In the comment thread to my latest podcast, “Travis Dumsday on the atheist’s duty to pray,” philosopher Robert Gressis offered an objection to the practice of prayer. The objection is based on the assumption that God is a maximally perfect being (i.e. the Anselmian conception), and thus perfectly good and all knowing. Gressis explains:
assuming that we’re talking about an Anselmian conception of God, it’s presumptuous to engage in petitionary prayer, for it sends the message that you know better than God what should happen in the world. Alternatively, petitionary prayer, if not presumptuous, is at least useless, for God would give you what you’re asking for only if God was going to do so anyway. Consequently, you should not pray to God, either because it displays a moral vice, or because it’s prudentially completely useless.
So what should we say in reply? Thanksgiving, adoration and confession may still be appropriate if God is all perfect, but is petitionary prayer rendered redundant?
Before pressing further, let me note that in my experience most Christians do not explicitly endorse the Anselmian conception even though they are dispositionally inclined to assent to it. In other words, if asked to define God, they will not invoke Anselmian phrasing — e.g. “that being than which none greater can be conceived” — and the extent to which they invoke “omni-attributes” in their description will be haphazard and unreflective (so, for example, they might say “God knows everything” and “God is perfectly good” but they will not have reflected on the meaning or implication of these truth-ascriptions). As for the disposition to accept, if the Anselmian definition is explained to them, Christians almost universally assent to it. (Every year in systematic theology class I present the Anselmian definition and poll students as to their reaction. In twelve years I’ve never had a student oppose the definition.) And so we are in a situation where most Christians are disposed to accept the Anselmian definition, but they are never sufficiently aware of the definition or its implications that it might present a tension with their practice of petitionary prayer.
Now back to the main discussion. It seems to me that the objection is based on a faulty understanding of petitionary prayer. If, for example, we believe petitionary prayer is about (1) informing God of some fact he didn’t know before, and/or (2) persuading God to act in some way contrary to his present intention, then accepting the Anselmian definition will undermine our motivation toward petitionary prayer. (This is one of the reasons that people become open theists, to save petitionary prayer.)
But it seems to me that those are not the reasons we practice petitionary prayer. So what are the reasons?
First, because God has commanded (or commended) it. For example, Jesus includes petitions in his model prayer (Matthew 6:11-13):
11Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
At this point the Anselmian definition ironically works in our favor. When you believe a practice is commended by a being who is perfectly good and all-knowing, you have rational grounds to engage in the practice even if you cannot see why it is being commended. Think of Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid” when he has young Daniel painting fences and waxing cars (wax on, wax off!). Daniel cannot fathom why, but eventually it becomes clear that all the labors were giving him skills in karate (as well as getting some fences painted and cars waxed). If Daniel was rational to follow his sensei’s direction, how much more are Christian theists rational to follow the disciplines of the Lord of the Universe?
Even so, you might be wondering, if petitionary prayer is not about informing God or changing his mind, then what is the point? Perhaps the point, instead, is changing our mind. (I’m happy to see that in the comment thread of the article Kerk picked up on this point.) When we offer petitions we submit to and relate to God. Through the practice of prayer, including petitionary prayer, relationship develops and we conform our wills to God’s will. Think of Jesus’ famous prayer in Gethsemane in Matthew 26:
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Changing of the will: that may be significant but is it sufficient to sustain petitionary prayer? Perhaps not. In James 5:16 we read:
The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
Surely this passage is not simply saying that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective to change that person. Surely it is saying something more, namely that these prayers can change states of affairs in the world. Can we still have this effectual dimension to petitionary prayer?
I think we can. In my view Christians can (and should) believe that God has ordained that petitionary prayer provides one of the mechanisms by which God acts in the world. This is fully consistent with God foreknowing events. So, for example, let’s say that God always knew that Dave would pray for his sister June to be healed of cancer. It may be that based on God’s foreknowledge of this prayer, he had always resolved to respond favorably to Dave’s prayer by healing June.
In conclusion, I see no tension between accepting that God is perfect and endorsing the practice of petitionary prayer.
Of course, one can now move on to other questions. For example, why doesn’t God (seem to) answer all prayers? That is indeed a good and difficult question. But alas, it is a question for another day.