Saturday, March 29, 2014

John C. Wright has done it again

As regular readers know, I occasionally find that, when my own wellsprings of inspiration are at low ebb, the sci-fi writer and blogger John C. Wright has a post that is better than anything I could possibly write under the circumstances, so I link that instead. So it is this week. I am in the midst of researching a paper on God and time (a fascinating subject) and am trying not to get involved in much on-line controversy. I'm also not forcing myself to write new blog posts filled with my own material. So head on over and read this polemical gem on the leftist worldview from Wright. As always with Wright, it's long, not to say wordy, but it's really a beautiful thing. Here are a few quotes. (If you don't find that the first quotes I give "do it for you," skip to the last one. It's the best.)

By their theory, no fact and no conclusions of common sense are neutral. All are tainted by the original sin of bias and bigotry. The act of bringing up a fact is never, never an act done in the impersonal pursuit of truth. For them there is no truth, and even if there were, there is no impartiality. The act of bringing up a fact is always an act of aggression, an imposition, if not an attack.
This explains our first paradox. They are decent and honest people. Their motive for avoiding reason is compassion, because they wish not to be tempted by hate, bigotry, or thought crime. However, once reason is forbidden, facts, common sense, and evidence, likewise are as meaningless to them as to a Buddhist to whom all the world is illusion.
A man who claims to be a faster runner can be put to the race; a man who claims to be the greater poet can be asked to read his sonnet; but a man who claims only superiority in an invisible and imponderable spiritual realm can be put to no human test.
In short, because Leftism is the theory that truth is impossible, and reason is a hate-crime, it requires self deception. Because self deception provokes guilt and humiliation, the self esteem of the Leftist is continually uncertain. Because it is uncertain, it must be uplifted. The only emotion loud and broad enough to smother the powerful emotions of guilt and humiliation is the uplift of sanctimonious pride, pride in one’s own perfect righteousness.

At this point, you may be wondering why, if they only judge by intentions and not by results, the Liberals are not sometimes helpful to those they wish to help? Surely raising the minimum wage sometimes produces a raise in real wages instead of producing more unemployment? At least once? Surely sometimes putting honey and water in the gas tank instead of petrol will create good gas mileage? At least once? Surely sometimes, by accident, they get it right? Even a stopped clock is right at least twice a day.
So the fact that they judge by intentions and not by results is not a satisfactory explanation. Why are they predictably, inevitably, and always wrong?
They are always wrong because their theory of morality springs out of their theory of epistemology. Their theory of epistemology is that there is no truth. Hence, their theory of morality is that there is no right and wrong.


All rules by definition are crooked, part of a con game. Any attempt to excuse, explain or defend the rules is either misguided or malign.
The only success under crooked and malign rule is by definition a crooked and malign success. It is a successful crime. 
Hence the Leftist must punish success.
This means not just monetary success but imponderable success. The Leftist must not only take money from the rich, he must take fame from the famous and glory from the glorious. Just as he must give money to the poor out of restitution for the crooked roulette wheel of life, so too he must give fame to the infamous and glory to the shameful.


If the rich and powerful tilting the wheel of life is the only explanation for life’s miseries and sorrows and failures, they are always to blame for everything. Everything. These days, the rich men and rich nations are blamed for warm weather.
Here is the explanation of the third paradox: If life is a game of pure chance, then the winners of life, the happy people, the rich, the famous, the saintly, all of them must have somehow rigged or twisted the institutions, laws and customs, and all the rules of life to their own advantage. Since all property is theft, all property owners are thieves.
Hence, all life’s winners, heroes and captains of industry and saints and famous artists, everyone worthy of admiration for any reason, all of them, all the winners, the theory demands they be nothing but outrageous cheats.
Also, they must be outrageous liars for denying that they are cheats. Worse, they are all con men for deceiving their victims into playing.
The logic applies to wealth as well as to power and virtue, including such things as applause and glory and dignity. Hence, combined with the pathological and neurotic smug self-sanctimony, the Leftist, as long as he be true his theory, must demean whatever is worthy, true, successful, and good, and reward and praise whatever is unworthy, untrue, unsuccessful, and bad.
Let us call this the Principle of Inversion. The Principle of Inversion says that whatever or whoever Reason calls good and decent is in fact bad and wretched, and whatever Reason calls bad is in fact good.


