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Niedner: We keep praying, although we don’t know if anyone is listening

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: April 19, 2012 8:13AM



Most every day’s news comes with a dose of irony. Consider the day two weeks ago when various sources reported briefly on the death of an almost forgotten academic. William Hamilton, dead at 87, was one of several provocative theologians whose writings prompted an April 1966 Time magazine cover that asked, “Is God Dead?”

Raised a Baptist, Hamilton earned several degrees and eventually served as a seminary professor. Early on, however, his thinking had begun to depart from traditional patterns. As a teen at the end of World War II, he had watched newsreels of Allied forces liberating Nazi concentration camps, and the pictures of emaciated survivors standing amidst piles of corpses haunted him ever after.

The longer he thought about it, the harder it became to fathom an all-powerful deity who could stand idly by while horrors of such magnitude took place in the world. Although he never became an atheist, Hamilton abandoned the notion of a God who maintained intimate, personal connections with the daily affairs of humankind. While counted among the radical “death of God theologians” of the 1960s, he didn’t so much preach the death of God as the demise of every comfortable, traditional, and thoroughly domesticated idea of God.

By chance, news of Hamilton’s passing came on the same day baseball superstar Albert Pujols broke his personal silence concerning the off-season drama that ultimately left him a Los Angeles Angel after a decade with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Feeling jilted and betrayed, some St. Louis fans likened Pujols to Judas Iscariot. Despite the exemplary nature of Pujols’ philanthropic generosity and community involvement, they deemed him just another greedy jock. Sportswriters around the country wrote columns asking why someone would trade the chance to become an everlasting icon in St. Louis for a few extra millions elsewhere, since in either city he would receive nearly a quarter of a billion dollars for playing a game.

When Pujols finally explained himself during an interview at the Angels’ spring training camp, he pronounced the writers and fans mistaken. Money had nothing to do with his move. He and his wife had prayed about the decision, and God told them to sign with Los Angeles.

A flippant take on these juxtaposed stories suggests that news of God’s death was greatly exaggerated. God is very much alive. To prove it, God can simultaneously declare Hamilton dead and make headlines by helping wealthy athletes decide where to practice their home-run swings.

A more unsettling conclusion is that the Almighty deigns not to heed the prayers of untold millions herded into history’s manifold versions of the gas chambers, including hosts of frightened children, but gladly serves as a kind of personal concierge for the rich and powerful as they sort out their business affairs. Such a prospect rightly leaves believers scratching their heads. Either God has scandalous priorities, or millionaire ballplayers need treatment for narcissism, and both need our forgiveness more than our adoration.

The most charitable reading sees both Hamilton and Pujols as ordinary mortals trying honestly to discern patterns and meaning amidst the swirl of circumstances that sweep them up and sometimes overwhelm them.

Tiny critters in a vast universe, most of us work at this project. On some days we can sit comfortably with unanswerable questions. On others we find ourselves in foxholes and God becomes our cosmic bellhop. “Banish my symptoms, find my lost cat, and just this once, help us win this ball game.” (We’ll leave a tip on Sunday.)

The insanities of March prompt plenty of prayer. Thankfully, most go unheeded.

But we can’t help wondering which.



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