Praying the open view: providential contours


In addition to embracing a pragmatic/practical approach to evaluating ‘adequacy claims’, open theists also construct their understanding of prayer upon three core theological convictions:

  • love with respect to purpose
  • freedom with respect to agency
  • risk with respect to outcomes

One can see almost immediately how these would inform why and how open theists pray. And since they have been defended at length by open theists elsewhere, I only briefly summarize them here so we have them in mind as we move on to consider their effects upon our understanding of petitionary prayer. In addition to these convictions, I’ve commented on three additional commitments I believe they imply.

(1) Love: The divine purpose for creation
All open theists share the conviction that “God is love” constrains both our understanding of God’s being and self-relatedness on the one hand of the nature of creation and God’s purposes on the other. Whatever else open theists might go on to conclude about the God-world relationship, it proceeds from the fundamental conviction that God is love and that God’s relationship to creation is defined, motivated, and directed by love. We are created to be and live as one in him, knowing and reflecting the triune love.

(2) Freedom: the necessary context for creaturely love
It is the metaphysics of our becoming loving persons which necessitates libertarian freedom. Very much has been said (philosophically and theologically) on the possibility of libertarian free will. Once God determines to purpose us for loving relations with God and others, endowing us with an appropriate capacity to determine ourselves is the metaphysical price-tag. We must freely become what we are purposed by God to be. Again, this is not the place to defend arguments already popular. I’m exploring only how these core convictions shape an open theist’s understanding and practice of petitionary prayer.

(3) Risk: The implications of freedom
If love requires freedom, what does freedom entail? It entails ‘risk’. And so the reality of ‘risk’ becomes the third in a trinity of convictions that inform open theism’s view on prayer. The existence of creaturely freedom has important consequences for the God-world relation — for the world because freedom constitutes the indeterminacy which open theists argue is incompatible with exhaustively definite foreknowledge, and for God because such freedom is also incompatible with it being the case that God can always guarantee that his will is fulfilled.

However, divine risk is a complex issue and is not understood and applied uniformly by open theists. All agree that there is genuine ‘risk’ in the sense that the fulfillment of divine purposes is sometime conditional upon the free agency of creatures. Certainly there are grave risks. But not all risks, arguably, can apply to God who by definition cannot take metaphysical risks. And open theists are not all in agreement on what counts as the sort of metaphysical risks God cannot take. What Dwayne and I understand by ‘divine risk-taking’ is simply the conditionality of the fulfillment of God’s purposes. That is, we may be at some risk, and the fulfillment of many of God’s purposes may be at risk. But God cannot be at risk. Differences among open theists on these points, however, do not (we think) affect our understanding of petitionary prayer as a means by which open theists freely partner with God in shaping themselves and the world as God desires.

The belief that divine providence is compatible with divine risk-taking even in the minimal sense just noted, however, does have serious consequences for our approach to prayer. There may be occasions when we pray as we ought and God responds to secure some end, and still the desired outcome may fail to actualize because of factors outside the determination of God and those praying. The shock which this claim alone has had upon objectors to open theism is well-documented, and yet there is no getting around it. On the open view, God does not get everything God wants or aims to achieve even when we pray and intercede as faithfully as we may and God acts in the interest of achieving some end, and yet this does not empty prayer as a meaningful and effective means by which God brings his will to pass. What possible factors outside our prayers and God’s response would combine to make this the case? The answer open theists have given is that there are more factors determining outcomes than just our praying and God’s favorably responding.

(4) Rules of engagement: the creational variables
What sort of conditions would obtain if the world is in fact the sort of place where God can act with a view to bringing about some desired state and that state fail to obtain? And does this not decimate any hope that prayer is efficacious? Boyd begins his answer by appealing to the multifaceted nature of the conditions or “creational variables” under which we live and pray. We might say these constitute “rules of engagement” sovereignly established by God to see the world through to its fulfilled end.

What interfaces between a predictably loving God and the complexities of an unpredictable and fallen world that might account for the occasional failure of God’s will? Boyd represents open theists in general when he suggests that we understand God’s sustaining presence within creation to be guided by conditions God freely set in place when he created, the integrity of which he honors in the bringing of creation to its fulfilled purpose. The entire project of creation is thus providentially governed in its becoming from beginning to end by overarching loving purposes and a corresponding free and risky context appropriate to their fulfillment. These creational variables are this context, including our natural capacities, the integrity of our freedom and its consequences, the capacities of the physical universe to behave freely, angelic wills which may be, and other factors we may have no understanding of. Several of these can be known by us, but there’s no reason to think we have an exhaustive understanding of all the relevant variables. However, one creational variable, open theists believe, is prayer. Prayer (or the lack of it) is one of the influencing factors which constitute the totality of relations that determine outcomes on any specific occasion, but it is not the only factor. This is at the heart of what makes faith and prayer both comforting and frustrating.

(5) Consequent ambiguity: letting go the need to know
Once we posit a universe of intersecting and sometimes competing divine, angelic, and human wills, together with genuine risk and warfare under a myriad of creational factors we cannot comprehend, we have an entirely different approach to the problem of an evil world and our place in it. We can know that for any given evil, God, being perfectly loving, always does all God can do to maximize good and minimize evil, but we also know that given the metaphysics of freedom and risk, how much good God is able to actualize on any given occasion is conditioned by these creational factors. Thus, we can never know enough about the complexities of creation and the contributing factors that determine specific outcomes to judge precisely which variables played which determining roles. Consequently the world presents us with a good deal of ambiguity, not with respect to the divine character or intention (which open theists insist is loving and good), but with respect to the intersecting creational variables.

