Praying the open view: prayer and Tango

tango_3_1385-jsThe Tango is a violently passionate exchange, a storm of desire, of invitation and response, a give and take, a request whose granting is increased desire. If the divine-human relationship is a ‘dance’ (as so many like to express it), then surely it’s a Tango — frustrating, unpredictable, dizzying and passionate, both answering and creating questions as it moves along, both fulfilling and enticing, exhausting all the powers of concentration and fueled by fulfilled and ever-expanding enjoyment and desire. And of course what would it be if the furniture wasn’t also kicked over. If that’s the life of faith, the divine-human relationship, then a life of prayer isn’t going to be any different. My reason for examining in this series of posts a bit of the meaning of petitionary prayer within an open worldview has not been to produce a neat list of theorems that tame the Tango and turn it into a Waltz by removing its infuriating ambiguity and passion. It has been to try to express these different aspects of our conversation with God and to discourage any disconnected speculation or abstraction that isn’t done while dancing.

So let me close this series with a few concluding guidelines — some suggested dance steps if you will — arising from the preceding considerations of open theism’s understanding of petitionary prayer within the larger providential framework noted. Some of these points reproduce material taken from my summary of open theist contributions mentioned earlier.

(1) Prayer is that interpersonal communication necessary to the establishing and flourishing of loving relationships in which God achieves his purposes for creation in covenant partnership with us; it is our God-given capacity for responsible partnership with God wherein we shape ourselves and the world through the prodding, asking, pleading, yielding and offering of ourselves in conversation with God.

(2) Prayer is only one of many variables that determine what we and the world become, and much about the complexities of these variables escapes our comprehension. Consequently, we must acknowledge a good deal of ambiguity that characterizes the world and prevents us from being in a position to judge why things happen as they do, why they do not always happen as they might in spite of our faithful and fervent prayers, and where precisely God (and we, or others, or our prayers) can be firmly located on the map of our explanations.

(3) God is love and does all God can do given the contextual variables of every given circumstance to maximize good. He always and everywhere ‘supervenes’ upon/through/in creation, bringing all the influence that he can bring to bear in each circumstance within the creational constraints he sovereignly established to achieve the most lovingly relational state of affairs possible. I suggest this is all the explanation we should require. It’s a fully sufficient ground for ‘trusting’ as opposed to ‘explaining’.

(4) The ‘good’ God seeks in creation is the beauty of loving synergy flowing from our being united with him. Outcomes achieved synergistically represent a greater good than outcomes unilaterally achieved. This provides us with a divine rationale for God’s making his meeting our needs contingent upon our petitions and the petitions of others. Why pray to an omnipotent, omniscient, all good God? Because the beauty and love for which we and others were created is achievable through an interdependence of both divine-human and human-human relations, and that interdependence is free and risky. This means that finite goods (good as experienced by us or those we and others pray for) are co-implicated in their fulfillment, which in turn means that when the greater good of cooperatively achieved outcomes fails on account of a lack of prayer, God does not as a matter of policy settle for the next best thing, viz., bringing about the same outcomes unilaterally and thus somewhat less beautifully. We obviously do not that sort of world. Rather, it is to say the freedom of such partnership has an integrity to it which precludes God’s being able to guarantee the same outcomes minus the cooperative component.

Given (3), God is always maximally involved in seeking to redeem every occasion in the cosmos and to maximize its potential for loving relationality. But given (4), the nature of loving relationality limits both God and humans to a fundamental interdependence that links the ‘good’ of individuals to the larger ‘good’ of creation. Petitionary prayer’s logic is an affirmation of the interdependence of these two upon each other.

(5) The efficacy of petitionary prayer is grounded in the interdependence of God’s purposes for us and the metaphysical constraints those purposes place on the God-world relationship. God is ‘functionally’ finite in some respects with regard to achieving desired outcomes, and the God-world relationship possesses an integrity that cannot be undermined by unilateral divine (or human) action without destroying the very synergy by which God’s aims are to be achieved.

(6) The urgency and motivation for petitionary prayer are grounded in the worth and beauty of God which God created us to reflect.

(7) Prayer involves offering ourselves in answer to our prayers by committing actively to engage the fallen and conflicted structures in which we live. One petitions God honestly when one offers oneself to become the answer to one’s prayers however God may desire.

(8) Lastly, what open theists may justifiably petition God for is limited (as it would be in any approach) by the constraints of their view of God, his purposes, and the nature of divine providence. In open theism God cannot guarantee the morally responsible behavior of free agents. A request to God to “Save Uncle Frank’s soul!” motivated by a belief that Uncle Frank’s choice for God is something God can entirely determine, is not a consistent request). I can think of conversations I’ve had with other open theists precisely about ‘how’ to pray. On the one hand open theists make much of open theism’s giving them a new appreciation for and sense of urgency about prayer because now one can see concretely how prayer ‘makes a difference’. And that’s true. But on the other hand some open theists become a bit paralyzed, not knowing ‘how’ actually to petition God. So much of our prayers and petitions concern the world outside our own relationship with God, a free and risky world, a world God doesn’t exhaustively determine. So exactly how is one to word one’s petition regarding outcomes we know are contingent upon factors God does not determine? How does one petition God with respect to the well-being of free agents? I’ll leave things open-ended right there.

Enjoy your Tango.

(Picture here.)

2 comments on “Praying the open view: prayer and Tango

  1. Hey Tom…

    This is not in response to this particular blog but rather to all over your blogs on prayer. I have prayed more lately then I have the last 25 years and that’s due in large part to theology of open theism.

    I know I am about to radically oversimplify everyone’s position but this is the dichotomy as I see it. Does God respond to us in real time or does he use a prerecorded message. I know this is very anthropomorphic but for determinists what does actually do while the world is going on? Does God just say…Whoops, here comes another prayer that I ordained or…here’s a bunch more than I ordained and then ordained that I wouldn’t answer or, better yet, is God just out getting God’s nails polished kind of like deism where God winds up the world and throws it out to unwind in preset ways? At least the God of deism presumably allows or a real world with real libertarian freedom. 

    My point is that there is nothing mutually relational about a God who has pre-recorded responses to people’s pre-recorded actions. The deterministic view doesn’t do justice either to God or the Scriptures. When we pray there is no necessity for God to hear us existentially since God already heard us and already reponded before the foundation of the world. To me that leaves only one existentially satisfying answer as to why pray and that is because it makes people feel better. Hoorah!

    Let’s face it…most prayers do not get answered in any type of conceivable way so to pray because we have been ordained to pray only adds insult to injury.


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