One of the positive aspects of being stuck inside for weeks is that I can finally get around to reading all those books in my to-read list. In particular, I have been reading books by maverick theologians who will never be on the set reading list for theological college. I firmly believe that everyone should consider the views of those with whom they disagree; you are unlikely to change your mind, but you will at least understand where they are coming from. I didn’t always think like this – anyone who knew me five years ago can tell you how much I was convinced that I had the absolute, 100% truth, and anyone who disagreed was a flaming heretic. Studying theology has given me the ability to consider the merits of different schools of thought, and even admit I was wrong.
Which brings me to the first book on my list: Amen by Gretta Vosper. Gretta Vosper is a minister of the United Church of Canada, and made headlines when she announced she was an atheist. A clergyperson losing their faith is nothing newsworthy. What made Vosper’s case unique was that she kept her job as a minister. According to her, losing belief in a supernatural deity does not mean she has to leave the church; she takes a practical approach to the faith, based upon “the early communities who shared what they had and became known for how they loved”[i].
Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in A World Beyond Belief considers the role prayer can have in an increasingly secular society. Vosper uses the ACTS model of prayer which many of us learnt in Sunday School – adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication – and she considers how these expressions of prayer can be expressed in both theistic and secular ways. The book is dense and scholarly, and I shall try to summarise the key points:
Traditionally, the adoration part of prayer is when the believer praises God and considers his attributes: “Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom” (Psalm 145:3).
Vosper argues that a tendency for awe and wonder is an inherent part of what it means to be human, and the object of such awe is besides the point. An atheist can still express adoration for any number of things: “love, kindness, courage, life” (page 238).
Whenever a Christian prays, they confess their sins and brokenness before God, and seek his forgiveness: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Repentance is an action: it involves turning away from sin and committing to live differently. Although atheists may not use the term ‘sin’, Vosper argues all people must repent of our tendency to damage our relationships with others, ourselves and our planet (page 246).
Thanksgiving is mentioned 114 times in the Bible, and the thanksgiving is addressed to God for the blessings he has given us: “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).
Much has been written by secular psychologists regarding the benefits of gratitude for improving mental health. Much like her adoration chapter, Vosper argues that expressing gratefulness and thanks is powerful no matter who or what the object of such thankfulness is (page 257).
Supplicatory prayer is subdivided into petition, prayers for oneself, and intercession, prayers for others. Christians believe that God is all-powerful and able to answer our requests: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). 1 John 5:15 offers further clarification on this point: God is not a magic wish granter, rather prayers will be answered only “according to his will”.
Vosper points out some major problems with the theistic view of supplicatory prayer. If God only answers according to his will, what is the point of asking? And why does God seem to answer the prayers of some, and ignore the pleas of others? Vosper argues that prayers cannot be answered unless we take action ourselves (page 164). Instead of offering thoughts and prayers to an ill relative, why not ask how you can help them? Arguably, the most powerful prayers should combine both words and action. Take the current coronavirus crisis. Christians are praying fervently – but they’re also washing their hands.
In conclusion, this is a powerful book which I recommend to anyone, theist or atheist, who wishes to explore the topic of prayer in a modern world. If traditional Christian prayer works for you, excellent. Alternatively, Vosper suggests a model which can work for people who feel too constrained by the language of traditional Christian prayer. I would argue there is no one correct way to pray. Every person deserves to find the method that allows them to connect to something bigger than themselves, be it a deity or simply the ground of all being (got to get a Paul Tillich quote in there somehow).
God Bless. Amen.
And wash your hands.