As I celebrated the graduation of the Torrey Honors Institute class of 2013, I took some time to think back on significant times I had shared with them. I thought of the Christmas party at my house their freshman year and the camping trip their sophomore year, when we read the entire Divine Comedy around the campfire. However, in my judgment the most significant time in terms of our mutual education came in their junior year when I was their tutor for class sessions on selected works by Friedrich Schleiermacher. The discussions gave me a lot to think about, and after doing some Bible study and some outside reading, I sent them an e-mail as a follow up to our class discussions.
It was great to be with you for several sessions at the beginning of the semester. When I came your sessions, I felt the warmth of being with old friends.
You probably recall that in the Schleiermacher sessions, we spent a good bit of time at the end of class talking about his sermon on prayer. I was surprised to find how sympathetic many of you were to his presentation on prayer. What puzzled and concerned me is that Schleiermacher’s denial that prayer can have any effect beyond the spiritual improvement of the of the person praying seems to directly contradict the teaching of Jesus and the teaching and examples elsewhere in the Bible. The Bible teaches that God effects change in the world in response to prayer and that some changes will not occur if we do not pray.
I’ve thought about why Schleiermacher’s point of view might seem plausible or appealing. My first thought was that people might be reacting to all the ways Bible’s promises regarding prayer can be abused: “name it claim it” theologies, treating God like a genii whose job is to fulfill wishes, overconfidence that God must always grant us what we ask (particularly in regard to finances or healing). I also considered that what Schleiermacher affirms about prayer’s effects are great truths: prayer does help us align our thinking to God’s thoughts and submit our wills to his ways. In class, someone brought up Philippians 4:6-7, which singles out freedom from anxiety and peace of mind as effects of prayer without referring to specific answers.
Although the teaching of Christ may be abused and some of Schleiermacher’s teaching is true and helpful, there is also great danger in accepting Schleiermacher’s denial of Christ’s teaching on the efficacy of prayer. As I considered it further, I wondered how much the appeal of Schleiermacher’s denial comes from more troubling sources. The first is the naturalism that pervades modern thinking. The mainstream of popular and scholarly thought in the last two or three centuries (at least in the West) has had very little place for a God who intervenes in natural events or human history. The second is personal doubt that comes from experience. When we ask God for things and then don’t receive them, it becomes easy to think that our requests aren’t heard.