A Theology of Petitionary Prayer: Part 2, We Can Do Better Than the Magic Domino Theory

As I described in the last post, we have a lot of desolations when it comes to petitionary prayer. Some of these are theological, and some are more personal. Most of our desolations come from the pain of unanswered prayer, especially in cases where people we love are concerned. Going forward, that will be my main focus. But before turning toward unanswered prayer, I want to address some of our intellectual problems with petitionary prayer, specifically how petitionary prayer "works." To be sure, this isn't a huge issue, but some people do stub their toe here.

As I noted in the last post, one of the reasons we struggle with petitionary prayer is that most of us have a very mechanistic view of the cosmos, that the cosmos is a vast machine running like intricate clockwork. As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, this imagination posits a God-evacuated world, a deistic vision where God sits at a remove as creation ticks on autonomously and deterministically. 

Given this mechanistic view, petitionary prayer is asking for God to become an "interventionist," to "insert" himself into a space where he is assumed not to be present. God has to come from the "outside" to answer prayer. God has to "suspend" deterministic "laws" of nature.

This view of God's "intervention" in answer to prayer is very causal in nature. God is being asked to insert himself into the clockwork of creation as a cause among other causes. I call this the "magic domino theory" of petitionary prayer. In a chain of causation, like an array of dominos, petitionary prayer is asking God to insert a "magic domino," to place a supernatural cause in the midst of the world. That, or to magically stop a domino from falling. God tinkers with the causes and effects of the world.

In my estimation, these overly mechanistic and causal views of God's actions in the world create a host of problems, puzzles, and paradoxes, many in relation to petitionary prayer. I agree with Sergius Bulgakov that viewing God's relation to the world through the lens of causality has been one of the most disastrous turns of the Western Christian mind. So let me suggest that if you're getting perpetually stuck about how petitionary prayer "works" you're liking imagining some version of the magic domino theory, envisioning God's relation to the work in overly mechanistic ways, God inserting himself as a cause among other causes.

Consequently, one of the things we need to do in putting forward a better theology of petitionary prayer is re-imagining God's relation with the world. What might that look like?

For my part, I've been perpetually struck by Gerard Manley Hopkins' line that "the world is charged with the grandeur of God." God isn't at a distance. God's energy and power suffuses creation. Creation isn't ticking along autonomously, like a machine. Creation is alive and exists in an on-going radical dependence upon God. We are continuously bathed in God's sustaining light and love, and should God ever look away from us we would cease to be.

Admittedly, it is difficult to paint this relationship with God in words, but I like to think of creation continuously "blooming" or being "birthed" from the life of God. The ancient word some of the early church fathers would use here is "emanation," though in a way distinct from Neo-Platonic usage, that creation ex nihilo continuously flows forth from God, proceeds from our Origin and Source, as act of God's will, in a perpetual and sustained outpouring of power, energy, light and grace. 

Given this view--creation emanating, blooming, flowing forth, proceeding from, and being continuously birthed from God--in petitionary prayer we are not asking God to insert himself into our world as a magic domino. We are, rather, asking the Origin and Source of Being to "bloom" or "birth" new realities into existence. God doesn't tinker with the cosmos like a mechanic but gives birth to creation, wholly and completely at each moment in time. Our prayers, therefore, beseech God to bring about particular blossomings of the future which are birthed into being whole and entire. 

In fact, if we'd like to get even more mystical about it, many of the church fathers believed that this world is not fully or wholly created yet. It's not just that creation is being "birthed" at every moment, but is now in the process of being born. As Paul describes in Romans, the cosmos is experiencing "birth pains" right now. And if that is true, we're still in the womb. The "birth" of the cosmos lies in the future. If so, then our prayers are less about tinkering with a machine then a participation in the birthing of the cosmos. Prayer is "effective" in that prayer is our "pushing" creation toward its birth and would, therefore, have a "groaning" painful aspect as we step into the labor pains of the cosmos.

Each petitionary prayer is our groaning "Push!" through the pain that is birthing the world.

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