Is there a place for prayer in a world with a weak God? [Questioning faith #6]

Ted Grimsrud—November 17, 2022

Prayer has never been something I have been comfortable with. For a number of years after my conversion when I was 17, I tried pretty hard to make it part of my life. I even bought a book considered to be a classic by fundamentalist preacher, John R. Rice, Prayer: Asking and Receiving. I read it eagerly, but it did not actually help me that much. It might be interesting to figure out why I couldn’t get into prayer, but I’ve never spent much time on that kind of reflection. I suspect it at least partly has to do with me being a pretty rational, concrete person. The idea of actually conversing with an unseen being never quite made sense—even when I believed in such a personal, all-powerful being.

On prayer: Live and let live

After those first few years following my conversion when I did feel like a failure because I wasn’t into prayer or (this would be a different story) personal evangelism, my non-praying approach to faith never bothered me much. I was generally comfortable when called upon for public prayer, but that was about the extent of my self-conscious attempts to speak to the almighty. Along the way, I would occasionally read something about prayer that was a lot less directive than John R. Rice had been—prayer more as thought (“please keep me in your thoughts”), meditation, or simply cultivating good will. At one point, I read an interesting bestselling book by a medical doctor, Larry Dossey, Healing Words.

I don’t remember Dossey’s book very well, it was probably nearly 30 years ago that I read it. As I remember, he was actually an agnostic religiously. He studied prayer as a phenomenon practiced by people across the spectrum of religious faith and found it to be an efficacious practice. People who prayed and people who were prayed for tended to have better outcomes as a whole. I found it to be an attractive argument—and still do. But it didn’t really change anything for me. In facing a few of life’s difficulties and grievous moments, I didn’t find myself any more likely to pray in any kind of self-conscious, overt way.

I can’t imagine taking the time to do so, but it would be kind of interesting to reread the Rice and Dossey books together to compare and contrast. Certainly, they couldn’t be farther apart in what they actually believe about God. Yet, they seem to share a similar idea—prayer actually works and can affect what happens in people’s lives.

Now, I have no trouble with accepting that people who pray regularly may well have a better experience of life than people who don’t—in the same sense that people who think positive thoughts are better off. But to affirm that prayer actually affects what happens in the world is a bit more difficult for me.

By and large, though, I have been content to live and let live when it comes to prayer. I don’t want to argue against it with people who do find it important and meaningful. I did always find public prayer to be something I felt fine being around—as the one articulating the prayer or as one listening to someone else. I have thought of public prayer as a chance to voice a community’s hopes and commitments in a way that would foster a sense of shared life. That has seemed like a good thing, even if I didn’t actually think the prayer was going to influence an almighty God.

Walter Wink’s intercessory prayer

I have had one way that I have been challenged a bit to take prayer more seriously. A book that has shaped my thinking perhaps more than any other has been Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. When it was published in 1992, I had already been anticipating reading it for a number of years (he had promised that the third volume of his Powers trilogy would be “coming soon” in 1986 upon the publication of volume two). I devoured the book immediately and simply loved it. It was (and is) an extraordinarily profound theological and ethical analysis of our current world and how to make it better.

I read and reread Engaging the Powers during the years I was pastoring and then, for twenty years, read and taught from it each year in my “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice” class at Eastern Mennonite University. And just now, for the first time since the Fall of 2015, I have reread the book in its entirety. Wink helps us understand the dynamics of violence and domination in our society. He then provides a deeply insightful reading of the Bible as the basis for an intellectually and practically applicable philosophy of nonviolence as our necessary response to the Domination System. And, as the conclusion to the book, he offers a chapter on “Prayer and the Powers.”

In this chapter, Wink makes a passionate case for the necessity of explicit, self-conscious intercessory prayer for peacemakers. From having heard him speak in person several times and having a couple of lengthy conversations with him, I know that what he writes about prayer in that chapter was a central part of his life. In one of our conversations, he talked quite emotionally about his beloved daughter-in-law’s ultimately fatal struggle with cancer—emphasizing the place prayers for healing played in the family’s response to that illness.

So, here was a deep thinker that I greatly respect offering a powerful challenge to my apathy about prayer. Certainly, I respected his personal testimony in the book and in person—as I would with anyone who had such experiences. But I also was moved by the ideas in the chapter. Wink’s discussion of prayer was closely linked with what preceded it in the book. Since I found the earlier discussion so compelling, I had to take seriously what he said about prayer.

For anyone interested in prayer (and, I suppose, anyone interested in challenging the Domination System), I would recommend Wink’s chapter—even the parts I found unpersuasive. I found it stimulating for my thinking about prayer in the context of the need for transformation in this world so shaped by the Domination System. I do not feel a need to embrace the practice of overtly praying, but I do want to find ways to expand my sense of how to imagine peaceable living in face of so much violence.

Prayer and the Powers

In Engaging the Powers, Wink gives us an extraordinarily insightful analysis of how the structures, institutions, and traditions of our modern American culture shape us toward domination and inhumane practices. He then provides an equally insightful presentation on how we might resist that shaping through a wide-ranging commitment to the philosophy and practice of nonviolence based on the message of Jesus. A crucial aspect of such work, Wink argues, is the process of delegitimizing the oppressive Powers—that is, the process of seeing them for what they are and self-consciously recognizing and resisting their idolatrous claims.

