Archive for December, 2015

Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

Larycia Hawkins

Dr. Larycia Hawkins

Last week on this blog, I discussed the danger of trading theological integrity for political expediency in the wake of Donald Trump’s proposed ban on all non-resident Muslims entering our country.  As I explained, Mr. Trump’s claim that his ban is “not about religion,” though politically palatable, cannot be factually truthful.  His ban, I argued, is necessarily about religion because it affects a whole group of thoroughgoingly religious people.

I also argued that it is important for us, as Christians, to have honest theological conversations with our Muslim friends.  We may disagree on a great number of things, but at least we agree that theology matters.  Categories like orthodoxy and heresy, truth and deity are important to us.  In a culture that is far too dismissing of theology, Muslims and Christians should be enthusiastically engaging in theology.

This is what I argued for last week.  And now this week, almost providentially, I have an opportunity to practice what I blog.

One of America’s premier evangelical institutions, Wheaton College, is embroiled in an imbroglio after one of its professors, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, claimed that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  Wheaton placed Dr. Hawkins on paid administrative leave, explaining in a press release:

As a Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton College embodies a distinctive Protestant evangelical identity, represented in our Statement of Faith, which guides the leadership, faculty and students of Wheaton at the core of our institution’s identity. Upon entering into a contractual employment agreement, each of our faculty and staff members voluntarily commits to accept and model the Statement of Faith with integrity, compassion and theological clarity … Dr. Hawkins’ administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.[1]

Dr. Hawkins’ assertion is well worth our time and attention because it is an example of precisely the kind of theological discussions I would argue Christians and Muslims ought to be having.  Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?  Is Dr. Hawkins correct?

As a Christian, I would answer the question of a shared deity among Christians and Muslims in two ways:  “No, but…”  The answer “no” is necessary for theological honesty.  The answer “but” is crucial to Christian hospitality.  Let me briefly explain both answers.

“No”

It is very difficult to assert, at least in any way that demands a nuanced theology of divinity, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  In defending her assertion on social media, Dr. Hawkins cited theologian Miroslav Volf, who, in an interview for Christianity Today, explained:

I think that Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same …

God is one in both traditions. That’s very important. Two, God is merciful. Also, God is just. God’s oneness, God’s mercy, and God’s justice are significant commonalities. We have different understandings of each of these, but the overlaps are really impressive.[2]

Volf argues that Christians and Muslims worship the same God based on a list of divine attributes that happen to be the same between the two faiths.  His list of divine attributes, however, strikes me as ad hoc.  What about the Christian contention that God is one, yet also three persons?  Muslims do not believe this (cf. Surah 4:171).  What about God’s humanity?  At the heart and soul of a Christian’s faith is the God-man Jesus Christ.  Muslims flatly reject this (cf. Surah 10:68).  What about God’s greatest attribute – that He is love (cf. 1 John 4:8)?  Though one of the 99 names Muslims have for God is “the Loving One,” that God is love seems to be a bridge too far for Islamic theology.

Volf acknowledges such differences, but then moves quickly to downplay them:

There are significant differences that are the subject of strenuous debates. Some differences really are foundational to the faith, like the doctrine of the Trinity. At the same time, there’s this amazing overlap and similarity. We need to build on what is similar rather than simply bemoan what’s different.

Volf’s assertion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God in spite of significant differences in their respective conceptions of Him begs a question:  where would Volf draw his line?  When do differences in theology become profound enough for there to be a difference of divinities?

If somebody postulates the existence of more than one God, I would have to say we don’t worship the same God. If somebody says that God is basically one with the world, I would also have to say we don’t worship the same God.

Again, all of this seems very ad hoc to me.  For Volf, the attributes of God’s oneness and His distinction from creation are vital.  The attribute of God as three persons is not.  Why?  Simply because Volf says so?

