Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Prayer & providence

In response to something I posted yesterday, John Loftus linked to the following article of his:

***QUOTE***

Christians will assert that the “God of the gaps” epistemology doesn’t adequately describe their knowledge about God and his activity, since God is not just known in the gaps of our knowledge. But consider how science has filled in the gaps when it comes to prayer and healing.

When ancient people prayed for their “daily bread,” they did so because crops could sometimes fail in their local area, or a hunter may fail to bag a deer. Such disasters as these things could produce hunger, and possible starvation. Do Christians today have the same fervor when they pray for their “daily bread” as ancient Christians did? Many Christians in the industrialized West don't even pray before every meal, especially when they eat at a McDonald's. Many if not most all of the Christians in the industrialized West, take their food pretty much for granted.

When Christians are very sick, they will take a prescribed pill from the doctor and be confident they'll get better, even if they do pray. But in the ancient times when someone got very sick they could die. Christians in the ancient past had no choice but to depend almost completely upon God's help here. Are Christians saying they wrestle with God over sickness in prayer like the Christian people of old did? Or is their confidence more in the results of science and medicine, than in God? I know the answer. They just haven't admitted it yet.

As science helps Christians with their daily meals and with healing, they believe in prayer and in God’s help less and less, and they believe in science more and more. Say it isn’t so!

http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2006/01/prayer-healing-and-god-of-gaps.html

***END-QUOTE***

1.Loftus’ little piece is predicated on a half-truth.

In an age of affluence and modern technology, we may well be less aware of our dependence on God.

2.However, when preindustrial Jews and Christians prayed for their daily bread, they didn’t expect that manna from heaven was a permanent substitute for seedtime and harvest.

Biblical theology has always struck a balance between ordinary providence and miraculous provision.

It was never one or the other. At most, the only thing that’s changed is the emphasis.

3.In addition, many of the needs or predicaments which drive us to our knees are not and never will be soluble by the wonders of modern technology.

Indeed, modern technology can generate a new set of moral or practical conundra.

Bioethics is creating new moral dilemmas and borderline cases.

Technology can get us into trouble just as easily as it can get us out of trouble. How many employees have gotten into trouble because they accidentally hit the “send” button or inadvertently cc’d their email to the wrong party, viz. the boss?

4.Science does not fill the gaps of prayer and healing. Not only with respect to (3), but in another key respect as well, for the claim disregards the evidence of answered prayer.

Answered prayer is not a gap in our knowledge. To the contrary, answered prayer is positive evidence of God’s existence and providential care.

5.It is also beside the point to counter this with examples of unanswered prayer, for evidence and inevidence are not on an epistemic par.

A relative lack of evidence does nothing to negate the actual evidence for a given phenomenon. Your inexperience does nothing to erase my experience.

6.Finally, J. P. Moreland has an interesting little lecture on answered prayer, in which he supplies some general criteria as well as concrete illustrations from his own experience.

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Most, if not all, of us wonder if God actually answers prayer. While remembering these answers can be accomplished through journaling, identifying them can be much more difficult.

The Discipline of Journaling

The last three articles have focused on the nature and importance of spiritual disciplines, and we have investigated some specifics about the disciplines of witnessing and solitude/silence. I want to close this series on spiritual disciplines by taking a look at the importance of identifying and remembering answers to prayer.

In my more than 35 years as one of Jesus' apprentices, I have experienced literally hundreds of specific, detailed answers to prayer which have strengthened my faith considerably. I, along with others, experience unanswered prayer as well, but in all honesty, I (and my family and close Christian friends) have seen enough specific answers to prayer that it is no longer reasonable for me to doubt that prayer actually works.

Of the two tasks — identifying and remembering answers to prayer — the latter is relatively easy to discuss, so I will spend most of my time providing ways to identify answers to prayer.

As for remembering answer to prayer, the most effective way that I have accomplished this is by keeping a prayer journal. The point of this journal has not been to write in it every day, but to record the content (and date) of important prayer requests. When I receive positive answers, I then note the date and circumstances associated with them.

