. Moreover, Christians believe we are bound together in the Body of Christ, and one part of the body cannot say to other, "I have no need of you."
Hitchens is part of God's Creation, worthy of respect. But his disbelief in the power of prayer does not invalidate my belief that prayer does have power, even if that power is a mystery I can never understand.
And so each night I will continue to pray, "Keep watch dear Lord with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake."
DEAL HUDSON, President Morley Publishing Group and President Catholic advocate
I, for one, haven't prayed for Hitchens yet. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's the fact that he doesn't want our prayers, and I have other, more immediate, causes for concern such as my older sister in Houston who faces serious surgery.
Hitchens, though, is a very charming person -- we were together once at a dinner party where we spent some time discussing Australian fiction, particularly the work of Patrick White who I quite admire. You would have never known he could be so disagreeable in his public utterances.
But, back to the fact that I have yet to pray for him. If I were to pray for him I would pray, of course, that he recover -- I wish no man death, especially one who can discuss the merits of the Australian novel -- and that he be awakened to the benefits of faith in the God he doesn't think exists. Oh, I should add that he kiss and make up with Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, with whom he had a famous verbal rumble at the Union League Club in NYC some years ago. Bill is one of those wonderful friends who is not afraid to throw a punch or two at those who deserve it, such as Hitchens who was making a lot of noise about the "dark side" of Mother Teresa. Yes, Hitchens writes beautifully, but like Nietzsche said when he came out from under the spell of Richard Wagner, and I paraphrase, there are artists who whip up as much dazzling beauty as possible, not for the sake of beauty but to convince you they are God.
That is my prayer for Christopher Hitchens, that he discovers the real center of the universe.
CYNTHIA RIGBY, W.C. Brown Professor of Theology, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary:
I pray for Christopher Hitchens because I don't want him, or any other creature, to suffer. I pray for him because I don't believe God wants him to suffer, either. I believe God is in the business of life - life abundant, even - and not death. That God desires joy, and peace, and the ever-fuller realization of love for all, and for every.
I believe God is sovereign. What this means, I believe, is less that God hoards "all the power" and more that God knows all, sees all, and is in some way or another (think: cross, not just resurrection) "in charge" of all. My conviction that God is sovereign makes suffering more - not less - of a problem. If God desires life, and God is sovereign, why so much death? This question puts me back on my knees, considering: how does this sovereign God work? What does the cross say about the character of God's sovereign rule? In what ways does the sovereign God share power with me, inviting me to participate in the healing of this world?
I get back up off my knees and go buy that get-well card, and good book, and fine bottle. And I make a delivery to Hitchens, or to whoever is suffering. Because Hitchens is wrong about at least one thing, and right about at least one other. Here's where he's wrong: there's no either/or between (1) praying for suffering people and (2) offering them life-affirming gifts (cards, books, wine). In my experience, there is actually a pretty direct correlation between those who pray for and those who knit for, cook for, and write little notes for. And here's where Hitchens is right: there is no reason why God should "be swayed by the entreaties of other sinners." If the point of prayer is to make a case for why God should heal Hitchens (or whomever), we might as well skip it and go straight to the Hallmark aisle.
God is swayed not by us "making a case," but rather by God's own, ongoing desire to be with and for us in this world, to comfort us, to heal. God is love; Christ is the resurrection and the life; the Spirit intercedes with groans and murmurings too deep for words when we cannot pray. These are crazy kinds of things to believe, but they are crazy things about a very different God than Hitchens rejects: a God who domineers and manipulates. Such a God, he's right (again), is certainly NOT great.
AMY MARTIN, Executive Director, Earth Rhythms; writer/editor, Moonlady Media
My prayer for Christopher Hitchens is the same I have for everyone, called The Four Immeasurables from the Buddhist tradition:
May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness. May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May all sentient beings never be separated from the happiness that is without suffering. May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free from both attachment and hatred, holding some close and others distant.
I wish for Hitchens' highest good, which I acknowledge as a piddly human with a two-pound brain is something beyond my capability to know. The desire to pray for others religious conversion confuses me. Only the individual knows what religion, or no religion, works for them, makes sense to them. I'm sure such proselytizers would vigorously protest someone insisting on converting them.
There can be no peace between people, nor peace between religions, without starting from a place of humility before the divine, something that proselytizers lack. As Dr. Robert Hunt points out, any religion is the penultimate answer. The ultimate answer is beyond ours to know.
