by Ethan Shaw, Class of 2015

cslewisPrayer has been on the minds of Christians since the inception of the church. The ultimate question one asks regarding prayer is whether man plays any role in ordering the affairs of God (that is, the fate of the universe). Although certainly a baffling question on the surface, this is one that naturally arises in the conversation between philosophy and theology. Boethius, a sixth century Neoplatonist Christian philosopher, notes the following: “The hopes which we rest in God, and the prayers addressed to him, are not in vain; when they are righteous, they cannot be ineffectual.” Following a lengthy attempt at reconciling divine foreknowledge with human free will, Boethius supposes that man possesses certain free will which enables him to produce righteous and effective prayer. Even so, he rigorously maintains an understanding of complete divine foreknowledge. Boethius’s central assertion to this end is that a partnership exists between the divine and human wills because God exists in an eternal present moment while man does not, allowing the two conflicting realities to exist simultaneously. To a less philosophical end, C.S. Lewis also examines the divine-human relationship by way of prayer in his essay “The Efficacy of Prayer.”At the start Lewis takes up the question of whether the efficacy of prayer can be empirically proven at all. For our purposes, prayer can broadly be defined as the means of communication in which man comes into agreement with God’s will. Lewis is centrally concerned with whether this communication, then, actually produces the desired effects. Following several anecdotes regarding miraculous occurrences, he notes, “Even if the thing were indisputably miraculous it would not follow that the miracle had occurred because of your prayers.” Lewis thus stresses it is impossible to prove a causal link between prayer and subsequent events, miraculous or otherwise. Furthermore, he notes that prayer is by nature request and therefore will not always necessarily be granted. After demonstrating that any attempt to truly test the efficacy of prayer is doomed to fail, he concludes that “empirical proof and disproof are…unobtainable” (380). Effective prayer, Lewis argues, must be sincere. Therefore, true prayer must be grounded in personal relationship and conversation with God.

From this point, Lewis puts forth a number of key arguments that can largely be divided into two categories: the nature of prayer and its general purpose. Regarding the nature of prayer, Lewis observes, “Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person” (381). Put simply, if prayer has any real effects at all, then these must exist in a very personal and relational sense. Lewis further states that the idea of prayer is much more of an all-encompassing category than is typically assumed. Next he thus defines prayer’s central purpose as a cooperative effort: “‘God,’ said Pascal, ‘instituted prayer to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.’ But not only prayer; whenever we act at all He lends us that dignity.” Lewis maintains that prayer is merely one facet in which God cooperates with man toward the execution of His will. This comprises the “dignity of causality” described by Pascal. In closing, Lewis draws out the implications of prayer on the divine-human relationship as a whole. He specifically illustrates the inherent paradox visible while Christ prays during his final hours at Gethsemane. God, he argues, clearly has no so-called court favorites when it comes to answering prayer. Altogether, considering Lewis’s statements on both the nature and inherent purpose of prayer are valuable in ascertaining his position.
man-in-prayer

A discussion of the nature of prayer provides the foundational basis for reaching a verdict on its efficacy. Lewis rightly places this first in the structure of his essay; and, as aforementioned, he focuses on the relational component of prayer. He then notes the diverse aspects which prayer entails: “Prayer in the sense of petition…is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and enjoyment of God its bread and wine. In it God shows Himself to us” (381). Here Lewis marks prayer as a revelatory act on God’s behalf and an act of communion on behalf of man. He rightly identifies prayer as a multi-faceted reality that defines all aspects of communication with God. Thus it cannot be seen as a mere robotic function but rather as a living and active discourse in which God brings man into agreement with His purposes. The idea that God answers prayer still remains as a corollary; however, this relational understanding replaces it as the central criterion for determining effective prayer. Lewis persuasively and logically articulates this theologically sound recasting of the age-old query “Does prayer work?” by shifting the focus from perceived temporal results of prayer to divine encounter.perates with man toward the execution of His will. This comprises the “dignity of causality” described by Pascal. In closing, Lewis draws out the implications of prayer on the divine-human relationship as a whole. He specifically illustrates the inherent paradox visible while Christ prays during his final hours at Gethsemane. God, he argues, clearly has no so-called court favorites when it comes to answering prayer.

The second critical step remaining is a proper consideration of the cooperative purpose of prayer. In quoting Pascal, Lewis depicts prayer as God’s way of granting His creatures active participation in determining outcomes. Like Boethius he seems to accept free human will to a certain extent; thus Lewis claims that this view of prayer should come as no surprise when it is seen in the same light as other human actions. Lewis further remarks that such prayers “have not advised or changed God’s mind—that is, His over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of his creatures” (381). Much like Boethius, Lewis seeks to reconcile the coexistence of God’s sovereignty with human action logically. He does so by contrasting what he calls “a sort of divine abdication” with our human propensity “to wield our little tridents.” However, the language of this latter comment has an uncanny resemblance to that of Boethius; this is later found when Lewis describes how “God makes something—indeed, makes gods—out of nothing.” Although prayer certainly involves a substantial measure of divine power granted to man, Lewis seems to go too far in borrowing the Neoplatonist language of Boethius to describe this. God seeks to cooperatively partner with mankind through prayer, not simply to pass all divine power into the hands of mortal men.

C.S. Lewis’s exploration on the effectiveness of prayer provides a much-needed emphasis shift. In truth, understanding the effectiveness of righteous prayer (as detailed by Boethius) does more to illustrate God’s relationship with man than the way in which the world works. Prayer cannot simply be understood through the lens of a cosmic machine, simply because God is fundamentally relational. Therefore prayer, as His means of communication, must be a fundamentally relational activity. By keeping the relational God as our focal point, it becomes much harder to get lost in the vain quest for universally answered prayer. Despite this deeply personal aspect of prayer, it can still fairly be said that prayer does not depend on the person praying. Ultimately God has no “court favorites” because prayer is ultimately about aligning oneself with the will of God. Lewis clearly demonstrates this paradox through the example of Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane. He remarks, “When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need” (382). Ironically, greater spiritual strength thus seems to lend itself to being further forsaken by God, at least on the surface.

Reference List

C.S. Lewis. “The Efficacy of Prayer.” The Essential C.S. Lewis. Ed. Lyle W. Dorsett. (New York: Touchstone Books, 1988).

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. P.G. Walsh. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

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