Sunday, October 07, 2007

What Shall We Pray For This Evening?

My title is a quotation from the priest who presided at my Nuptial Mass--it was his usual formula for introducing the Prayers of the People at the evening Newman Center Masses I attended when I was in graduate school. Various people in the congregation would then voice their petitions, and their petitions were very often in the form of rather explicit requests for God to intervene in their lives in a very noticeable and, indeed, extraordinary way. Some wanted healings for specific maladies, others wanted the U.S. government to do something about this or that social problem, yet others asked God to take over the minds of certain people and cause them to think differently than they do (though they didn't always put that last petition in exactly those words).

As long as I've been a believing Christian, I've been troubled by a certain attitude towards prayer in general and towards the miraculous/mysterious in particular that is illustrated in these petitions. Before I converted, I knew folks who would drive around a parking lot praying to find a good parking space, folks who would pray for "miraculous" cures for some specific case of "incurable" cancer, folks who would pray for their favorite team to win a sporting event, folks who would pray for world peace. Some of these petitions seem to be rather evidently better than others as petitions go, at least if we are to judge such things on the basis of their more universal appeal and benefit to the common good, but in a certain sense they are all the same: they all ask God to do something for us that we would like to have done right away and that we cannot accomplish on our own. To the extent that some of them seem beyond the reach of natural processes, such as the healing of what looks to be an incurable cancer, to have such prayers "answered" in a certain way would seem "miraculous", and given that God's omnipotence is beyond our understanding, such "answers" to prayer would also seem "mysterious".

This attitude towards prayer, that is, prayer as a means to obtaining something tangible in this way, is obviously a very naive notion, but it is fairly widespread. I don't think there's anything that can be done about this attitude, but I think it is mistaken. It seems fairly clear to me that God does not, as they say, "work that way". Folks who adopt this attitude towards prayer, however, get a little riled up if you suggest such a thing. If you point to all the very deeply faithful people who pray fervently for things such as these, only to have their prayer requests "denied" by an allegedly omnibenevolent God, you often hear "explanations" running from "those people aren't as faithful as you thought they were" to "God always answers every prayer, but sometimes the answer is 'no', and we mere mortals are in no position to second-guess the almighty: there may be a very good reason for letting a little infant die horribly of cancer in spite of his parents' fervent prayers for a cure, sometimes God brings great good out of the worst evil." I think that all such answers are desperate attempts to grasp at very thin straws, and that all such answers could be avoided if a different attitude towards prayer were taken in the first place.

Today's Gospel reading illustrates what I have in mind. Our Lord says that, if you have sufficient faith, you will be able to say to this tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it will happen. Now, it seems to me that the very first thing to strike one's attention about this is not how powerful faith can be if you have it but, Who in the world would pray for something like that? It's not the sort of thing that would ordinarily count as the object of one's deepest desire, so surely it is a metaphor for something else, but what? In other versions of the story it is a mountain that gets thrown into the sea, so it is tempting to interpret the story as what you can achieve if you have great enough faith, but that seems to me to be just a version of magical thinking: all I have to do is believe in the right way, and God will do whatever I ask him to do. This turns prayer into something rather utilitarian, in my view: trust me enough, and I'll do what you ask, I'll satisfy your desires, whatever they may be.

That this is not the proper way to read the story seems clear enough, I think, because of what follows, the story of the unprofitable servant. Now, if ever there were any textual evidence that Luke is relying on an independent source consisting of a random assemblage of logoi of Our Lord, this is it, and yet it fits right in with the story of the uprooted tree. The point of faith and prayer is not to provide evidence to God that we have accomplished something highly praiseworthy (great faith in him) that warrants some sort of prize (an answer to our prayer in the form of satisfaction of desire). You do not reward somebody for doing their duty. (My children often make this mistake. My son will ask for some sort of treat because he was nice to his sister all day. He is mystified when I tell him that one does not get treats for doing what one is required to do.) So it seems to me that the point of the uprooted tree story cannot be that, if your faith is great enough, God will answer your prayers in the way that people often want him to answer their prayers, that is, by curing some disease, or bringing about world peace, or in general causing things to be other than they are by a miraculous intervention in human history. Although God may, in fact, do such things, I myself don't believe that there is a sufficient reason to believe, in any particular case, that that is what has happened, apart from the Scriptural accounts in which it is made explicit that that is what has happened.

My own view is that the purpose of prayer is not to bring about a satisfaction of material desire in the first place. Its purpose is to satisfy a different sort of desire, namely, the desire for closeness to God. It seems to me that the happiness one experiences, when one obtains satisfaction of material desire, is in itself merely an image of the much greater happiness that we experience when we have friendship with God, just as the pain that we experience in this life is an image of the pain that is sin, i.e., separation from God. All sickness, disease, and death have fully naturalistic explanations, of course, but that does not mean that in the greater ontology that goes beyond mere materialism they are not also signs of something else. The Christian must always be on the lookout for the deeper meaning that is shot through all of material reality, because the Christian is not a materialist: he does not believe that material reality is all that there is, even though it is all that we have access to via the senses. This is why the Christian can be neither a materialist nor an empiricist (at least not globally; he may be locally either one, and indeed he must be if he is also a scientist, but local materialism and local empiricism will not satisfy the likes of a Dawkins or a Dennett, and that is why the Christian must also be an anti-realist about science). So the Christian cannot view prayer as a mere means of rearranging the material furniture of his earthly existence, since that furniture is nothing but a sign of something else and is, in itself, utterly meaningless. If I pray for anything at all, whether it is a parking place or a cure for cancer, what I ought really to be praying for is friendship with God. If I have cancer, I may well be dying. Both the cancer and the process of dying are fully materialistic processes, when viewed from one perspective; but viewed from the Christian perspective they are also signs of sinfulness. Not of some specific, unconfessed sin that I bear on my conscience, mind you, but of the general separation that exists between man and God as a consequence of the Fall. Thanks to Christ, that separation has been healed, but strictly by the grace of God, not in virtue of anything that we have done that deserves a treat or a reward from God in the form of a material answer to a prayer for material comfort.

Instead, God answers prayer by drawing us closer to him. In this sense, I would say, not that God answers every prayer but the answer is sometimes 'no', but I would say rather that God answers every prayer and the answer is always 'yes', even though we may sometimes fail to see the answer, because, like the woman at the well, we don't always know what we're asking for. If I continue to die of cancer, in spite of prayers that I be saved, it is not because God "has other plans" for me. He is, in fact, answering my prayer by loving me and the faith that I display in him by uttering the prayer in the first place. If I expect him to heal my cancer, it may be that I will be disappointed if there is no cure. I may be tempted to say, "My faith was not great enough"; or "God will bring some greater good out of this evil". But responses like these fail to see what prayer fundamentally is, because they assess the "success" of a prayer in terms of whether the human desire for material comfort was met. The best prayer, the prayer that ought to be in every Christian heart at all times, is always "thy will be done". It should be an obvious corollary of that prayer that we do not wish for God's will to conform to ours when it gets done, but that ours be conformed to his, whatever it may be. In this sense, the Christian calling can be a very difficult one, because we are animals that have desires, and we tend to judge our fortunes, our human flourishing, in terms of how well our desires have been met. We often fail to understand that there is one desire that is not a material one that matters more than any other, and that meeting that desire often involves sacrificing all of the other desires. That is what martyrdom amounts to: bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel, that there is a way of life that is not always materially comfortable but that is always preferable to any other way of life because it is spiritually comfortable.


Paul Hamilton said...

Okay, I feel somewhat guilty for doing this because my comment only aims at a remark you make in passing. In what sense must Christians be anti-realists in regards to science?

Scott Carson said...


To a certain extent it depends, of course, on what one means by "realist" and "anti-realist". Suppose by "realist" one means something along the lines of the following:

Science aims at giving a representation of reality that is literally true or false, that is, a representation that attempts to capture, in one way or another, all that there is in reality and make that reality available to human cognition.

In order for this vision of science to be possible, one must antecedently adopt a materialist metaphysics and an empiricist epistemology. A Christian can certainly play that language game: a Christian can pretend that, for the purpose of playing this language game called science,, I will pretend that materialism is true and that empiricism is true. But at a global level the Christian cannot say anything like that, because the Christian just does not believe that materialism is literally true at a global level. So the Christian, in doing science, is actually ignoring the a priori assumptions of global materialism and empiricism that the realist demands, and adopting only a local version of each. That is, the Christian approaches both materialism and empiricism from an instrumentalist point of view: science does not attempt to make a picture-perfect representation of reality that is literally true or false, only a useful picture, a picture that enables us to do certain sorts of things.

Paul Hamilton said...

Interesting stuff. Now that you say it, it seems obvious that Christians must accept some sort of anti-realism. But let me pick you brain a bit more. My philosophy of science class was subpar at best, and so I'm always looking for an opportunity to make up for wasted time.

I understand that Christians could never claim that science can give us a full picture of reality, but does that necessariliy entail that the picture is merely useful?

Also, what do you mean by 'useful?' Do you mean that science's primary aim, from the Christian perspective, is making really cool widgets? Or that science merely provides a description rather than an explanation or reality? Or both/neither?

John Farrell said...

Okay. I admit to praying to God that the Red Sox keep winning.

Seriously, I'm badly paraphrasing it, but I recall somewhere CS Lewis saying praying doesn't change God, it changes us.

Scott Carson said...


Those are hard questions. By "useful" in this context, I don't mean to imply that science does not "represent" reality in any sense, so perhaps we shouldn't say "merely useful". The problem, of course, is that Christians are not materialists--we believe that there exist things that are immaterial, such as God, and that these things have genuine causal efficacy in the order of being, which is just to say that God can cause things to happen in the material realm that might not otherwise happen if materialism were true.

