OHPT: Thoughts Petitionary Prayer (Chapter 13)

Whoosh, I have actually made it halfway through the OHPT. *pats self on back and pours self gigantic glass of wine* I have another post of thoughts on this process, both the reading and the writing, so I’ll keep this post to a review of Chapter 13. In we go….

Chapter 13, “Petitionary Prayer,” was written by Dr. Scott A. Davison, Professor of Philosophy at Morehead State University. He earned his PhD at Notre Dame and his work has been both on prayer and ethics.

I was excited to read this chapter, because it’s tackles the subject of one of my favorite C.S. Lewis essays: “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer.” As the title says, Lewis never comes to a satisfactory answer about whether or not we should offer up petitionary prayers, which I just loved at the time. I still do. That openness to inconclusiveness is an important part of any spirituality, I think. In any event, I was excited to read a more philosophically rigorous account of this problem and see what conclusions, if any, Davison came to (and it is a problem! The exposed part of the iceberg of all Christian practices).

In general, prayer is also a subject of particular spiritual importance to me because of how much I value words. Words (written and spoken) are how I work out my thoughts, how I share them with others, how I express love, how I most feel love. Doing wordy things correctly and effectively is of deep, abiding, meaning-making importance to me. Prayer has always been a big subject of my spiritual meditations, and I am happy to say I ended up where Davison eventually does in this chapter. That is affirming.

The question Davison sets out to answer in this chapter is: “How central a role must x [someone’s prayer] play in God’s reasons for bringing about the thing in question in order for God’s bringing it about to count as an answer to prayer?” (290) For if something prayed for is a good thing to do, God already has “enough” reasons for doing it. If God requires my petitionary prayer in order to act, then she is truly not responsive to good in the way traditional theists claim. Davison calls this the Divine Goodness Problem.

There is another problem with claiming the efficacy of petitionary prayer. If God does the thing prayed for because I asked her to do it, then that means God is causally impacted by humans. If God is free in the libertarian sense (though we saw last chapter that that may not be the best definition of divine freedom), then she is not “moved” by an external force in acting. Responding to a petitionary prayer would indicate God is moved to act by an external force (humans) and thus undercuts the fullness and purity of her divine freedom. Davison calls this the Divine Freedom Problem.

I find the Divine Goodness Problem to be persuasive as a charge against the rightness of claiming petitionary prayer is needed, within the framework of traditional Christian theism. The kind of God theologians have argued for simply does not appear to need petitionary prayer, nor should she need it to act in a way that brings about some good.

I find the Divine Freedom Problem less compelling, because I find the nature of God’s freedom to be so murky. It’s harder to find anything substantial to grab onto, so it’s hard to really dig into what petitionary prayer could mean for or against God’s freedom. Nonetheless, if we are sticking with libertarian freedom, then sure. Petitionary prayer has no place in God’s acting.

Beyond these two problems, Davison says, there is still another problem. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that petitionary prayer does move God when she decides to be moved (the prayer is for something good). How would we know it was our prayer that moved her to act? God could have brought about the thing I prayed she would for many, many other reasons and I will never be able to know or even justifiably believe that it was my prayer that provided the catalyst for action. That it was my prayer that was answered specifically (rather than just happening to be answered because the request happened to match with what God was already planning to do). We just don’t have access to the full account of God’s reasons and purposes.

Probably in part because Davison retread ground I’d long ago trod personally, I found his batch of arguments thoroughly convincing. The idea of petitionary prayer accomplishing something in the world is rationally and logically problematic. (If we are assuming the traditional profile of the Judeo-Christian God, of course.)

Where Davison really brought it all home was in the last two pages. He points out there is something “inappropriately egocentric” in insisting we be part of the cause of God bringing about some good in the world (298). Like we are somehow a mover of God, or the reason she acted. I have seen this in so many areas of life that I couldn’t help but write YES with BIG UNDERLINE in the margin here.

Further, Davison says, this should make us flip the assumptions of the praying life on its head. It’s often proclaimed that a non-praying person lacks faith in God. What if, he says, petitionary prayer actually reflects a lack of trust in God? Petitionary prayer suggests that God needs to be reminded or instructed to do good. It suggests that we don’t trust that God already wills to do the most amount of good it is possible to do in the world. Also, how egocentric is it to assume that what appears to us, in our limited single perspective, as the “good” and “best” thing to do is the good and best thing to do?! Yikes. I think Davison makes so clear that petitionary prayer is always motivated either by fear or arrogance – it proclaims a limit on either God’s goodness or her knowledge.

Davison also brings up the great C.S. Lewis quote: “It’s so much easier to pray for a bore than to go and see him.” Practically and socially, the act of petitionary prayer can be a way we justify shirking our responsibilities to actually do the good we pray God will do for other people. We want someone dear to us to have help and comfort while she takes care of an ailing parent? Perhaps rather than praying that God sends her some help and comfort we should, you know, go over there with dinner, a bottle of wine, and pair of helpful hands along with a shoulder to rest on. We should actively provide the care and comfort we assume she needs. To say we’ve done our duty by praying about it (in this kind of instance) seems like a speech act of self-absolution.

I see petitionary prayer used as an all-too-convenient excuse for so many Christians to shirk their responsibilities to their fellow humans and their society. They can claim they “did” something by praying about an injustice, but can also avoid doing the hard thing by saying if the thing is good God will do it without their actions. Christian Republicans pray for Black people and then vote for the GOP politicians who keep police militarized and keep Black people marginalized and oppressed. The petitionary prayer itself is invalidated.

It’s important to note that Davison does not argue that all forms of prayer are non-rational, arrogant, or hypocritical. (He doesn’t come out and claim that of petitionary prayer, BUT I WILL BECAUSE THIS IS MY BLOG DAGNABIT.) He echoes a number of other thinkers by suggesting that “perhaps we should think of prayer in general terms not so much as the attempt to bring God’s mind into line with our minds as the attempt to bring our minds into line with God’s mind” (299). I love the idea of transforming the prototypical form of prayer from petitionary to meditative (slash adoration). Or even to that of thanksgiving. Because perhaps refraining from petitionary prayer reflects a deeper trust and faith in God than engaging in petitionary prayer does:

… one knows that God sees this truth [of a particular person’s deepest need] even more clearly than one does, one knows that God loves this person even more than one does, and one trusts that God will do what is best, whatever that might be.

Davison 299

This gives me goosebumps, no joke. I stopped petitionary prayer many years ago, even before I wasn’t sure about what I believed about God, for this reason. I know so little about any situation – why should my opinion of what should be done carry more weight even in my own head than God’s “opinion”? I started just thanking God for her wisdom, love, and goodness regarding whatever particular person or situation I was concerned about. Maybe that was the major point of transformation in my spiritual life. Oh man. Excuse me while I go unpack that lightbulb moment for a while…

Great quote:

Quite frequently we are unable to change the world, but a large part of being a good person is standing symbolically on the side of the good anyway.

Davison 299

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