Praying the open view: why pray to an all-loving God?

2235044_1_OAs noted earlier by Basinger, placing divine love at the center of our understanding of God and his actions in the world leads to a basic tenet of open theism: “God always desires and pursues the highest good and well-being of his creation.” Basinger expands upon this conviction: “An omnibenevolent God is obligated to maximize the quality of life for those beings he chooses to create.” Consequently, Basinger argues, “God would never refrain from intervening beneficially in one person’s life simply because someone else has failed to request that he do so.” This leads to the problem Roy notes(1) and which both Sanders and Boyd address.

For Basinger, the belief that ‘God always seeks to maximize good and minimize evil’ entails the notion that ‘God would never refrain from intervening beneficially in one’s life simply because someone else failed to request that God do so’. But is the latter entailed in the former?(2) One might respond to this as Keith Ward does:

It is not sensible to complain that if I fail to pull my neighbor out of a ditch when I could easily do so, God is responsible for leaving him there. It is no more sensible to complain that if I fail to pray for my neighbor when I could easily do so, God is responsible for not doing what my prayer might have effected.(3)

Good point. But we may need more. Suppose a second neighbor is aware of my first neighbor’s plight in the ditch and has the resources to help but refrains from doing so unless I ask him. Who would excuse this second neighbor for refraining from helping simply because I had not asked him to do so? What possible constraints could my requesting my second neighbor to help place upon him that would excuse him while implicating me? An articulation of a rationale for such constraints, freely entered into by my second neighbor, is what Basinger is after and which Ward’s analogy doesn’t address.

We’ve noted responses to this impasse by Sanders and Boyd. Boyd affirms that God as love entails God’s always doing all God can do — given the creational variables he sovereignly established — to maximize good. Limiting certain outcomes to the petitions of believers is simply part of the morally responsible “say-so” believers must possess and exercise if they are to grow into responsible partnership with God. This growth into partnership would be undermined if God automatically and directly maximized good and minimized evil in all cases without the participation of human cooperation. The ‘partnership’ in question is precisely about the accomplishing of such ends. This implicates (at least to some measure) the good God wishes to achieve and the evil he wishes to prevent in the free participation of others. Sanders adds that if the good we suppose God pursues as a matter of character includes a personal relationship with us, then God is properly speaking incapable of unilaterally achieving it independently.

Basinger is unconvinced. He does “not believe that a perfectly good God could justifiably refrain from granting any believer’s essential needs, even if she has consciously decided not to request God’s help.”(4) In his response, Michael Murray argues Basinger’s position is problematic. Murray:

If Basinger means to adopt this as a general principal which follows from the conceptions of God’s obligations he endorses, then serious trouble looms. And the reason is simply that if (a) God exists, and (b) the principal is true, it would follow that (c) no believers would ever die from starvation, exposure, or, presumably, death on a cross. Since they do, we have an argument against not only efficacious petitionary prayer, but theism itself!(5)

Basinger’s claim does seem excessive. It makes it difficult to affirm with James that believers “have not because they ask not” or any number of other essential goods we know God is desirous to grant but for which we are told to petition God. Basinger objects that none of the rationales offered thus far describe the sort of goods that would justify a divine policy of making provision of essential needs sometimes dependent on our petitioning God for them.

I submit that Basinger’s concern is based on a sound conviction but that he has failed to take relevant possibilities into consideration. That is, let us view God as ‘maximally involved’ at all times, in all circumstances, seeking to bring about the most good possible given the variables that define each circumstance. Thus, it is never the case that God “refrains” from doing or achieving some desired good simply because he was not petitioned. Where I believe Basinger is mistaken is in limiting the “good” that an omnibenevolent creator would pursue to the good of “the individual” understood independently of other considerations. I suggest that there is a “good” to be had in synergistically achieved aims that cannot be achieved by unilateral divine action, that such good is that for which the cosmos has been designed, and that our individual ‘goods’ are implicated in the interdependence necessary to achieving this consummate “good,” which is simply the consequent beauty of loving relationality, the relational (divine-human and human-human) synergy reflected in outcomes cooperatively achieved. As noted in our last post, some good G achieved synergistically is essentially different than G achieved unilaterally. The cooperation of freely offered petitions shapes the identity of outcomes and makes them more aesthetically pleasing or beautiful to God.

