My last post took a very narrow example of petitionary prayer as presenting a possible problem for an understanding of providence and foreknowledge called Molinism. I’m still trying to wrap my cranium around Molinism, but as I understand it, one of the alleged advantages of this view is that it makes more sense of the rationale behind petitionary prayer than, say, Calvinism. Moreover, it does so while maintaining a strong view of divine providence unlike, say, Open Theism. For my part, I don’t see how any of these views really helps.
One of the first aspects of Christian practice I lost my grip on back when I was an earnest, young Christian was petitionary prayer. First, there was the seeming ineffectiveness of it. I don’t want to go into this in detail here. Suffice it to say that no empirical study so far has shown any advantage to prayer in medical contexts. Some have argued that one can’t really study prayer with a double blind test, because we can’t assume that those in the control group aren’t being prayed for. Also, such studies assume that God will participate in the study. Let’s assume that someone in the control group is being prayed for, unbeknownst to the study’s designers. Are we supposed to assume that God will say, “Sorry, can’t help. I have to protect the integrity of this study!” Perhaps there is something to this point.
However, most of my evidence as a young man came from experience rather than scientific studies. I would notice that prayer was often ineffectual, i.e. the event prayed for did not occur. This also seemed to be more or less acknowledged by the faithful at my church, at least to the point that they felt the need to offer rationalizations for this fact. Most of these rationalizations appealed to the will of God. Perhaps the prayer requests were not in line with the will of God, perhaps we had not correctly perceived the will of God, etc. But this seemed to sap most of the rationale out of the very concept of prayer. If God is going to do what God wills anyways, why bother to pray? Some of the faithful would say things like “prayer is a matter of disciplining your own will so that it aligns with the will of God.” The idea seemed to be that while prayer didn’t effect outcomes, it was beneficial to the person doing the praying. It enabled us to be ‘co-laborers’ with God in accomplishing his purposes. However, from a practical standpoint, isn’t part of the purpose of prayer to effect outcomes? What does it look like in practice to pray for someone who is sick if one ascribes to this divine blueprint theology? One presumably prays for the person to recover, assuming that it’s God’s will. Perhaps one might believe that even though the sickness is part of the divine plan, God’s ultimate plan is to heal the person and thus bring greater glory to God. But in such cases, one is still essentially praying for an outcome that is, in effect, foreordained. God has either willed that the person recover or not. If God has willed it, it may appear that he has acted in ‘response’ to prayer, but this appearance is largely illusory.
This problem is perhaps especially acute in Calvinist theology. In Calvinism, God creates and providentially orders the world in a completely unconstrained way. Everything that happens does so for God’s glory. This includes the Fall, sin, and the Atonement. Calvinism implies compatibilism with respect to finite human wills. Although we are culpable for sin because we freely (in a compatibilist sense) desire it, ultimately, it was God’s will to have sin enter the world. The Fall is a fortunate event — felix culpa — insofar as the glory of God is magnified through the act of Redemption. I’ve tried to describe this view as sympathetically as possible. I hope the reader can see that there are serious problems for theodicy upon a Calvinist interpretation. Nevertheless, I don’t want to stray too far from the main point, which is that on Calvinism, God’s will is completely unconstrained by finite wills. Prayer in this context, doesn’t make much sense to me because there is no chance of any finite human will changing God’s will or beseeching him to act any differently than he has planned. The best we can do is bring our will into submission to the will of God. Any outcome that seems to result as a ‘response’ to prayer is just the synchronicity of our willing the same outcome as God. It is not the case that we have positively effected God’s will or the outcome that has been predestined. As such, it seems that so-called ‘answers’ to prayer are illusory.
It’s sometimes suggested that Molinism can solve this problem. In Molinism, God also exercises a great deal of providential control over the world, but his providential control is constrained by the free actions of finite persons and even the counter-factuals of those free choices. In other words, God selects among the possible worlds the best one to actualize, but he is constrained — he cannot create just any world he wants — by the free actions of creatures. God even knows — through ‘middle knowledge’ — what free creatures would do in other possible worlds, or counter-factual situations. This is supposed to give the Molinist an advantage with respect to the problem of evil: God could not guarantee that free creatures would not sin, and therefore that kind of world was not available for God to create. For all we know, every possible world containing free creatures also contains evil. This contrasts with the Calvinist view, which seems to suggest that had God wanted to, God could have created a world without evil. However, he chose to create a world containing both sin and redemption in order to maximize his glory. Again, we’ll have to set aside this issue and return to the subject of prayer. The alleged advantage of Molinism in this context is that it allows God to providentially order the world in such a way that he genuinely acts some of the time in response to prayer. God knows, for example, whether a prayer will be offered or not, and can in some cases providentially arrange to act as a result of the prayer being offered. On this view, God’s will can be moved by finite human wills. However, it still seems as though saying that a human will moved God to respond to prayer gets the explanation backwards. After all, God has providentially ordered the world such that the prayer will be offered and that he will answer it. God, in choosing to actualize this particular world, has already in effect decided what the outcome will be. For all of its fancy theological footwork, I’m not convinced that Molinism solves the practical problem of petitionary prayer any better than Calvinism.
The last option is Open Theism. On this view, God doesn’t know the future with certainty because the future is not available to be known, even to an omniscient being. There are a lot of metaphysical assumption lurking here, but I will have to let those pass. According to Open Theism, God takes a genuine risk in creating the world. Open Theism is, again, thought to make better sense of the problem of evil because one can straightforwardly appeal to the free will defense without having to worry about the consequences of God’s foreknowledge or predestination. It also allegedly makes better sense of the practice of prayer because God can genuinely act to effect outcomes in response to the pleas of finite creatures. However, Open Theism, in reacting to Calvinism and (to a lesser extent) Molinism, may go too far in the other direction. For Open Theists, God does not have total control over the future. God, we are told, will prevail in the end, but his will is, at least sometimes, overly constrained by the will of finite creatures. Such a God may be less able to effect a positive outcome than a God who exercises more providential control over the world. For practical purposes, then, one needs some assurance of God’s control over the future before one can place trust in God or have confidence in the efficacy of prayer. So, I’m not sure Open Theism succeeds either.
P.S. One may wonder why a non-theist like me is interested in this subject. As I say in the post, I was once a Christian and I still think about many of the philosophical and theological problems that occupied me as a Christian. Part of the purpose of this blog is to process the reasons I no longer believe. Because prayer is such a central practice for Christians (and other theists), it’s one of the first issues I began to think about seriously. Ironically, my study of the theology of prayer undermined my rationale for the practice of prayer. Pretty soon, I wasn’t putting any stock in the efficacy of prayer to effect the outcome of events. I no longer believed in prayer. In other words, I became a practical atheist. This was arguably a first step in my journey toward a more fully articulated philosophical atheism. Perhaps I’ll post more by way of memoir in the future. I’m still trying to find the ‘tone’ of this blog. Early on, I tried some posts in a more editorial style, but I don’t think that’s my strong suit. I’ll probably continue to mainly write essay-style posts in future, but some variety might be nice. I welcome thoughts from readers — all three of you 😉 — on what you’d like to see in future.