Open theists generally admit that God can and does on occasion guarantee outcomes. They also generally admit that God can and does on occasion make compatibilistic use of evil. Consequently, given our ignorance of the complexities and the hidden variables, we are consigned to ambiguity regarding specifics. We can never know whether some specific evil was opposed by God as such, given all the variables that are part of any event in the world, or whether God was specifically permitting or making use of agents in their evil intentions in a larger attempt to minimize evil and maximize good in the world. We must wean ourselves of the need to know and therefore of our tendency to judge.

(6) Consequent assurances: learning to rest
This ambiguity just considered relates to creation, however, and not to God’s character or his loving purposes. We can never comprehend the totality of divine and creational influences under the rules of engagement established by God, but we may, Boyd encourages, enjoy profound assurances. First, we may know that God always does all God can do given his purposes and the context in which God finds himself, to maximize good and minimize evil in the world. Here “all God can do” does not equal something like “flex all the muscle God has” or “exercise all the power God possesses.” It rather means God always exhausts all the available avenues for achieving his highest glory and the good and perfection of creation within the constraints he freely put in place to achieve the desired relationship with creation. Within this context, God does all he can to maximize good and minimize evil. That is his nature.

A second assurance is that however grave may be our suffering, however at a loss for an adequate explanation of the place our prayers have in shaping things, we rest in the confidence that God is resourceful enough to redeem our circumstances when we cooperate with him (Rm. 8.28-29). There is no horror so great that God cannot redeem good and beauty from it. God is always redemptively engaged in every occasion seeking to bring about the highest good and most loving state of affairs.

A third assurance we have in a risk-filled world is in the entrusting of our souls to God. With respect to our final state and our eternal enjoyment of God’s presence, we have an unconditional divine guarantee that those who trust God cannot possibly be disappointed whatever else may occur in this life.

With these convictions in mind, we’ll try to move on to what open theists have said about the what, why and how of petitionary prayer.

(Picture here.)

On Infants’ Early Deaths

baby_ambroWe thought we’d share some interesting comments by Gregory of Nyssa regarding divine foreknowledge. The Tradition affirms that God, to use Gregory’s expression, “knows all things before they be” (from Gregory’s On the Making of Man). That seems pretty straightforward. And there are many such examples from the Fathers that repeat the same thought.

More interesting, however, are Gregory’s thoughts on the providential use of such foreknowledge which he expounds at some length in his On Infants’ Early Deaths, explaining that God uses his foreknowledge of evils as the basis upon which to bring their life to an end before they commit those evils. But it is not possible that what is in fact foreknown can be the basis upon which God acts either to bring about or prevent what is foreknown. What is foreknown (on the traditional view) is by definition already the result of whatever was done to bring it about attempting to prevent it. Gregory’s logic here is impossible. Here are a few his comments from On Infants’ Early Deaths:

“It is a sign of the perfection of God’s providence, that he not only heals maladies that have come into existence, but also provides that some should be never mixed up at all in the things which he has forbidden; it is reasonable to expect that he who knows the future equally with the past should check the advance of an infant to complete maturity, in order that the evil may not be developed which his foreknowledge has detected in his future life, and in order that a lifetime granted to one whose evil dispositions will be lifelong may not become the actual material for his vice.”

“Therefore, to prevent one who has indulged in the carousals to an improper extent from lingering over so profusely furnished a table, he is early taken from the number of the banqueters, and thereby secures an escape out of those evils which unmeasured indulgence procures for gluttons. This is that achievement of a perfect Providence which I spoke of; namely, not only to heal evils that have been committed, but also to forestall them [foreknown evils] before they have been committed; and this, we suspect, is the cause of the deaths of new-born infants.”

“But seeing that our reason in this matter has to grope in the dark, clearly no one can complain if its conjecturing leads our mind to a variety of conclusions. Well, then, not only one might pronounce that God, in kindness to the founders of some family, withdraws a member of it who is going to live a bad life from that bad life, but, even if there is no antecedent such as this in the case of some early deaths, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that they would have plunged into a vicious life with a more desperate vehemence than any of those who have actually become notorious for their wickedness. That nothing happens without God we know from many sources; and, reversely, that God’s dispensations have no element of chance and confusion in them every one will allow, who realizes that God is reason, and wisdom, and perfect goodness, and truth, and could not admit of that which is not good and not consistent with his truth. Whether, then, the early deaths of infants are to be attributed to the aforesaid causes, or whether there is some further cause of them beyond these, it befits us to acknowledge that these things happen for the best.”

“The premature deaths of infants have nothing in them to suggest the thought that one who so terminates his life is subject to some grievous misfortune, any more than they are to be put on a level with the deaths of those who have purified themselves in this life by every kind of virtue; the more far-seeing providence of God curtails the immensity of sins in the case of those whose lives are going to be so evil. That some of the wicked have lived on does not upset this reason which we have rendered; for the evil was in their case hindered in kindness to their parents; whereas, in the case of those whose parents have never imparted to them any power of calling upon God, such a form of the Divine kindness, which accompanies such a power, is not transmitted to their own children; otherwise the infant now prevented by death from growing up wicked would have exhibited a far more desperate wickedness than the most notorious sinners, seeing that it would have been unhindered.”

“Take courage good mother, your son would have been worse than the worst human being who ever lived, so in his kindness God has prevented your child’s foreknown sins from being committed” hardly provides a basis for comfort. But the logic doesn’t work either. What is foreknowledge if foreknown sins can be prevented? They were foreknown. Is Gregory (inconsistently) assuming a category of possibilities knowable ‘as possibilities’ but not knowable (as is traditionally held) as the the world’s actual history?

(Picture from here.)