Monday, November 30, 2020

Book Review: iGods - How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives

A major issue faced by Christians is how to think about technology. We often rush to demonize or canonize things about which we understand little. The more acute forms of the technology question usually come from the realm of bioethics. For example, what will more advanced artificial intelligence mean for medical care? There are major questions about what should be done in the interest of disease research (e.g. embryonic stem cells) and treatment (e.g. search and destroy nanobots for cancer).

To a lesser, but highly visible extent, consumer technologies present us with many puzzles. These are the technologies we use in our daily lives. Many are more services than goods and initially stand more in the ‘nice to have’ camp versus ‘need to have’. Yet, we find they quickly move to an essential status for various reasons. 

We often hear that too much screen time on digital devices causes overstimulation and lack of focus, yet these devices are now so ubiquitously integrated into our daily lives that parting with them is conceptually impossible. You might as well tell someone to amputate their right arm (or head).  We feel a little uneasy about how much we rely on Google or our smartphones. Do we really know much of anything anymore? I mean, raise your hand if you can competently use a Rand McNally Atlas. I’m guessing that only people over the age of 40 have their hand up (or maybe even know what I am talking about!). Maybe geography is not a good proxy, but you probably know what I mean. It is hard to unplug. But the pesky why questions come up, and when they do most of us prefer to kick the can down the road. Some answers are just not on a Google search or a Quora post. And it has become quite convenient to leave the "why" and "what for" to someone else while I pull up my DoorDash app and listen to more streaming music on Spotify. 

In this book, Craig Detweiler asks us to take a step back from our devices and…think. Yes, the actual human act of engaging our moribund intellects without outside algorithmic assistance. Yes, to think without first genuflecting to the streaming ticker at the bottom of the news channel, website, app, or push notification. The reader is challenged to carefully consider how consumer technologies act upon us and what spiritual, cognitive, and behavioral changes follow.

Although a book from 2013 can seem outdated in our Jetsons meets 1984 era, I found it to be relevant and beneficial in many respects. Since the dawn of time, technology has shaped the lives of humanity. A major tailwind for this book is the way Detweiler circles the wagons around a working definition of technology (Chapter 1) that holds up well throughout the book and bears close scrutiny. It is more than gadgets and viral videos. Detweiler connects the reader with the techne of the ancient Greek thinkers and those before and after them who created and cultivated things toward the goal of harnessing, predicting, or controlling aspects of the world to facilitate some form of human flourishing.

The author nicely interweaves themes from the Genesis 1 ‘dominion/subdue’ mandate and Genesis 2 work directive. He also brings an important eschatological perspective into the fold, reminding us that there is a telos (end, objective) to technology that is beyond itself, and encouraging us to explore what that might be.

iGods provides helpful profiles on the history and business model(s) of four major consumer technology companies. Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Detweiler also briefly covers YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram. A return to basics helps us to know more precisely what these companies do that adds sufficient value to command so much web and headspace, not to mention money. If you have ever wondered how Facebook became so popular, you will find some good starting answers here. If you are really interested, you can dig further into some of the abundant source material provided in the endnotes (some of which might be a bit dated).

The personal and theological implications of these technologies in our lives is helpfully explained throughout. I especially appreciated the concluding chapter, which tied the previous analyses together nicely when they seemed to otherwise be quite siloed. It would have been helpful to read more on how a parent might approach technology, offering ideas to handle the constant dilemmas we face about screen time, content filtering, and gaming. The latter of these was a bit of an oversight in its absence from the book. Gaming is of course now an 800 lb. gorilla in the digital world, with Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite and the like gobbling up server space and bandwidth at a breathtaking pace.

Detweiler seems to just barely glance upon some of the issues creeping up from the underbelly of digital consumer technologies. For example, the ease with which illicit content can be made and disseminated is not sufficiently covered as a perilous downside. Perhaps these issues were beyond the scope of the book. From a Christian standpoint, we must acknowledge that sins made easier by technology can be that much more insidious. Further, there is an important question about how much moral culpability a company might have in making such material available and profiting from it, directly or indirectly.