Jesus is quite clear that, in order to be a true worshiper, a person must worship “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).  It is quite difficult to worship “in the Spirit” while denying the Spirit’s personhood, as do Muslims, and it is impossible to worship “in truth” while denying at least parts of what Scripture says is true about God.  It is important to note that the issue here is not whether a person has a complete understanding of God.  Jesus affirms that a person can worship the true God while not having a complete understanding of Him when He says of the Samaritans, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know” (John 4:22).  Worship does not require perfect knowledge.  True worship does, however, require faith.

But the Scriptures are also very clear that if a person perverts what can be known about God from biblical revelation, he has moved from worship to idolatry.  This is why the apostle Paul, when he was in Athens, was “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16), but was also willing to engage the Athenians in a theological conversation around the altar the they had built “TO AN UKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:23).  The Athenians’ altar stemmed from ignorance.  Their idols were built on false and dangerous ideas about divinity.  The altar propelled Paul to further conversation.  The idols incited his unapologetic condemnation.

Considering that Islam does not claim to be ignorant of God, but rather claims that God is widely different from whom Christians claim He is, it is difficult to see how either a Christian or a Muslim can honestly say that both faiths worship the same God.  Just because two divinities share a short list of attributes does not mean they are the same God any more than a mother and a daughter who share some genes are the same person.  This is why I must answer “No” to the question, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” If this is all I was to say, however, I would not be saying enough.

“But”

I firmly believe that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.  This is not to say that I think Muslims have no knowledge of what I as a Christian would confess to be the true God or that the God of Muhammad does not reflect in certain ways the God of the Bible.  In Romans 1, Paul reminds us that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20).  It is no surprise, then, from a Christian standpoint, that the God of Muhammad would have attributes that are influenced and informed by the God of the Bible, for the God of the Bible is not only particularly revealed in Scripture, but generally, though not salvifically, knowable through creation.

Ultimately, even if someone believes that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God, this still does not settle the question of what is true about God, how one is to approach God, and how one receives eternal life with God.  The Quran, for instance, speaks of Jesus, but rejects His death for sinners (cf. Surah 4:157-158).  The Bible makes Jesus’ death for sinners the very locus of His identity (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:2).  Thus, when Muslims and Christians talk about Jesus, the question should not be, “Do the Bible and the Quran talk about the same Jesus?”  Even if they do, this is finally of little consequence.  A better question would be, “Does the Bible or the Quran authoritatively reveal the true Jesus?”  After all, who Jesus is matters just as much as that He exists.

What is true of Jesus specifically is true of God generally.  We need to be asking, “Does the Bible or the Quran authoritatively reveal the true God?”  Who has the true and supreme revelation about God from God?  As a Christian, my answer must be that the Bible has the true and supreme revelation about God from God.  My guess is a Muslim would beg to differ.  But this is why a willingness to have hospitable theological discussions is so important.  And this is why, if a Muslim friend would like to offer his or her thoughtful and respective perspective on the God of Muhammad and the God of the Bible, I would love to hear it.  Understanding may not always lead to agreement, but it does generally lead to charity.  And that’s a virtue both our religions share.

_________________________

[1]Wheaton College Statement Regarding Dr. Larycia Hawkins,” Wheaton College (12.16.2015).

[2] Mark Galli, “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?Christianity Today (4.15.2011).

December 28, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Donald Trump’s Sandbox

Donald Trump

Credit:  Huffington Post

I decided it would be best to wait for a while to write on what has become Donald Trump’s now infamous proposal that there should be “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” for a couple of reasons.  First, the outrage, predictably, over Mr. Trump’s ban was fierce and fast and I wanted to allow some time for it to cool.  Reacting to the hottest thing is not always the wisest thing.  Second, I wanted to take some time to gather my thoughts on what has transpired.  It is a tricky thing for a pastor to write about a politician and I never do so lightly.  This is why I also feel compelled to state upfront, lest there be any confusion, that, though I do reference certain political realities, the primary purpose of this blog is not to analyze Mr. Trump’s politics or campaign.  There are others who are far more adept at these types of analyses than I.  I do believe, however, that Mr. Trump’s ban on Muslims has worldview and theological implications that are important for Christians to recognize and to address.  Indeed, what fascinates me most about Mr. Trump’s ban is not so much what he proposed at first, but how he has continued to defend his proposal.  In an interview on Live with Kelly and Michael, the presidential candidate argued, “It’s not about religion. This is about safety.”

