Back in the days when I was a religious nut job, I used to categorize miracles as big or little. That classification was entirely arbitrary, I now realize. But then, I was under the mistaken impression that one type of miracle might have a higher level of difficulty than another. My problem was that I underestimated the forces it would take for one to override the natural order of things for any purpose, in any way. It is not a matter of degree. All miracles are the same miracle. It is the miracle of dismissing nature so that something else can take place. The something is inconsequential compared to that.
If, however, it was ever appropriate to categorize miracles based on the level of difficulty, then prayer must surely rank near the top of the list. People talk about it as if it was just a simple thing that bears little mention. “I’ll pray for you” is said almost flippantly, as if that was the least we could do. But if we really believed in prayer, and thought seriously about its implications, we would realize that prayer was the most we could do. It is more impressive than moving mountains with nothing but faith. Even reanimating necrotized cells (raising the dead) is a trifle compared to the monumental miracle of prayer. Try to consider everything that is involved:
The first magical part of prayer to consider is that there is a magical being to whom we can pray. Many formulations of magic posit that it is not something that we do directly, rather, that it is something that we bind magical beings to do on our behalf. In popular fiction, those magical beings are demons of one sort or another. I offer the Bartimaeus trilogy as an example. I only mention it because prayer is the polar opposite of magic, only in that it calls upon a different source of power: the good instead of the evil. The believer offers magical incantations to the cosmic embodiment of good, or one of his surrogates. In both magic and prayer, incantations are used to call forth magical beings to do one’s bidding.
This is the point where even liberal religion breaks down for me. There are many people, even Christians who do not believe in a literal god, especially the literal god of the bible. However, these people still pray. That’s a problem. They cannot break the habit of thinking that there is someone out there listening to every word and thought they have. They might say that it is not so much a god that they pray to, but the universal life force. To me, that is simply a less personal god by another name. They may also claim to be practicing aloud, the power of positivity. Both of these explanations fail to common sense.
In one explanation, there is still a consciousness who is able and willing to listen to your words and thoughts. In the other, you are using the magic of thought power. You think up a positive reality, and it somehow is manifested by the sheer amount of positivity thrown at the problem. In either case, there has to be something able and willing to listen to your spoken or mental incantations, then act upon your stated desires. Conservative or liberal, no one prays unless they believe they are sending a real message, and that there is something or someone willing and able to pick up the signal. The first, big miracle of prayer is that there is someone who can pick up the signal.
Who art in Heaven…
Let’s take a closer look at the signal. We pray by speaking words, either audibly, or telepathically. Most believers tend to believe that either is acceptable. Words are grunts and sighs that move air in a very specific way. If those sound waves do not physically connect and vibrate a receptive piece of material in just the right way, then the signal cannot be received. Audible signals are limited in range and intensity. Any words spoken aloud must be picked up by something physical, that is in close proximity to the speaker.
I cannot speak with authority on the subject of telepathy. I can say that thoughts are electrical impulses. We can place certain equipment tightly on the outside of the head, and pick up some of what a person is thinking. I have never seen these experiments done with equipment that is not making contact with the thinker’s head. At the very least, this suggests that if telepathy is possible, it would be for very simplistic, very short-range communications. Again, physical access is required.
Yet prayer assumes a great, unknowable distance between the participants of prayer. The father to whom Christians pray is located in the unlocateable Heaven. We have established that prayer in both forms, requires physicality and close proximity. God cannot just be close to us in some spiritual way. To hear words and thoughts, he must be physically present, and very nearby. The very idea of sending thoughts and words over great distances through space, time, and dimension is so exotic, even science fiction writers shrink at the task of fantasizing how such a thing might happen.
Signal to noise
Imagine yourself at a football game. I’ve been to a handful where the noise was soul-shattering. The sound rising up from the stadium becomes little more than white noise. White noise is the presence of all frequencies at once. In a noisy stadium, it is nearly impossible to understand what is said by the person next to you. It is beyond impossible to hear anything distinguishable from two sections away. The idea of understanding words spoken by someone on the opposite side of the stadium is stretching the ability of science fiction writers. If it was just you and that person, then it might be possible. But with a hundred thousand people all yelling at the same time, the signal to noise ratio is just too low.
There are over eight billion people on the planet. At any given moment, a significant fraction of them are sending up prayers to the god of the bible. It really doesn’t matter what that fraction is. God is said to be monitoring all communications and activities of all people at all times. He is monitoring the actions and thoughts of eight billion people, plus everything that is going on in the ecosystem, the stars, the planets, and every variable presented by the quantum foam. The individual signals at any given second are greater than any number I know how to invent. This is the stuff of God’s attention from one moment to the next.
Yet somehow, he is supposed to be able to pick your prayer out of the noise whenever you send one in his direction. Despite all he has to do, he keeps a special channel open for you at all times. You must be so very special. I don’t know which is more fantastic: the idea that you can transmit a prayer to Heaven, or that God can distinguish your signal from the noise. More to the point, he can distinguish all the signals with no noise, giving his full attention to everything at once. It is hard to imagine any greater miracle.