The Leftist theory of economics produces poverty.
This is the precise and diametric opposite of the prediction made by the theory. A more fair and even distribution of the winning numbers of life’s spinning wheel should have produced more wealth for everyone. The super-genius five-year central economical planning of the Soviet Union should have outproduced the gross inefficiencies of unplanned capitalists America by an order of magnitude. Instead the Soviets ended up eating each others’ heads in starvation, and the Americans grew overweight. The theory not only failed, it failed in a remarkable, spectacular, astounding, astronomical way.
The same result obtains for the application of their theory wherever it is applied.
The Welfare State should not have abolished the family structure among inner city blacks and, even if it did, the loss of the family should not have malign side effects on child rearing.
Turning all the inmates of insane asylums loose on the streets for some reason not named should not have lead to an increase of the number of insane street people. Being lenient on criminals should not produce an increase in violent crime. Disarming the victims should not encourage attackers. Surrendering a war should produce victory, not defeat. Rewarding Jihadist violence by praising and funding them should decrease Jihadist violence. Socializing the student loan industry will lower costs. Socializing the medical insurance industry will not only allow you to keep your plan and your doctor, your premiums will actually go down. and more people, rather then less, will be covered by health care the moment less health care is available to them. Goods can be rationed without rationing. And so on and so on and so on. 
In each case, the theory fails in the most remarkable and jaw-droppingly spectacular fashion possible.

The Leftist has only two choices here: accept reality, in which case he is no longer a Leftist, or deny reality, in which case his loyalty to the ideals of Leftism becomes rarefied and refined, and he become of their Cathari, the Pure Ones, an arhat of enlightenment.


And here is the best of all, a handful of sentences which could have come from Chesterton:

Anything that reminds them of innocence or truth is abhorrent to them. It makes them uneasy, lest their master raise his whip of iron and punish them. Therefore the very people and things the addicts of self righteousness hate the most are saints, women like Mother Theresa, and heroes, figures like George Washington, and captains of industry, men like Henry Ford. The things they hate most are ideals like Justice and Mercy. And they despise and hate the innocent most of all: the greatest part of their fury and destructiveness is turned against those two figures which, for all times past, were the symbols and embodiments of purity and innocence: the virgin and the child.

Wright continues,
If the reader doubts that Leftist hate virgins, let him inspect any dozen Hollywood movies taken at random, or visit any dozen college campus dorms at random after hours, or read any two dozen essays by feminists. If the reader doubt that the Left hates children, let him read the account of what goes on in an abortion mill, or read how the British Health Service disposes of the tiny corpses.
Indeed, and if anyone doubts that the leftists hate virgins, let him read perverse postmodern theory with its glorification of every sort of perversion. Or let him contemplate the cesspool of sex education in the schools, which attacks children and virginity at one and the same time, destroying the mental innocence of the young and moving them toward destroying their own physical innocence.

We wrestle against great evils. Polemics like Wrights can assure those who find themselves isolated and fighting on the side of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful that it is indeed the world that is insane, having accepted an insane philosophy. This can, in turn, hearten us not to compromise with this evil but to fight it consistently wherever we are called upon to do so.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Why might pastors preach about...this thing rather than something else?

I saw somebody griping on the Internet the other day. What's new?

But, especially since I've been neglecting this blog a bit recently, I decided to post something about it. The specific gripe was that pastors seem to preach more about p--- (I'm going to use this typography through this post so as not to attract bots, creeps, and spam) more than about adultery. I haven't run into this in my own experience, but I'll take it as read that this particular person has seen a trend in which pastors preach more against the former than the latter.