Mr. Trump’s claim that his ban on non-resident Muslims entering the country is not about religion, though it may be in some sense politically palatable, cannot be factually truthful.  He is, after all, singling out adherents of a religion – not citizens of a nation or members of a political party – in his ban.  This is about religion because it affects a whole group of thoroughgoingly religious people.

There is no doubt, as we continue to deal with the fallout from the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, that the threat of radical Islamist terrorism is real and that national security should be a top priority.  But what often gets overshadowed in so many of our frenetic discussions concerning radical Islamist terrorism is Islam itself and the people who practice it devotedly on a daily basis.   Islam, before it is anything else, is a religion with a developed theological system.  It makes claims about what is true and what is false, what is orthodox and what is heretical.  This is why I am sympathetic to the many Muslims who have claimed that the people who carry out terror attacks are not true Muslims.  In the eyes of these Muslims, radical Islamist terrorists have said things and done things that have placed them so far outside the pale of orthodox Islamic theology that they cannot be called Muslim, at least in any theologically responsible sense.  I would argue in like manner that what members of the Westboro Baptist Church have said and done has placed them so far outside of the pale of orthodox Christian theology that we cannot consider them to be Christian in any theologically responsible sense no matter what the marquis on their “church” may claim.  But it is only through explicitly religious and theological analyses of these groups that we can arrive at such conclusions.  Thus, a theological understanding of and, I would hasten to add, a theological repudiation of what has happened in these terrorist attacks is inescapable.

Though he probably does not realize it, Mr. Trump’s assertion that his ban on Muslims entering the country can be made without thinking through the religious implications could only be taken seriously in a secular liberal society like ours.  In a recent column for The New York Times, Ross Douthat explains how secular liberalism views Islam:

Secular liberal Westerners … take a more benign view of Islam mostly because they assume that all religious ideas are arbitrary, that it doesn’t matter what Muhammad said or did because tomorrow’s Muslims can just reinterpret the Prophet’s life story and read the appropriate liberal values in …

Instead of a life-changing, obedience-demanding revelation of the Absolute, its modernized Islam would be Unitarianism with prayer rugs and Middle Eastern kitsch – one more sigil in the COEXIST bumper sticker, one more office in the multicultural student center, one more client group in the left-wing coalition.[1]

The secular liberal view of religion is one where orthodoxy always takes a back seat to pluralism and transcendent ethics must eventually bow the knee to today’s contingent truths.  Theological claims must ultimately give way to political and cultural concerns.  Whether knowingly or unknowingly, this is precisely what Donald Trump assumes when he claims his ban on Muslims is “not about religion.”  He assumes the long-standing theological heritage of Islam can be quickly and easily ushered aside to make way for a security-driven ban on Muslims in the same way some progressives presume the theological distinctives of Islam can be breezily brushed off in favor of a Western-style spirituality that calls for no real doctrinal fidelity from its adherents.  In Mr. Trump’s case, the politics of security have, excuse the pun, “trumped” any real discussion of theology.  What other name can there be for this kind of prioritization but secular liberalism?

One need to look no further than to the middle part of the previous century to see what happens when secular liberalism gets what it wants.  Mainstream Christian Protestantism now lies in ruins because it bartered away its classical theology for a bourgeois intellectuality acceptable to a politically-minded modernity.

