The Metaphysics of Petitionary Prayer

As regular readers know, I've been writing a lot here about God's non-competitive relation with the world, dipping into the work of theologians like Katherine Sonderegger and Kathryn Tanner.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about the metaphysics of petitionary prayer, specifically when we pray for the healing of others. How, exactly, does that work? For example, does God work through the doctors, the medicine, and the science? Or does God work directly and supernaturally?

In my response, I drew attention to how we tend to frame the issue of healing in competitive ways. God or the doctors. God or the medicine. God or the surgery. It's either God who heals or the medical science that heals.

The problem with his framing is that we've inserted God into creation as one cause among other causes. God's causality comes to compete alongside medical causes with the question of who will get credit for the healing. God becomes one billiard ball among other billiard balls on the causal pool table. So if God heals, that excludes the medical billiard ball from being the proximate cause. It's the eight ball not the seven ball. And if medical science heals, it's not God, at least not directly. It's the seven ball and not the eight ball.

All that to say, when framed this way, petitionary prayer is a puzzle. Not unlike the puzzle of free will and God's providence.

But the puzzle evaporates when we adopt a non-competitive metaphysics. In a non-competitive metaphysics we exclude the either/or framing. Both/And becomes possible.

And to be clear, by both/and I don't mean reducing God to the medical sciences. By both/and I don't mean that God just is medical science with no metaphysical remainder. That's Deism. Yes, the medical science is a gift and grace of God. The fact that the created order has a logos, an intelligence if you will, is a grace of God. And the fact that our minds can grasp this logos is also a grace of God. So when medical science translates this logos into a technology of healing there can be nothing put praise and gratitude for God for how creation and reason can meet in this way. Humans can raise tomatoes, build bridges, and cure diseases. God creates and sustains those capacities. The logos of creation could have been opaque to us, but it isn't.

But that's not what I mean by both/and. Yes, God heals us because of the logos of creation and mind, but God, given His non-competitive relation to the world, is always directly present to His creation, and healing can come to us directly through this relation. Such a healing would not be detectable or locatable through any creaturely or empirical means. If that were possible, God would be placed/located as a billiard ball on the table. But that's not what God is or ever could be.

The point simply is, that when we pray for healing, it's perfectly coherent to pray for the doctors and for God to heal directly. This isn't a competitive either/or request. It's a both/and request that can never be paradoxical. God heals by nature and grace.

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