This book is worth reading and would be especially helpful for Christian parents and those in ministry who face the constant dilemma of how to reach more people for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in a digital age. Read it with an open mind, though perhaps not on a Kindle or iPhone.

 iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives

By Craig Detweiler

2013. Brazos Press

Friday, November 27, 2020

Does God Hear the Prayers of Unbelievers?

This question comes up from time to time and it seems important to address for several reasons. From a Christian perspective, it first speaks to the goodness/benevolence of God. For example, one can imagine a person wondering how an all-loving God could not hear the prayers of an orphan child in a war-torn country, the child not knowing a thing about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, maybe the question hints at the evil/hiddenness objections to God. Secondly, the question gets at the notion of prayer itself. We need to inquire into the nature of prayer, how it works, and so forth. Further, when thinking about this issue, we must consider certain distinctions often thought to exist between believers and unbelievers. Christians might think it problematic if believers and unbelievers were both on the same plane in terms of prayer. If they were, at least some promised benefit of being a believer would be voided or diminished.

In this post, I hope to sketch out some basic answers to the question of whether God hears the prayers of unbelievers. My answer is that God does hear the prayers of the unbeliever, and this should cause us to rejoice in His goodness. God’s hearing the prayers of unbelievers in no way diminishes those of the believer. Even a long series of blog posts could not address all the antecedent questions and implications. However, I will do my best to also address some objections to my affirmative answer. 

We might first say that in His omniscient and omnipresent nature, nothing is unknown to God. Thus, any utterance of a believer or unbeliever is known to God and thus ‘heard’ by God. The matter at issue is whether God might grant the petitionary or intercessory prayers of unbelievers. By believer, we mean one who is a Christian. In several New Testament passages, viz. Luke 18:13 and Acts 10:1-33, an unbeliever prays and God hears and honors or grants the petition. 

Here one might claim that God the Holy Spirit had first regenerated the heart of the sinner in these instances so that we simply have only believers are praying to God. But this rendering goes far beyond the biblical text, especially Acts 10 when the Holy Spirit comes to Cornelius and his house as a consequence of his prayers. This approach would turn on a combination of equivocation on the term ‘pray’ and a disjointed, perhaps question-begging, argument in favor of a negative answer to the inquiry. Something along the lines of “only believers can truly pray, therefore only believers’ prayers can be answered.” The price tag for such a position would be far too high, assuming what it seeks to prove and further presuming the petitionary utterances of a believer and an unbeliever directed to the transcendent are two essentially different things.* The act of prayer itself, in terms of communication of a need, desire, etc. cannot be rendered essentially different based on the eternal state of the person when they are communicating it. For if they are essentially different things, then the question cannot even be raised. If only believers can pray, then it would make no sense to ask if God can hear the prayers of unbelievers, because unbelievers cannot perform the act. So, asking the question presupposes that, in a general sense of the term, both believers and unbelievers can pray. 

We can furthermore look to the Old Testament where the people of Nineveh prayed that they might be spared (Jonah 3:5-10), where Hagar asked God to protect Ishmael (Genesis 21:14-19), and in 1 Kings 21:17-29, where Ahab fasts and mourns over Elijah’s prophecy concerning his posterity. In each of these cases, the petition requested by the unbeliever was granted by God. It would be spurious to suggest the events/outcomes asked for in these cases happened by chance or other reasons not related to the prayer. Such a suggestion would strain exegetical credulity beyond the breaking point, representing an ad hoc approach ultimately leading to incoherence by undermining consistent interpretative methodology. For example, if we explained away the prayers of the people of Nineveh in some other way as God not hearing (and granting them), then whatever means of explanation would introduce extra-textual speculation that could be inserted at any juncture to fit one’s desired end. 

We must say that God indeed hears the prayers of unbelievers and may answer them in the affirmative or negative in accordance with His abundance of mercy, grace, and justice. 2 Peter 3:9 tell us that God is not willing that any should perish, but all should come to repentance. In view of this passage and others, in the providence of God, He may grant or will the efficacy of any prayers for this purpose. To say that God cannot use the means of hearing and answering prayers of the impenitent to bring about His unfolding plan for creation would be to presume far too much upon the grace and goodness of God that we impugn His character. In the Summa Theologiae II.II.83.16, Thomas Aquinas argues that if an unbeliever prays in accordance with sinful desire, God may grant the petition so as to bring about or accelerate the end (telos/purpose) of justice (or events leading to it). But if the unbeliever prays from a good desire, out of pure His mercy, God may hear the prayer if the one praying beseeches God for certain things. 

