~ Saturday, January 27, 2007 ~
A couple more pages written on euthanasia and then my head runs away to think about something more palatable. That's the way it goes sometimes. Maybe I should have chosen an easier topic to write about, but I still think that this is the most important one out there, the one that reveals most sharply what medicine is for. Still, my mind is undisciplined and weak, and tends to wander. I should have taken classes in meditation back in Philly while I had the chance.
At the moment, though, I'm embracing my weakness. Prayer. What's it good for? The Saint and I were talking about a passage in II Chronicles 30, where King Hezekiah tries to get the people to start celebrating Passover again (they've lapsed), and they attempt it, but they still do it wrong and end up violating a pretty serious law.
30:18 For most of the people...had not purified themselves, yet they ate the paschal sacrifice in violation of what was written. Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, "The good Lord will provide atonement for
30:19 everyone who set his mind on worshiping God, the Lord God of his fathers, even if he is not purified for the sanctuary.
30:20 The Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.
Apparently, prayer is good for intervention. One thing is happening, someone righteous makes a plea to God for it to be otherwise, and God causes it to be otherwise. The people sin and deserve to be punished, Hezekiah intervenes and points out their good intentions, and God is persuaded to make an exception.
But see, why wouldn't God have done that on his own? Why does the story imply that it was only because Hezekiah intervened that God forgave the people? Didn't God know that their intentions were good without Hezekiah pointing it out? Would he really have schmeissed the people for their unwitting sin if Hezekiah hadn't stayed God's hand? If the best thing to do in that situation was to forgive the people, God would have had to know it and would have decided to do it without Hezekiah saying anything. On the other hand, if the best thing to do was to *not* forgive the people, then it's pretty surprising that God would have departed from doing what's best, forgiving them against his better judgement, just for Hezekiah's sake.
I suppose you could argue that the situation changed the moment Hezekiah put forward his plea, kinda like the electron you're observing changes because you're observing it. Hezekiah isn't outside of a closed system; he's in the system, affecting it, just as the scientist's presence alters the data he measures. If Hezekiah's a bad person and his people are all punished it won't much matter, but if he's a good person and his people suffer, God will have treated him unjustly. The people didn't deserve much mercy, maybe, but Hezekiah did, and because Hezekiah showed God that he really cared about them (which is the same as saying that Hezekiah really cared about them, since we're assuming God is omniscient--I mean, Hezekiah didn't have to pray it aloud; all he had to do was care), God relented for his sake. Possible, but it means the people didn't really deserve the mercy they received, and they only got it because H. was in good with God. That doesn't seem like the point of the story. No, the point of the story seems to be something more like "Even if you don't follow all the rules perfectly, do your best and God will forgive you for your shortcomings." So there's got to be some other explanation for what exactly Hezekiah's prayer *did*.
The only explanation that really seems to fit all the data, though, was that Hezekiah's prayer did nothing but prove his own excellent understanding of how God works. When Hezekiah prayed for mercy for his people, he wasn't petitioning. He wasn't saying, "Please forgive them, Lord, they don't know any better." Instead, he was affirming. He was saying, "God will forgive them, because that's just how he is." And he would have been right...but then we're back to where we started: how do we account for verse 20, where God seems to heal the people as a result of hearing Hezekiah's prayer?
I'm partial to the Jewish understanding of prayer (I'm sure you're all shocked), which explains it as self-judgement, or perhaps self-examination. Prayer is a good way for us to take an honest look at ourselves and see what needs fixing. This view happens to be compatible with the idea of God as something like Absolute Reality--coming closer to God means getting past your own filters and confronting the truth of things as they are, which is instrumental in deciding what needs to change. And creativity is an alternate path to divinity, because by bringing stuff into existence, you're participating in Reality's evolution and growth.
Anyway, prayer. If you affirm that something is the case and it wasn't beforehand but it becomes the case by virtue of your affirming it (and believing in your own affirmation), you're creating. (For example, I can affirm that I'm punctual, and if I can manage to trick myself into believing it in spite of overwhelming data to the contrary, I'll be more likely to become punctual, and then I'll start to build up supportive evidence to spur my belief along.) However, if you affirm that something is the case because you've discovered, in a moment of insight, that it is so, then you're acknowledging truth. Both can be types of prayer, I suppose, and both can be powerful for inner work. If I'm going to examine myself for the purpose of becoming a better person, then I've first got to confront what's there and then I've got to transform it, through sheer creative willpower, into something else.
Which one was Hezekiah doing? It looks like he thought he was doing the prayer-as-acknowledging-reality one, but then God reacted as if it had actually been an act of prayer-as-altering-reality. It doesn't help that the verb they use to describe God's hearing Hezekiah is vayyishma, from the root shin-mem-ayin, a.k.a. shama, the same root that you find in the central declaration of belief that begins "Hear, O Israel". This isn't a case of God hearing what Hezekiah said and happening to agree. It's hearing in a more powerful sense, the sort of hearing you do when you're paying attention, when you intend to obey. It's not quite so strong as heeding, but it's still listening...listening and reacting, as if God wasn't going to forgive the people at first, but then Hezekiah spoke up and God changed his mind.
So I don't really have a clever answer to this dilemma. Either God forgives us for falling short of perfection because he perceives our good intentions, but prayer has no effect whatsoever (but then whence that vayyishma?), or God forgives us when we're borderline-acceptable and someone really righteous prays on our behalf, but when there's no one like Hezekiah around, we're all screwed.
I suppose there's one more possibility: Hezekiah could have been praying in public, and his prayer might have affected all the people so powerfully that just hearing it boosted their merit enough to bring it out of the "No Credit" zone and into the "Pass" zone. I think that would conform to all our givens, both about the nature of God (just, merciful, and omniscient) and about the power of prayer (greater than nil), but that's a pretty marked departure from the story, and if that's what the authors meant, you'd think they would have said it.
~ prattled by Miriam at 12:00 p.m. [+]
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