On February 18, 2011, The Christian Century carried a short piece (Century Marks section, no permanent link available), possibly for the purpose of light entertainment. During the apartheid period in South Africa an Anglican convent was visited by a prominent theologian. One of the resident nuns informed him: “You church leaders have a big job to do, and you’re always so busy that we wonder whether you spend the time you should in prayer. We try to carry some of that load for you.” It seems that, to take on this burden, the nuns prayed every day, in sequence, for a whole array of church leaders. When this visiting church leader, whom the nun did not know, told her his name, she said: “Your name comes up every day between five and six P.M.”
Yes, this is a mildly entertaining story; perhaps even a moving one. But it raised an interesting question in my mind: Just what did the nuns pray for?
Since the Anglican church in South Africa, under Desmond Tutu (the Archbishop of Cape Town), played an honorable role in the resistance to apartheid, it is plausible that this was the “big job” to which the nun was referring. But this leaves several possibilities open. Did they ask God to strengthen the faith and the resolution of the church leaders? Or, without asking for miracles, was God asked to use the political and perhaps even the violent activities to bring about the end of apartheid? Or was God indeed being asked for a miracle? Say, that all the leaders of the government should suddenly drop dead next Sunday?
There are quite different forms of prayer. The most comprehensive compendium is probably still the massive work, Prayer, by Friedrich Heiler (published in 1919 as Das Gebet). It makes for rather depressing reading. For thousands of years the divinity was addressed in shouts and whispers, by chants, dancing and sacrifices, in quiet contemplation or in the agony of despair. How often did these prayers receive any kind of answer? An agnostic will surmise that, except by way of delusion, the overwhelming answer has been silence.
Broadly speaking, in the Abrahamic traditions one may distinguish between three types of prayer (regardless of whether the prayer is communal or individual). Doxological prayer praises God and gives thanks. Contemplative prayer is to enable human beings to achieve spiritual growth (in the most radical case, this achievement is mystical union with the divine). Petitionary prayer asks God to do something. I think it is fair to say that many spiritual directors and other religious authorities have looked askance at petitionary prayer: One should worship God for His own sake, not to pressure him to do us favors—which could even be construed as a form of magic. Yet Christians, for one, might recall that in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer God is asked to “give us our daily bread”—a phrase which surely stands for a whole range of very mundane, definitely non-spiritual, human needs.
Although the modern world is not as secularized as many historians and social scientists still believe, there exists an official worldview which privileges purely naturalist explanations of reality—that is, explanations that seek to avoid any explanations implying supernatural interventions in the empirically ascertainable interplay of cause and effect. Doxological and contemplative prayer can generally stay within a naturalist framework. Indeed, so can petitionary prayer—but it need not—and, I think, for most believers who pray for help, it does not. Take prayers for healing. God may be asked to strengthen the faith of the sick person, so that the very sickness may be a means for spiritual growth—no miracle is implied. Or God may be asked to guide doctors to find the right cure—again, no miracles invoked—rather, God is supposed to act through natural processes. But the petitioner may indeed ask God for a miracle of healing—then the sickness may disappear instantaneously, in a way that cannot be explained in naturalist terms. In such stories of divine healing, there are always baffled doctors left behind.
Petitionary prayer raises a problem of theodicy—that is, a question about God’s justice. Suppose I pray for God to heal my friend who is seriously ill. But what about the person lying in the next hospital bed? We know that God does not answer all prayers for healing. Why do we expect him to answer my prayer, and not the prayer for my friend’s neighbor? In the more bucolic regions of Germany and Austria there is a muscular version of this sort of discriminatory prayer. It is a prayer to St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters and chimney sweeps: “Dear St. Florian, spare me! Burn the house of someone else!” But let me leave aside here the perennial problem of theodicy. Rather let me pose this question: May one pray for miracles? Put differently: May one’s faith put aside the naturalist bias of the official worldview?
These questions may of course be debated theologically. I will not do this here. But, empirically speaking, one can confidently assert that these questions will become ever more pressing in the contemporary world, most so in what was long its modern heartland in Europe and North America. Modernity is no longer confined to this heartland. And, as I previously discussed in this blog, the demographic center of Christianity is shifting away from the Global North to the Global South. There are probably now more Christians in Africa than in Europe. African immigrants are bringing their supernaturalism to Europe, as Latin American immigrants are bringing theirs to the United States. As to Africa, a recent book by a Dutch scholar provides a vivid picture of Christianity on that continent—Gerrie ter Haar, How God Became African (2009). Here is a worldview positively humming with supernaturalism. The spirit world is all around us. Its denizens, both benign and malevolent, constantly interact with ordinary reality. The Holy Spirit can be invoked for blessing. Satan and the demons can be exorcized in the name of Jesus. There are many miracles—prophecies, spirit possession, ecstasy, even the raising of the dead. But at the core of this supernaturalism is miraculous healing. In Africa this is true of both Pentecostals and so-called AICs—“African-Initiated Churches,” which try to synthesize Christianity with traditional African religion. There are important differences between these two types of charismatic Christianity—AICs accept ancestor worship, Pentecostals strongly reject it. But healing is central in both. The same supernaturalism spills over into mainline Protestant churches and, with some modifications into the Roman Catholic church. Mutatis mutandis, the picture is very similar in Latin America. An ubiquitous Pentecostal bumper sticker proclaims “Cristo salva y sana”—“Christ saves and heals”.
Ter Haar discusses in some detail the case of Emmanuel Milingo, the former Catholic Archbishop of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. In 1973 he began a ministry of exorcism and spiritual healing, making his cathedral a center of exuberant supernaturalism. The Vatican became increasingly alarmed. Milingo was recalled to Rome, but he continued his miracle-working there, attracting not only African immigrants but native Italians. Milingo was finally excommunicated in 2006 for a seemingly unrelated reason (he had ordained married priests). By then, apparently, he was no longer interested in the actions of the Vatican. He was himself married, and had a rather curious relationship with the Unification Church of the Reverend Moon (an Asian case of syncretism and supernatularism).
Whatever one’s views of the spirit world, one can be quite sure of what is happening in the ordinary world: the story of Emmanuel Milingo will not be an isolated case.