Over the years, I have accumulated an incredible record of God's answers to my prayers, including those times when He answered me in ways different than what I had asked. From time to time, I will look back through this journal, and when I do, my faith is deeply strengthened. This record has been so crucial to me because, if I had never logged these incidents and the incredible, supernatural details surrounding them, they would have been forgotten, leaving me with a much weaker view of prayer's effectiveness.

Help from the Intelligent Design Movement

That said, let's turn to some reflections about recognizing answers to prayer. Interestingly, we can get help in this regard by insights derived from the Intelligent Design movement.

Recently, William Dembski has written a book in which he analyzed cases which validate the inference that some phenomena are the result of purposive, intelligent acts carried out by an agent.1 Among other things, Dembski analyzes cases in which insurance companies, the police, and forensic scientists must determine whether a death was an accident (no intelligent cause) or brought about intentionally (done on purpose by an intelligent agent).

According to Dembski, whenever three factors are present, these various investigators are rationally obligated to draw the conclusion that the event was brought about intentionally: (1) The event was contingent; that is, even though it took place, it did not have to happen, (2) the event had a small probability of happening, and (3) the event is capable of independent specifiability; that is, a number of features of the event are specified prior to and independent of the event itself taking place.

To illustrate, consider the game of bridge. Now imagine that one of the players is holding a random set of cards — let's call it hand A — while the dealer is holding a perfect bridge hand. Now if that happened, we would immediately infer that, while hand A was not dealt intentionally, the perfect bridge hand was and, in fact, represents a case of cheating on the part of the dealer. Is our suspicion justified? In order to answer this, let's apply the three factors cited above to the situation.

First, neither hand had to happen. There are no laws of nature, logic, or mathematics that necessitate that either hand had to come about in the history of the cosmos. In this sense, each hand and, indeed, the very card game itself, is a contingent event that did not have to take place.

Second, since both hand A and the perfect bridge hand have the same number of cards, each is equally improbable. So the small probability of an event is not sufficient to raise suspicions that the event came about by the intentional action of an agent.

The third criterion, however, provides the factor that does give us a sufficient reason to raise these suspicions. The perfect bridge hand can be specified as special independently of the fact that it happened to be the hand that came about, but the same cannot be said for hand A. Hand A can be specified as "some random hand or other that someone happens to get." Now that specification applies to all hands and does not mark out as special any particular hand that comes about. So understood, A is no more special than any other random deal. But this is not so for the perfect bridge hand. This hand can be characterized as a special sort of combination of cards by the rules of bridge quite independently of the fact that it is the hand that the dealer received. It is the combination of contingency (this hand did not have to be dealt), small probability (this particular arrangement of cards was quite unlikely to have occurred), and independent specifiability (according to the rules, this is a pretty special hand for the dealer to receive) that justifies us in concluding that this is most likely a case of intelligent design; the intelligence behind this design, of course, is that of the dealer.

So, how does this apply to identifying answered prayer?

Application to Recognizing Answered Prayer

Now the same thing takes place in specific answers to prayer. To illustrate, early in my ministry, while attending a seminar in Southern California, I heard a presentation on how to pray in a more specific way.

Knowing that in a few weeks, I would be returning to Colorado to start my ministry at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden with Ray Womack, a fellow Campus Crusade worker, I wrote a prayer request in my prayer notebook — a prayer which was known only to me. I began to pray specifically that God would provide for the two of us a white house that had a white picket fence, a grassy front yard, a close proximity to the campus (specifically, within two or three miles), and a monthly payment that was no more than $130.

I told the Lord that this request was a reasonable one on the grounds that (a) we wanted a place that provided a homey atmosphere for students, was accessible from campus and that we could afford, and (b) I was experimenting with specific prayer and wanted my faith to be strengthened.

I returned to the Golden area and looked for three days at several places to live. I found nothing in Golden and, in fact, I only found one apartment for $135/month about 12 miles from campus. I told the manager that I would take it and she informed me that a couple had looked at the place that morning and had until that afternoon to make a decision. If they didn't want it, then I could move in the next day.

