Taking Prayer Beyond Cause and Effect (#WhyPray)

Taking Prayer Beyond Cause and Effect (#WhyPray) February 27, 2012

I’m hard at work on a book about prayer. I’m trying to establish a reasonable, rational explanation of why we should pray. About what prayer accomplishes. About what effect prayer has on the Divine.

One of the things it seems I have to get over is my very human predilection to understand things by cause-and-effect.

I’m not the first one to tackle this, of course. David Hume thought a lot about cause-and-effect, including this famous billiard ball analogy:

Imagine a billiard ball rolling across a pool table at a goodly pace. What happens when it comes in contact with another ball? The first ball stops rolling and the second ball begins rolling. The energy is transferred from ball one to ball two.

You can see the cause, Hume says, and you can see the effect — but you cannot conclusively link the two.

Hume uses this billiards example to make some points about cause-and-effect:

  1. Causation can only be inductively predicted, not deductively reasoned.
  2. Inductive predictions are based on previous experience.
  3. It is possible to imagine scenarios in which the cause produces a different effect.
  4. It is also possible to imagine that the effect was caused by something else.
  5. Therefore, talk of cause-and-effect should necessarily be modest in its claims.

And here’s an interesting note about cause-and-effect: Isaac Newton was careful to repeatedly assert that gravity is not the cause of things falling to Earth. Gravity is simply the best explanation of the effect. The cause of things falling to Earth, Newton said, is anyone’s guess.

So it seems that a significant hurdle for me — as someone trying to figure out why we pray — is that our prayers causing God to do things is probably not a very good reason to pray.

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  • ME

    I don’t know why you would want to establish a reasonable and rational reason to pray. Is rationality a higher good than faith? If you can make prayer rational, do you then not require faith? Is that your goal, to eliminate the need for faith? You don’t need faith to play billiards. But you do need it to be a Christian.

    Why pray? Because Jesus told us to. Jesus said God listens to our prayers. If you believe in Jesus do you need any more explanation than that? Does he owe us an explanation, or, rather, do we owe him obedience?

  • jacob stump

    Looking for a rational argument for why people pray misses the point. Rather: How do we come to pray (as opposed to not praying)? That is inductive and does not entail a single causal factor.

  • Jodi

    Perhaps the question needs to be not what effect prayer has on the Divine, but what effect prayer to the Divine has on the pray-er?

  • We moderns don’t do modesty, have you noticed?

    … Our Pastor says that the purpose of prayer is to assert a relationship with God. We don’t cause our friends to act, but by being open with them we give permission for their intervention in our situation; we invite them to act.

    • ME

      I think I agree with that, Marshall.

      I’ve been thinking on this- “our prayers causing God to do things is probably not a very good reason to pray.”

      At first I agreed because to say otherwise would be so arrogant. But, I’m not so sure. We can call it inviting our friend to act, but, it’s still a petition, it’s still an attempt for a cause and effect. And doesn’t the Bible over and over suggest there is a cause and effect with prayer? If there is no cause and effect, is prayer any different than meditation?

  • Evelyn

    At the risk of sounding nerdy, I’ll bring up the fact that there are many types of prayer including ones for praise and adoration, penitence, petition, thanksgiving, and intercession. These types can be issued in several different ways: vocal, mental, and spiritual.

    It seems that most people concentrate on prayers of petition so the question is: Why ask God for something for yourself? First you identify a desire, then you pray to God that you’ll get the object of your desire. What do you do now? Do most of us sit around and wait for this object to miraculously appear or do we do something to obtain that object of desire? I assume that most of us know that if we sit around and wait for the object, we probably won’t get it so we have to get up and do something about it. Perhaps prayer makes us feel that God is helping us get the object of our desire so we are in a more optimistic and positive state of mind when we go out to obtain that object. That is, if we think that God loves us and is on our side. We also have to think about principaled action in getting the object of our desire. Most of us don’t believe that if we use sinful means to get things that God is going to help us get them. If we do get the object of our desire, it reaffirms our belief that we acted justly. If we don’t get the object of our desire, we need to resort to humility and change our view of ourselves or perhaps change our theology a bit. All of these are rational reasons to pray.

  • Dave H.

