What Difference Does Prayer Make? A Progressive Vision (Bruce Epperly)
Bruce Epperly continues his discussion of a Spirit-centered Progressive theology by taking up the question of prayer. How does a Progressive/liberal Christian understand prayer if supernaturalism is removed? Bruce, who is rooted in Process Theology, takes up first the issue of intercessory prayer (this week) and then in a follow up piece will take a look at the impact of prayers of thanksgiving on our well-being (next Tuesday). If you've not read it yet, take a look at Bruce's take on evangelism from a progressive perspective, which was published here last week. I invite you to read Bruce's essay, reflect upon it, comment and then share the news with others.
What Difference Does Prayer Make?
A Progressive Vision
Bruce G. Epperly
When I was a child, my mother posted a magnet on the refrigerator that proclaimed that “prayer changes things.” Regularly on Sundays, we listened to the bombastic intercessions of Oral Roberts and the gentle whisperings of Kathryn Kuhlman, both of whom believed that our ardent prayers could produce supernatural interventions to lengthen legs, restore eyesight, and cure cancer. To this day, I take prayer seriously; and although I no longer believe in divine supernatural intervention, suspending the laws of nature to prevent an earthquake or cure end stage cancer, I believe that prayer makes a difference in our spiritual, emotional, relational, physical, and planetary well-being.
As a progressive Christian, I believe that God is present in every moment of experience, not as a coercive external force, determining everything that happens without our input, but as gentle moment within the events of our lives, luring us toward healing, wholeness, and beauty. I believe that each moment of experience is the result of multiple causes, including the influence of DNA, family of origin, recent past decisions, unconscious factors, physical and emotional condition, spiritual life, relationships, economic factors, and environmental factors. Within this multitude of constantly changing factors, God is moving, shaping, guiding, energizing, and providing the best possibilities for health and wholeness, given the current situation.
While there are many understandings or practice of prayer, I see prayer as our creative and affirmative desire to be in alignment with and embody God’s vision for our lives and the world around us. If God is constantly inspiring us with, to use the words Romans 8, “sighs too deep for words,” then prayer awakens us to God’s deep presence and enables us to live out God’s vision, to a greater or lesser degree, in our lives. Prayer is a matter of call and response – God calls and we respond; and we call and God responds.
Now many liberal Christians see prayer as extending no further than our noses. It is purely a personal experience, bringing calm and acceptance, and spiritually joining us with those for whom we pray. Still, this liberal understanding actually suggests something more than a purely spiritual or existential experience. If mind, body, and spirit are interconnected, feelings of peace and calm arising from the practice of prayer will, to some degree, shape our physical condition in positive ways even if they don’t invoke God’s presence. Still, I want to suggest something more. This week, I will focus on intercessory prayer; next week, I will consider the impact of prayers of thanksgiving on our overall well-being. I believe prayer changes things, not absolutely, but relatively in the lively call and response of God and humankind, appropriate to our particular context and condition.
In a dynamic and interdependent universe, our thoughts and feelings radiate beyond ourselves into the ambient universe. Each moment of experience arises from the universe and contributes to the ongoing universe. I believe that our prayers create a positive field of force or healing around those for whom we pray. Accordingly, our prayers become one factor in shaping the experience of those for whom we pray. Our prayers are not all-determining, but provide a creative influence on others, along with the physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual factors shaping their lives.
But, there is more to prayer than merely our impact on others. I believe that prayer makes a difference to God. In creating a positive force of healing around others, we open the door for God to be more present in their lives and more able to provide more energetic and life-transforming possibilities. While we can – and should – never quantify the power of prayer, in an interdependent universe, prayer is a factor in healing and wholeness of persons, communities, institutions, and the planet. Prayer matters to God.
In contrast to the televangelists of my childhood and contemporary faith healers such as Benny Hinn and Richard Roberts, I see prayer operating in accordance with the principles of causation, characteristic of the universe. Neither our prayers nor divine activity suspend the causal relationships of the world; rather, they work within them, activating healing energies and, occasional quantum leaps of physical, emotional, and spiritual transformation. In the dynamic divine-human call and response, healings can occur and lives can be changed.
I believe liberal Christians have often failed to take prayer seriously precisely because their only understanding of divine causation was supernatural in nature. Today, quantum physics, mind-body medicine, complementary and global health, and medical research allow us to understand the power of prayer in new and creative ways, including the appropriation of Jesus’ healings in the ministry of the church. Progressives can reclaim the power of prayer and divine healing; we can be liberated from conservative and supernatural understandings of prayer and divine activity. Progressives need to be imaginative in our prayers: expecting more of ourselves and more of God, and opening to God in new ways of partnership with God through prayer, healing touch, meditation, affirmations, and social concern.
Our prayers are neither omnipotent nor impotent; but still they can transform our lives and the world. Prayer truly can make a difference for us, for those for whom we pray, and for God.
Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. (http://www.bruceepperly.com/)