The Most Fantastically Failed Prayer in History

jesusprayinghandsDefenders of the Christian faith love to move discussions about their religion from objective matters to subjective ones, from measurable things to the immeasurable, and from quantifiable subjects to those which are completely nebulous—or more to the point, unfalsifiable. This is a telling compulsion, and every time it happens it reminds me why I eventually lost my ability to believe their grand narrative. I recognize these tactics because I practiced them first on myself.

These folks always seem to want to attribute our skepticism to ulterior motives because that fits what they were taught from the pulpit. This interpretation also reassures them that our reasons for disbelieving cannot be truly rational ones. If they are rational, then they themselves might have to do a major overhaul of how they see the world, and let me tell you that’s no cake walk. I guess I can’t say I blame them. The social repercussions alone can be devastating, depending on where you live.

How to Tell If Your Religion Is True

Christian apologists insist that, strictly speaking, one cannot prove that God does not exist. But that depends on which God we’re discussing, doesn’t it? They rarely seem to understand why that detail matters so much.  See, if we’re arguing whether or not a generic Supreme Being exists, devoid of any attributes whatsoever (is it a person? is it male? does it want things? does it tell us what they are?), then there’s not really much to debate. Generic Supreme Beings don’t make any testable claims.

But the God of Christianity does make claims.  I’ve written about them many times before.  I shouldn’t have to remind Christians what they are, because they rehearse them to one another all the time. They post them on each other’s Facebook walls and print little leatherbound booklets with all the promises of God culled from both the Old and New Testaments. Granted, most of them are as vague as your daily horoscope, and the prophetic predictions especially read like the prognostications of Nostradamus. But some of them are quite straightforward, and they even encourage a personal test to see if they hold up to reality.

[Related: Read “Confronting the Lies“]

If the Christian faith were true, we shouldn’t have to endlessly debate the historical reliability of religious texts written centuries ago. If the Christian faith were true, there would be evidence of it everywhere, here and now, not just buried under thousands of years of sediment, or between the pages of an onion skin book.

Hospitals and prisons should have fewer Christians in them than they have people of any other faith.  Why?  Because both Jesus and James said that if the church prays for its sick, they will be healed, and the apostle Paul claimed that the indwelling Holy Spirit would not let any temptation befall you without providing “a way out so that you can endure it.”  If either of these things were true, there would be a statistically significant difference between the outcomes of one religion versus another.  The cold, hard fact is: There isn’t.

But people are geniuses when it comes to convincing themselves of what they already believe, so discussions like this rarely go anywhere in the end.  “Kindly do not cloud the issue with facts!” as the self-assured patriarch in Mary Poppins once bellowed.  The church has had centuries to devise its own rationalizations for why its claims have failed to materialize, and it’s gotten quite good at it.  But there’s one thing the church has never been good at…which brings me to the most fantastically failed prayer in history.

And the Most Unanswered Prayer Goes To…

Did you know that Jesus gambled his entire legitimacy on the unity of the church? He really did, it’s found in John 17:20-23, and it is by far the most dramatically rejected prayer request I have ever heard.

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me… (emphasis mine)

Now this raises a number of questions, but first can we establish that this wish has most certainly not been granted? The church has done many things down through the centuries, but maintaining unity has not been one them.  Jesus here likens the unity he wishes for the church to the unity of the triune God (a concept you won’t see so clearly in any other gospel, which is a problem in itself). But to date the Christian church has splintered into thousands (some would say tens of thousands) of non-cooperating traditions.  Oh sure, they still read the same Bible (mostly), but they have proven incapable of worshiping under the same roof with anyone who believes or practices the Christian faith “the wrong way.”

According to this fourth gospel (technically the author was never named), Jesus ranked his petition for Christian unity as a matter of vital importance: “So that the world may believe that you sent me.”  How awkward.

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All this time, Christian apologists have been redirecting our attention away from the here and now, back to the New Testament and to the gospels in particular, and yet here we read Jesus doing precisely the opposite.  He is suggesting that the behavior of his followers as a group should serve as an ongoing marker of his own legitimacy.  He was gambling the credibility of his own claims about himself on Christians’ ability to get along with one another.

That was a really, really bad move. Maybe even worse than the time when he promised that the people standing there in front of him would witness the Second Coming and the Judgment Day before the end of their lifetimes (see Matt. 16:27-28 and 24:34).  Whoops.  Lots of theologians have worked hard to explain that one away, and they can manage to cover some of it by referencing stuff that happened around the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. But some of the events Jesus foretold there most certainly did not happen within the lifetimes of his original listeners.  It doesn’t matter how much you try to chalk up to apocalyptic language and metaphor.