    Ugh, the predictable assertions that true faith permits no further thought on the matter of prayer beyond “Jesus says to do it!” I suppose this explains why these faithful commenters have surrendered all their property to the poor, abandoned their mother and father, and routinely offer those who strike them a clear and unresisted opportunity to strike them again.

    Thanks for helping us pursue a life of faith that is lovingly relational rather than thoughtlessly authoritarian, and therefore seeks, at a minimum, basic *coherence*.

    • ME

      Dave, who said faith permits no further thought on the matter of prayer? I doubt anyone thinks that. Just because I disagree with Tony’s opinion doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s worth talking about and listening to other opinions. My point of view is that in the end it will always come back to faith, and if you are trying to build an argument for prayer based in reason you are building your argument on quicksand. Does that make me thoughtlessly authoritarian? I think it’s unfair to say that.

      • Scot Miller

        It’s interesting that in the Middle Ages, one of the main differences between Franciscans and Dominicans was how they answered the question, “Is it better to love God or to know God?” or “Which comes first, loving God or knowing God.” The Dominicans (e.g., Thomas Aquinas) would argue that knowing God comes before loving God, since my will will naturally love that which I know to be True (i.e. God) . On the other hand, the Franciscans (e.g., Duns Scotus) would argue that loving God comes before knowing God, because my intellect seeks to know what my soul first loves. In other words, some Christians argued that the foundation for faith is reason (i.e., reason is what makes us created in God’s image), whereas others argued that the foundation for faith is in the will (i.e., faith seeks understanding). So even if “in the end it will always come back to faith,” the question remains whether that faith is an act of the will prior to and independent of reason, or whether faith is the expression of reason.

        I really think Tony is just trying to give an account of prayer that makes sense to human beings.

        • In the sphere of religion it is now acknowledged that “God known of the heart” gives a better account of the character of our spiritual experience than “God guessed at by the brain”; that the loving intuition is more fruitful and more trustworthy than the dialectic proof.

          Underhill, Evelyn (2009-12-12). Mysticism (p. 33). Evinity Publishing Inc. Kindle Edition.

          • Scot Miller

            Of course, wouldn’t the mystics rather speak of unknowing God and overcoming dualistic thinking (heart over intellect, faith over reason, intuition over proof)?

        • ME

          I remember in a book I read that Aquinas thought it possible for men to arrive at the highest moral truths through reason, but that it’s so difficult to do so most must receive them in a miraculous manner or they would not at all. The latter certainly fits the bill in my experience and I am probably unfair to others in my deep skepticism of trying to arrive at faith through reason.

          Not sure which of your criteria my understanding of faith meets. Primarily I think of faith as a gift from God that you can accept, not accept or not even acknowledge.

          I read a lot of the blogs on Patheos and I really agree a lot with Ben Witherington and Roger Olsen. Not so much with Tony’s blog. I catch myself being too negative and combative and I appreciate not being runoff yet. But, I think one of the reason’s why I comment so much is that I know some people who are more into the emergent church area and I secretly wonder if I believe in the same God they do. The impression I get, and it’s only that, an inaccurate impression, is they believe in some cleaned up version of God with heavy doses of philosophy interjected. And what I want is to understand the differences, to bridge the gaps and get rid of my false impressions. While I disagree with a lot of theological idiosyncrasies presented on this blog and in the comments, I’ve learned a ton, moreso than from the other blogs, and I just want to say thanks.

    • I’m with you, Dave. I think it’s perfectly faithful to look for a reason to pray. For years I’ve been doing it simply to obey Jesus. And, while that’s a fine motivation to pray, I’d like there to be a reasonable motivation as well.

  • My understanding of prayer is expanding. Just sitting quietly and asking God to let me rest my heart in the safety of his love–allowing my anxieties to subside and my energy to harmonize with the divine…this is an amazing form of prayer. The goal is to allow the ego blockages to melt away so that Spirit can flow through me like healthy blood bringing fresh aliveness. Prayer is not to get God to do things. Prayer, for me these days, is all about syncing up with divine Energy so I can be more alive and useful in the world.

    • Susan, that’s where I feel myself being pulled…

    • This is my experience as well. I am just a branch on the vine who is working at clearing away the obstacles to the free flowing of Divine Love through me into the lives of my neighbors.

