Praying the open view: responding to objections

The end is in sight! Just a couple of posts left. Here I summarize responses to the objections introduced in the previous post. Next post we’ll take up the specific problem (noted by Basinger and Roy in particular) of praying to an all-loving God. Then lastly I’ll make my own concluding remarks. Enjoy!

Response to Bruce Ware
Ware’s three criticisms of open theism’s effect upon one’s prayer life were: (1) It issues from our modern western consumerist’s mentality that fosters an unrealistically high view of the self, (2) it cannot represent the kind of mutually reciprocal and interpersonal relationship open theists claim since our petitions offer nothing to God in the way of new ‘information’, and (3) not knowing how future contingents will turn out, God cannot now know how best to answer our petitions. He also offers comments on the Lord’s prayer and Moses’ appeal to God in Exodus 32.

It is difficult to know how to respond to Ware’s first charge. Undoubtedly western consumerism exerts its influence on us all. But has Ware actually argued his point or has he simply claimed that it is so? One could argue that open theism’s insistence upon individual responsibility and the value of a person are rooted in biblical concerns — Ezekiel’s emphasis upon the ‘individual’ (Ez. 18.13, 18, 20) and Jesus’ overwhelming declarations of God’s love for humanity (Jn. 3.16). One could also reply that much of non-openness Evangelicalism, including Ware’s articulation of the gospel, is the result of western consumerism’s influence as well. After all, Ware does not deny that believers enjoy a ‘personal’ relationship with God, and his emphasis upon the ‘individual’ can be as easily attributed to western consumerism as Ware insists is the case with open theism. How does Ware distance the personal dimensions of his own faith from such consumerism while implicating open theism’s personal dimensions? Ware doesn’t say. And then lastly, Ware’s criticism could apply to his own theology in another sense. One could argue that Ware, unable to live with the truth that God’s will is sometimes not accomplished, has embraced a theology that feeds the consumer’s craving for personal security and hence offers as a ‘product’ a risk-free creation and the all-controlling God.

Regarding Ware’s second criticism, it seems to misconstrue what open theists believe to be at the heart of mutually reciprocal personal relations. Ware makes such relationships entirely about ‘information’ and assumes that two persons cannot transact personal loving relationality unless one is ‘educating’ the other by introducing information previously unknown to the other. But in fact open theists have agreed that petitioning God cannot be about ‘informing’ God. Ware’s assumption about information’s relevancy to personal relationships is entirely unfounded and without analogy. Even human-human relations can be mutually reciprocal in a fully personal sense without one party having to ‘educate’ the other.

One line of thought that sheds light on this point is speech act theory. The fundamental insight of speech act theory is that the paradigmatic function of language is to ‘do’ things (not to ‘say’ things). We all intend our speech to do something, to accomplish something. Likewise with prayer. To petition is to perform some ‘act’, an act that is not reducible to a transfer of information from the petitioner to another party. Information doubtless counts for something. We are, after all, communicating with language. But we perform a linguistic “act” in terms of speech act theory. Thus Ware’s objection that since we are not ‘educating’ God of our needs, our petitioning God cannot amount to the kind of personal act wherein we engage God and God in turn responds, is ill-conceived.

For open theists, the “act” of petitioning another creates its own reality. It transcends information per se. Open theists thus do not suppose God responds to our prayers because they believe they have brought to God some new bit of information about the world which they believe God did not already know. On the contrary, it is the “act” of engaging another through petition that creates its own reality, a personal reality beyond the propositional content of the words uttered in the prayer. Consequently, outcomes are defined in terms of this personal exchange. Take some specific good G. God may provide G independently of our requesting it or God may provide G in response to our undetermined prayers. I submit that G is not identical in both cases. God’s acting ‘in response to’ our undetermined request “gives definition to” G or “makes something of” it that is unique. Thus G achieved synergistically is more complex and so a more beautiful (more ‘good’) or more lovingly relational state of affairs. If the beauty of such loving relationality is at least part of what God is after in creating, then it is simply not available to God via unilateral action.

Lastly, Ware’s claim that if God were not to know future contingents he would not know how “best” to answer our petitions begs the question. Ware is doubtlessly assuming a notion of “best” that entails his own beliefs about the meticulous sort of providence he believes God exercises. “Best” for Ware just is his way of viewing God’s relationship to the world. But where there are real indeterminacy and risk in the world, “best” is to be understood in probabilistic terms. Does this mean God’s will is sometimes thwarted? Yes. Does this mean, as Basinger explains, that sometimes even God’s attempts to secure our petitions may fail to produce the desired outcomes? Yes. But it is no argument against this that it fails to satisfy a definition of “best” on some other construal of providence. That is rather to be expected.

Before moving on, let us consider the two biblical passages Ware introduces, the Lord’s prayer (Mat. 6.9-13) and Moses’ petition of God (Ex. 32.11-4). Ware argues from the Lord’s prayer that (a) God’s will predates our petitions and that this therefore precludes our “contributing to God” in the sense argued by open theists, and that (b) since God knows what we need “before” we ask, our prayers do not inform God and so cannot be the means of the sort of mutually influential relationship open theists believe prayer represents.

Given what we have seen thus far, an open theist response to Ware here is not difficult to imagine. Open theists do not suggest that God’s mind and will are entirely undecided until we settle them through prayer. On the contrary, open theists assume God has desires for every occasion and that he pursues them regardless of human contribution. The question is whether or not the fulfillment of the aims God pursues are ever at risk because their fulfillment depends upon the free prayers of believers. Far from precluding such a view, Jesus’ admonition, open theists argue, expressly makes fulfillment of the will of God contingent upon our requesting it. It is not the determining of God’s will that open theists here suggest is our contribution to God. It is rather the accomplishing of his will. And open theists argue (Basinger excluded) that some purposes of God for us are of metaphysical necessity dependent upon our free cooperation.

