March 21, 2021

Reason Versus Prayer

I noticed the wry of my smile after it happened. It wasn’t for anyone: I was alone. It came of its own as I read Margaret Downey’s public-alert e-mail announcement on the Mayday for Humanity event to be sponsored May 6, 2021, by the National Day of Reason.

Most striking to me was Downey’s line that read, “The Freethought Society is proud to be a co-sponsor of an event that celebrates the National Day of Reason in sharp contrast to the National Day of Prayer.” It’s the sharpness of that blade of contrast that I feel obligated to find, even if it slices my searching hand. On the day of reason instead of prayer participants will hold a three-hour fundraiser in support of shelters for the homeless and food distribution centers. Safe Harbor, a nonprofit organization in Chester County, Pennsylvania, that has worked for the needy through 25 years, is set to be the principal beneficiary of the nontheist exercise that will include “a free online entertainment extravaganza featuring celebrities, comedians, musicians, poets, and an auction.” Downey explains that nontheists must take action on behalf of the needy “because prayers simply don’t work to solve human problems.”

Downey has a point, of course, about the limits of reverential behavior. The Bible, also pointedly, has laid down the principle in James’s rhetorical query: if someone “is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:15, 16).* And verse 18: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

Early Christian Church leader James was here echoing his Master and younger sibling Jesus, Christianity’s Founder. Jesus takes no responsibility for Downey’s misunderstanding or mine as to our obligation toward the needy. One story of His that bears repeating here uses the same stark categorization that Downey reaches for in her announcement, only that instead of theist and nontheist, instead of reason in sharp contrast to prayer, He talks about simple sheep in contrast with smart and sprightly goats (Matt. 25:31-46). The sheep’s oblivion stands in sharp contrast to the goats’ self-consciousness. Affirmed for their goodness in caring for His needs, the sheep can only manage, “When did we ever do that stuff for You, Lord?” (see verses 37-39). The goats are entirely more confident: “There has never been a time, Lord, when we failed to do our duty toward You” (see verse 44).

The goats’ insight and the sheep’s lack of it is more than anything else a function of their commitment to visible, material, scientifically controllable evaluation; much like Downey’s dismissal of the efficacy of prayer: prayer, audible as it may be, is nowhere as evident as our society’s problems of homelessness. On which, two thoughts:

First, Christianity’s Founder was Himself homeless (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58), which in no way diminished His prayer life (Luke 6:12). For Him, homelessness, serving the needy, and fervent prayer all fit very well together.

For another, a story of my own: I read the nontheist announcement Thursday, March 11. The next evening I attended one of the most heartrending goodbye services I ever have. It was Friday evening, at the beginning hours of a time of surrender to serenity and repose, when I’d normally be sending greetings and best wishes to people rescued, for a season of a single day, from the tyranny of labor, by the sacred institution of Sabbath rest. This time around seemed to hold nothing restful or serene. Instead of a greeting of “Happy Sabbath!” the note I sent the grieving father included a question, variously stated, but requiring no answer. I asked:

“So, should I dare say, does it make anything but mockery of sense to say today, to a grieving father, ‘Happy Sabbath!’? Is being bereaved, heartbroken, and weeping proof that there’s nothing to celebrate this time around? Is exposure of my violated soul, or the demonstration of human limitations, the basis for repudiating such language or sentiment? What would God do on a Sabbath like this?”

What did He do? It turns out that Christianity’s Founder has always had Downey’s specific concerns in mind, and most particularly, in setting aside an entire day for prayer and other acts of worship. He has always been uncompromisingly plain about His program: service to the marginalized, society’s overlooked, and underserved; ultimate liberation from poverty, broken hearts, blindness, captivity, and oppression of every sort (see Luke 4:16-21), inclusive of the otherwise unbreakable tyranny of death. Very early in the morning on the day after the Sabbath, following His participatory rest on behalf of us all, He blew up hell, blasted it to smithereens or to oblivion or to whatever other state of ultimate and irreversible elimination may be declared. At the gaping door of His assigned hell hole He announced, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Death and hell and hunger are children of the evil one. Because of Christ their days are numbered.

Christianity’s Founder not only feeds the hungry; He also frees the dead: He is the Source beyond all society’s need; He is the Resurrection and the Life. He would welcome Downey into His program that accomplishes so much vastly more that helping a 25-year nonprofit in Pennsylvania. And His program works right well with prayer.

Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.

* Bible texts are from the New King James Version. Copyright ã 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.