Why is this foolish, bad, or inexplicable?

Here, just off the top of my head, are reasons why a pastor might reasonably have that emphasis in his preaching:

1) The pastor might easily have more reason to believe that the members of his congregation are using p--- than are engaging in physical adulterous relationships. In fact, he might have reason to believe that a far larger number of his members are sinning in the former way than in the latter.

2) The pastor might have reason to believe that members of his congregation think that p--- isn't really so bad because it isn't "real sex." He might well think he needs to try to dispel this dangerous confusion.

3) The pastor might reasonably believe that physical adultery, being connected with a particular person, is less likely to lead to lifelong addiction. If a person involved in an adulterous affair repents and forsakes that sin with that person, he is less likely to have a lifelong, destructive habit thereafter that he cannot break than a person who repents but has developed a p--- addiction. Hence the greater need to warn against getting involved in p--- and the greater need to warn parents so that their children do not fall into this evil and greatly harm their entire lives. (Children are not going to be literally accidentally getting involved in even physical fornication, much less adultery with a married person, though of course they may be abused by an adult, which is a different matter. But children have literally accidentally viewed p--- on the Internet and then found themselves sucked in and damaged for life.)

4) Relatedly, it is often true that one can break off contact with the other member of an adulterous affair, whereas p--- is constantly available.

5) Since a person in an adulterous affair has to deal with the willingness or unwillingness of another specific person, he cannot readily move, in the course of that affair, into every possible form of abominable perversion conceived in the dark depths of the fallen human psyche, but there are no similar limits to what is available for consumption in the world of p---. Thus a person involved in (heterosexual) adultery is less likely to be adding all manner of vile perversion and unnaturalness to the sin against chastity itself, and in the process developing a taste for such darkness, thus confusing his own sexual nature possibly for life. (See #3.) (Readers, please notice my deliberately vague language at this point. Similarly vague language will be expected in comments, or they will not be published.)

6) At risk of being thought to be excusing adultery, which I emphatically am not, or of applying touchy-feely criteria, I'm willing to add that a relationship that involves a real other person is in one sense and just to that extent less spiritually and psychologically unhealthy than a non-relationship that involves the deliberate objectification of other persons. This is all the more true when the media form is deliberately and aggressively degrading of those other persons.

A counterweight to these considerations is the fact that, precisely because of the real personal bonding, a person engaged in an adulterous affair is more likely to break up his marriage as a result, because he believes that he is in love with the woman he is having an affair with. (Or, in the case of a woman, believes she is in love with the man.) That's no doubt true, and it is serious. But I think in terms of how much a pastor preaches, it is probably outweighed by considerations 1 and 2, above. Of course, we also have to ask what counts as "preaching about" something. If a pastor mentions adultery in a list, does that count? But if we are talking about preaching at some length, it seems perfectly understandable that a pastor would concentrate on those extremely serious sins which he has more reason to suspect his congregants are actually engaging in and, worse, excusing.

The sort of gripe that prompted this post is, I'm afraid, likely to come from those who feel that somehow men get a bad rap in today's Christian world. I fear that the idea is that the pastors are being "too hard" on men by preaching disproportionately about p---. To be honest, my greater concern about a pastor preaching about p--- is that I think children of all ages should be welcome in the church service, and I wouldn't want to have to explain to my little child what Pastor Smith was talking about this morning. But I'm entirely unsympathetic to the idea that pastors should preach less about p--- because that's "taking it out on" the men in the congregation. If either men or women are hurting and degrading themselves and their marriages (present marriages or future marriages) in this fashion, they need to be told not only that it is sin but that it is dark, dangerous, and harmful. There is no need for some sort of "affirmative action" in preaching topics so that no one group feels "preached at" more than any other. And if a pastor thinks his members are involved in this, he is showing right perspective if he recognizes the urgency of trying to stop it.

What is so bad about unifying your worldview and your self-selected groups?