  • Jim Armstrong

    It will be interesting to see how this flows. It is hard for me to separate “why” from “how”, and with what expectations. The question will be totally unappealing to most, I think. But for others of us, the question is legitimate and working ground. But it is obviously a very large question that touches on the very nature of God and how we “know” that; on how truly “other” God might be, and how appropriate it is to ascribe even with the best of human-referenced attributes to the Author of All That Is; how much we depend upon the the ancients’ descriptions of their thoughts and experience, and whether theirs are believed more reliable than those in our own time; how much or whether we question (“test”) the belief systems of our own traditions through beliefs; and to what extent and how we assess our own experience with prayer.

    For the moment at least, I’ll just make a note with regarding Newton, and science in general. In most cases, what we categorize as understanding how nature works or what something in nature “is”, are descriptions not of what things are, but how they behave (as in your gravity example). We just don’t know – for example – what a photon is. What we do in place of knowing is to develop a model that would account for behavior. Even when there is a mathematical model that describes some behavior very well, and even predicts new attributes or behaviors, it would be a mistake to think this is equivalent to understanding what the thing “is”.

    It is more difficult to assess the “behavior” of prayer free of our beliefs and expectations, in part because of the demonstrable human inclination to only notice that which affirms our held beliefs or speculations, of which we have many in our inherited faith traditions (particularly when “no” or “wait” are possible answers to prayer!).

    • Jim, I’m interested in why you think that most people won’t be interested in this question.

      • Jim Armstrong

        Ah, sloppy writing – My comment was intended to reference most folks in conventional church life taken as a whole, and in the ether, …notably excepting much of your readership, …to whom I extend my apologies for sweeping them up in my generality.

  • I don’t have any insights to offer, other than the fact that you struck a chord with me. Prayer as a theological concept is something that I have struggled with, and many of your doubts and hurdles resonate with my own. Thanks for having the conversation!

  • Paige

    I’ll be interested to read where you go with this. My son (7) and daughter (5) have been praying for more snow for a couple of weeks. When we got six inches on Saturday, the younger announced, “God did what we asked.” Um, well . . .

  • James

    I really appreciate this post Tony, but I just want to throw something out there for thought from a process perspective. Against Hume’s skepticism about causality, Whitehead made a fairly strong and persuasive argument to the contrary in Process and Reality (much of that text is in appreciative dialogue with Hume). This largely has to do with the process philosophy of events vs. substances, internal vs. external relations, and a more radical empiricism in line with William James that takes account of both sensory and nonsensory experience (Hume only considered the former, thus his skepticism about so many things). If one follows Whitehead on these points, in conjunction with his dipolar theism, prayer begins to make a lot of sense. Indeed, we then see that we actually make a ‘contribution’ to the divine life in our prayers that can open up new possibilities for God to offer the world in the next moment of becoming. Of course, this is something that occurs through all other activities in process thought, and God works with or without prayers. But prayer is an activity that brings us into a more intentional mode of cooperation with the ongoing work of God in the world, and in real sense, prayers make difference for how God acts in the world.

    • I hear ya, James, but the simple fact is that the God of process is stripped of personhood. And the impersonal God of process will never catch on with many people.

      • James

        Tony, that is a common misunderstanding of process theism. Charles Hartshorne called God a “living person.” In his earliest writings, Whitehead’s God was indeed impersonal, but by the time he wrote his magnum opus P&R, God was seen as both in process and “fully actual” – the consequent nature is even said to be “conscious.” It is really interesting to see Whitehead move from agnosticism, to a kind of non-personal ‘theism’, to a more robust theism (what Hartshorne went on to call “neo-classical theism”) throughout his career.

        It’s true that some revisionary forms of process theism go in a non-personal direction (e.g., Loomer), but by far most process theologians do not hesitate to talk about God in personal terms with Whitehead and Hartshorne. In terms of metaphysics, God is not an impersonal force of creation in the universe. That is *precisely* the role of what Whitehead called ‘creativity.’ Non-personal theists like Gordon Kaufman tend to talk about God as creativity in a similar way. But this is not mainstream process theism.

        One way process theists sometimes put their view of God is that she is “not-less-than-personal.” I really hope you are able to take some time to read into the process tradition a bit deeper in the future. While I don’t think it gets everything right, I really believe that it offers some powerful resources for contemporary theology – prayer in particular. (;

        If you’re interested, here’s John Cobb briefly explaining what process theists mean when they affirm a personal God:


        • I get that process theology preaches that. I’m just not saying that I buy it.