Aquinas' distinction is helpful in showing how we can exclude idle words or figures of speech from our evaluation. A robber muttering "I hope the big guy upstairs is taking a snooze right now, hehehe..." immediately before a bank heist is not praying. Neither would someone using the Lord's name in vain or uttering other euphemisms. Neither a believer nor an unbeliever is praying when speaking or thinking this way. As commonly understood, prayer is an act of religious piety or reverence, directed toward something beyond or greater than oneself. 

I will now consider some objections to God hearing the prayers of unbelievers, proceeding in a Summa Theologiae style for the sake of brevity and (hopefully) clarity. 

Objection 1: It seems God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers because unbelievers are separated from God by their sins (which are not forgiven), and God can only hear the prayers of those whose sins are forgiven. 

Reply to Objection 1: This reasoning fails to take divine benevolence and providence fully into account. God may hear (and answer) prayers of the impenitent for providential reasons, to bring about effects through both His primary causal efficacy or via secondary causes. Further, this objection presupposes a certain soteriological framework which need not be conceded.

Objection 2: God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers because these prayers are typically uttered in pagan or cultic practices. It is not befitting of God to hear prayers offered to demons, Satan, other deities, or physical objects and manifestations of nature.

Reply to Objection 2: In their ignorance, some unbelievers pray to things like statues, demons, natural forces, and the like. God can use these prayers to providentially bring about effects that further His benevolent and just ends for creatures. He can will that a pagan prayer be answered to a cultic deity for purposes of that person’s ultimate repentance or for purposes of bringing about temporal consequences and justice for wicked acts. 

Objection 3: Moreover, unbelievers pray for evil things that are not the proper objects of prayer. 

Reply to Objection 3: We know only good things come from God (James 1:17). So, we can say God does not affirmatively answer prayers which are for evil ends/means. All things in creation operate under the auspices of divine providence. If, for example, the demise of a man comes after the prayers of another man asked for that outcome, it is for some other providential reason the event occurred and not because the prayer has been answered affirmatively.

Objection 4: Prayer is an act of worship, and unbelievers cannot worship that which they hate or do not know. 

Reply to Objection 4: Whenever someone prays, an act of worship is being done in a manner of speaking. For the unbeliever, they pray in ignorance of ultimate truth. Yet, in such an act, if they are praying, they are worshipping something or someone. Such an act might be misdirected or disordered, but it does not follow that God, therefore, does not hear them. 

Objection 5: God hearing the prayers of unbelievers would diminish the prayers of believers.
Reply to Objection 5: There is a manifold purpose in prayer, as there are manifold types of prayer. We are primarily focused on petitionary and intercessory prayer, which when uttered by an unbeliever do not detract from those of believers. As Aquinas says, the prayers of the believer may be meritorious for them, whereas the prayers of the unbeliever cannot be (even if God hears/answers). Further, nothing can diminish the beatitude of those in Christ, because of the infinite love of God that abides in them. In the incomprehensible plenitude of His being, God is able to hear the prayers of the unbeliever without diminishing the grace He bestows upon those who love Him.

Objection 6: James 4:3 says “you ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.” This letter is addressed to believers. Thus, how much more an unbeliever cannot receive because their motives are worse than a believer. 

Reply to Objection 6: The answer to this objection is addressed in replies to objections 2 and 3.

Objection 7: Psalm 66:18 says “if I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear.” It must be said the unbeliever often, or always, prays with wickedness in their heart because of their sins. 

Reply to Objection 7: The answer to this objection is addressed in replies to objections 2 and 3.


That God hears the prayers of unbelievers should redound to His glory and praise. In His eternal benevolence, God can use the means of such prayers to bring about His ends. We know God loves His creation and delights in using divergent means, some of which are far beyond our comprehension, to attain His desired outcome. Isaiah 55:11-12 helpfully reminds us that God’s ways are higher and better than our ways. Such ways include the prayers of unbelievers. 

