Jonathan Jacobs on Prayer as Shared Agency

January 28th, 2016 by

If you ask the average Christian to define prayer chances are that he or she will say something like, “Prayer is talking to God.” If you follow up, “But, what should I say to God?,” it’s likely that you will be told to ask God for worthwhile things and express to him the deepest longings of your heart.

These responses seem to be biblical. Petitionary prayers are sprinkled throughout the Psalms as are prayers that express the joys and sorrows of life. These forms of prayer are also modeled and encouraged by Jesus.

But, might there be more to prayer?

Jonathan Jacobs, an (Eastern) Orthodox Christian and professional philosopher, certainly thinks there is. In a recent talk to the Analytic Theology Group at Fuller Theological Seminary, Jacobs noted that while many understand prayer in terms of discrete instances where we speak to God, this is not the primary way in which Christians (especially Orthodox Christians) have historically understood it. Prayer, according to many ancients, is more of a general orientation of the soul than it is about specific times when one talks to God—although both forms of prayer certainly have their place. How then should we understand this more pervasive sense of prayer? Jacobs proposed understanding prayer as a kind of shared activity between God and creature, wherein the creature attempts to adopt the intentions of God and participate with him in the performance of particular actions. So understood, prayer is something like a disposition of the heart that continuously seeks to align one’s will with the ways of God.

Jacobs’ talk is interesting at a theoretical level. For it suggests that the aforementioned definition of prayer that is widely held is perhaps importantly incomplete. Prayer, in Jacobs’ view, is fuller than the standard definition in the sense that it pervades an individual’s daily activities; it’s not only that which emerges when one is explicitly talking to God.

Personally, however, it isn’t the potential theoretical pay-off of Jacobs’ account that struck me. No, his account spoke to me at a more fundamental spiritual level. To be frank, most of the time I find it difficult to talk to God. He often seems absent when I communicate my concerns, and, like many, I’m rarely granted concrete answers to my petitions. I occasionally wonder what the point of prayer really is. But perhaps some of my problems are generated by an understanding of prayer that is too limited. It may be that though prayer is sometimes about talking to God, it is more fundamentally about learning to commune with him—perhaps even through a form of shared agency. In which case, prayer is of utmost importance: if the process of salvation involves communing with God, then prayer is part of what it means to workout one’s salvation (Phil. 2:12).

Questions remain about whether Jacob’s understanding of prayer is best. (After all, what exactly might it mean to partner with the agency of God? And how can we do this given that our knowledge of God’s ways is often so limited?) Yet I found Jacobs’ attempt to broaden the conception of prayer spiritually encouraging because it helped me see why prayer is so central to the Christian life. And one can hardly ask more from a theological talk than that.

Jordan Wessling (PhD, University of Bristol) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He holds a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol and was the Frederick J. Crosson Fellow at Center for Philosophy of Religion, University of Notre Dame.

2 responses to “Jonathan Jacobs on Prayer as Shared Agency”

  1. Charles Twombly says:

    After decades of pondering/struggling, it seems to me that single-agency/monistic views basically make a mockery of the many passages where Yahweh or Jesus calls for people to make up their minds or to choose and to base final judgment on choices made. Anything less seems to me to reduce various exchanges between humans and God or Jesus to mere play-acting. Synergy (the mutual acting of two agents) seems to be the goal our reaching full humanity; God wants free beings, not robots. Full freedom, though, isn’t some kind of possession; it’s achieved over time and enabled by a deified will, one that gains full freedom by being united (through the Spirit) by God. (Overly hasty response: an interlude during Super Bowl!)

    • Jordan says:

      Yes, Charles, that seems right to me. I’ve long been an “Arminian” or “Free Will Theist” (basically one who believes that God incorporates the free agency of creatures–understood in terms of libertarian freedom–into central aspects of his plan). I thus can’t help but think of salvation as a synergistic process involving God and humanity. But I haven’t yet deeply considered how this theology applies to prayer. One of the interesting things about Jacobs’ talk is that he provided one framework that dovetails with Free Will Theism. (Robin Collins, who spoke to the Analytic Theology Group after Jacobs, also provided a framework of this kind.)

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