I was recently conversing with a young woman who is now Catholic but was raised fundamentalist Baptist. It sounds like her fundamentalist Baptist upbringing was even more strict than mine, so I don't want to lean too heavily on the fact that my experience has been different than hers. What I do want to talk about a little is this: She repeatedly said, as if this were definitely a bad thing, that the church groups of her youth were "white, middle-class, and Republican" and that they made one feel that this entire worldview, including economic ideas, was bound up with their Christianity. When pressed, she came down rather heavily on the alleged badness of uniting "right-wing" economic views with Christianity.

Had I been quicker on the uptake (I was too busy trying to think about how to give some pushback while remaining tactful) I would have pointed out that bishops of her own Church repeatedly tie up economics and immigration, neither of which are actually doctrinally essential, with Christianity. Indeed, it is considered to be something of the glory of Catholicism that it has economic views and economic encyclicals, some of which are a bit of an embarrassment to any free-market economists who also happen to be Catholic. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Is it really a baaaad exclusionary tendency for "Bob Jones Baptists" to think of free-market economics, with a strong emphasis on human fallenness, human responsibility, and the dangers of centralized government as, in some sense or other, part of their Christian worldview but inclusive, loving, and not at all an overreach or "tying the gospel up with politics" for the Pope and bishops to think of anti-market economics and "immigration reform" as part of their Christian worldview?

But more: Any particular church or parish is going to be to no small extent a self-selected group, because there are always other places for people to go. It is perfectly normal human behavior to want to be able to talk about a variety of issues with one's friends at church, and it is perfectly normal human sociology for a tightly knit church to come to be to some degree homogenous across a variety of ideological issues. This is no doubt just as true of left-leaning local churches as of right-leaning local churches, especially when they are not "megachurches" and therefore actually have some sort of definite cohesion. Just how comfortable is a "white, middle-class Republican" going to feel in some of the evangelical churches presently catering to hipsters and seekers? How about at a Catholic church where the priest's sermons are often left-leaning in character?

It's important to remember too that to some degree the natural gravitation of like toward like is bound up with the idea that local churches should provide a sense of community. Perhaps one will get more diversity both of ideological and of sociological background if one's church is merely a place for the weekly meeting (e.g. the Mass) itself and is in no sense a larger community. If people scarcely know one another a church's de facto membership may be more diverse, but is that really what we want? Is it something we have a right to demand in the name of encouraging diversity?

Let me make it clear at this point that I actually do see both a tension in the church's goals, whether Protestant or Catholic, and also a distinctive way in which Catholicism is likely to be more diverse. As to the first of these, all churches are indeed trying to evangelize the lost. That evangelistic goal is going to have to mean a willingness to be friendly and welcoming towards those who come to one's church who don't fit in a purely social sense with those who are already there. It may well even mean explicit outreaches to all manner of people. Let me add here that one of the fundamentalist Baptist churches of my own upbringing has a regular outreach to the gospel mission and is by no means exclusionary of those "not like us" who show up at church. It is one of the most diverse churches I know, in economic, social, and racial terms.

As regards Catholicism, the emphasis on the Sacraments is in some ways orthogonal to the emphasis on community. Community is good, but if one is a real sacramentalist one goes to church in no small part to get the Sacraments, not to get together with other members of a club. I suspect that the "here comes everybody" character of Catholicism, of which many Catholics are rather proud, arises from the Sacraments. And that is not a bad thing.

Still, Catholics need community as well. I hear my traditionalist Catholic friends on the Internet talking about this all the time. Especially now, social conservatives are pretty lonely, and if your church (Catholic or Protestant) can be a community to encourage you rather than a place where you have to grit your teeth through left-wing platitudes in the sermon, so much the better.