*Such an argument would presuppose a soteriological construct on which one cannot even pray to be saved but is saved first to enable them to pray. If one does not grant these theological precommitments, which would need to be successfully argued, then one cannot use this in support of a negative answer to the question at hand. For example, I surmise on perhaps some forms of Calvinism, one might hold that only believers can pray because God has enabled them to pray by unconditionally regenerating them. But this position would still run afoul of the issues mentioned. I see such a move as unhelpful in ultimately answering the question, because it undermines the question and further muddies the water with upstream debates. It is hard to see anything inherently problematic for the Calvinist to affirm God hearing or even answering the prayers of the unregenerate.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Tainted Love?

This is not a post about the early 1980s cover song by the English synth-pop group Soft Cell. Rather, it is about something I heard in a sermon on Mother’s Day which advanced the claim that the love of an earthly mother is great, but such love is tainted. Tainted by sin. The only untainted love is from God.

Is this right?

And if so, what exactly is supposed to be the insight? Can it be anything other than to remind the listener that they are only, at best, perpetually “snow-covered dunghills” (to borrow an analogy from Luther that has permeated post-16th-century Christian thought)? Another mere platitude? Can it be anything other than a pious affirmation from the pulpit that everything a human person does is spoiled and tainted by sin? Because we are born in sin, want to wallow in sin, and never escape sin until death frees us from the shackles of our rotten flesh. Because we are on the wrong side of glory, nothing we do is without some flaw or ulterior selfish motive. Or so the thought process goes.

This cannot be right.

First, we must ask how it is that a term like love can be understood to entail privation, lack, or defect. Love is best and most coherently understood as "willing the good of the other." It is sometimes helpfully expanded to "willing the good of the other, for the sake of the other." And good is typically understood as that which is intrinsically good for the other as such, which entails both temporal and eternal goods. In other words, that which is genuinely perfective of the other person as a body/soul unity. When we read the oft-quoted “love” chapter of 1 Corinthians 13, we see that love is patient, kind, not boastful, etc. All these actions are directed toward the good of the other and show the giving away of the self for the other. 

Thus, if we accept the Christian traditional and biblical definition of love, and there are many good reasons to do so, then love cannot be tainted. It cannot be tainted because a tainted love is not loving at all. It would fail to meet the criteria (it would not be willing the good of the other, selfless, kind, and so on.). So, we must either acknowledge that a mother can love, or she cannot love. If sin taints love, then the act is not love. Sin-tainted actions toward another are something else other than love. They might resemble love in many ways but will not be love.

Christians believe that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16); it is His essence. We believe that divine love can be participated in. To a finite degree, just like existence itself, rational creatures participate in the love that is God. Therefore, we should think of love in terms of degree rather than kind. When we love, if it is indeed love, we dip our toe into the infinite pool of the divine. Or we can dive in. We can swim forever. It is still the incomprehensible bliss of God in which we participate. Nothing about this pool can be tainted. The water is pure and warm.

In much of the Christian tradition, love is conceived as a divine gift. If this is in any way true, then it becomes even more improper to think it is tainted. It is a gift from the giver who has no limit or imperfection. The perfect giver cannot give what He does not have, and He does not have imperfection. What is more, we can pour out love to others without limit because love (God) is the infinite wellspring of goodness.  

When an earthly mother loves, she most definitely loves without blemish. She may not love all the time. There are times, perhaps many, when she is imperfect. But her selflessness, kindness, patience, and all she does for her children (or grandchildren, adopted children, foster children, sponsor children…) in love are glimmers of the divine light, splashes from the pool of blessedness. Sometimes the splash is larger, but the water is the same. The act of love, if it is love, is not something that admits of flaw. It may be a kernel, but it is there nonetheless. It will be lesser in magnitude than Love itself, but there is at least an analog, lest our understanding of love evaporates into the aether of equivocation and nothingness. We can love in a finite, participated way. Yet we love all the same, and with no reason to think acts of love are less because we are less than we will, in totality, one day be.