Confessional Christians are in a unique position to discuss with Muslims potential solutions to the crisis posed by radical Islamist terrorists because, for all we disagree on, we at least agree that theology matters and ought to be taken seriously.  It is a particular theology, after all, that, no matter how grotesquely perverted and morally repugnant it may be, drives, at least in part, the aspirations of ISIS.  Such a theology needs to be confronted, deconstructed, and condemned, which, thankfully, is precisely what some Muslim theologians are doing.  An appreciation for theology can also lead us to question whether or not a whole religious group should be summarily and indiscriminately dismissed with the wave of a hand and a flip explanation that a ban on this group is not about religion.  If a group defines itself religiously, as do Muslims, it probably behooves us to respect, study, and take this group’s theology seriously.

Certainly, there would be challenges in any honest theological discussions between Christians and Muslims.  I am no Islamic theologian, but as far as I can tell, Islamic theology does not conceive of an Augustinian distinction between a City of God and a City of Man like Christian theology does.  It is this distinction, outlined for us beautifully in Romans 12 and 13, that has allowed Christians to work comfortably and conscientiously in all sorts of governmental systems, including in American democracy, because they understand that no matter what the system of government, the City of Man that is human government is ultimately, even if hiddenly, under God’s control.  The Christian’s call, then, is not to try to create a Christian government, but to be the Christian Church. In Islamic theology, such a distinction between the City of God and the City of Man does not feature nearly so prominently, if, some might argue, at all.  Mosque and government go hand in hand.  Even so, many Muslim majority countries have figured out ways to create at least some distance between their religion and their rulers.  In this way, then, Christians and Muslims have plenty to talk about, for we both struggle with how to live out our respective faiths in our societies, even if our theologies of how our religions relate to our rulers differ.  Furthermore, we agree that traditional religious categories like orthodoxy, heresy, truth, revelation, prophecy, and deity are important, even if we disagree on how each of these categories, right down to the category of deity, should be filled.  But at least we agree that questions about theology are more important and, ultimately, more enduring than questions of politics and power.  This is more than can be said for some in the secular left.

I do not think that Mr. Trump has rigorously thought through the logical and theological inconsistencies of his statements about Muslims.  I suspect he offered his ban to score political points with his base while also tweaking the milquetoast de rigueur of many of the political elites.  I also have a feeling that Mr. Trump might take issue with me claiming that his ban on Muslims “is not about religion” actually shares with secular liberals an assumption about the nature and importance of theology.  But even if he’s doing so naïvely, his comments betray that Mr. Trump is still playing in the secular liberals’ sandbox.  And the consequences of such a foray, to use Mr. Trump’s own phrasing, are “yuge.”
_____________________________

[1] Ross Douthat, “The Islamic Dilemma,” The New York Times (12.12.2015).

December 21, 2015 at 5:15 am 5 comments

Mizzou, Truth, and What Pleases Us

Credit: David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

Credit: David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

Last month’s heavily publicized protests at the University of Missouri are tragic for several reasons. The racist slur that ignited them is tragic. The fumbled response of the University President is tragic. The threats from a member of Mizzou’s Department of Communication toward the media, calling for “some muscle” when an ESPN reporter was trying to cover the student protests, is tragic. But so is the response of the students. Their protests quickly spun out of control – moving from a specific instance of racism to outrage over everything from systemic racism to sexism to patriarchy. When others with differing viewpoints tried to engage Mizzou’s students on these important issues, the students blew up.

What happened at Mizzou has revealed just how incapable some college students are of having a conversation with someone with whom they disagree. Or, to put it a little less charitably, perhaps these students aren’t so much incapable as they are intransigent. It could be, I suppose, that they simply refuse to listen to viewpoints that differ from theirs. Indeed, the now famous student “safe spaces” are unapologetically touted as places of refuge where students can flee from any idea that triggers in them any sort of emotional distress. In fairness, it should be noted, as The Wall Street Journal rightly points out, that safe spaces are not just cloisters for the thin-skinned:

All of us seek “safety” from genuinely rancid views – how many of us would stay at a party where someone dominated the conversation with overtly racist bloviations? These students have merely overextended the bounds of the conclusively intolerable.[1]

It is true that there are some fools whose foolish viewpoints do not need to be answered according to their folly. The problem is not that students refuse to engage with a particularly rancid viewpoint. The problem is that some students refuse to engage with almost any viewpoint that does not mirror and mimic their own. Even a mildly disagreeable viewpoint, to some students, is an aggressively hostile and morally repugnant viewpoint.

