Australia’s Prime Minister is an evangelical Christian who wears his faith on his sleeve. “I have always believed in miracles,” Scott Morrison declared as he claimed victory in an “unwinnable” Federal election in May.
Last week he stirred the pot amongst the commentariat with remarks at an annual Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast where he launched a book about the history of prayers in Parliament. And he added his own reflections on the need for prayer.
To be honest, while the PM is very comfortable being photographed waving his arms and singing with his congregation, he is not a top-drawer theologian. If he’s looking for a post-politics career change, I’d suggest marketing or events management, not theology.
Nonetheless, he left his listeners with a profound insight:
What I like about prayer and what is so important about us coming together in our Parliament and praying, is prayer gives us a reminder of our humility and our vulnerability … Faith, religion, is actually first and foremost an expression of our human frailty and vulnerability and an understanding that there are things far bigger than each of us.
Prayer, in other words, is not primarily a Christmas letter to the Almighty demanding new toys, or rain for a drought-stricken land, or peace in Syria, or for my horse to win the Melbourne Cup. It’s a way of acknowledging our status as creatures, beloved by the Creator, but still creatures who owe their entire existence to him.
Morrison’s speech infuriated Philip C. Almond, Emeritus Professor in the History of Religious Thought, The University of Queensland. He wrote a stinging article in The Conversation — which was immediately republished on the ABC News website, perhaps to persuade Christians not only that their religion is nonsense, but it is also internally inconsistent.
This is too much, he fumed. Morrison is running around the countryside praying for too many things – the unemployed here here, indigenous health there, veteran suicides over there. “It appears prayer has become part of government public policy,” he remarked acidly.
But it was praying for rain that really wound Almond up.
It’s hard to understand why someone who is agnostic about God’s existence should care whether people pray to him. But for some reason, Almond finds it very irritating.
He launches into a tirade denouncing prayer as a kind of psychological emasculation. Relying on prayer is both “theologically irresponsible” and “socially and politically irresponsible” in an era of climate change.
Why? Because prayer, he says, is asking for miracles. Miracles are either impossible or it is impossible to prove that they are miracles. This is as obvious as the nose on your face to Almond. Eighteenth Century philosopher David Hume said so. (Even agnostic professors of religious thought burn candles before their household deities, it seems.)
So there’s no point in praying. Just start working for climate change and stop praying for rain.
There’s something quite warped in Almond’s perception of Christian prayer. In some respects, Christians would agree with him. “Pray as it everything depended on God; work as if everything depended on you” is a maxim used by Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and Jews.
And that is more or less what Morrison did to get re-elected, I suppose.
However, there’s another, richer, dimension to prayer which Morrison left out of his speech to the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted it in his book Jesus of Nazareth. He was discussing the role of Moses in the history of Judaism and Christianity. Moses, you will remember, was the ultimate wonderworker. At a touch from his staff the Red Sea parted; he drew water from a rock; he sent nine calamities to plague the Egyptians. But none of those could vie with his real distinction:
The most important thing about the figure of Moses is neither all the miraculous deeds he is reported to have done nor his many works and sufferings along the way from the “house of bondage in Egypt” through the desert to the threshold of the Promised Land. The most important thing is that he spoke with God as with a friend.
That’s the real discovery of Christian prayer, that man, a creature, dust and ashes, can speak with his Creator as a Father. Alone in the universe (pending news of extra-terrestrial civilisations, of course) man can pray to his all-powerful Friend. In the words of Lord Tennyson’s elegiac poem about the death of King Arthur:
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet