Sunday, July 06, 2008

Origen, On Prayer 5-9

Our Origen series continues with a discussion on whether it makes sense to pray. Our online text starts at section three and continues to section four. As usual, I continue to use my St. Vladimir press text.

Here Origen is dealing with the question of whether prayer is superfluous or not. That is, certainly anyone can pray, but is God listening. This is, of course, a very contemporary issue which continues to be debated even within Christian circles. Origen rightly refuses to debate those who deny both God and providence because recognizes that there is really no common ground that would allow such a discussion to go forward. Of course, someone denying God will say that prayer is useless. If one makes that assumption, how could prayer have any use?

Instead, Origen affirms that he is addressing those who accept the existence of both providence and God, but set providence over God to the point that they'll argue that there is no point in prayer because God has already decided what He's going do anyways. So, we should just get over asking and accept what comes our way.

Of course, we moderns may be surprised at seeing evidence of such a position this yearly in the life of the Church. Normally, we would identify this position with some distortions of Calvinism that we've seen from time to time. While John Calvin didn't hold such a preposterous position, the concept of double predestination can present a theological bind which can be misinterpreted into exactly this kind of denial of the efficacy of prayer. There are people who think about prayer and wonder why bother?

Origen's answer is similarly familiar. He answers the argument by affirming the importance of free will without, necessarily, denying providence. His answer is to affirm that the 'rational' soul of the human has free will, but that God, being omniscient, has foreknowledge of all our free will decisions. Using this foreknowledge, he arranges these decisions in order to build up his ordering of the world. In a sense, what he's saying is that we all have free will, but God, because of his foreknowledge, already knows how to arrange things to the good of His Kingdom. In that sense, His foreknowledge is not the cause of action, but the response to it.

The impact on prayer is that, according to Origen, God already knows in what spirit we pray before we do. If we prayer 'foolishly' or perhaps, better, selfishly, God will disregard that prayer. He will not, in a sense, decide to use it in his ordering of the Kingdom. Similarly, if he prays wisely (that is, with a view to the good of others or of the Kingdom), God will listen to that prayer and use it to build up his ordering of the world.

Now, as a theological answer, this still feels incomplete, but, strictly speaking, my concern in this series isn't so much the theological details (this is, after all, only part way through Origen's discussion of prayer), but rather on how it relates to the real practice of prayer. It is on that level that I want to continue our discussion.

What Origen is setting out here is one of the several obstacles to prayer which is, I think, why it seems as alive an issue today as it did in the third century A.D. We humans have an amazing capacity to find reasons to distance God from us and this is yet another example.

To be very honest, I find this particular obstacle a tempting one. I struggle with a concept of a remote God who doesn't really intervene in the world around me, so prayer does sometimes seem a futile endeavor. Early on, in my vaguely theist days, I was very much tempted by the classic deist image of the "Great Watchmaker' who sets into motion this clockwork universe and stands back to watch it go. Here God is rational, coolly uninvolved with absolutely no stake in what goes on in this universe. His creation of the world was merely an act of skill and superior knowledge. This is not a God to worship or to prayer to. This is a God whose handiwork we can admire, but nothing more. For a long time, this was the God I recognized.

What is more, I can see why I held this concept of God. I wasn't really ready to dismiss God altogether because I think I did have a sense of this universe hanging together rather too coherently to be an accident. This was a belief in providence of a kind. Yet, I couldn't really see how God could be personal or involved in the world-much less me. And, I have to admit, that this deistic God was much more convenient- He didn't tell me what to do or how to be and whatever I did either didn't matter in the grand scheme of thing or was the way He made it to be. That is a real lift of responsibility and is alluring, if only from that point of view.

I also found out I was wrong. God has worked in my life in very particular ways and in ways that convince me not only that God cares about this messed up world, but that he is working to redeem it- and me- as we speak. God does have an annoying way of breaking into one's life when one least expects it and thank God he does. I know all too well how well I do when I try to take control of my life without God, without prayer. And it isn't pretty.

What Origen here is offering us is a way out of this particular objection to prayer. In that sense, his theology matters, even with the odd bit about the sun and stars having a will (testimony to ancient scientific and philosophical assumptions, but not particularly germane to our discussions here). Yet, the spiritual trap implied in this objection to prayer remains ever-present.


1 comment:

Jim said...


When I was a postulant long and long ago, my spiritual director told me, "the reason to pray is to become a person who prays." It has taken me some 30 years to begin to understand what he meant.

It is my view that the solution to the puzzel lies in the way our relationship with God works in our lives. That is not the same as getting a get-out-of-trouble card.