Mizzou’s riots have brought to the forefront a hard reality.  For many people, it no longer matters in any significant degree whether someone who has a viewpoint that opposes their viewpoint has a point. Categories like logic, truth, and prudence – particularly on moral and ethical issues – have been shuffled into the sunset as quaintly archaic interests. What matters most now is how someone’s viewpoint makes someone else feel. And if someone’s viewpoint makes someone else feel threatened, even if, according to the aforementioned categories, the point should be well taken, it is rejected out of hand. Philip Rieff proved to be quite prophetic when he wrote in 1966, “Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.”[2] What matters is not whether something is true. What matters is whether people are pleased by it.

It’s not just college students who have fallen prey to this therapeutic bias.  In 2011, Susanna Dilliplane published an article in the Public Opinion Quarterly titled, “All the News You Want to Hear: The Impact of Partisan News Exposure on Political Participation,” where she laments how more and more Americans get their news only from outlets that share their own political views. It turns out that adults have their own “safe spaces” in the forms of cable news channels, Internet sites, and newspapers.

Even the media itself can fail to listen to viewpoints that differ from its editors. A recent article in The Economist asked, “Can porn be good for us?” Several contributors debated the question, almost all of whom accepted the premise that porn can indeed be good for us, a position which The Economist, if its own editorials are to be believed, seems to share. The debate was presented, at least implicitly, as closed. “Porn can be good for us.” But then The Economist posed the question to its readers. 80% disagreed with the newspaper. In one particularly tragic comment, a reader wrote:

Dear Madam,

Can porn be good for us? NO!! My husband has been trapped for forty years now. He stole “our” sex life used it all up for himself.[3]

The Economist thought the answer to its question was obvious. As it turned out, the editors spent too much time listening to themselves and not enough time listening to their readers. They got duped by their own sexually licentious safe space.

It’s time we begin to ask ourselves some hard questions. Have we become a people completely unwilling and unable to listen to those with whom we disagree? Have we become so impervious to arguments that threaten our worldviews that, even if they contain truth, we cannot concede that someone else who does not agree with us on many things may, in fact, have a point on at least one thing?  Have we blithely rejected Patrick Henry’s famed statement – “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it”[4] – preferring to believe lies that make us feel good instead of confronting truths that unsettle us?  Have we become so proud that we can no longer consider and humbly admit that some of what we say and think may, in fact, be just plain wrong, or at least incomplete?

Whether we are students on a college campus or adults with a daily dose of news or a news outlet with a suspiciously stilted question for debate, we seem to have become much less interested in informing ourselves with rigorous analysis and much more prone to amusing ourselves with tendentious pontificating. I fear, however, that we may be doing a little more than, to borrow a book title from Neil Postman, “amusing ourselves to death.”[5]

___________________________

[1] John H. McWhorter, “Closed Minds on Campus,” The Wall Street Journal (11.27.2015).

[2] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 24-25.

[3]Online Pornography: Can porn be good for us?The Economist (11.17.2015-11.27.2015).

[4] Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” (Richmond, VA: St. John’s Church, 3.23.1775).

[5] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).

December 14, 2015 at 5:15 am 2 comments

San Bernardino and the Power of Prayer

Daily NewsIt all started at a holiday party. Syed Farook, who worked as an environmental specialist for the San Bernardino County health department, was celebrating the season with his coworkers when, at one point during the festivities, he left in a fit of anger. When he returned, he did so with his wife Tashfeen Malik, both of them clad in black tactical gear and heavily armed, and opened fire. By the time the hail of bullets had fallen silent, 14 were dead. 21 were injured. And the couple had left behind explosive devices, which, thankfully, they failed to be able to detonate. Officers pursued the pair and, following a shootout with at least 20 law enforcement officials, the couple was killed.

