As the horrific events in Westminster (22 March 2017) unfolded, the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer probably spoke for many when she tweeted:
Her implication was clear enough — the likelihood that the attacker would eventually be unmasked as a radicalised Muslim (or ‘Islamist’) suggested that religion (a worldview that entails prayer) is the cause of terrorism and not the solution. In response to a tweet by the former editor of The Catholic Herald, Christina Odone, Hartley-Brewer clarified her views somewhat:
Plenty of others will be arguing about the putative historical and current links between religion and violence, but I want to consider just one question: In the face of senseless violence, what possible good can prayer do?
In Praise of Virtue Signalling
The term ‘virtue signalling‘ was popularised by James Bartholomew in the Spectator in April 2015. It is usually taken to describe the use of words or symbols designed to draw attention to one’s own moral goodness or superiority. Twitter is a forum that lends itself especially to ‘virtue signalling’, simply because Twitter is a public forum that facilitates the expressing of opinions.
Virtue signalling existed long before Twitter. One might argue that wearing a poppy is nothing more than a way of saying, “Look at me! I care about our war dead.” The same would go for black armbands, charity wristbands and all manner of other paraphernalia. Twenty years ago someone might have expressed an achingly right-on opinion to a few friends in a pub whereas now they can broadcast it to thousands of people within seconds. Several months ago, many politicians and celebrities took to Twitter to post photos of themselves holding captions saying “#Refugees Welcome” or offering to home a refugee family. It is reasonable to wonder whether these laudable intentions have been translated into action.
Lying beneath our contempt for virtue signalling is our belief that ‘actions speak louder than words’ and ‘talk is cheap’. Much of the criticism of the #PrayForLondon hashtag was based upon the same principle. Don’t just talk (or, worse, pray); for goodness’ sake, do something! As Julia Hartley-Brewer implied, terrorism is perpetrated by ‘real people’, and therefore we may infer she is urging ‘real action’ as opposed to supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
As a high-profile supporter of Brexit, Hartley-Brewer has rightly attacked liberal elites (in politics, banking and other walks of life) who sneer at the ordinary citizens who voted to leave the corporatist racket that is the EU. However, in the matter of #PrayersForLondon, she is the one sneering:
Unlike the rest of us, she is rational. Whereas we engage in the ludicrous fiction of ‘speaking’ to an imaginary God, she lives in the ‘real world’ of ‘real human beings’. She speaks sense amidst a sea of Bible-bashers and religious nut-jobs. It is not necessary to labour the point — this is just a species of virtue signalling.
On Twitter, some degree of virtue signalling is all that is available to most people. Ms Hartley-Brewer tweeted that “the solution isn’t prayers,” and I dare say few religious people would disagree. What came across as contemptuous was to dismiss people’s recourse to prayer as ‘nonsense’. Most people who use Twitter are not politicians, neither are they likely to be invited to share their views on TV (as Hartley-Brewer regularly is), nor do they have the opportunity to broadcast via a daily radio show (ditto). Moreover, and this is hard to understand, a majority of Twitter users worldwide do not live in London. What they can actually do in terms of the ‘real world’ is necessarily circumscribed.
Faced with the unfolding tragedy in Westminster, thousands of people felt helpless, however much they might have wished that they could help. They were in no position to tend the injured, but neither did it seem clear to them what role they could play. Some, it is true, ‘joined in’ by retweeting extremist messages of another kind — referring to ‘Muslim scum’, the ‘enemy within’ or Theresa May ‘letting in millions of illegals’. Some rushed to broadcast the name of the terrorist, which turned out to be wrong. Many, however, showed rather more humility when it came to it, resisting the temptation to trot out the easy answers. In that context, the hashtag #PrayForLondon counts as a cry of solidarity from the helpless.
Prayer and Reason
I can only write about prayer as one who prays within my own religious tradition. In the Hartley-Brewer guide to world religions that means the ‘violent and oppressive’ strand of Christian belief also known as Catholicism.
When talking to Atheists, it’s instructive to know about the God in whom they do not believe. Many, for example, properly reject the vast, omnipotent baby described by Friedrich Nietzsche. When Nietzsche announced “Gott ist tot” he was not claiming anything new, merely repeating one of the central insights of the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, where a primitive belief in ‘the gods’ (the beings who needed to be placated to ensure martial success or fruitful harvests) gave way to belief in God himself. There are plenty of believers in God who muddy the waters by clinging to a kind of pagan belief in ‘the gods’ — the sort of gods who ‘hate fags’ or are pleased by the violent deaths of human beings in suicide bombings, for example.
Christians believe that human beings are ‘made in God’s image’. What does this mean? It clearly does not lead us to conclude that God has limbs, walks on two legs, or even that ‘he’ is male or female. We take it to mean, rather, that we are endowed with reason and the capacity to make moral choices which are truly our own. Christians, then, must be rational, and this means being able to be quite clear about what prayer is, what it can achieve and what it is for.
