Monday, 19 December 2011

Does God grant fine weather for church fĂȘtes?

Sermon on Philippians 4: 4-7, St Matthew’s, 18th December 2011

The verse I’d like to pick out for comment today is a verse from our Epistle reading – Chapter 4 Verse 6 of Paul’s letter to the Philippians: ‘Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God’.

I’d like to focus on this verse because I have been thinking about petitionary prayer recently in the light of an ongoing discussion I’ve been having with various people about God’s omnipotence and omniscience.

Although a debate about what we mean by God’s omnipotence and omniscience might seem a bit esoteric, I do think it’s an important debate because what we decide affects what we think we are doing when we pray for things to happen and what we can legitimately pray for. In this sermon I would like to say something about each of these in turn.

I would like to argue firstly that in petitionary prayer we can persuade God to do change his mind and secondly miracles do happen and it’s OK to pray for a miracle.

But back to omnipotence and omniscience for a moment. The basic dilemma for me is this: if God is omnipotent - in the usual meaning of that word (ITUMOTW) - then he is in control of everything including all that has happened and is going to happen in the future. Indeed he might be said to have already caused everything that has happened including some horrendous evils such as the Holocaust and the crucifixion of his son. This I find difficult to accept.

Furthermore if God is omnipotent – in the usual meaning of that word – he has already – in a sense – foreordained everything that is going to happen and therefore knows what is going to happen. He is omniscient. So what is the point of petitionary prayer? Why, in Paul’s word’s should we let our requests be known to God if he knows what we want already and he knows whether he is going to answer that prayer or not?

One common answer to this conundrum is that what we are doing in prayer is somehow bringing our desires in line with those of God’s. In other words prayer is not so much telling God what he already knows but our learning from him what he thinks. This makes prayer an odd sort of conversation. Here is such a conversation with an omnipotent (ITUMOTW) and omniscient God

Me: Please God could we have fine weather for the Church fete next Saturday.

God: Mike: you know from the weather forecast that it will probably rain.

Me: I know that, and you know that I know that, but that’s why I am praying for fine weather.

God: But Farmer Jones in the next village has just prayed for rain. And I know that his need is greater than yours.

Me: Ah I see. So I don’t suppose there anything I could say to persuade you that our need is greater than Farmer Jones’s: the immanent closure of the local Adventure Play ground we are raising money for, for example.

God: Nope.

Me: Ah well.

This seems to me a rather unsatisfactory conversation. A more satisfactory conversation with God would surely run like this.

Me: Please God could we have fine weather for the Church fete next Saturday.

God: Mike: you know from the weather forecast that it will probably rain.

Me: I know that, and you know that I know that, but that’s why I am praying for fine weather.

God: But Farmer Jones in the next village has just prayed for rain. And I think that his need is greater than yours.

Me: Is there anything I could say to persuade you that our need is greater than Farmer Jones’s: the immanent closure of the local Adventure Play ground we are raising money for, for example.

God: I’ll look into it.

Of course if this sort of conversation is more like real prayer than the first then it follows that a) we stand some chance of persuading God to do things that he wouldn’t have otherwise done and b) he can intervene in our lives and indeed his creation – including the weather - in ways which are miraculous.

I have argued before that one of the reasons why I think God is persuadable is, paradoxically perhaps, that he isn’t entirely in control of everything and doesn’t therefore know about everything and that is because he has given us free will. This means that God’s decisions are contingent upon our decisions to some extent. And it also means that he does not necessarily know everything that is going to happen – is not omniscient.

In the imaginary conversation above, God may will not yet know what the local Council are going to do in relation to funding for the Adventure Playground – because the relevant meeting has not yet taken place and the relevant free choices have not been made. In which case God’s decision about the rain is still be open at the time of my prayer.

In sum I think petitionary prayer – even for fine weather at church fetes –sometimes works because God has yet to make up his mind what is going to happen. And by works I do mean efficacious. I realise that it is somewhat piously said that God answers all our prayers but in the way he wants not the way we want. But this to me is a sort of cop out. It seems to me to suggest that our desires do not matter to God.

And here is a bit of a diversion about prayers for fine weather at church fetes. It is surprising how often this turns up as an example of the sort of prayer a mature Christian would not and should not make. It’s an interesting sort of prayer because we know that if it is fine for our fete that won’t be good for someone else – a local farmer is usually wheeled in here – so in making the prayer we are asking for the impossible – a miracle if you like. And perhaps this is why it is selected as an example of a faintly ridiculous sort of prayer. For of course it is always much easier to pray for what is possible - the non-miraculous. But I’ll come back to asking for miracles in prayer later.

We mature Christians also know, of course, that God is more interested in prayers for other people rather than ourselves. Church fetes score a few points on the worthiness scale here because it’s not just us who will enjoy the event more if the weather is fine t but all those others who will attend. But in praying for others we tend to feel our prayers should be for serious problems like big life decisions or serious diseases. We presume God’s not interested in minor colds or how people are going to find time to do all the things they need to do before Christmas or whether or not people are going to get wet at the church fete?

