New theological perspectives often try to position themselves as being “naturalistic”. By this I mean they want to distance themselves from the supernaturalistic interpretations found in many traditions. Prayer is often a sticking point for “naturalistic” religious forms. This is because if prayer is efficacious beyond some psychological factor, it seems to violate naturalistic sensibilities. In this post, I would like to explore a possible way of thinking about prayer that still fits well within a “naturalistic” worldview. However, before I continue, what I mean by a naturalistic worldview does not mean the ontological naturalism that atheists espouse. What a theist who rejects supernaturalism can do as a “naturalist” is make a strong commitment to forming beliefs based on a nominal experience of life. This means that radical shifts away from the nominal order we experience are met with strong skepticism. It does not mean the rejection of divine providence but rather it accepts that God is faithful to the ordering of the cosmos.
So how can prayer that is efficacious fit in to a naturalistic theology? It can by accepting the causal limits of prayer. The efficacy of prayer is not grounded in some brute manipulation of causal factors. Instead, it taps into the already present causal fabric of depth. This causal fabric is not mechanistic as is portrayed by non-teleologists. It is instead part of the intrinsic freedom and intelligence of the divine life. Accordingly, prayer reaches into the core depth of reality and changes it. What does this all mean to the believer in the power of prayer? First, it means that like the divine life, it is self-limiting. It is kenotic, accepting the limits of life as they are. This does not, however, entail a fatalism. Prayer is not a magic wand to fix something. It is rather a means of tapping into the depth of the divine life within which change can occur in a kenotic environment. Does this mean that no profound change can occur? To the contrary. Dramatic change can and does occur but this change also occurs within the kenosis of life. It does so because there are kairotic moments in time, times of fulfillment, times when the tipping point occurs. In each life and each day there are moments of kairos. These are marked by periods of preparation, periods that build to a moment of change. They are radical life-changing moments that can go either way.
This correlates with the best science of the day. Nobel laureate physicist Robert Laughlin roots these types of momentous change in “collective instability” where very small changes can have an enormous effect. This collective instability is ubiquitous throughout the universe including biotic systems. Chaos theory also supports this notion. One cannot know when these dramatic events can occur, but they are part of the ordered dynamics of life not a violation of it. For those who live lives of prayer, there are moments that draw from the depth of reality to create dramatic telic change, change towards growth, healing, love, beauty, and meaning. Prayer speaks to a unity of communion. It is within the communion that prayer reaches out both to the depth of life in the persona of God and to all things. Imagine the power of such a communion. One need not feel alone in life. There is a vast communion of life that is not only part of each life but there for each life. Prayer in the divine life is a striking network of relationship within the organism of life. An organism is a powerful interrelation of its parts. A prayer to the communion is not an isolated offering. It is an offering to God as a communion of all things. That interrelation may seem hidden but its power is manifest in the history of the world and the lives of all in the communion.
Does this view alter the content of prayers? I think it does. What it means is that the believer should not expect God to violate God’s faithfulness to the life-giving order inherent in the cosmos. Does this mean that prayers should not ask for remarkable effects in the world? No. It does require, however, a refined sensibility in prayer. It requires a sense of what requests would be asking for a violation of this life-giving order and what would not. Prayers need not be radically censored, but the deep intuition concerning what fits within the mix of order and creativity of the divine life can inform prayers. It also requires a faithing fallibilism. By fallibilism, I mean that a specific prayer may go beyond what should be expected from God. It is faithing because it affirms a faith that God listens to all prayers, however flawed, and embraces their core intent, acting accordingly to the benefit of both the person and the entire communion. Prayer is an essential part of theism.