Monday, October 26, 2009

Does God Help Baseball Fans?

Few of the fans at yesterday's Yankees-Angels play off game would challenge the piety of the prayerful Cubs fan at the left. Innumerable TV images of New Yorkers clasping their hands, chanting softly, and shuckling in prayer suggest this. A Johnny Damon gapper bore ultimate salvation, but Yankees fans continued their appeals for divine intervention until the final out.

Yankees fans, of course, have no monopoly on prayer for their sports teams. Angels fans probably prayed just as hard -- as do, every summer, those lovers of the hapless of Cubs, or supporters of any other team or sport. But the intensity or frequency of supplication begs the question: does God really influence one player's ability to throw a ball, another's likelihood of hitting it, and a third's facility to catch it?

What one really asks, when one thinks about prayer in something like sports, is: what role does prayer have in any aspect of human activity?

This question is only a few intellectual jumps from thinking about God's role in the Holocaust. In a word, if God could conceivably impact the path of a baseball, couldn't he -- or, more to the point -- shouldn't he -- have ended the Holocaust sooner, or even prevented it in the first place? I know of no more troubling theological question.

This weekend I read a Talmudic story suggesting a provacative answer. The story describes a moment when the prophet Elijah appears to Rabbi Yose. At least one Jewish sage says Rabbi Yose prayed fervently for the wisdom to answer the question of why God allowed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

God had directed the Israelites to build the Temple as a conduit for the holiest relationship between God and man. Yet, God allowed the razing of that same Temple, the ending of that special bond, and the scattering of the Jews throughout the world.

In the story, just after Rabbi Yose finishes praying amongst Jerusalem's ruins, Elijah gives him his answer.

"What did you hear when you were praying in the ruin?" Elijah asks.

"I heard a heavenly voice cooing like a dove and saying, 'Woe to the sons because of whose sins I destroyed my house and burned my Temple and dispersed my people.'" Rabbi Yose says.

Elijah responds emphatically, telling Rabbi Yose he didn't hear the half of it. "By your life and the life of your head," Elijah admonishes, "God doesn't say this only at this moment. He says it three times a day, and when people enter the synagogues and the houses of study and when they respond in prayer, 'May God's great name be blessed.' What is more, the blessed one shakes his head and says, 'How lucky is the king who is praised this way in his house! As for me, what is there for the father who has exiled his sons and for the sons who have been exiled from their father's table?'"

God aches for the destroyed Temple and the spiritual intimacy it created, just as His people do. Yet, in spite of the pain, God could not stop the destruction. Nor could he simply snap his fingers and have the Temple rebuilt.

The Rabbi Yose story provides a window to how God might feel about the Holocaust. Not only did he watch the suffering of innocents. He saw the sadism of the perpetrators. He heard the silence of the bystanders. The Holocaust could stand as exhibit A in a case against God's existence: if God exists, how could He let such things happen?

Perhaps the Holocaust happened because God established a world where human action can lead to things that are excruciatingly painful for both man and God. Perhaps God too mourns the millions of innocent Holocaust victims. Perhaps that is how He allowed the Holocaust to occur: with incomprehensible divine suffering. God had to suffer not only the evils of the Holocaust. He had to watch it happen with the knowledge that humanity alone caused it, just as humanity alone could end it. One reason the Holocaust happened is not because we live in a Godless world. It happened because we live in a man-full world, a world where man has the ultimate power to choose good or evil.

What role does prayer play in our lives? In a word, quite a big one, I believe. Prayer leads me to insights I find literally life changing, and that lead me to be a more effective human being for myself and my fellows. Through prayer I can also express the gratitude I feel for the relatively charmed life I lead.

Does prayer for a sick person help her heal? I believe it does, though I lean against it doing so the way antibiotics kill bacteria, or the way surgery removes a tumor. I am much more comfortable with the idea it does its magic in some way beyond human understanding. I'm enough of a non-rationalist to accept levels of reality beyond those we can understand. I'm not enough of one to buy that our thoughts directly influence the material world.

So no, all those prayerful people in the Bronx did not guide Mariano Rivera's delivery of that final strike. But I wouldn't be surprised if God has a little extra measure of heavenly mercy set aside for those Cubs fans. They deserve it.

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