Thought for the Day - 26/11/2013 - Canon Angela Tilby
Good morning. I was very taken with Ed Milliband’s Desert Island discs on Saturday – to be repeated later this week. One moment which surprised and moved me was when he was talking about his father’s death and how – and he sounded emotional at this point - for the first time in his life he had prayed. The moment passed – his father died and as he said it was the worst thing that had happened to him.
Ed Milliband has said himself he is not religious, but in this terrible moment he called on God – if there is a God. It would be easy for a religious person to go ‘aha’ at this point and to interpret this admission as a sign that even atheists really believe when they are up against it. But that is a cheap point, neither true nor fair. The fact is that none of us know entirely what they are doing when they pray. Those of us who pray as a habit are still knocked off balance by the cruelty of life and cry out in protest, as though we could change the inevitable, or halt the flow of time. And where atheists might shrug the moment off, believers can take it personally if the prayer isn’t answered and experience the silence as divine rejection.
There is a lot of sparky debate between believers and atheists these days. But though this is useful for honing our personal convictions it would be wrong to deny that both sides inhabit the same world and face the same dilemmas. The Welsh philosopher D.Z. Phillips used to claim that we misunderstood the language of prayer if we thought it was ever meant to be a kind of shopping list, a way of getting what we want from a deity who might respond to our agenda if we shout loudly enough. On the contrary at root prayer is a way of expressing what cannot be expressed in any other way. Ritual, invocation, lamentation, praise. There is a universal language here - which does not necessarily imply that there is anyone out there to hear it.
When I hear of an atheist praying I think it is an expression of his or her humanity, just as when a believer prays. It is a cry of pain or jubilation thrown up to the infinite universe. I am much more interested in this phenomenon than in arguing the point about whether there is a God or not to answer the prayer. My Christian beliefs do not rest on answers to prayer, and I don’t think an atheist’s atheism is not undermined by the act of praying. There are times when we both do it, and it is genuine, and proves nothing at all. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his letters and papers from prison:
Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
pray to him for succor, for peace, for bread.
Available since: Tue 26 Nov 2013
This clip is from
Reflections from a faith perspective on issues and people in the news.
More clips from Thought for the Day
- Thought for the Day - 17/03/2014 - Bishop James Jones Duration: 02:55
- Thought for the Day - 15/03/2014 - Brian Draper Duration: 03:02
- Thought for the Day - 14/03/2014 - Rev Dr Sam Wells Duration: 02:47
- Thought for the Day - 13/03/2014 - Bishop Tom Butler Duration: 02:53
- Thought for the Day - 12/03/2014 - Rev Lucy Winkett Duration: 03:10