So color me unimpressed with the complaint that the church of one's upbringing was too full of white, middle-class Republicans who were most comfortable with others like themselves. White, middle-class Republicans need Jesus too, and if they form church groups that look like themselves, they shouldn't be blamed any more than any other identifiable social group that forms church groups that look like themselves. Yes, as Christians we always have the tension created by the Great Commission, and we need to be aware of that. But if the upshot is still that a given church is mostly full of white, middle-class Republicans, it is not clear to me that this is per se cause for scorn or criticism. Yep, even if most of them believe in the free market.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Drama of Divine Logic: "O What a Savior" and the Four Daughters of God

Ernie Haase's signature song is "O, What a Savior," below.

One line that bothers some theological purists is "But they searched through heaven, and they found a Savior to save a poor, lost soul like me." They searched? But the Incarnation and death of Jesus were part of God's plan from all eternity past. Whaddaya mean, they searched through heaven?

I'm glad to be able to cast a little historical light on the pedigree of the search through heaven. A trope in Medieval morality plays was a scene now known as "The Debate of the Four Daughters of God," derived from Bernard of Clairvaux. The four daughters of God are Truth, Justice, Mercy, and Peace. (See Psalm 85:10, "Mercy and truth are met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.") After Adam and Eve sin, the four daughters have a falling out, with some saying that man should be simply punished and others saying that he should be given mercy. To reconcile the four daughters, God decrees the Incarnation and death of the Son. In a version which occurs in a mystery cycle known as the N-town plays or Coventry Cycle (circa 1450-1500), we find that "The Daughters put their unresolved problem to God the Son and he orders a search in heaven and earth for one who will die for Man. When this fails the Son accepts the role himself as [G]od and man concurrently."

An ancient pedigree indeed for the lyrics to a Southern gospel song, and one not lightly to be tossed away.

But still, it may be replied, ancient or not, it's all rubbish. Nobody had to search for the Son. God was never in any doubt about what He would do. This is all just an allegory, even if it was originally a medieval allegory.

Indeed. But an allegory for what?

God of His free choice decided to redeem man. Had it not been for that choice of God, mankind would have been lost. The search through heaven dramatizes that yawning chasm between what is and what might have been, that irrepressible drama of Divine freedom and human lostness. By stretching it out in the allegorical form of a search, we see just what it meant: The Son, willing but one will with the Father, eternally says "yes" to Incarnation, to suffering, to death. Without that...a blank. Dismay, disappointment, and death. A failed search, if you will. The eternal will of God has a strict internal logic, and bound up in that logic are all the "what ifs," all the drama of both Divine and human freedom. Enough drama to fill a few human allegorical plays, easily.

They searched through heaven, and they found a Savior, to save a poor, lost soul like me.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Testing God

We have it on high authority that we should not tempt (aka test) God. (Matthew 4:7)

It might seem that this means that we shouldn't seek evidence for the existence of God or the claims of Christianity, but any of my long-time or even short-time readers will know that that is the last use I would make of Jesus' injunction. The Bible also tells us that God has provided much evidence. Jesus emphasized his works as evidence of his being sent from the Father.

But there is a certain model of evidence that depends upon experiment and repeatability. In fact, some people have no other model for hard evidence, so when they think of "evidence for God," they immediately look around for some kind of test they can do to find out whether God is really there. The prosperity hacks and the verses they rip out of the context of the Bible as a whole and present as "divine promises" provide plenty of fodder for this. God promises, they say, to "pour down blessings" on those who give, so therefore, if you give, God will make you rich. Then, of course, we find out that plenty of such people don't get rich, so there y'go! God failed the test, the experimentum crucis has been done and has yielded a negative result. Christianity has been falsified!

This entire model of evidence for Christianity is flat wrong. God is not a physical law nor a physical process but a personal being. He gives evidence of his existence through many avenues, the most dramatic of which are miracles. Miracles are mighty acts of power that occur at a particular time and place and are thereafter available to historical inquiry. This does not make them subjective; it doesn't mean that they can be known only "by the eyes of faith." But it does mean that they are not something you can repeat in your back yard as a test.