I called late that afternoon and was informed that the couple took the apartment which was the last available one in the complex. I was back to square one. Now remember, not a single person knew that I had been praying for a white house.

That evening, Kaylon Carr (a Crusade friend) called me to ask if I still needed a place to stay. When I said yes, she informed me that earlier that day, she had been to Denver Seminary. While there, she saw a bulletin board on which a pastor in Golden was advertising a place to rent, hopefully to seminary students or Christian workers. Kaylon gave me his phone number, so I called and set up an appointment to meet the pastor at his place at nine the next morning. Well, as I drove up, I came to a white house with a white picket fence, a nice grassy front yard, right around two miles from campus, and he asked for $110 per month rent. Needless to say, I took it, and Ray and I had a home that year in which to minister.

This answer to prayer — along with hundreds of others that my Christian friends and I have seen — was an event that was (1) contingent and did not have to happen according to natural law; (2) very improbable; and (3) independently specifiable (a number of features of the event were specified in my prayer prior to and independent of the event itself taking place).

Meeting these three criteria are not necessary conditions for being judged to be an action by God (God can answer general prayers that are not too specific), but they do seem to be sufficient, and as such, answers to prayer in my life have increased the rational justification of my confidence in Jesus Christ. And by recording these in my prayer journal, they are an ever-present source of encouragement to me in my life as Jesus' apprentice.

http://www.trueu.org/Academics/LectureHall/A000000425.cfm

***END-QUOTE***

Now, what am I to make of Moreland’s testimony? What’s the most plausible explanation?

There are only three options: (i) he’s telling the truth; (ii) he’s a deceiver, or (iii) he’s self-deluded.

It’s hard to believe that someone of Moreland’s sophistication is self-deluded.

Could he be a liar? Well, anything is possible. But I have no reason to believe that he’s a liar.

And even if he were a liar, he is not a fool. Moreland is a high-profile apologist. That makes him a very inviting target to unbelievers.

If he were caught in a lie, it would destroy his reputation. And he doesn’t need to tell a lie to be a successful Christian apologist.

This leaves us with what is far and away the most plausible explanation: that there is a God who answers prayer.

Not every prayer. But some prayers. And that’s what Scripture would lead us to expect.

12 comments:

  1. I must commend you, Steve (as well as Paul, Jason, and the rest of the Triablogue team), for having the patience to deal with these people on a regular basis. You guys are light years ahead of me in the patience department. Thanks for what you guys do.

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  2. I have no reason to believe that he’s a liar.

    Just as I have no reason to believe that all men are sinners.

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  3. Well then you certainly have no reason to believe that Moreland is lying, Ted. So why don't you believe in a God who answers prayer again?

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  4. Hey Ted,

    Aren't you going to make fun of Steve? I mean, make some joke about him living with his Mom or something? That's just hilarious, we never tire of that one.

    Steve,

    God answers all prayer, it's just that sometimes He says "No" So, no prayer goes unanswered :-)

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  5. then you certainly have no reason to believe that Moreland is lying, Ted

    Non sequitur. But thanks anyway.

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  6. But how does Moreland's answered prayer refute what I said about your receding god of the gaps?

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  7. Ted:

    I was half-joking, but my point was sort of an a fortiori:

    We believe that all men are sinners. Yet we still have no reason to believe that Moreland is lying.

    You, on the other hand, do not believe that all men are sinners. A fortiori, it would seem as though you especially have no reason to think Moreland is lying.

    Thus Steve's reasoning would appear to be back you into a corner. Unless, of course, you'd care to actually try and give an answer.

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  8. You, on the other hand, do not believe that all men are sinners. A fortiori, it would seem as though you especially have no reason to think Moreland is lying.

    Still a non sequitur. There's no inherent tension between rejecting the generalism that all human beings are sinners and recognizing that individuals can and sometimes do lie.

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  9. Pippendicott8/09/2006 5:58 PM

    Travis: "We believe that all men are sinners. Yet we still have no reason to believe that Moreland is lying."