JOE CLIFFORD, Pastor and Head of Staff, First Presbyterian Church of Dallas:
Hitchens has a tendency to reduce complex questions to simplistic either/or paradigms. When it comes to faith, he reduces the question to a choice between fundamentalism and atheism. Ironically, he thinks in the same literal, black and white categories as the fundamentalists he loathes. He does the same with prayer; it's either a wish for his recovery or a wish for his conversion. Life and faith are far more complex than either/or categories. We pray for Christopher Hitchens because we're Christian. His identity as an atheist does not shape our practice. We pray for Christopher Hitchens because that's what people of faith do for the sick, and unfortunately, he is very sick. We pray for Christopher Hitchens because our faith teaches us he is a child of God, and therefore our brother in the human family. May God's abiding presence bring him courage, comfort, and healing in body, mind and soul.
WILLIAM B. LAWRENCE, Dean, Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University:
The health crisis that is now confronting Mr. Hitchens has managed to reveal just how small and inadequate is his understanding of prayer. He imagines only two possible reasons that a Christian would pray to God in regard to Hitchens' circumstances--either for his recovery (which he finds pointless) or for his religious conversion (which he finds appalling).
Actually, there are other reasons that a Christian might pray in this situation. And none of them is in the form of a petition asking God to do something with or for Mr. Hitchens. One, drawing upon the tradition of such sacred texts as Psalm 88, is to express in prayer the devastating sense of emptiness that any of us feels in the presence of suffering and death--our own, or another's. A second, drawing upon the arguments of Job, is to demand an intellectually satisfying answer to the existential questions that tantalize every human being regarding great injustices. A third is to echo the concerns of Lazarus' sibling, who insisted that Jesus' failure to arrive on time with a cure had led to Lazarus' death, and wonder why Mr. Hitchens or any of our contemporaries had such regrettably bad timing as to acquire a disease before researchers found a cure for it.
Prayer does not exist simply for the purpose of asking that God provide stuff--a job, a touchdown, a healing, a religious conversion, or anything else on the long wish-lists written by human beings. Prayer is a means for communicating with God, complaining to God about things we dislike, praising God for things we like, asking questions that can be posed to nobody else, confessing emptiness that can be admitted to nobody else.
Decades ago, when I was a pastor in Pennsylvania, I had two different ministerial encounters with men who were facing death and who both (separately) declined my offer to pray with them. One said he saw no point in it, and I believe that he was sincere. Just because his name was on the rolls of a Methodist Church did not mean he actually believed anything that we had affirmed. I respected his point of view and did not impose prayers upon him, though we did continue to list his name among the members for whom we requested intercessions. The other was an active member who, by all evidence, was a genuine believer. Nevertheless, his critical illness spun him into a downward spiral of depression. When I asked if I might pray with him, he boldly rejected the idea. I responded that he could refuse to let me pray with him in his hospital room, but that he could not stop me or anyone else in the church from praying for him to be delivered from the depths of the melancholy into which he had descended. Somehow, in the mystery of the moment, I told him that we were going to pray for him anyway. It was not long after that event, that signs of healing began to appear.
Mr. Hitchens is a brilliant and articulate man. But his ego may restrain him from understanding that prayer involves a great deal more than his intellect has grasped thus far. Sometimes prayer is an affirmation of hope, sometimes a cry of despair, and sometimes a confession of what one does not understand.
RIC DEXTER, Men's Division Chapter Leader, Nichiren Buddhist Soka Gakkai lay organization
Prayer is an expression of our heartfelt desire, whether it is in petition, praise, or thanksgiving. Even those who support no religious tradition know of and express heartfelt desire. When we see another suffering we experience a heartfelt desire to see them relieved of their suffering.
Buddhist philosophy teaches there is no separation between the internal world of human beings and their environment. The joys and sufferings that occur in our inner life are reflected in our external circumstances. Prayer, in Nichiren Buddhism, is not a purely a meditative turning inward, but an act of manifesting our inner qualities, bringing them out into the real world. Awakening harmony and balance within our life affects everything within our environment, including the life of that person who is suffering.
Accompanying prayer with action, like visiting or sending a get-well card, isn't such a bad idea either. Noted atheist Dan Barker stated that one of the strongest factors in recovery from an illness is a sense of connectedness with a community and people who care about you. Notwithstanding the other values in prayer, it is always an expression of that care and concern.
Daisaku Ikeda has written "that the ultimate form of prayer is in fact a vow--a vow to contribute to the happiness of others." The vow of a Buddha is to open, to show, to awaken and cause people to enter the infinite realms of wisdom they already possess. This is not a call to abandon reason, but a determination for the fulfillment of reason.