Note that in our reading Paul says that ‘in everything’ not just ‘in serious things’ we should, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let our requests be known to God’. Furthermore he doesn’t say ‘requests for other people’ or even ‘requests we think God will answer’ but – at least by implication – all our requests – whether we think God is interested in them or not.

So one reason why I think we should let God know our requests is that we cannot predict how God might answer them. And indeed God cannot entirely do so either even though his knowledge is infinitely greater than ours. I also think it is somewhat presumptuous of us, even arrogant, to suggest which aspects of our lives God is interested in and to predict how God might answer prayers about our concerns.

And this is where miracle comes in. An omnipotent God (ITUMOTW – is to my mind dangerously close to an absent God. If God fore-ordained everything from the start what need is there for miracles? If for example God - from the very beginning - planned for the Israelites to escape from Egypt via the Red Sea, he would have known when would be the best time for them to cross over without any need for a miraculous parting of that sea. We now know that there are certain freak weather conditions which make the Red Sea passable on occasion.

The Bible is full of miracles and at the heart of the Christian story is a miracle: a baby born in a stable who was somehow God. Furthermore when that baby grew up the miraculous seemed to happen all around him. When people asked him for healing from serious illness it happened, the winds and waves appeared to obey him and when he died he miraculously rose from the grave.

It is extremely difficult I think to explain away all miracle and still be left with a meaningful Bible. And in any case I am not sure that the miraculous is –even nowadays – is as exceptional as we might think. If we look we can see miracles all around us. We sometimes see or even experience healings from diseases where there would seem to be no hope of a cure. Sometimes even the weather changes seemingly as a result of prayer.

Note that the parting of the Red Sea was a weather-related miracle in response to a prayer from Moses and so too were some of the miracles of Jesus such as his calming of the storm. John Taylor – in The Christlike God – tells this story of a weather-related miracle.

‘Forty years ago my wife, Peggy and I were climbing a mountain in East Africa with four friends. After a night in a mountain hut the others set out to make for the summit while we prepared food and water for the evening meal; then we went after them. We go up without encountering them but this did not surprise us as they had been gone some time. When we started back I made a reckless blunder. Forgetting that the summit had been a constant landmark and the return would be without one, I suggested a short cut across the wide arc we had come by. We lost our bearings, got into very rough terrain and had to cringe under an overhanging cliff while a black thunderstorm drenched us. When it passed I looked in all directions with no idea where the hut lay, and appalled realisation of what I had done. In a very small voice Peggy said, ‘We’re lost, aren’t we?’

‘I said, ‘Yes. I’m dreadfully sorry, it’s my fault.’

‘She said, her voice quite steady, ‘I’m frightened, John.’

‘‘So am I’ was all I could answer.

‘And then she said, ‘Well. It is Whitsunday,‘ and at that instant a beam of sunlight struck though the cloud and shone for a few seconds on the hut about two miles away, reflected dazzlingly from its aluminium roof, giving us our bearings. It was the most direct act of Good I have personally experienced.’

But Taylor does not stop there he goes on immediately to say, ‘but the miracle did not happen up there in the grey sky. The break in the cloud was going to happen anyway.’ I am not so certain. Is it so difficult to believe that God could cause a break in the cloud? We now know from Chaos Theory that it only takes a butterfly to flap its wing in Indonesia for the weather to change in East Africa.

Taylor says ‘What I know for certain is that, had I characteristically been protesting that we could still find our way, and had Peggy retorted, with justice, ‘How could you be such a fool?’, we would have been glaring at each other and would never have seen that pointing shaft of light. The miracle was in us, they almost always are’.

Why is John Taylor so certain that the miracle was in the changing of the usual dispositions of the two people here rather than break in the cloud? Which miracle is harder to believe? Is it so much harder for God to change the nerve impulse of a butterfly in Indonesia so that it flaps its wing than the nerve impulse(s) of two people in East Africa so that they would look at the relevant spot rather than be glaring at one another.

Perhaps miracles in answer to prayer happen all the time. Perhaps our problem is that we don’t see the miraculous answers.

So to summarise. And perhaps it has taken me a long time to state the obvious . But firstly God listens to our prayers and sometimes answers our requests and secondly it may take a miracle to answer some of our requests but that’s no excuse for not making our requests known to God. Miracles sometimes happen. So with Paul I say,‘Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God’.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Omniscience or does God know everthing?

Sermon on Romans 15: 4-13 and Luke 21: 25-33, St Matthew’s, 4th December 2011

Yet again I am not going to say much about the two readings for today. This is partly because I preached on the Gospel reading last Sunday and you can read that sermon on my blog. I don’t think I have anything much to say about the second coming than I said there. And though I have had a few conversations about my sermon I haven’t really changed my views.

