Candida Moss on “Thoughts and Prayers”

El Paso Thoughts

According to theologian Candida Moss, “thoughts and prayers” can be good things, but they alone cannot solve the gun violence problem in the United States.  To suggest otherwise is bad theology.


Here is a taste of her recent piece at The Daily Beast:

The idea that prayer demands action has a biblical basis. We tend to assume that characters who pray also take steps to have their requests met. Dr.Meghan Henning, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, Ohio, said, “When we read the story of Hannah praying for a child are we to assume that she stopped having sex?” Similarly most Christians (though not all) combine prayer with medical treatment when ill. When it comes to rectifying injustice and evil in the world the Epistle of James quite explicitly demands that we act: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:14-16). 

Both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama agree. In a Sunday Angelus message in 2013, Francis said “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer… Prayer and action must always be profoundly united.” Just last year the Dalai Lama tweeted that although he is a Buddhist monk he is “skeptical that prayers alone will achieve world peace. We need instead to be enthusiastic and self-confident in taking action.” 

The necessity of both prayer and action are recognized by pro-life Christians who both pray to end abortion and seek to re-legislate Roe v. Wade. As John Fea wrote this week, the thoughts and prayers excuse simply would not fly in the case of abortion. Thus, the question is not, “are thoughts and prayers sufficient?” but rather “when does the loss of human life necessitate action?” Surely, for the conscientious Christian, the answer has to be “whenever it occurs.” 

The truth of the matter is that even if miracles happen and prayer has miraculous (as well as psychological) benefits, it is simply bad theology to suggest that prayer alone can solve the problem of gun control. Petitionary prayers (prayers that ask for things) do not always deliver what a person wants. There are countless people who have faithfully prayed to God and not received the thing that they asked for. This isn’t just historically true, it’s theologically true. There are all number of reasons this is the case. In the first place, God might have other plans. So we might “ask” but not “receive” in the way that we expect or want. Arguably the best example of this is Jesus himself. According to the Gospel of Mark, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his death, Jesus kneels down to pray and asks his “Abba (Father)” to allow “the cup” (i.e. death) to pass from him. It is what he wants, but Jesus recognizes that the outcome will be what his father wants. It’s an example of obedience. but it’s also a story about a frustrated request in which through prayer Jesus discerned what he was supposed to do. It’s an important example because otherwise people who pray and don’t receive help are led to believe that they are spiritually failing.

Read the entire piece here.

4 thoughts on “Candida Moss on “Thoughts and Prayers”

  1. John,
    I don’t dispute her official title as a professor in the theology and religion department of the Cadbury Center. She is a scholar in early Christian history, however. The Cadbury Center is an interdisciplinary organization which studies the social, psychological, educational, and religious aspects of issues in society. Dr. Moss is within the religion and theology department. This does not make her a theologian.

    If Messiah hired an historian with an expertise in East Asian history, that would make him a professor within the history department but not qualified to call himself a professor of early American history. That appears loosely to be the situation with Dr. Moss. She is a highly qualified ecclesiastical historian within the religion and theology department.

    Typical of Quaker thought, Mr. Cadbury endowed the center to take a multidisciplinary approach. It is not a strictly theological center as one might find at other British universities.


  2. John,
    I am not sure I would title Dr. Moss a theologian as you did in your brief introduction. To posit a few theologically-based ideas as she did in her opinion piece hardly makes her a theologian. Judging from her published works, Dr. Moss appears to be a scholar of early Christian history and probably an outstanding academic. This scholastic distinction does not necessarily grant her the title of theologian. Her advanced academic work does not appear to be in theology per se. I say this not to slight her but to instead rightly categorize her as an historical scholar of the early Christian Era.

    The Christian academy is composed of several types of scholars such as linguists, historians, theologians, textual analysts, and others. All of them touch theology proper at least peripherally, but only theologians are theologians. Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Barth, Ratzinger, Van Til, Von Balthazar, Platinga, De Lubac, Edwards, etc. are representative theologians. Dr. Moss might well have a grasp of theology. As commendable as this is, it does not confer upon her the title of theologian. The most highly skilled service technician at the Boeing plant is not an aeronautical engineer.


  3. “Thoughts and Prayers” reminds me too much of “I’ll Pray For You” — Christianese for doing nothing to help and feeling Pious about it. Automatic reflex playback response.


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