by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 68 - Jan 2018

It was common practice to cut off a finger or portion of one as a sacrifice to the gods for the recovery of a superior relative who was sick.

So wrote the anthropologist, James Frazer, about the islanders of Tonga.

Earlier, Captain Cook reported the same thing:

They suppose that the Devil will accept the little finger as a sort of sacrifice efficacious enough to procure the recovery of their health.

Walter Burkert’s Creation of the Sacred (a contentious title, but Burkert is an atheist) lists similar practices in many different parts of the world - too many, too distant, to have had a common origin. In India a woman who

has borne some children, terrified lest that the angry deity should deprive her of her infants,... goes to the temple, and as an offering to appease his wrath, cuts off one or two fingers of the right hand. Some would do so repeatedly, becoming more and more seriously handicapped; indeed, the colonial government of India tried to forbid the custom at the beginning of [the 20th] century.

As well as being widespread, the practice is ancient. In some of the famous Paleolithic caves, there are handprints of people apparently trying to come in contact with the sacred or to leave the mark of their presence. In one cave some of these hands are clearly mutilated, and it has been assumed that some form of finger offering occurred even at this epoch. In other words, finger sacrifice is a Paleolithic ritual that has survived into the twentieth century, over more than 20,000 years.

Don’t do it! You’ll never get your finger back - and my opinion, for what it’s worth, is that it doesn’t work.

Why did so many people do it? This, surely, is evidence of attitudes to prayer very different from our own.

One can only assume that the finger-sacrificers must have been pretty desperate: please, please, please, let my child live. In addition they must have held, more or less, two beliefs which most people today don’t hold.

The first is that the gods were capable of granting or withholding the request. They maintained the world in ways which were sometimes favourable to human well-being, but often weren’t. They couldn’t be relied on. They were fickle.

The second is that they were open to persuasion. Chop off a finger, sacrifice it to a god, and the god will be pleased. Think about this. If I chopped off one of my fingers and put it in the post to you, would you be pleased? If you were, what sort of person would that make you?

It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate that, for people who believed these things, the whole of life must have felt very different. Less secure, more dangerous, more at the mercy of forces outside human control.

In most of the world, beliefs about the divine gradually changed. The gods became fewer and more reliable. Not only Jews, but also surrounding cultures, began to think of all the gods comprising a more consistent, reliable unity: Isis-all-the-Gods, Highest Zeus, Ahura Mazda.

Christianity, like most faiths today, was based from the start on the belief that the divine is consistent and well-disposed to humanity. Without it, it would have been impossible to develop modern science, let alone machinery, because there would have been no expectation of predictability. In the secular world, there is no question of going back to the earlier view.

Yet in some religious circles, there is. It is one of those strange inversions in the history of ideas that the single god maintaining a reliable, consistent world, the central distinguishing feature of the Jewish / Christian / Islamic tradition, has been turned into its enemy.

Resistance to regularity

Many priests and worshippers never really bought into it anyway. Theologians and philosophers may think through what kind of deities, if any, might have created the universe we’re in, but most people have more immediate concerns. They want an interventionist god, or angel, or whatever, to take away the pain or produce some money. They don’t ask themselves what life would really be like if God answered everybody’s requests in the same way. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer contains prayers of this type: for more rain, for less rain, for relief of famine:

Behold, we beseech thee, the afflictions of thy people; and grant that the scarcity and dearth, which we do now most justly suffer for our iniquity, may through thy goodness be mercifully turned into cheapness and plenty.

Here is divine intervention twice over: first, to produce the famine as punishment for iniquity, and then to end it in response to prayer.

Its echoes remain. In a few months’ time, many churchgoers will pray for fine weather for Saturday’s village fête while their local farmers may well be longing for rain. If they all believed those prayers would be effective, serious conflict would arise. But it doesn’t. In the same way, in many a church the person on the intercessions rota prays for peace in a war-torn country while voting for a government that drops bombs on it. One senses a dying tradition, no longer thought through.

Modern resistance

Elsewhere, interventionism has been revived. Nineteenth-century Westerners, Catholic and Protestant alike, reacted against atheism by reviving a busy god appearing here and there, doing favours to adherents of the true faith. Modern Church was founded at this time, largely to resist the trend.

Personally I have known a number of people who value Our Lady of Lourdes or Medjugorje for her interventions, but I have had more dealings with Charismatic Evangelicals. The Charismatic Movement is usually dated from the 1960s, when popular atheism was at its height. Defending Christianity seemed best done with physical evidence of unscientific spiritual powers such as faith healing, exorcisms, or speaking in tongues.

Elsewhere, belief in evil spirits and exorcisms had pretty well died out by the 1960s. Western Christians would hardly ever come across them taken seriously. Except in the New Testament.

So, for those committed to biblical literalism, it seemed ‘biblical’ to reaffirm that older world where invisible spiritual agents could cause unexpected good or harm and could be invoked or hindered by the right prayers. Every successful healing or exorcism was proof of an interventionist God defying atheists.

Hence the great reversal. As the reliable, consistent world of monotheism got reallocated to atheist science, some churches reasserted the chaotic world of ancient polytheism. Mercifully, finger amputations haven’t been revived; but in some circles life is once again presented as unpredictable. To be healed from your illness, you need to pray. If that doesn’t work, you didn’t pray in the right way, or using the right words. Or you didn’t have faith. Or you had the wrong kind of faith. Back to the unpredictable micro-managing divinities who need to be kept sweet. I don’t want to exaggerate it, but I have known many people whose illnesses have been compounded by this kind of theology.

Old and new interventionism

It is not really the same. When people pray to be the successful job applicant, they don’t usually pray for the other candidates to be ill or for their cars to break down on the way to the interview. They probably don’t think through how their praying could affect the outcome. In the ancient world, the logic was clearer: because conflicting and fickle spiritual beings ran the world, it mattered to know about them. Egyptian rubbish heaps have revealed countless magical spells for doing harm to enemies and competitors.

Today, when people pray for divine intervention, they don’t want to go back to that chaotic world. They drive cars and switch on their cookers presupposing that no spiritual agent is going to intervene in their workings. When modern Christians pray for divine intervention, they presuppose that the rest of life will carry on regularly. The intervention they pray for is to be an exception, not the rule. I want God to answer my prayers, but not everybody else’s.

Different praying

So how should we pray?

In the polytheist system, the main point of prayer is to influence future events. We need to pray in the right way, so we need to know how to make each prayer effective. There is no limit to the number of things we could pray for, so the more praying we do, the better. A few New Testament texts, like ‘Ask and it will be given to you’, are popular in these circles.

To me, it’s blasphemous. It presupposes that we know what needs to be done, while God has the ability to do it. We have the intelligence, God has the power.

What I believe is the opposite. God created the universe but has withdrawn from supreme power so as to give us freedom. We have power. Whether we use it well or badly depends on whether we want what God wants for us.

So the point of prayer is not to tell God what needs to be done, but to open up our minds so that God can tell us what needs to be done.