He further states "Prayers based on the Mystic Law" (ultimate truth) "are not abstract. They are a concrete reality in our lives. To offer prayers is to conduct dialogue, an exchange, with the universe. When we pray, we embrace the universe with our lives, our determination. Prayer is not a feeble consolation; it is a powerful, unyielding conviction..."
LARRY BETHUNE, Senior Pastor, University Baptist Church, Austin
Prayer is the deepest expression of faith. Think of it in comparison to a continuing conversation with a life partner. While the relationship may travel through times of feeling close or distant, communication is always critical to its health. By giving our attention in prayer to the God who is continually attentive to us, we experience relationship with God.
Unquestionably, prayer is a helpful psychological exercise of self-analysis and problem-solving. But the experience of Christians (and most other religious traditions) is that prayer places us mindfully into the presence of the ultimate Other we call by many names. It is more than just talking to oneself. In addition to our own experience, we have the testimony of the most respected saints and mystics regarding the central role of prayer in the spiritual life.
In the Christian faith we pray for others because we are instructed to do so. Our prayer changes us, especially our attitude towards and our engagement with those for whom we pray. Our prayer also has effect in directing God's attention to our concerns, about which God - like any loving parent - cares.
But prayer is not automatic. It is not a means of controlling other people by getting God to violate their own free will. Nor is it a magical means of manipulating God to do our bidding, the attempt of which is the biblical definition of "taking God's name in vain." Hence, Christians are taught always to pray in the spirit of, if not also by the very words of Jesus: "Not my will, but Yours be done."
Therefore, I pray for Christopher Hitchens as I have been instructed: for healing of his mind, body, and spirit. I pray with no arrogance that I am a better person than he, nor to interrupt the freedom of his personal journey. I pray with sadness that the incarnation of religious belief by us deeply flawed believers has not led him to any encounter with the ultimate Divine, but instead to question God's very existence. And I pray with gratitude for the challenges and questions he has pressed on those of us who do believe. Beyond this, I commend him in trust to the God who is merciful and just, whose will will be done.
GEOFFREY DENNIS, Rabbi, Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound; faculty member, University of North Texas Jewish Studies Program
Mr. Hitchens is a brilliant man whose opinions (even the ones I disagree with) are fairly arrived at and defended with wit. I've enjoyed many of the things he's had to say and write, but even if I didn't, I would wish him well, at the very least. As for offering a prayer for him, well, I do, and it's selfish really. See every Father's Day and birthday I get presents I don't really want, but I accept them gratefully because they are tokens of affection. At other times I dismiss the prayers and advice of would-be spiritual mentors who wish me to "see the light," "accept Jesus in my heart," or "see the truth of the Bible" the same way they do.
So I pray for him what I would want to receive - sentiments of sadness, support, caring. I pray for the improvement of his body, I leave the improvement of his soul to him. I pray that he will continue to be honest with himself and that he preserve his most cherished beliefs as long as they remain meaningful to him. If he needs to change what he believes, then I pray he has the courage to do so. I'd send him a book (I love receiving books), but I don't know where to send it. I already have an address on hand for a prayer.
DARRELL BOCK, Research Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary:
This one is simple. prayer is an expression of caring and concern rooted in love and appreciating that God asks us to interact with Him about others. So we pray even for those who may not appreciate it.
JONATHAN TRAN, Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics, Department of Religion, Baylor University
I have to admit that I've never been overly impressed by the atheism offered by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Much more interesting are atheists like Slavoj Zizek who rather than proffer banal deconstructions of religion offer sophisticated atheistic reconstructions. Besides, the likes of Terry Eagleton and Marilyn Robinson have shown why the physicalism and naturalism offered by Ditchins (as Eagleton conflates them) prove less than viable moral alternatives.
But I also admit to being quite impressed with Hitchen's life. I recently saw an extended interview by Charlie Rose and the man who I'd previously seen as unreflective, mean-spirited, uncharitable, and arrogant came off as reflective, kind, charitable, and arrogant (one can't ask for everything). Especially impressive was Hitchens' reasoning about prayer: he didn't believe in God in the good times, why believe in God now? There is something right about the austerity of such an argument. To be sure there is also something terribly sad, but in Hitchens we see someone willing to follow the logic of their atheism and committed to finding joy in the midst of it. I remember thinking to myself, "Too bad this person isn't a Christian; he'd be a good one."