Science necessarily excludes this sort of a view, and so, from a Christian perspective, if we had to say whether science is "literally true or false" we would have to say that it is false to the extent that it denies what we know to be true. But on the other hand, science evidently works very well: it builds tall buildings, nice bridges, spaceships, cures diseases, etc. So there is a very real sense in which science "works", and it is that success of science that makes it useful in spite of the fact that it isn't, strictly speaking, true.

Imagine, for the sake of comparison, that you find yourself in a community that does not believe in the germ theory of disease propagation. Instead, they think diseases are caused by evil spirits. You have medicine that you know will cure their diseases, but you can't get them to take it unless you describe it to them as a powerful spirit of goodness. So they take the medicine and they all get better. In one sense, you have told them something that isn't true, and yet it was remarkably successful anyway. It "worked" even though they had false beliefs about it.

Science is just like that: it presents a picture that we know to be false, but it works anyway, and because of this we must be anti-realists, because realists believe that things only work when they are also true. In fact, there is a rather remarkable little argument that realists often make that goes something like this: realism must be true, because our best scientific theories work very well, which they would not do if they did not accurately model the way the world is in a realist sort of way. In other words, they take the success of science to be proof of realism. But as interesting as that argument is, it begs the question, so it's basically worthless as a proof of realism.

So Christians must adopt anti-realism, or else sacrifice their belief in non-material entities. Being an anti-realist is relatively easy, once you get over that initial queasy feeling of saying that you don't "care" whether a scientific theory is literally true or false. It's far more difficult to give up your Christian commitments and remain a Christian than it is to give up your realist commitments and remain a scientist.

Darwin said...

Just to get a trifle recursive, would it not be accurate to say that science is itself anti-realist as a methodology, to the extent that it is irrelevent to the scientif system whether a theory is actually true, so long as it successfully explains and predicts observations?

Thus, for instance, it could actually be that gravity is the work of "spirits" but so long as the law of gravitation (with the various modifiers that relativity and such have added on to it over the years) successfully explains what we see and predicts what we will see, the possibility that it's actually the result of spirits who act _like_ gravity is pretty much irrelevent.

Tom Gnau said...

The only problem with the argument is the very plain example of Jesus Christ himself — the painfully, excruciatingly clear example, actually. Talk all you like of how petitionary prayer is the lowest form of prayer, and you'll get little argument from me. But Jesus himself in the garden prays quite earnestly in a petionary manner.

Christ's proviso — your will, not mine, be done — is an all-important one, granted. But this idea that petitions are somehow "naive" is, well, naive. In my opinion.

Good discussion, though.


Scott Carson said...


Well, it's only my opinion, mind you, and no offense intended I assure you, but if you really think that the expression "thy will be done" in Our Lord's prayer in the garden is merely a "proviso", even an "all-important one", then you have really missed the point of that whole passage. It seems to me that the Gospel message as a whole, but the High Priestly Prayer of the Gospel of John in particular, would make that perfectly clear.

But, what the heck--to each his own.

Anonymous said...

Of course, I didn't say the proviso was "merely" a proviso. I said it was a proviso — period. No disrespect intended, but please read before ranting.

I'm in the same place. Christ's example is clear — blood-sweatingly clear, in fact. He offered a petition to His Father, not merely to get closer to Him. And there was absolutely nothing insincere or "naive" — your word, again — going on in the Garden that night (on Christ's part).

As you said, to each his own. But the Gospel does away with your argument quite easily. God is open to our petitions, as unworthy as they too often are.


Tom Gnau said...

Speaking of the Lord's Prayer — it's me again — that prayer readily chips away at your idea that petionary prayer is somehow "naive," silly or in any way out of court. That prayer is chock full of petitions. "Give us this day our daily bread ..." is best seen in light of the Holy Eucharist, without a doubt. But even Pope Benedict XVI has said that petition can be read and offered in more prosaic ways, as indeed it has for all of Christian history.

My argument here is not that we offer good or commendable petitions. What may arrest our minds and hearts at any moment is all too often trivial, unfortunately. And it is better to intercede for others (a type of petition, no?), to praise, to thank, to seek to glorify, to seek to serve.

My argument is simply that Jesus himself in effect paved the way for our petitions.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that whenever Jesus spoke of prayer, he spoke of it either as prayer of repentance or of petition. Thinking quickly through them, it seems as if all the parables he relates - the widower and the judge, the neighbor in the middle of the night - all seem to imply petitionary prayer. And, of course the Our Father, which we can see, not as simple words to repeat but as the answer to a question - how should we pray?

Well...what does Jesus say?

Acknowledge God as God
Pray that God's will be done
Pray for what we need (our daily bread)
Forgive us
Pray to be spared from temptation and evil.

I don't understand the "mechanics" of petitionary prayer, but I can't dismiss it, either.