Consider the accomplishing of any task a person may want to undertake and introduce personal relations into the context, so that the task is transcended by the relations. An example from my personal experience may help. Some years ago I moved with my wife and children into a new home, and my daughter’s room needed painting. My daughter (then 12 years old) loved art and wanted to paint the room, or at least be a part of painting the room. But I was pressed for time and preferred to do the job myself. I knew I could get the room done quicker, more efficiently, and more neatly if I did not have to accommodate my daughter. I knew involving her would mean greater risk of spillage and a less professionally looking job. But I also loved my daughter and valued relationship more. So painting the room with her and not just for her or through her, allowing her to hold the brush in her hand and not determine its every movement to insure a neater job, would (a) accomplish something between us that could not be gotten were I to paint the room in any other way, and (b) give definition to the room that reflects this relational intimacy.

This analogy suggests a way of understanding how nurturing the divine-human relationship as the ultimate task at hand transcends the specific creational contexts and limitations in which that relationship is pursued. If God’s purposes and agency in the world prevent us from understanding individual goods independently of ‘how’ they’re achieved (unilaterally vs synergistically), synergy must be sought. It increases the beauty and thus the value of the outcome. This just is the good which open theists ought to insist God necessarily pursues.

It is not as if God “refrains from intervening beneficially” when we fail to petition God. God is doing all God can do given the failure of prayer, so there is no “refraining” from doing what perfect love by definition does, viz., seek the highest possible good in every circumstance. Nor is “intervention” an appropriate description of God’s part of the divine-human venture we call prayer. That assumes that God is sometimes not fully engaged until we petition him. On the contrary, however, God doesn’t ‘intervene’ in this sense. God ‘supervenes’ as it were. He actively ‘inhabits’ every occasion and is thus always maximally involved, seeking to bring about the most beautiful state possible given what he has to work with. But that’s just the point — how much maximal divine involvement is able to achieve depends upon a synergy that includes creaturely freedom. As noted earlier, Boyd’s and Sanders’ essential point is that our petitions create avenues, “space” (to use Fretheim’s word), wherein “all that God does” in that instance is able to achieve more, not less, good. But this means that on occasion “the most that God can do” fails to achieve what it might have had we prayed. But this is not to say God “refrained” from anything.

In conclusion then, Stephen Roy’s objection that open theism provides an inadequate basis upon which to engage meaningfully in petitionary prayer because open theists affirm a notion of divine love that is incompatible with God’s making the provision of a person’s ‘good’ depend upon the prayers of others proves to be false. We have noted that there are conceivable circumstances and conceivable goods that justify God’s making his involvement in securing these goods sometimes dependent upon his being petitioned to act.

(Picture here.)


(1) The problem has been around at least since Origen, who writes of some who refused prayer claiming “What need is there to send up prayer to him who knows what we need even before we pray?…And it is fitting that he…who loves all…should order in safety all that has to do with each one, even without prayer.”
(2) This debate goes back to Eleanor Stump’s “Petitionary Prayer,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979): 81-91. It is developed in Basinger, “Why Petition an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Wholly Good God?” Religious Studies 19 (1983): 25-41; Joshua Hoffman, “On Petitionary Prayer,” Faith and Philosophy 2 (1985): 21-29; Michael Murray and Kurt Meyers, “Ask and It Will Be Given to You,” Religious Studies 30 (1994): 311-330; and Basinger, “Petitionary Prayer: A Response to Murray and Meyers,” Religious Studies 31 (1995): 475-484. See also Keith Ward, Divine Action (San Francisco: Torch Publications, 1991), 156-158.
(3) Ward, Divine Action.
(4) Basinger, “God Does Not Necessarily Respond to Prayer,” in Michael Peterson, ed., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 264.
(5) Michael Murray, “Reply to Basinger,” in Peterson, ed., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, 265.