Police reports indicate that these attacks must have involved “some degree of planning” because of the military style in which they were carried out. Indeed, many experts now believe Farook was radicalized by Internet propaganda from Al Qaeda and meant this to be a terror attack.

Between what happened at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs two weeks ago and what happened in San Bernardino last week, it’s becoming difficult to make sense out of these mass shootings. One BBC reporter stated the insanity of all this succinctly: “Just another day in the United States of America … Another day of gunfire, panic and fear.”[1] This is most certainly – and sadly – true.

As has become the ritual in moments of tragedy and fear, politicians tweeted their “thoughts and prayers” for those of San Bernardino.  The New York Daily News, however, was not all too happy with the “thoughts and prayers” of some Republican politicians, running this headline: “God Isn’t Fixing This: As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes.” Writing for the Daily News, Rich Schapiro explains the headline:

Prayers aren’t working.

White House hopefuls on the Democratic side of the aisle called for stricter gun laws in the wake of the shooting in San Bernardino that left at least 14 dead.

But after yet another mass shooting in America, GOP presidential contenders were conspicuously silent on the issue of gun control.

Instead, the Republicans were preaching about prayer.[2]

On its surface, and probably in its intention, this is a sensationalized political rant about Republicans and their stance on gun control and gun rights. But beyond the headline and behind the politics, a very troubling worldview emerges. In this regard, the Daily News headline is worth parsing.

“God Isn’t Fixing This”

How does the Daily News know this? How can the Daily News claim this? In Christian theology, sovereignty and eschatology go hand in hand. Sovereignty promises us that God has the power to wipe out evil and evildoers. Eschatology reminds us that God has a timeline, which He has not revealed to us, by which He will finally and fully defeat evil while redeeming and perfecting evildoers who put their faith in Christ. Christians, then, believe that God is fixing this, just not on the timeline that we might prefer.

Moreover, how does the Daily News account for the attacks that have been foiled? Like the one in Paris? Millions of people were praying for Paris in the wake of the highly coordinated terror attacks there. Did the prayers of the faithful work when a second terror plot never came to fruition in an attack? Or is the discovery of this terror plot simply to be chocked up to the work of law enforcement officials alone? If so, the Daily News has presented Christians with a lose-lose proposition: when terror attacks do happen, they prove that prayers do not work and God is not fixing things precisely because they have happened. When terror attacks do not happen, prayers still do not work and God is still not fixing things because a government just happened to get ahead of the attackers.   Thus, the Daily News has already determined prayer does not work and God does not fix things, regardless of what does or does not happen.

If this is the case, then what does or does not happen cannot be marshaled, at least according to the rules of logic, as evidence for or against the efficacy of prayer and the activity of God because it has already been assumed that there is no correlation between prayer, divine activity, and terror attacks. What evidence does the Daily News offer, then, to back up its assertion that prayers are not working and God is not fixing this? None. We are simply to believe it because the Daily News wrote it.

“As latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood, cowards who could truly end gun scourge…”

If prayer does not work and God is not at work, what is the solution to these shootings? Politicians are. Politicians, the Daily News says, “could truly end gun scourge.” Really? What evidence is presented for this claim? Like with the effectiveness of prayer and the activity of God, none is. We are simply to believe it because a journalist wrote it.  In point of fact, I’m fairly certain that California lawmakers have worked quite tirelessly to enact some of the strictest gun control legislation in the nation. Why didn’t it work? And if it did not work, what will?