          • James

            Tony, if you wouldn’t mind, I would really like to know more about why you “don’t buy it.”

            Do you mean you don’t buy it because you think that process theologians are actually being intellectually dishonest in order to be pragmatic and make their flawed theology preach? That would be quite an accusation, if this is what you are getting at.

            Or perhaps you mean that you don’t buy it in the sense that you think Whitehead and Hartshorne’s philosophy doesn’t ultimately make sense? If that is the case, I think one needs to actually read one or both of those philosophers before making this kind of claim (I only say this because you have previously admitted that you have never read Whitehead, and I am just assuming Hartshorne as well, but I certainly could be wrong).

            Or perhaps you don’t buy it because you have a problem with the whole enterprise of any kind of speculative metaphysics because you’re a post-structuralist? That I would understand, and am sympathetic with to some extent.

            • James: a combo of A and C.

              When process people talk about God, God sounds completely impersonal. Then they say that God is personal. And I don’t buy it. Also, I don’t know how I can have a relationship with a Being who is not Wholly Other.

              • James

                Tony, thanks for the response. I can’t really speak to your particular experiences with process people apparently contradicting themselves. That’s really too bad, and disappointing for me to hear. But I will say that I have, over the years, personally met with and heard lectures delivered by a majority of the major process theologians alive today and have not had those experiences. And having read widely in process thought, it is not typical in their writings either.

                Also, allow me to suggest one possible source of confusion here: in dipolar theism, God’s primordial nature is abstract/non-temporal while the consequent nature is concrete/actual and influenced by time. The primordial nature is in fact impersonal when considered only on its own, but this is only done in philosophical consideration of its function in relation to the consequent nature’s function. It is only in the unity with the consequent nature that God is definitely personal/conscious. But this does not mean that we are speaking of two Gods, of course. God as actuality (dipolar) is ultimately personal: conscious, relational, creative, responsive, and essentially love.

                I can’t do justice to this topic here, but you might look into it more if you’re interested. I suggest it to you because you might have heard process people speaking more directly about one or the other pole of God, depending on the context of their discussion.

                And if it’s a more radically other God you need, a form of kenotic process theism is a strong and defensible alternative to traditional process theism. Philip Clayton advocates this view: that God is truly infinitely other but essentially self-limited in relation to the world, therefore interacting with the finite world very much like process theism (persuasive, as a lure, and also dipolar). Prayer can be understood very similarly to any other process perspective in such a view.

      • ” …brings us into a more intentional mode of cooperation with the ongoing work of God in the world…”

        Isn’t James just giving kind of a nerdy version of what Susan said in emotional language? I don’t see her implying ‘personhood’ for one thing.

        • James

          Marshall, more or less, yes. (-;

  • I am curious, Tony. Have you experimented with various Buddhist mediation methods and compared them to the different styles of prayers you have known?

  • Charles

    We pray so that when we are done we know which one is God. (Some get confused.)

  • Mary

    James ‘ comment basically relates prayer as a way to “get with the program” God has going, also involving our intent. Simply bringing our “stuff” before God in a naked fashion opens a place to start. To consciously practice making a space for God is meditation, i.e. prayer.
    Susan hits it on the head. Make no mistake, prayer is for humans, not for God. Writing- uncensored & stream of consciousness, and mark making can be ardent forms of prayer if ,as with meditation -etc., the focus is on opening the heart to God.