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

One could perhaps argue that this prayer of Jesus shouldn’t count as a “testable promise” in the same vein as the other things I mentioned above.  But then why was it recorded for us in the first place, if not to be communicated to the world along with the rest of their message?  Clearly we were meant to know of this request, so recalling it here is completely appropriate. Often the Bible says that Jesus went off alone to pray, and presumably we shouldn’t know the content of those prayers since no one would have been around to record them (and yet we still are privy to some of them even though Jesus didn’t write any of this stuff himself). But in this case we are told what he prayed because he did it out loud in front of his followers.

One could also argue that there’s still time for God to answer this prayer in the affirmative. After all, doesn’t the Good Book say that “with him a thousand years is like a day?”  Isn’t that the very rationalization used by Peter after decades had gone by with none of the apocalyptic predictions coming to pass (see 2 Peter 3:3-9)? He argues there that God is holding off on incinerating the earth out of a patient desire to allow as many to change their minds as possible. Isn’t that gracious of him?

But wait a second.  That doesn’t make any sense.  If he decides to wait more than twenty centuries to finally answer Jesus’ prayer for the unity of the church, then shouldn’t the people who lived and died within the space of those twenty centuries be excused for not buying the Christian narrative? I mean, how can you blame them for not buying the legitimacy of his claims if he chose to bank it all on the performance of an institution which would catastrophically fail to do what he said it would do?  If anything is making God wait on this one, it must not be a desire to see more get saved, because if that were the case, he would have accommodated Jesus’ request before, not after.

Perhaps the saddest part of all to me is how the more self-aware Christians will take a post like this and just use it as yet another tool for beating themselves up.  If the Christian message teaches people anything, it’s to be responsive to guilting.  But beating up the church for its inability to maintain unity down through the centuries doesn’t make sense, either, because aren’t prayers supposed to be asking God to make things happen that only he can do?  If this is something miraculous, something which requires divine provision, then why are you guilting yourselves for the failure of this prayer?  Which one of you is God, now?

Let’s put a pin in that one, because it’s a much more profound question than it first appears.  But let’s not get off on that today.

Institutions splinter. That’s just the way they work.  All human organizations do that, and it’s often a conflictual, tumultuous process.  I’ve certainly seen that to be true in the humanist community. No institution is immune to this problem, and the church is no exception.  The only real problem I see is that you were given an expectation that the church would somehow magically be something better.  But it’s not.  The church is a human institution, so it does the same things all human organizations do. End of story.

Why Won’t You Leave Christianity Alone?

Among the myriad voices of atheism out there today, I tend to be counted with the more conciliatory ones. Other atheists still give me a hard time about that, in fact, and I have my own reasons for remaining that way (four in particular). Usually I do what I can to not come right out and aim for the root of people’s belief system because I’m not as concerned about people believing in gods as I am about how they treat one another.  I really don’t think the direct approach is as effective, anyway, since time and experience have proven that people’s most central beliefs are encompassed by a bulky, cumbersome suit of philosophical armor.

So why am I taking aim at the credibility of the entire Christian faith today?  Well, why shouldn’t I?  I don’t think its story is true, and worst of all I believe it has a number of elements within it which are fundamentally anti-humanistic. I have a major problem with that.

And as they say, turnabout is fair play, you know?  I have to put up with endless solicitations and evangelisms and “evandalisms” and pretty much every passive-aggressive form of proselytization you can imagine on a daily basis where I live.  I’ve got teachers at my kids’ school calling all atheists “fools” and telling us we should celebrate “April Fool’s Day” as our own holiday because that’s what we are.  Incidentally, that guy used to be my headmaster back when I taught for a private Christian school near me years ago. But I digress.

I can only stand people trying to “fix” me and bring me back into their belief system so many times before I finally just have to push back and say, “You know what?  I don’t buy it, okay?! It doesn’t add up for me anymore, and it doesn’t ring true.  And if you’re going to keep handing me this stuff, then I’m going to disassemble it in front of you and hand it right back to you. Maybe eventually you’ll learn to stop throwing this stuff at me. It doesn’t work.”

There. Glad I got that off my chest.

[Image Source: Flickr, Tumblr]

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About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of five, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.