All of this is related to some questions that I was recently asked about a couple of posts at an atheist site. The posts urged Christians to test God by praying sincerely for good things and then seeing how the alleged "promises" in the Bible of answered prayer are falsified. I'm reluctant to link the atheist site, because quite frankly, I think it's a mistake for Christians to get involved in lengthy, public, on-line debates with Internet atheists. Sincere inquirers are one thing, but even then it is better to communicate with them privately than in the form of a kind of gladiatorial contest surrounded by an often trollish and un-serious audience. At the same time, I'm afraid that, "God didn't answer my prayer" has probably led more than one soul to damnation. (I know of one case among my own acquaintances in which I later learned that the person excused his deconversion in this way.) So it is probably worth looking at some of these questions and at the verses that prompt them. I beg the reader's indulgence for some absence of organization in what follows, as it is a somewhat edited version of what was originally a personal e-mail.

Notice how [our atheist blogger] lumps things together. He lumps the fact that Jesus did miracles or that Paul was not killed when bitten by a snake together with verses that appear to promise answers to prayer and treats all of these as though they are part of some “Christians will have success” pattern of biblical promises. But this is ridiculous. Jesus was God! The apostles were showing signs and wonders as part of kicking off Christianity. It simply isn't true that the fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead means that all of us are supposed to be able to raise people from the dead.

Inconsistently, he also faults Christians for taking seriously all those places where the New Testament, especially, tells us to expect earthly troubles and persecution. He argues that this makes Jesus' promise never to leave us meaningless. But why so? If Jesus' promise never to leave us is a spiritual promise of His presence through our trials, a promise of spiritual strengthening, and a promise of carrying our souls through to everlasting life, how does the existence of those earthly trials make that promise meaningless? On the contrary, the expectation of trouble and persecution is far more deeply woven into the warp and woof of Christian theology than the relatively far fewer passages that appear in isolation to promise an earthly answer to prayer. That very fact should cause us to think twice (on the principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture) about taking those passages to be promises of earthly success. But the atheist wants to have it both ways. He wants to chide Christians for taking Jesus' promise of being with them spiritually through unpleasant trials as though that makes Jesus' promise meaningless, and he wants to fault some of them (Pentecostal snake handlers and prosperity preachers) for believing that Christianity promises earthly success. It's heads he wins, tales we lose. Christians are just wrong whether they look at the whole sweep of New Testament teaching and don't expect earthly success as a promise or whether they look at isolated passages and do expect earthly success as a promise.

Here follows a short digression on the long ending of Mark, in which we find Jesus predicting that Christians (or his apostles) will be able to pick up serpents and drink deadly poison without harm: This ending is considered not to have been part of the original manuscript of Mark entirely for textual reasons. The oldest manuscripts do not have this ending, and it appears that the original ending of Mark was lost. It happens to be the case that this obviates the need to deal with the “snake handling” verse, but that is not why the ending is rejected. Certainly the gospel would end very abruptly without the long ending, but that is a reason for believing that the original ending has been lost, not for insisting that the added ending is authentic. Note that this does not in any way call into question the genuineness of post-resurrection accounts in the other four gospels, even though treating the long ending of Mark as inauthentic involves cutting out the post-resurrection account in Mark itself. Whether or not Mark is in fact the oldest gospel (patristic evidence is that some version of Matthew was the oldest), we have no reason to accept the shallow, higher-critical evolutionary view that only what is in the oldest gospel is true and that everything else evolved in a legendary fashion from there. *All* of the gospels, including very strongly the *latest* gospel, John, show clear internal signs of eyewitness testimony and also of having an important degree of independence in their accounts. Nothing heavy rides on whether we have an authentic ending to Mark including a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.