    You just gave your reason: "all men are sinners." That's sufficient a priori reason to be suspicious of anything anyone says, especially if you buy into the idea of total depravity. But most people who profess total depravity that I have met tend not to act as if they really believed it about their fellow man.

    Travis: "You, on the other hand, do not believe that all men are sinners. A fortiori, it would seem as though you especially have no reason to think Moreland is lying."

    Ted would certainly have no reason to think that Moreland is lying if he affirmed a general conclusion like "No men ever lie" or "All men are always righteous." But he did not affirm anything like that. No where does Steve's "reasoning" seem to have backed anyone into a corner, except himself of course.

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  10. Pippendicott wrote:

    You just gave your reason: "all men are sinners." That's sufficient a priori reason to be suspicious of anything anyone says, especially if you buy into the idea of total depravity. But most people who profess total depravity that I have met tend not to act as if they really believed it about their fellow man.

    Travis writes:

    Would you care to explain how exactly the fact that all men do sin against God gives us an a priori reason to be suspicious of every claim anyone makes? And would you care to explain how exactly the doctrine of total depravity would do the same? Perhaps you are misunderstanding the doctrine. It doesn't claim that men are "totally depraved" in the sense that they're all horrible, rotten folks, but rather is a claim concerning the extent of sin's influence upon men—namely, that sin has infected every area of man—and that he is unable to come to Christ on his own. That doesn't seem to entail what you're claiming here.

    Pippendicott wrote:

    Ted would certainly have no reason to think that Moreland is lying if he affirmed a general conclusion like "No men ever lie" or "All men are always righteous." But he did not affirm anything like that. No where does Steve's "reasoning" seem to have backed anyone into a corner, except himself of course.

    Travis writes:

    Well the argument is before Ted, and we've asked him to state his reason for disbelieving Moreland. But he hasn't done so.

    How, exactly, has Steve's reasoning backed him into a corner?

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  11. Pippendicott8/10/2006 3:54 PM

    Travis: "Would you care to explain how exactly the fact that all men do sin against God gives us an a priori reason to be suspicious of every claim anyone makes?"

    By presupposing every individual's guilt.

    Travis: "And would you care to explain how exactly the doctrine of total depravity would do the same?"

    By intensifying the presupposition of every individual's guilt.

    Travis: "Perhaps you are misunderstanding the doctrine."

    Of course - whenever a critic draws an inference that is uncomfortable, it's because he doesn't really understand. Perhaps you don't really believe the doctrine.

    Travis: "It doesn't claim that men are "totally depraved" in the sense that they're all horrible, rotten folks, but rather is a claim concerning the extent of sin's influence upon men—namely, that sin has infected every area of man"

    Right. Such as truth-telling. Thank you. "Let God be true, but every man a liar." So, I'm letting Moreland be a liar. You seem unwilling to do so. Fine. (I know, your guy gets a pass, right?)

    Travis: "How, exactly, has Steve's reasoning backed him into a corner?"

    See above.

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  12. Pippendicott wrote:

    By presupposing every individual's guilt.

    Travis writes:

    Total depravity does not maintain that every individual is guilty of every sin all the time.

    Pippendicott wrote:

    Of course - whenever a critic draws an inference that is uncomfortable, it's because he doesn't really understand. Perhaps you don't really believe the doctrine.

    Travis writes:

    In other words, you don't need to really familiarize yourself with the doctrine to critique it. You'll just decide what you think it means and draw conclusions from that and then claim I don't believe the doctrine when I correct you.

    Pippendicott wrote:

    Right. Such as truth-telling. Thank you. "Let God be true, but every man a liar." So, I'm letting Moreland be a liar. You seem unwilling to do so. Fine. (I know, your guy gets a pass, right?)

    Travis writes:

    This doesn't entail that Moreland lies all the time, nor does it take into account issues of progressive sanctification.

    But let's leave all of that aside for a moment.

    You don't believe in total depravity. So none of this helps you in explaining why you think Moreland is lying.

    I don't need Moreland's testimony to believe in answered prayer. I can get that from the Bible.

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