The claim that politicians can end gun scourge is disingenuous and, quite frankly, ridiculous. Can we take steps to curb it? Of course. Can we enact legislation that addresses it? Absolutely. Can we actually end it? If we can, I would like to see that plan. And I would like to test that plan by seeing how many mass shootings and terror attacks we suffer after such a plan is enacted. The number should be, according to the Daily News headline, precisely zero. Call me a pessimist, but I have a feeling it wouldn’t be.

“…hide behind meaningless platitudes.”

On the one hand, I can understand how the phrase “thoughts and prayers” can become a meaningless platitude, especially when it is tweeted by millions. When a phrase is tossed around long enough and carelessly enough, it tends to become meaningless enough. On the other hand, if the Daily News thinks prayers themselves are meaningless platitudes, then it has made an explicitly theological claim, which, once again, it has not bothered to explain or defend. It simply assumes its view on prayer to be true and assumes its readers will uncritically agree.

As I wrote earlier, the editors of the Daily News more than likely meant this as little more than a sensationalized political rant. The very fact that they attack Republicans for tweeting out “thoughts and prayers” for those in San Bernardino without acknowledging that Democratic politicians have done the same smacks of partisan grandstanding.  If they wanted to argue for tougher gun control laws, they could have done so without attacking Christian theologies of prayer and God’s activity.  They could have been critical of Republican lawmakers – and even of their tweets as compared to their actions – without recklessly and baselessly announcing, “Prayers aren’t working.”  But in my mind, what the Daily News probably did not intend to do with its headline, but what it nevertheless did do, matters much more than its political posturing.  The Daily News essentially argues for a secular agnosticism. The Daily News asserts that God, if He does exist, will not help us. It also asserts that God, if He does exist, does not answer our prayers. Therefore, a spiritual answer to a national crisis is stupid and foolish. Only secular answers are realistic and effective. By the end of the article, it is difficult to walk away with anything other than this impression.

As a Christian, it probably comes as no surprise that I cannot accept the underlying premise of the Daily News headline. To offer only a secularly political solution to the spiritual evil of terror attacks makes no sense to me, in large part because it simply will not work. Gun control legislation is worth discussing. Politicians should be discussing it.  And keeping firearms and explosive devices out of the hands of would-be terrorists and other mass murderers should be a top political and national security concern. But even our best efforts will, at least in part, fail. We can be prudent, but we cannot usher in perfection. To believe otherwise is to assume for ourselves a power that belongs only to God.

I also can’t help but wonder: even if a piece of gun control legislation could wipe out all terror attacks and gun violence, how do we help the community of San Bernardino heal in the wake of the attacks that have already taken place? Does God’s power play no role? How do we give those who have lost loved ones hope? Does God’s promise of salvation through faith in Christ mean nothing to those who grieve? Does the Daily News have a better idea than Christ for offering hope for something beyond this life? Or are the people of San Bernardino to be victimized twice – once by the bullets and bombs of terrorists and again by an acidic secular agnosticism that burns away at any worldview that espouses something beyond the days of this life?

The Atlantic, which, interestingly enough, used to be owned by the same man who now owns the Daily News, published the touching story of a text conversation between a daughter and her father that took place during the San Bernardino shooting:

“Pray for us,” a woman texted her father from inside the Inland Regional Center, while she and her colleagues hid from the gunfire. Outside the building, evacuated workers bowed their heads and held hands. They prayed.[3]

The writers at the Daily News may believe that only legislation will solve our problem with gun violence, but those who actually have a gun pointed to their heads still turn first to prayer.  Maybe we should follow suit.

________________________

[1] The Editorial Board, “Another (mass shooting) day in the USA: Our view,” USA Today (12.2.2015).

[2] Rich Schapiro, “GOP presidential candidates offer prayers — not solutions on gun control — after San Bernardino massacre,” New York Daily News (12.3.2015).

[3] Emma Green, “Prayer Shaming After a Mass Shooting in San Bernardino,” The Atlantic (12.2.2015).

December 2, 2015 at 5:15 am 3 comments


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