  • Mark Armstrong

    Prayer became a totally different deal for me when I heard that you could feel the presence of God in your life and particularly through prayer. I was also thrilled to find out that prayer is a dialogue not a monologue and that it is a response to God’s initiative in our lives. I was so tired of relating to someone where the burden of the relationship was all up to me carrying on this ridiculous monologue. God is in his temple, says the hymn, all on earth keep silent. Then someone helped me shine a spotlight in my heart and there I discovered this immense desire for God. Besides prayer as a dialogue, the desire to enjoy God’s presence as the reason for prayer was a paradigm shift for me. Westminster Confession says that the chief end of man/woman is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. John Piper says that we glorify God BY enjoying him forever. When I heard these two things above it was as if someone took and old engine out of my relationship with God car and replaced it with a race car engine. All of a sudden I saw this huge DESIRE in my heart for God and his presence. Unfortuately this did not take the struggle of prayer away from me. It just gave me a different struggle. How do you feel God’s presence in prayer became what I was most concerned about. It was 8 years before I could go into a sanctuary and sense a fullness, that there seemed to be someone else in there besides myself verses it feeling like a big empty space. This process taught me that I am not in control of this relationship with God thing like I used to think that I was. Even after that it has been a struggle and even more of a struggle in some ways (namely that the sense of his presence is up to him to share with me. That is God’s responsibility not mine. A catholic priest told me one time that God is the cat and I am the ball. If he wants to play with me for a while then he will. If not then I am in the corner whether I like it or not and not matter what I do. Please do not say in your book that if someone does this or that than it will guarantee a sense of closeness with God. The only thing that does that I believe is communion.

    I now want something different from prayer. It is an expression of my desire for God where I want to connect with God in some way as He is the lover and I am the beloved. Before I was in complete control of my relationship with God. So I thought as a post enlightenment and modern person. It was a cause and effect process that really made God’s presence optional or not even an issue at all. The cause was I read my Bible and prayed and studied doctrine then it was just assumed that because I did those things I was closer to God since I opened up my brain applied a method and poured more spiritual information inside of it.

    Now I know that Aslan is a wild lion and I am still trying to figure out what to do with this wild lion of a God who loves me so much. I like how the children in the Chronicles of Narnia play with this wild lion. What a great picture of prayer for me. Henri Nouwen says that people would ask him all the time to teach them to pray. He would tell them that the Teacher will teach when they meet with him. I think it is our job to put ourselves in the place before God and to want him. I know that he wants us to want him the way a woman wants a man to desire her. But it is his job to make prayer work. By work I mean provide a sense of connection. I think it is that way with all the spiritual disciplines. Sorry for the long post 🙂

  • Tony – I love your last bolded statement. I used to think God was the waiter in the cafe of my soul. I’d ask Him to go get me a bunch of stuff from the kitchen and have faith that whatever came back, if anything, was at least edible … either for me or for a friend. What I have come to realize is that prayer (at least in my life) is something much different than that. In the interest of short comments, click on my name for the rest of the story.

  • Repeating what I said when Tony first started this project, asking me why I should pray is a little like asking why I should talk with my wife, or a friend, or a family member, or anyone else I have a relationship with. But, for me, prayer goes way beyond that. I pray because I love doing His will here on Earth. It’s all about conation, not cognition. It’s all about loving, not logic. Let go of the syllogisms, the need for cause and effect, a static Being … and head towards the Becoming. [Hey, St. Teresa of Avila … am I close?]. There’s more hyperlinked behind my name (as usual).

    • ME

      Very well said.

  • Chris
    • Chris

      Sorry. Should have told everyone the link is to a short piece by CS Lewis called “The Efficacy of Prayer” I read many years ago. Came to mind after reading your post.

  • A very good starting point Tony. Thanks for the blog. FYI, I’m sure it is not news to most, but gravity still has not been figured out exactly, other than we know its affects. The current thinking is that it is not a force itself, but the result of other forces. I’m not a physicist, but I pretend to be one in blog comments.

  • If a Being is wholly Other, how can that “life” touch my life at all? Isn’t the point of the Incarnation? Not to mention the gift of the Spirit?

    When thinking like Scientists, we set God aside and see what we can do towards understanding His Word in a strictly mechanical way; the Gnustics miss the point that having done that, we can mix Him back in … “when you reach the top of the ladder, keep climbing.” Similarly, we can set God aside to think about psychology, considering the Spirit to be a part of our self. Which it is. When we mix God back in as a ‘person’ (in either case) we get teleology. Which I am personally all in favor of, and which I see all around me.

    Not clear to me if I understand process thinking as process thinkers do. ‘Pologies if I blunder again.

  • Casey McCollum

    I want to echo the earlier comment from Sabio about Buddhist meditation – i’ve been exploring it myself and it has been fruitful – Tony, I encourage you to explore this in your book, which i am really looking forward to. (The writings of Thich Nhat Hanh have been particularly helpful)

  • Ever thought about getting past the Newtonian stuff and look at prayer through the lens of quantum physics?