First, we cannot think that prayer is a matter of ‘changing God’s mind’. God does not change. He is not one moment full of anger and then, in response to our prayer and contrition, relenting and forgiving. He is Love. Prayer, whatever it is, is about having a personal relationship with this God of Love. And yet, because we are Christians, that relationship is rooted in Jesus Christ. God is what makes sense of prayer, because God is what makes sense of Christ.
The Gospels present an uncompromising vision of the human condition: if you do not love, then you are not alive; if you love, you will be killed. The most vivid image of this apparently oxymoronic truth is the crucifixion of Jesus. In other words, if you remain closed off from your fellow men and women in sterile isolation, you cannot said to be fully alive. However, if you live a life of self-sacrificing love as Jesus did, then the world will want you dead. When Christians pray, we share in the prayer of the cross when Jesus casts everything — the failure of his mission of love — upon his Father in heaven.
We know, of course, that the ‘answer’ to that prayer of Jesus was not that God sent an army of angels to bring him down from the cross and establish him as Roman Emperor, smiting his accusers. The only God whom Christians know is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. The Kingdom is not brought about by the human action of Jesus, but a gratuitous act of the Father’s love. The ‘default setting’ of any Christian prayer, then, is defeat and failure. To believe in the resurrection, to believe in God, is to believe that the resolution of the tragedy of the human condition comes as a gift, as an act of love encompassing mankind.
Perhaps, because of our human frailty, many prayers about London began, “Oh God, as you’ve no doubt seen on Twitter just now…” That’s how many ‘official’ prayers tend to begin, after all. But prayer is not an attempt to get God’s attention, still less to inform him about something he may not be aware of. Prayer is not even primarily something that we (human beings) do. We pray because the Holy Spirit of God is at work within us. It is God who prays. In prayer, we become the place, the locus, of the divine dialogue between Father and Son. This is why the pagan conception of prayer in which we somehow ‘manipulate’ God makes no sense, either to Atheists or Christians. I might pray for fine weather in order to go for a picnic, whereas a farmer will pray for rain for his crops. But as it is God who prays in me, what is going on is not my trying to change God’s mind, but God himself intensifying the divine life in me.
What is changed, in such a prayer, is not the weather, but me. The weather is not changed, because God is not one of ‘the gods’ sitting on a cloud with a quiver full of thunderbolts. God holds the universe in being, but it is a universe (and in our example a world) where high and low pressure, fronts, precipitation and so forth, all act according to physical laws. But through prayer, I can come to see fine weather as not merely a meteorological phenomenon, but as a glimpse of God’s generosity and love.
So what’s the point?
If prayer is not about getting anything ‘done’ (especially if we are asking God to protect us from the evils of terrorism and no such protection seems to come) then what is the point? Is prayer just a waste of time?
The English priest Victor White, who was a longtime friend and correspondent of Carl Jung, liked to suggest that people often find prayer difficult because they prayed for the wrong things. He did not mean that they prayed for trifles instead of deep, spiritual things, but the precise opposite. His point was that we tend to pray for world peace and a cure for cancer when what we really want is a pay rise and a holiday. All too often our prayers can become a kind of virtue signalling. When you think about it this is ridiculous because God, being omniscient, already knows what we want before we ask. Prayer is a matter of bringing ourselves, in terms of our needs and desires, into the presence of God our Father. If we approach God as some high-minded and saintly fiction of ourselves, then we will not make any contact at all. As many commentators have suggested following the terrorist attack in Westminster, our society needs to take a ‘long hard look at itself’. That is what Christians do when they pray.
Prayer is an exercise of self-exploration and self-revelation. If we are honest enough to bring before God our real needs and desires, then we open ourselves to God’s grace. We allow him into our lives in a way that may show us that there are more important things that we do want — not as some vague recognition that we ought to want such things (real peace, say), but as a real desire within ourselves. When people pray, therefore, for peace in their city with renewed fervour, that may be as much the fruits of prayer as anything else. It may be part of a discovery that the genuine desire for peace is something deep within us breaking through.
As with any prayer, our prayer for London is united with the cross, and that means that we come to understand that those who were senselessly killed share, in some mystical sense, in Christ’s redeeming death. We come to see that such manifestations of evil call us to action. It is a parody of the religious world view to imagine that prayer never leads to action, or is a substitute for it. There is an old joke about a man, let’s call him Jim, who prays each week that he will win the lottery. After several months of this, God has had enough and Jim hears a booming voice from heaven saying, “My son, I would love for you to win the lottery, so meet me halfway and next week, at least buy a ticket.” God has no hands but ours.
But let’s be clear that those who suggest that prayer is ‘a waste of time’ are not wrong. One of the reasons that even religious believers feel reluctant to spend time praying is due to a fear of wasting time, of being unproductive. Prayer is a sharing in the interior life of God, which is not something productive or creative: it is love. The life of God is not primarily like the life of a worker or an artist, but like the life of lovers, endlessly wasting time with one another. It is into this worthless activity we enter in prayer. This, in the end, is what makes sense of it.