Faster than light
Light travels very fast, light speed, to be exact. But it is not instantaneous. There is travel time involved. Nothing in this universe travels faster. Light is the speed limit we have to work with. Sound travels much slower than light. If you were sitting across from me at a small table, there would be a measurable interval of time between when I speak a word, and when you hear it. Even lip reading does not get us to instant communication. It takes years upon thousands of years for the light of some stars to reach our eyes. When we gaze into a starry night, we are gazing at history, not the present.
For prayer to be meaningful, the prayer must be transmitted almost instantly. Light speed is far too slow for a god who is physically located outside of the known universe. Even telepathy does not buy you much, as that too, would be bound by the speed of light. But when words or thoughts are transmitted as prayer, then concerns about speed or mode of transmission just go out of the window, likely at light speed, or faster.
The whole point of a prayer of supplication is to make something happen in the hear and now. Furthermore, that something we are trying to make happen has to be something that we, otherwise, would not be able to do ourselves. Prayer is an attempt to manipulate real things that exist in space/time. It is a request from one person, for another to perform an act on their behalf. Because I can’t beat up the bullies myself, I commission someone else to do it for me. That’s prayer. The number of miracles required to answer a prayer, far outweigh the number required to deliver it.
Prayer is a requisition for someone outside of the physical world to do something within the physical world. We are fond of saying that God is a spirit. But by spirit, we usually mean, insubstantial. We might also mean that he is of a substance so different, as to be incompatible with what we think of as the physical universe of stuff. Christians tend to think of themselves as spiritual beings housed in physical bodies. The bodies are so that we can live in, and interact with this physical universe. Outside of a physical body, our spirits are no good in this place. When the spirit is parted from the body, Christians call that death.
For God to interact with this world, he either has to physically incarnate, or use angelic surrogates. Jesus was an example of an elaborate incarnation. It was a way for the essence of God to take physical form, and interact with the world of stuff. Mostly, though, the bible has angels taking care of physical interactions when necessary. The angels seem to act as God’s hands and feet, eyes and ears, and even, voice. If God could do it all himself, he probably wouldn’t need the angels. After all, angels are somewhat unpredictable, considering all the bad ones that supposedly followed Satan in his rebellion. Angels seem to act as God’s physical agency so that he can do things in this realm, like answer prayers.
Angels and ghosts
Unfortunately, we can’t seem to decide if angels are more like humans or ghosts. Sometimes, in the bible, angels appear as men, never women or children. They can grapple and wield a sword. They can deliver messages, serve as body guards, and move large objects, such as boulders that block the entrance to caves. As men, they are subject to the limits of physicality. They cannot walk through walls, or subdue other men without the expedient of fighting. Unlike ghosts, they are visible to the naked eye, and can clearly communicate so that they are both heard and understood by other men.
But that is only sometimes. At other times, angels are more like ghosts. They might appear as the flames in a bush that do not burn, or a disembodied voice that sounds clear to one person, but like thunder to everyone else. Angels are sometimes described as being locked in immortal, invisible combat with dark forces all around us, but without substance that disturbs our sleep at night. When speaking as unintelligible,disembodied voices that can easily float through walls and other structures, they sound a lot more like the popular description of ghosts. Guardian angels seem to be able to provide aid to us in a physical, or non-physical state. It is all very confusing. It is one of those things that Christians never, fully, think through.
No small prayers
I used to grade prayers in the same way I graded miracles in general, as being big or small. But I now realize that, just as there are no small miracles, there are no small prayers. I am not alone in the way I thought about miracles. It seems all religious people feel the same way. I know this because I can see what people feel comfortable with praying for in public. No one wants to sound like a fool when they pray. That is why everyone makes a point to pray for safe things. A safe prayer is for something small and mundane. It does not challenge God to do something obviously miraculous, nor does it insist upon immediacy. It is the kind of prayer that does not make us sound like a lunatic, even among believers.
An example of a lunatic prayer would be to publicly stand up and request that a mountain be relocated. Though Jesus offers this as an example of things for which we should be able to confidently request, we, and everyone else around us would consider it lunacy to do so. Absolutely no one really believes that a mountain will get up and move just because a faithful believer requested it to be so. It would certainly be a neat trick. But no one expects it to happen.
Instead, we offer the safe prayers. We pray for things like a safe commute, or a pleasant flight. These are safe requests because, if we get them, we can claim that God answered our prayers without the need to produce an overt miracle. These are likely things that would happen anyway. The chances of us not having a safe commute are very small. Therefore, we are praying for the thing that is most likely to happen even if we didn’t pray. It is like me commanding my dog to ignore me. What a brilliant dog. He does it every time. I made it to work and back home without an accident. You see, God answers prayers.
