Opinionista Lev David 10 February 2011

In the face of real helplessness, what to do but pray?

One thing that kept popping up in headlines as we waited and wondered about Nelson Mandela’s health. Prayer. “South Africa Prays,” one of those lightpole posters said. Believing in no god or gods, I had no one to whom to pray. It made me sad that I didn’t.

There’s a term, “the god of the gaps”. When science has so far supplied no satisfactory explanation, a god is popped in. For example, the Roman Catholic Pope accepts the overwhelming evidence for evolution, but suggests that his particular God started the process. That God would be a god of the gaps.

I understand the need to explain the unknowable and the so-far-unknown. As I write this, a terrible Johannesburg storm is starting up. It occurs to me that the first theory about the cause of thunder was put forward only in the third century, B.C., by Aristotle, who got it wrong – he thought it was clouds crashing into each other. (Not a bad guess, though.)

But modern man is a 50,000-year-old species. That means we’ve spent more than 47,000 years without a clue as to what thunder was. Almost every human being that has lived in a thunderous world, in times when thunder seemed a more real threat to life, without any available scientific explanation.

Would we deny them some understanding? Would we deny our various ancestors their various gods of the thunder gap – Thor, Mulungu, Indra and others – in favour of “I don’t know”?

I don’t know.

Regardless, I do believe in a different sort of god of the gaps. The god that fills the awkward spaces when there’s nothing to be done. Because, sitting in front of the TV recently, waiting for that damned 12:30 press conference, every minute an hour, I had nothing to fill the helpless time.

I believe in a god of the gaps who gives you something to say when there’s nothing to be said. What is the secular equivalent of, “I’ll pray for you”?

I’ve said: “I’ll be… thinking… about you.” It’s always felt like an admission of defeat. It implies no real action. It doesn’t even imply that you have a preferred outcome. Which is why I’ve tried: “I’ll be thinking a kind thought about you.” “I hope you’ll get better,” is better, but still weak compared to the promise to pray.

Of course, it’s odd that an all-powerful, infallible god could be cajoled into changing his, her or its mind. “I was going to let you and your family die in the flood,” says the god. “But I see now that I was being a bit extreme. Here’s a log to float away on.”

And then there’s the implication that you could, through prayer, bring something to the attention of a god who supposedly knows all things. “Please God,” you might pray. “I need a hand with this thing.”

“Completely missed that,” says this god. “If it weren’t for these prayers, I’d have no idea what was going on down there.”

Still, I guess all prayers are the same: “Let me not be helpless.” That’s worth hoping for. Though we might be making better use of our time if we were working at it. Often, we are not helpless. Sometimes though we are.

Sure, prayer is its own sort of inaction, but what do you do when there’s nothing to be done? When somebody has grown old and science has yet to offer a foolproof defence against death?

It’s a relief that so much of last week’s fuss was unfounded. But what do we do when we are truly helpless? Do we accept defeat, or do we at least pretend that we still have some power to influence the outcome?

This unbeliever wants something to do when there’s nothing to be done. Something beyond changing my Facebook profile picture in solidarity.

Perhaps I’ll bring over a pot of stew. DM


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Since its release, Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book Gangster State, has sparked numerous fascist-like behavior from certain members of the public (and the State). There have been planned book burnings, disrupted launches and Ace Magashule has openly called him a liar. And just to say thanks, a R10m defamation suit has been lodged against the author.

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*No video of Richard Poplak auditioning for SA’s Got Talent actually exists. Unless it does and we don’t know about it please send it through.

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