Now, back to the “promises” criticism: Any attempt to press Christians into adopting a prosperity gospel is monumentally unconvincing. One verse used for this purpose is 2 Cor. 9:6ff, in which the Apostle Paul urges the Christians to give generously to a collection he was gathering for the Christians at Jerusalem. Paul says that he who “sows generously” will also “reap generously.” These words have a strongly proverbial ring and are pretty clearly an allusion to a proverb. In fact, they sound much like Proverbs 11:24-25. Now, Proverbs are notoriously overstated, just because they are proverbs. Think of the English proverb, “What goes around comes around.” We can all think of counterexamples to this. Nobody takes it as an exceptionless truth. Nonetheless, we've seen enough examples to think it worth embodying in a proverb. A stitch in time doesn't always save nine, etc. Proverbs 11:24-25 is not giving some kind of divine promise but rather worldly wisdom. It is warning against stinginess and pointing out that sometimes being stingy causes you to end up literally poorer than you were before. (There's a whole Victorian novel in that picture right there!) Paul is citing this proverbial wisdom as part of urging the Corinthians to give, but for that very reason he should not be taken to be making a revealed promise of wealth as a result of giving. Moreover, below in the same passage, vs. 11, when Paul uses the phrase “enriched in everything...” he seems to be echoing I Corinthians 1:5 which says that the Corinthians are “enriched in everything” by God and clearly refers to spiritual gifts.

Once we clear away the fog, what we are left with is not a consistent pattern of actual divine promises of prosperity or of positive answers to prayer. What we find rather is a handful of verses that, taken in isolation, appear to be sweeping promises of answers to any prayers or at least to any serious and good prayers. There is, however, so much in Jesus' own teaching and in the apostles' teaching and practice that stands in opposition to the “promise of success” interpretation that that sweeping interpretation seems ruled out. The same Jesus who said, “Ask and ye shall receive,” “You shall do greater works than these,” and “Anything you ask, believing, you shall receive,” also said, “In this world you will have trouble,” “They will cast you out of the synagogue and kill you,” “Happy are you, when men persecute you,” and “Take up your cross and follow me.” If the “ask and receive” verses were really supposed to mean that we could ask for anything, or even anything serious and good, and receive it, then all the prophecies of persecution, all the calls to come and die with Jesus, would be meaningless. For it is in an obvious sense a serious and good thing, not a frivolous or wicked thing, to ask that God would rescue a Christian in danger of death or being persecuted for his faith or that God would heal the sick. And again, since the themes of suffering for Christ and growing through suffering are absolutely pervasive in Christianity, to the point of being of the essence of the Christian commitment, the handful of “ask and you shall receive” verses ought to be interpreted in a way that is consistent with these overwhelming and pervasive themes.

The same point applies to the book of James. It is James who says that “the prayer of faith will heal the sick,” but at the beginning of the book James says, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” It seems clear that illness is an example of a trial that could be used by God to produce patience, which leads one to conclude that James didn't really think that all sick Christians would be healed by prayer.

Or again: The Apostle Paul did sometimes heal sick people miraculously, but in Philippians 2:27, Paul talks about the sickness of his friend and fellow-worker, Epaphroditus. He says that Epaphroditus was near to death but was healed and that God “had mercy on” Paul because of the sorrow Paul would have had if Epaphroditus had died. Paley says in the Horae Paulinae, and I agree with him, that the whole tenor of the passage implies that Epaphroditus was healed by secondary causes–that is to say, that he got better naturally. Otherwise, Paul presumably wouldn't have let him get so close to death before miraculously healing him. Apparently Paul's ability to heal by miracle was not a “sure thing,” nor does Paul say that the elders of the nearest church prayed over Epaphroditus, and, voila, he was immediately healed. His sickness was serious, it was a near thing, he almost died, but eventually got better. We can assume that Paul did pray for him, and in that sense Paul's prayers were answered, but evidently not in any dramatic or obviously miraculous fashion. Again, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:7 that he himself had some sort of physical ailment, prayed for healing, and did not receive it.

And let us not forget that Our Lord Himself, the perfect petitioner, asked in the garden that the cup might pass from Him, but then added, “Nevertheless, thy will be done,” and of course did not receive His own petition.

So Christian teaching and practice seems to indicate that we should not expect any good prayer to be answered, nor should we expect to be able to engage willy-nilly in “faith healing.” We as Christians are responsible to take all of this Scriptural data into account, not to grab a few verses, take them at their most literal, and then insist on “holding God to” those as promises.