Today I would like instead to say a little about God’s omniscience: the idea that God knows everything including the future. There is sort of a connection with today’s readings in that both contain prophecies. In the Epistle reading Paul quotes a prophecy of Isaiah which seems to have already come to pass to some extent. Isaiah predicts that ‘a root of Jesse’ (Paul clearly has Jesus in mind) ‘shall rise to rule over the Gentiles’. The Gospel reading gives us a I sermon of Jesus where he is talking about the end times and spells out that ‘they shall see the Son of Man coming in a power with power and great glory’.

Prophecy implies – at least to some extent – knowledge of the future. The prophets of the Old Testament – according to the Old Testament writers get this knowledge from God. Jesus –according to the Gospel writers – clearly has foreknowledge: he predicts his death and what will happen after his death – and the Gospel writers clearly assume that this knowledge comes from God too.

In coming to understand that Jesus was God I think we are right to assume that this power of prophecy is an aspect of his nature as God and yet Jesus never seems entirely certain what is going to happen. When in the Garden of Gethsemane, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus prays ‘Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.’ he seems to know clearly what is likely to happen him but yet hopes for a different future which is surely still open at that point.

A well known text from Isaiah states: ‘I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come’ (Isaiah 46: 9-10). The Bible contains numerous examples of prophecies many of which have already been fulfilled but not all of prophecies are. For example Jonah predicts God’s destruction of Nineveh (Jonah 3: 4) but in the event the people of Nineveh repent and God does not destroy Nineveh. God changes his mind. And there are many other examples of these so-called conditional prophecies. A prophecy then may express God’s general intention for and knowledge of the future but what actually happens can depend on what humans do. I am coming to think that whatever the prophecy the outcome may depend on what God (and to a lesser extent humans) in the event do. That the outcome is never certain –even for God.

God – clearly has extraordinary knowledge – but the question for me is whether he can know everything that is going to happen including what we humans are going to do before we do it. The omniscience of God relates to the omnipotence of God – on which I preached about two Sundays ago. I said then that I thought I don’t think God is omnipotent in the sense that many Christians have traditionally regarded him. And this leads me also to question whether God is omniscient in the traditional sense of that word.

I have been reading a bit about God’s omniscience over the last few weeks and in particular a book Steve has leant me – called the Openness of God by Clark Pennock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker and David Basinger. This book makes it clear that our traditional understanding of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, unchangeablity, etc, is not necessarily Biblical but is largely derived from the ideas of the Greek philosophers – particularly Plato and Aristotle. The early Church Fathers such as Augustine took these ideas and mixed them together with Biblical ideas and came up with what we have come to regard as the orthodox view of the nature of God. This view has remained largely unchallenged by theologians until recently.

Now some of these theologians have realised that an omniscient God is needs to be reconciled with human freedom. If God knows everything we are going to do in advance of what we are going to do then we are in a sense predestined to do what we are going to do and we do not have freedom to do other than what God knows we will do. However for me human freedom is compatible with an omniscient God. This is because I do not think God’s knowledge is the cause of future events. God could simply see what is going to happen and human beings use their freedom in the way God predicts. Whether human beings choose to have faith in God or whether God gives human beings faith in him is of course a separate but related question. I am inclined to the view that faith is a gift from God. But that is a different sermon.

My main problem with the idea of an omniscient God is that it seems to me to be in conflict with the idea of an all loving God. This is because I think love is a two way process – a relationship. Yes God’s love for us is infinitely greater than our love for him but there is a sense in which a lover needs a loved one for there to be love. God created his creation not because he needed to but out of love. Furthermore God has given us - the pinnacle of his creation -freedom to love him. He now needs us to love him if he is to love us in the way that he desires i.e. that we freely choose to love him. He cannot compel us to love him –as love by definition cannot involve compulsion - and this means he cannot know in advance whether or not we are going to do so. If he did know in advance that we would love him then he would not experience love as love.

Of course this presupposes that love needs to be felt and God has feelings of love. This might seem that I am anthropomorphising God – making God out to have emotions like we humans do. That I think God has feelings is not unreasonable from any cursory reading of the Bible. The God of the Old Testament clearly experiences feelings of love (amongst other emotions) for his people the Israelites. And Jesus – the incarnation of God clearly does feels love for his disciples. It is only the God of the philosophers who because he is omnipotent and omniscient and in consequence unchangeable who does not feel love.

What’s all this to do with the good news you might say? Well it’s part of the explanation – a small part perhaps – of the mystery behind why God could come to earth as a human baby – whose first bed was in a stinky stable. God chose this way of being to demonstrate his powerlessness not his power. A baby knows nothing too. Power and knowledge are something but not everything. Love is everything and power and knowledge need to be laid aside for love to operate. Power and knowledge were clearly laid aside in the shape of the baby Jesus. Perhaps power and knowledge were also laid aside when God created human free will. And perhaps even before that.

Omnipotence (2)

I will post here a sermon that I gave at St Matthew's two weeks ago because it relates to the sermon I gave today. But the sermon leaves lots to be desired and needs amending before I post it.