This final chapter of the book argues that prayer is a crucial part of the delegitimizing and resisting process. What I especially draw from Wink’s analysis is how prayer might be part of our discernment work. We articulate our desire for truth and for empowerment to be free from the death-dealing dynamics of the Domination System. We recognize that this is indeed a spiritual struggle (“spiritual” understood in the carefully defined sense that Wink develops in the book—involving the “inner” dimensions of human beings and the various Powers). Prayer, then, may be seen as the articulation of hopes and dreams and the listening to spirituality in life. Wink certainly writes of this articulating and listening in relation to a fairly traditional understanding of the Christian God, but I don’t think his insights require such an understanding. The “praying” is not linked with any specific doctrinal construction of convictions about God. The main requirement seems to be the desire for healing in all dimensions of life and the openness to listening to the Spirit of love in the universe.

So, I would say that it could be that prayer becomes an aspect of the work of healing when we recognize it as part of the discernment effort. We ask for guidance, for perception, for empowerment to apply and sustain the way of peace at the center of what we do as we resist and build something new. What matters is our crying out, not the expectation of any specific kind of answer. What matters is the desire for transformation, not the certainty that it will happen. What matters is prayer as empowerment, not prayer as a stimulus for supernatural intervention.

Prayer in this sense is not asking an all-powerful God to intervene and fix things for us. Rather, it is a longing for wholeness, an expression of desire for healing, a voicing of protest against domination. Wink, in emphasizing what he calls the “intercessory” element of prayer seems to me to be going a little further than I would tend to toward voicing a kind of expectation that prayer influences God to intervene. I’m more comfortable with leaving it more with simply the sense that it matters that we voice our desires and that we listen. In doing so, we help ourselves become prepared to live in ways that move toward wholeness.

Prayer can be seen as the practice of consciousness where the love of neighbor in concrete, radical, resisting ways shapes our thinking and doing. I do like how Wink writes about the interconnectivity of everything. I don’t think we in the West know nearly enough about the nature of that interconnectivity, but it does seem as if we are growing in our knowledge. And if we do accept that we are linked with the rest of the living universe (and, maybe, also with what some are now calling “vibrant matter”), then it would seem that prayer as an exercise in willing the good for all of creation is an important practice to cultivate.

Questioning Faith blog series

14 thoughts on “Is there a place for prayer in a world with a weak God? [Questioning faith #6]

  1. By “Weak God” in your title, I assume you are referring to your second post in this “Questioning Faith” series?

  2. Ted, thank you for your thoughtful and provocative reflections on prayer. Barry Lopez writes in “Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World”, “[Long] after I had lost touch with my Catholic practice, I continued to rely…on the centrality of a life of prayer, which I broadly took to be a continuous, respectful attendance to the presence of the Divine. Prayer was one’s daily effort to be incorporated within that essence.” For Lopez, interconnectivity includes the entire living universe. When, on occasion, I am able to open myself to be incorporated within that essence, then I too am moved by the centrality of prayer.

  3. Thanks Ted! For a good (my opinion) discussion on the interconnectedness of all things, Larry Dossey has written “One Mind”.

  4. Your thoughts about and experiences with prayer mirror mine quite closely, Ted. Shouldn’t be surprising.

    You’ve given me another reminder to get Wink’s 3rd book (in the series), particularly.

    You’re implying also, I think, that the interpersonal aspect of intercessory prayer is strong … with little difference between “in thoughts” and “in prayer”. Given our interconnectedness, prayer need not go through an “Almighty”, doling out God, but can be directly effective between and among persons. Of course, this is also “through” God, with God being everywhere and in everything (yet not omnipotent as in classical theism).

    I think of prayer as both inner work and sociable, more than “vertical” communication.

  5. Thanks, Ted. I appreciate your candour here.

    “Prayer in this sense is not asking an all-powerful God to intervene and fix things for us.” I came to this conclusion some years ago, and it was cemented as my theology shifted.

    “Rather, it is a longing for wholeness, an expression of desire for healing, a voicing of protest against domination.” I like this a lot. I think many of the Psalms fit nicely into this “model” of prayer.

    I would only add that there is, for me, another important dimension to prayer: keeping myself in a posture of humility before God. The Jesus Prayer is emblematic here: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. I should clarify that this is not, for me, about wallowing in any kind of “worm theology”; it is simply about recognising that I need to be reminded of my constant need for God’s grace and mercy, otherwise my domineering ego will unquestionably take God’s place.

  6. Thanks Ted,

    This resonates with my own experience with prayer. I find fervent group prayer sessions uncomfortable regardless of the religious tradition they are associated with. Perhaps this is partially because of evangelical and charismatic experiences in my past where I ended up feeling emotionally violated. I find what you take from Walter Wink helpful. My own spiritually is much more comfortable with singing, good poetry, formal liturgies, formal prayers, silence, the wonder of the natural world (I have a thing for trees) and sharing with a friend. In these ways, I become cognizant of the wonder of the universe and and recognize what I experience as the transcendent and divine however that is understood.

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