Prayer

For Alice

I had a professor who would put extra questions at the end of each
assignment. The extra questions weren’t numbered, and they weren’t
assigned a point value. He put them there because he thought that
they were fun problems and that some of the students would enjoy
trying to solve them. Computer Science, after all, is populated by
people who think that solving hard problems is fun.

One day a student asked the professor whether the extra questions
were worth extra credit — whether successfully answering them would
improve his grade in the class.

This was a question that hadn’t come up before, and it took a moment
for the professor to compose his answer. It was one of the few times
I witnessed, over several semesters, when someone had asked this
professor a question that had required obvious effort to answer.
Even the other faculty admired his intellect and gift for exposition.

“You won’t get extra credit for them,” he answered. “Anyone who can
answer them should already be doing very well in this course, as far
as grades are concerned. However, if you do answer them correctly,
then if you wish, before graduation I will write you a strong
letter of recommendation.”

I don’t write about religion very often, because I don’t have much to
write, and even less that I think anyone would want to read. Every
once in a while, however, I am moved to write something about my
spiritual beliefs. I hope that you won’t thing that I’m
proselytizing or looking for converts; I don’t expect that what I
write will have any effect on your own beliefs, nor will I be
offended if you disagree in whole or in part.

I don’t believe that God answers prayers. More generally, I don’t
think that God modifies the course or outcome of events based on the
desires or wishes, however fervent or well-phrased, of his
worshippers.

However, this doesn’t mean that he is not listening. I believe that
he’s listening very carefully.

I believe that God judges us primarily on the impact of our decisions
— how we respond to things, and what we make of our personal
circumstances. Different people are faced with different challenges,
and make different decisions, and these decisions have an impact on
other people, and so forth. Our decisions give testimony to how we
feel about ourselves, others, and our place in the world.

Note that this belief does not agree with Christian philosophy.
There are many instances where Christianity tells its worshippers not
only how they should act, but how they should feel about
things. For example, the tenth commandment makes it clear that one
should not covet the possessions or circumstances of another.

I find it hard to go this far, but maybe this is just my personal
weakness. If someone else has something desirable, I tend to desire
it also, and I don’t know where to draw the line between simple
appreciation for an object, desiring
that thing, and coveting it. The dictionary definition of “covet” is
little help; it says that to covet is to desire inordinately, or in
some cases “without due regard for the rights of others.” This
doesn’t seem to provide much traction; simply trying to come up with
suitable and precise definitions for the terms “inordinate”, “due
regard” and “rights of others” have kept philosophers busy for
generations.

Is it possible to covet someone else’s happiness, or their state of
mind, or their good health? Is it only possible to covet things
whose possession can be transfered? Is it permitted to desire to be
as happy as my neighbor, as long as I do not actually perform any
actions that would harm my neighbor (or anyone else) in my pursuit of
equal happiness.

In my thinking, the line is crossed when your desire for something
begins to cloud your judgment, leading to bad decisions. It is OK to
wish that you had an automobile as luxurious as that of your neighbor,
and it’s even OK to make decisions about how you spend your time and
money in order to make it possible to purchase an automobile just
as nice. It is not OK, however, when your decisions lead to you to
act inappropriately.

I realize that I haven’t defined what “innappropriately” means, and
that an attempt to do so would lead to endless debate of the same
sort that would be required to settle on defintions of terms such as
“inordinate”, but this is beside the point. The essential point
is that how we choose to react to our emotions is more important
than our emotions, over which we often have little control.

Prayer is different, because prayer is internal. If you believe, as
I do, that God does not answer prayers, then prayers have no impact
on the real world. For example, you’re not ever going to be able to
tell God anything about the plight of the hungry that he doesn’t
already know; praying for the hungry to be fed accomplishes less than
contributing something to the local food pantry.

However, God is listening, and notes prayers. He notes what you
ask for, how you ask it, and why. Arguing with God is pointless.
You can’t win a debate against the all-knowing. God is not asking
for suggestions about what he should do.

But he is listening. Not so much to your requests as to the
reasoning behind them.

And when the time is right, if your reasoning is sound and your
motives are just, God will write you a letter of recommendation
that will open any door.

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