Prayer – April 2000

Question: I desire to say ‘thanks’ to God, but is the prayer other’s directions? Is it still possible to ask something for me and for the others? What meaning has prayer for process theology?

Publication Month: April 2000

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Most traditional forms of prayer make good sense from a process point of view, much better sense than from the point of view of classical philosophical theology. But it may be important to make a couple of negative points before beginning the positive. Some popular beliefs about prayer have destructive consequences.

First, the effects of events in which one is praying are much the same as the effects of other events. We should not suppose that the fact that we are praying makes those events discontinuous from others.

Second, prayer is not a form of magic. It becomes one factor along with many others in determining what happens. It does not displace the others.  Everything we do makes a difference to us, to the world, and to God. One of those things we do is pray.

The question lifts up the prayer of thanksgiving as unproblematic. That is certainly correct. We have much to thank and praise God for. To feel grateful is healthy and appropriate. To express it benefits all.

The main question seems to be about petitionary prayer. Does that make sense in process theology? I think it does, but of course it makes a great deal of difference what we ask for. If we pray for something that is contrary to God’s purposes, for some harm to come to another, for example, that will make a difference. Our negative attitude may damage the other person, certainly it will damage us, and it will affect God as well. If we pray for something that is in harmony with God’s purposes, such as a purer heart, that will open us to allowing God’s grace to act more fully and effectively in our lives.

A case of special interest is praying for healing. There is little doubt that praying for our own healing can help if it is done with confidence that God is already at work in our bodies in a healing way. We learn more and more about the effects of one’s mental and emotional state on the events in our bodies. Praying for healing is one way of aligning ourselves with the healing work of God.

Many of our prayers are for the healing of others. Can they help? Here, too, I believe the evidence is positive, and process categories can help us understand how. We are all prehending other people all the time. Their feelings and attitudes make a difference to us, mostly unconsciously. If they are directing their positive thoughts about us to God, that can certainly make a difference.

Obviously, there are often ways of helping others that are more effective than praying for them. Giving them food and medicine and visiting with them are typically more helpful. In the New Testament the tests are whether we have fed the hungry and clothed the naked, not whether we have prayed for them. If prayer is used as an excuse for not helping in other ways, we are not being faithful. But that does not deny that prayer, too, can help.

What process theology points to most centrally as the function of prayer is opening ourselves to God’s gracious working in our lives and seeking to align our own intentions with God’s call to us. This should be the total stance of our lives, not limited to times of prayer. But surely prayer can be an occasion for focusing on this relationship and overcoming obstacles to it. As we live more in harmony with God’s purposes, we will act or pray as we are led to do so, believing that what we do matters to others and to God as well as to ourselves.

But we will never suppose that what we do supersedes all the other forces that impinge on each event. Praying for recovery from a disease does not insure that we will not die. Praying for a pure heart does not eradicate sin. Prayer is one factor among many influencing what happens. It is sometimes a very important factor.