Gretta Vosper, HarperCollins
You might remember where you were when you heard that John Lennon had been shot, or what you were doing when news came through about the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York. But I remember very clearly stopping to buy a coffee in a small Queensland town picking up the local rag with the headline, “They prayed but there was no miracle.”
For several days we held our collective breath, hoping and praying that miners trapped underground in a NZ mine would be rescued safely. No miracle occurred — 29 men died.
Here lies the conundrum at the heart of Vosper’s latest book. For centuries, Christians have prayed to a supernatural God to keep us safe. Yet we struggle to accommodate that same God answering some prayers and not others. Simply pointing to a higher wisdom, or justifying the necessity of some tragedy so that a greater good might be achieved, forcing us to learn a lesson or appreciate our blessings, or perhaps worst of all, blaming the person who’s prayer has not been answered, are simply not good enough, says Vosper.
In a well constructed and wide ranging argument Vosper explores what it might mean to pray without the requirement of belief in a supernatural and interventionist deity. While she does argue for the necessity of expressing our awe, gratitude and need, not to mention ways of dealing with our guilt, Vosper urges us to consider ways of expressing those things without claim on the action of “God”.
There are many challenges here. Vosper invites those who hold belief in a supernatural, interventionist God to think about what we think they are doing, or trying to do, when they pray. Do they think that God changes God’s mind, or that God favours some with answered prayer and not others? And if so, how does that fit with what their understanding of “God”?
For those who have let go any notions of an interventionist deity, there is a further challenge. Gosper identifies the huge gap between theologically trained church leaders (who have had the benefit of modern biblical scholarship) and the average person in Sunday worship (many who think about and practice their faith as if they lived 100 years ago). Gosper challenges the former to “have the guts” to communicate what they’ve learned at theological college instead of staying in the liturgical comfort zone, high on poetry and low on clarity.
Although Vosper, a minister in the United Church of Canada and author of With or Without God, is able to allow “to each his own”, her linguistic absolutism does not allow any ambiguity or shades of meaning.
In the end, the reader is being invited into an exploration of the concept and practice of prayer — with or without god. And surely that is a good thing.