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Ask Dr. Cobb

November 2007 Question

Intercessory prayer does not make much sense in terms of the dominant world view. Is the situation different with process thought?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Insofar as we think of prayer as having some effect on God, it is not just intercessory prayer, but all prayer, that seems questionable to those who adopt the official philosophical theology of the church. We are told that God is immutable, that is, that nothing that happens can change God in any way. That theology is deeply influenced by typical Greek values. For most of the Greeks, invulnerability was greatly desired. One wanted not to be affected by what others thought and said and did, since one could not control that. Greeks sought to achieve invulnerability by seeking happiness in internal states that were not dependent on others. They thought of God as perfect, and for them perfection consisted in absolute invulnerability, or what they called impassibility. Nothing done by creatures could affect God.

For biblical writers, in contrast, perfection is perfect love. Jesus’ love of human beings led him to protest the activities of the authorities and hence to being crucified. He was far from invulnerable. Early Christians thought that God is like Jesus, suffering with us in our suffering, rejoicing with us in our joy. God’s perfection is perfect. The lover is profoundly affected by what happens to the one who is loved. We process theologians believe they were right.

That means that this first reason for questioning prayer is invalid for us. We believe that everything we do and everything that happens to us affect God. God shares our joys as well as our sorrows. Although our experience changes, and we soon forget the past, God is not like us. God’s experience includes our experiences, not just while they are happening, but forever.

If everything that we do affects God, then certainly prayer affects God. And because prayer is a special mode of experience, it affects God in special ways. Consider the prayer that God’s will be done. Certainly the desired outcome is that we align ourselves with God. But it is not simply an exercise in self-improvement. The openness to God that is inherent in prayer enables God’s grace to work in us. It is God’s grace that actually leads us to be more in alignment with God’s will.

I think many Christians understand this. We know that we cannot pray in Jesus’ name for what is not in accord with God’s purposes and desires. But we also know that we cannot bring our own wills into alignment with God’s purposes simply by an act of will. We turn to God for help, and we find that help in prayer.

Many Christians understand the value of prayer in this way, but they still find intercessory prayer mysterious. Yet much of our praying is for others, and in many ways this seems the most Christian form of prayer. Often for the health of someone who is ill. We believe that God wants health and works for health; so we can pray for others in Jesus’ name. But how does this help?

It is easy to see that by praying for another we may be expressing and deepening our concern. Perhaps we are more likely to pay a visit or send a card. But our sense is that the purpose of intercessory prayer is not only that we be changed but that an improvement occur in another. How that can work is another question.

Much of the problem of understanding this comes from modern thought and its special expression in the sciences. Most Christian teaching in recent centuries has tried to adjust to this. This effort creates a serious tension, since modern thought is very different from biblical thought.

Standard modern thought is based on a model of reality derived from clocks. Clocks are based entirely on pushes and pulls between material bodies. The great medieval clocks that inspired this kind of thinking not only told time but also played music and put on little dramas and figures came out each hour. The idea was that the whole of nature could be explained as complicated clockwork. The vast majority of scientific explanation still employs this model.

Many Christians have accepted this view of nature and then added that God can overrule natural occurrences and work miracles. If we think this way, then most of our intercessory prayers are asking God to interfere in the natural order and do something that conflicts with it. But many other Christians, even those who accept this view of nature, think that if such supernatural interventions occur at all, they are very rare. They are hesitant to pray for them. Some people really dislike the idea of God’s breaking the laws of nature.

Of course, in the time when the Bible was written, nature was understood very differently. There were no scientific laws that nature observed. God was very much involved with nature, and sometimes God’s involvement led to astonishing consequences. These were called “miracles.” Most, although not all, miracles were matters of abrupt healing, what today we would call “faith healings.” Those who effected such healings were highly revered and sought after. But they were not doing something “supernatural.”

Process theologians are closer to the Bible than to modern thinking. We believe God works in every natural event. In general, we can say, that God’s working is for life and health in animate things. In human beings there are many blockages to health, and some of them are psychological and spiritual. God works to overcome these. The attitude and belief of the sick person plays a large role in the degree of God’s success, and the presence of one who inspires assurance can make a large difference. Hence, when Jesus tells people that their faith has healed them, this makes sense to us.

Of course, Jesus did not mean that people simply heal themselves by adopting the right attitude. The healing is ultimately enacted by God. Faith removes some of the obstacles to God’s working. The faith is often in response to the healer, who in the gospels is usually Jesus.

Furthermore, it is equally important for us to note that psychological and spiritual factors are not the only ones that affect health. Their change does not automatically result in healing. Believing that we can set aside all other considerations leads to self-deception. We know that the “healings” of some faith healers today are sometimes quite partial or quite temporary. Exaggerated emphasis on the role of subjective attitudes in healing can lead to feelings of guilt when one’s prayer does not result in healing. Blaming the sufferer for suffering only makes matters worse.

Now, what about intercessory prayer? What I have already said indicates that the boundary between the physical and mental worlds is much more fluid than many people suppose. Our emotions and attitudes are greatly affected by the condition of our bodily organs, but the condition of those organs is also greatly affected by our emotions and attitudes. Now I add that we are far less separate from on another than we usually suppose. The emotions and attitudes of those around us have a great influence on our own.

But modern people who acknowledge all this suppose that it all depends on awareness of the emotions of others based on sensory queues. For one to pray in church for the healing of someone who is in a hospital miles away still does not seem to make any sense. Yet we do this all the time. Does process thought change the situation?

Process theology holds to a different understanding of reality, one that is closer to that of people in biblical times. We believe that our experience of one another is not all mediated by sensory cues. We actually feel the feelings of others much as we feel the feelings of the cells in our own bodies. These relations are not limited to immediate proximity.

Modern thinkers still resist the notion of “action at a distance.” But in fact the evidence for this in physics is now beyond dispute. There has long been evidence for this also with regard to human experience. That intercessory prayer can have an effect on someone who is not present does not violate the known facts. The problem is that the common worldview of the modern world has not been adjusted to account for these facts. Process thought can readily accommodate them.

There is still one further question. Is there a difference between intercessory prayer and simply holding people lovingly in our thoughts and envisioning them as healed? Probably not much. Still I favor the form of prayer. Ultimately it is God who heals. It is because of God that the body works in complex ways for its own healing. Intercessory prayer should never be an effort to get God to do what God does not want. We should not be pleading with God to act in a way that God resists acting. It is instead to put our thoughts and feelings into the mix in such a way that God’s purposes can be better realized. God empowers us, but we also empower God. Indeed, God empowers us to empower God. To hold up a loved one before God, making our thoughts and feelings available to God to help overcome obstacles to God’s healing work in that person – that is authentic intercessory prayer. It is not magic, but it can make a difference.

A final word of caution. Sometimes Christians seem to feel that prayer is a particularly Christian activity. But Jesus does not lift it up in this way. Jesus calls on us to give water to the thirsty. If a man asks for water that you could provide, and instead of giving it you pray for him, this prayer is not an expression of Christian piety. If instead of visiting a sick woman in the hospital, you pray for her at home, there is nothing pious about that prayer. To withhold needed medical care and substitute prayer is not a Christian act. We are called by Jesus primarily to serve our neighbors in whatever ways we can.

Intercessory prayer can be one form of service. But it is not a substitute for more obviously effective forms. We properly pray for people in order to supplement other forms of service or when we have no other way to help them.

The primary reason for engaging in prayer, even intercessory prayer, is to bring our own purposes in line with those of God. If God uses that new alignment to benefit the one for whom we pray as well as ourselves, that is a wonderful bonus.

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