By my estimation, though, moving the mountain is the smaller miracle, by far. A mountain is just a single collection of atoms. There is no free will to manipulate. There is no “butterfly effect” to navigate. It is just a matter of relocating one pile of insensate atoms to some other place. I’m no miracle worker or wizard. But I have read all of the Harry Potter books. I can tell you that from the perspective of a person steeped in the world of science, science fiction, and fantasy, moving around piles of rock and dirt is not remotely interesting. However, it requires real power to ensure a safe commute.
Let’s consider the types of manipulations involved in insuring a safe commute. We must again acknowledge that the best assurance of a safe commute is doing nothing at all, as the vast majority of commutes are safe and uneventful. However, let us presuppose that your next commute would end in tragedy without supernatural intervention. Before we can even begin the intervention, we have to know the exact type of calamity you are slated to face. If you are going to meet your doom due to a mechanical malfunction, then God only need focus his attention on a single, mechanical detail. If, on the other hand, your accident will be precipitated by the carelessness of someone else, there is a lot more involved. Even a little bit of the butterfly effect complicates the matter exponentially.
Either way, for God to insure you have a safe commute, he will first, need to be able to see the future. If you are keeping score, that’s a miracle, and a big one. He has to know every possible event that is going to take place that leads to the accident that is slated to ruin your day. Then, he has to preemptively alter those events so that they happen differently, or not at all. He has to violate free will, and change someone’s mind about checking that text while they drive.
Perhaps there is a couple in the middle of an argument, and does not notice the texting driver until it it almost too late. The driver swerves just in time to avoid an accident. Though not in the direct line of fire, you see them swerve, and oversteer your way off the road, and into a tree, and into the loving arms of your maker. Come to think of it, if you end up in the loving arms of your maker, why would you want a safe commute? My point is that there are so many interactions that God has to foresee and manipulate to provide you with a safe commute, it pales in comparison to moving piles of dirt and rock.
Conclusion: Moral Justification for answered prayers
So far, I have attempted to show that prayer requires miracles of epic proportions. It is not a small thing. It is a very big thing. There are no small prayers. There is no greater miracle than prayer. One would actually be demonstrating less belief in magic if one were to stand up in the middle of a funeral, and attempt to reanimate the deceased. That is a smaller act of magic than getting an other-dimensional being to insure a hefty tax refund, despite the fact that you know nothing about filling out tax forms. We would almost never tell a crippled person to arise and walk. Yet, how casually we tell that same person that we will pray for them, as if that were somehow the smaller, less superstitious thing to do.
Now, I turn my attention to an even greater and more miraculous aspect of prayer. It may, in fact, be the greatest miracle of all. How does one justify the moral implications of an answered prayer? The mental gymnastics of this exercise humbles my best attempts. Consider the morality of granting a request for money. You left your wallet at home, and asked me to slip you a ten so that you can buy lunch. Let’s assume that we are both gainfully employed and well paid. Neither of us wants for anything, and the $10 means nothing to me. I don’t think it would be immoral for me to refuse your request, but it may be immoral for me to grant it.
Suppose I give you the money. How do I justify giving you $10 that you really don’t need, while refusing to give even a dollar to a homeless person who could obviously use a bite to eat? I gave you the money because I like you, and ignored the homeless person because he annoyed me. That might actually have moral implications. Refusing a request requires little explanation. We refuse all requests. All are treated equally. When we grant a request, the same cannot be said. We now, have to justify why we do for one, and don’t for another. That can get pretty sticky. For God, the challenge is magnified by an order of magnitude.
At this very moment, a small child, a little girl, is being abused in unspeakable ways. We have already establish that the prayer answering god can see clearly into the future. Not only does he know of the abuse, he knew of it before it took place. He knew of it in the planning stages, he knew of it long before the abuser did. Despite all his foreknowledge, and ability to alter events to keep it from ever happening, he chose not to intervene. Instead, he threw all of the forces of Heaven behind the imperative of insuring your safe commute. Unlike the decision to give someone a Hamilton, that requires some explanation.
The prayerful Christian has to believe that God has a moral justification for the prayers he answers, versus the ones he does not. The level of narcissism it takes to pray for anything is off the charts. You have to believe that you are so special, relieving your cold symptoms is more important than curing the millions who are suffering from AIDS. You have to believe that there is a moral justification for God to attend to your request, while so many go unattended. To even pray for the outcome of a football game is obscene!
We thank God for granting us our $100 glass of wine, while a significant portion of the population does not have clean drinking water. Why does anyone thing that a moral God loves them so much, that he attends to their most insipid requests, while ignoring the physical needs of entire nations? Many Christians are so deluded, they believe that their grandmother’s bunions rate priority treatment over the innocent victim of the drive-by shooting happening at this very moment. How does a Christian ask for help with a mortgage payment in the face of so many homeless people? They must assume that God has already passed judgement on those people, and deemed them unfit for homes. I would not want a blessing from such a god as that. Those who pray not only want such blessings, but are convinced that God loves them so much, they are worthy to receive said blessing. God bless America.
If you have figured out why all the forces of Heaven should break all the natural laws of the universe to make your wishes come true, then there is truly no greater miracle than that.