There is then Ware’s suggestion that since God knows our needs before we petition God, prayer cannot be about informing God of our needs. But no open theist argues that we ‘inform’ or ‘educate’ God when we present our needs to him. The efficacy of petitionary prayer for God is not information driven, and to construe exhaustively definite foreknowledge from God’s knowing what we need before we pray is to misread the passage. All that is implied by Jesus is God’s perfect knowledge of our present needs. He knows our needs “before we ask,” not “before we need them.”

Lastly, what of Ware’s comments regarding Moses’ prayer to God in Ex. 32? He objects to open theists’ use of this passage to argue a genuine response on God’s part to Moses’ appeal. Again, Ware grounds any possibility of response in Moses’ informing God of something God did not previously know. Ware cannot imagine any other basis upon which personal responses to requests can be made. But we every day respond to requests that introduce no new information to us simply because the request presents us with an opportunity to value others and realize states through cooperative agreement rather than unilateral action. Consequently we adjust a course of action in response to requests in order to pursue a future that yields more relational complexity and love, and so more beauty, by virtue of being achieved interdependently. We do so because we value the aesthetic satisfaction of relating and working synergistically.

Response to Stephen Roy
Roy presented four problems facing the open theist’s understanding of prayer, the first two of which are identical to Ware’s second and third criticisms which I have already addressed. Let us then consider Roy’s third and fourth objections, which are: (3) God’s commitment to respect our libertarian freedom means that with regard to prayers whose answer depends on the free exercise of wills other than God’s, God has limited himself to whether and how he will answer those prayers, and (4) open theists cannot affirm both God’s universal and impartial love (by which Roy believes God would not make his provision for some good dependent upon our petitioning him) and the efficacy of petitionary prayer (by which God’s actions in maximizing good in the world are sometimes dependent upon our prayers).

In response it should be obvious that open theists plead guilty to (3). Roy has simply accurately stated the open view position, not argued against it. Given the providential contours of open theism (genuine indeterminacy with its consequent epistemic openness, risk, and ambiguity), it is indeed the case that God has limited himself to whether and how he will answer some of our prayers. But for open theists this arrangement is just the metaphysical price-tag for the sort of loving, personal, and morally responsible world God wishes to achieve.

Roy’s fourth objection is more serious and deserves attention, but I’d like to dedicate the next post to it. So you’ll have to stick with us to get that.

Response to David Ciocchi
William Hasker has responded to Ciocchi’s argument(1) for the religious inadequacy of open theism based on PDI (the ‘presumption of divine intervention in response to appropriate petitionary prayer’) and SR (the ‘supplementary requirement’, namely, that is the assumption that ‘it is impossible for God to be prevented from granting a petition he wants to grant’). It is clear that SR must be true if PDI is to be satisfied. “If there is any significant class of requests that are ‘appropriate’ in terms of PDI, but that God could be prevented from granting,” notes Hasker, “then the satisfaction of PDI cannot be guaranteed.” Hasker has only to demonstrate that relatively few believers upon reflection would affirm anything like SR, and this he does by showing how equally problematic SR is for other views of providence (simple-foreknowledge, timeless knowledge, Molinism, and determinism). Ciocchi’s argument is equally problematic for understanding petitionary prayer within these views on the assumption of SR. PDI and SR are, in Hasker’s words, “excessively strong claims,” not at all implicit in the practice of ordinary believers.

Moreover, Hasker notes biblical examples of cases in which God’s desired outcomes are both pursued by God and yet fail to obtain. Jesus prays regarding Jerusalem, “How often I have longed to gather your children together…but you were not willing.” (Mat. 23.37) Other presumably “appropriate” prayers go unanswered. What of the petitions for “peace on earth” in the Gloria or that “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” in the Lord’s prayer? Hasker concludes:

…while some of those who pray the Gloria and the Our Father may for various reasons be insufficiently pleasing to God, this can hardly be true of all. On the contrary, some of the most devout believers have also been most assiduous in the use of these prayers. And given the very extensive use of both the Gloria and the Lord’s Prayer, petitions of this sort probably constitute a significant fraction of al the prayers that are offered; they are by no means exceptional. Yet we must confess that peace of earth—especially the spiritual peace that is primarily intended—and the doing of God’s will are rather the exception than the general rule. The reason, of course, lies squarely in the wills of creatures such as ourselves, who in very many cases are far from desiring what God desires and from willing to do God’s will. Examples such as these constitute compelling evidence that PDI as stated [by Ciocchi] is overly strong….

Without SR, Ciocchi’s argument fails. Open theists can agree with Ciocchi, of course, that religious adequacy requires a certain existential “fit” between belief and practice and that this practice ought to be the shared experience of a community and not of an isolated individual (as I earlier argued). Indeed, this is urged by open theists themselves. Whether or not the required shared experience must constitute the ‘majority’ of believers before it can be considered ‘religiously adequate’ for a community is doubtful. Open theists will gladly admit, though, that open theism cannot meet the requirements set out by PDI and SR. But this is hardly fatal to the religious adequacy of open theism for those who reject SR, as Hasker argues, and these may in fact constitute a great many, perhaps the majority, of ordinary believers.

(Picture here.)


(1) Hasker, “Is Free-Will Theism Religiously Inadequate: A Reply to Ciocchi,” Religious Studies 39 (2003): 431-440.