The Corner

Jesus and Aristotle


Interesting discussion on prayer. As noted, Christians offer petitionary prayer because Jesus told us to. The anthropomorphism of the Bible does not have a problem with such prayer. If it’s raining today, it’s because God likes it to rain, and if I want sunshine for my picnic, I bring the matter to his attention and attempt to persuade him. The best analogy I have ever seen for this discussion is the way that T.E. Lawrence deals with the desert chieftains in the film, Lawrence of Arabia. The dialogue between God and Abraham outside of Sodom falls into this category.

The theological problem with prayer enters the scene when the anthropomorphic God of the Bible meets the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle, and later the unalterable laws of science. In either of the latter cases, prayer is pointless. If it’s raining today, it’s because a low pressure front has moved into my area, and I should have checked the weather satellite photo before planning my activities. God is too busy to care about my little picnic, time for plan B.

There is, however, a way to reconcile the command of Jesus with the changeless nature of the divine. When God creates, he does not just create things; he creates events and relationships as well, in all their myriads and intricacies. He does not change in himself because of my prayer, but he has always foreseen my petition. As part of his decree of creation, he may have willed a connection between my petition and the petitioned effect, but I won’t know this of course until I pray. My petition may be the one link between someone else’s rain or sunshine, weal or woe. Or maybe it will be the petition of the 17th person I ask. Or maybe the petitions of the 5th and the 8th, and the 17th together. We won’t know until we do it.

So the point is: we should pray always, about everything, with anyone who will join us. This is why monastics, contemplatives, religious, and clerics pray the Liturgy of the Hours, chorally or individually, everyday. It is an official prayer of the Church, taking place always, somewhere in the world, for the benefit of all. It is like a wave cheer going around the upper deck of a donut shaped stadium: even when I am not standing and waving the cheer goes on. In the case of prayer, though, the wave is slower and the hands are raised in supplication.

For most people, including theologians, the ideas of God’s foreknowledge and eternal decree are too much to think about every time we pray, so we fall back on the comfort of anthropomorphism. This is perfectly acceptable. No matter how many of us ask, no matter how great the favor, we are addressing someone whom we call Father, whose power is unlimited. We know that he loves us, and that he will do what he knows is best, even if we can’t see it at the time. This is a belief worthy of trust.

Here is a link to the U.S. Bishops’ website on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, specifically to the material on prayer:

Rev. Lawrence C. Brennan

Professor of Systematic Theology

Kenrick-Glennon Seminary

St. Louis, Missouri


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