What, then, is the meaning of the problem passages? First, let me list what I right now (of course, I might be forgetting a couple) consider to be the remaining prima facie difficult verses.

Matthew 21:21-22, which includes “All things, whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.” The parallel passage in Mark (11:24) says, “believe that you receive, and you shall have them.”

John 14:12-13, which includes the promise that “he that believeth on me” will do “the works” that Jesus has done–“the works” being a phrase which refers clearly to miracles in vs. 11. In vs. 13 we have, “Whatsoever you shall ask in my name, that will I do...”

Matthew 18:19 “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.”

James 5:14-15, apparently promising that “the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up...”

I think a number of options are open to us, and we shouldn't be dogmatic. C.S. Lewis discusses this in Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly On Prayer, on pp. 59-61. There he conjectures that the apparent promises of receiving whatever one asks in faith may be intended to apply to people who are, or at least are at that time, in a special state such that they have special insight into what God intends to do and therefore ask for it.  In the Protestant tradition we hear stories about a man named George Mueller who ran an orphanage and may have been one of these people. (Of course, we don't hear of any cases where Mueller prayed and didn't get what he asked for, so we may have a case of cherry picking.) The stories are rather striking and always show Mueller as calmly confident in the result and then some event, natural in itself but a remarkable coincidence, which brings about the result. So perhaps Lewis's conjecture is correct, in which case most of us should just keep following the “thy will be done” model, which was good enough for Jesus Christ Himself at one point in His life.

There are other options for specific passages. For example, the James passage specifically says that the sick person should confess his sins and that, if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven. Paul in I Corinthians 11 says that many were sick and some had actually died among the Corinthians because of their disrespect for the Holy Communion. Perhaps James had in mind situations where the sickness was a punishment for sin. That shouldn't be taken to mean that all sickness is a punishment for sin; far from it. Merely that this might have been the sort of situation James was thinking of when he says that the prayer of faith would save the sick person and that the Lord would heal him.

John 14, where Jesus says that those who believe in him will do “greater” works, immediately says that this is “because I go unto my Father.” He strongly emphasizes the coming of the Holy Ghost, which he said could not happen until after the Ascension (going to his Father). He may therefore be referring both to the special gifts (such as the miraculous gift of speaking in tongues) given to the disciples as a sign and special aid from the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and also to their (in one sense) miraculous success in spreading the Gospel with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 18:19, which Lewis lists in an essay in Christian Reflections as particularly problematic, comes (at least in the discourse as we have it) immediately after the promise of the power of binding and loosing committed to the disciples in vs. 18. “Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This verse apparently alluded to a Jewish tradition that the “right” rabbinical rulings concerning the keeping of Judaic law had special status with God, so that those rulings were ratified in heaven. Here Jesus appears to be giving that sort of power as his “council of rabbis” to make rulings to his Apostles, a power that they have to exercise later, in Acts, when questions arise about whether the Gentiles have to keep the Jewish law. Verse 19 which says that “if any two” agree it will be “done for them” by the Father may be a reiteration, specifically to the Apostles, of their special authority.

You can take or leave any of these interpretations as you find them more or less plausible. The more important take-home lesson is how few of them there are and the necessity, in the light of a much larger biblical consensus suggesting the good of suffering, of not interpreting them as a blank check from God promising earthly answers to prayer for any Christians who asks with confidence and sincerity.

Let us by all means look for the truth and follow the evidence. But let us not create “crucial tests” for Christianity where they do not exist. We have to take our evidence as it comes and give it its due weight, not manufacture an artificial set of requirements that embody the form in which we would prefer to receive evidence. If one is locked into a test-tube model of evidence, even empirical evidence, one will miss much that is genuinely and objectively evidential in nature while simultaneously thinking that Christianity has somehow "failed." That such a mistake could have eternal consequences is a good reason for being careful not to fall into it.