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Suppose that you are competing with two other candidates for your dream job. You have a final interview tomorrow and you have it on good authority that you are the favored candidate. If you perform well, you’re confident that you will secure the position. If you drop the ball, however, the job may well go to one of the other qualified candidates.
You like a good challenge, so in the typical situation you would approach the interview with confidence. Unfortunately, this is not a normal situation. You have a horrible stomach flu, and it has been made clear that the interview cannot be rescheduled. You feel the job slipping from your grasp. You’re scared. So you petition God and ask him to remove the infection from your body.
If you are like the rest of us, when you pray in this way you’re asking God, and God alone, to do something for you—in this case, to heal your stomach. The operative assumption is that were God to grant your request, he would unilaterally bring it about.
But maybe God isn’t doing all the work. Maybe you too have a role in answering your prayers.
At first blush that sounds bizarre, perhaps downright false. However, the philosopher Robin Collins recently suggested to the Analytic Theology Group that it is not. Rather he argued that it may very well be the case that as we surrender our desires and needs before God, he works through and builds upon our natural capacities to create and transform the world around us.
What natural human capacities are these? Well, our bodies are equipped with certain protective and regenerative powers, and we are creative beings who can envision and enact innovative solutions to complex problems. Beyond this, Collins notes that there is some scientific evidence (real evidence, not that which is garnered from pseudo-science) that placebos and positive thoughts bring about genuine results in the natural world. Perhaps God enhances abilities such as these to produce answers to our prayers.
To make this more concrete, let’s return to your stomach flu. Your body has the natural ability to fight infections. Were God to heal your stomach in the manner suggested by Collins, God would accentuate this innate ability to conquer the flu and expel the virus from your body more quickly than your body would on its own. Furthermore, if it is true that the human mind has some ability to contribute to the healing of your stomach, then perhaps if you envision and treat the healing of your stomach as actual this provides an avenue through which God can heighten the healing powers of your mind.
One of the benefits of this model of prayer, according to Collins, is that it explains why Scripture often maintains that faith is necessary for the answering of prayers (e.g., Matt. 21:22; Mk. 11:24; and Jas. 1:5-6). If God answers our prayers by partnering with us, and faith involves trusting God and believing that he can accomplish whatever he so wills, then faith is a vehicle through which God can partner with us in bringing about results in the world. By contrast, the lack of faith erects a roadblock to God’s ability to work through us and with us.
To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of Collins’s proposal. Though it explains the role of faith, I find it difficult to shake the standard way of thinking about petitionary prayer, whereby we ask God to solely accomplish various things. In fact, I find myself spontaneously praying for many things that seem to require God’s sole causal activity (e.g., the healing of a friend’s sickness or the safety of a faraway loved one). I also have doubts about the power of positive thought—although I must acknowledge that Collins presented quite interesting scientific evidence for his views. But maybe my hesitancy here has more to do with my prejudices and habits of thought than it does with the proposal itself.
Whatever the case, something worth noting is that Collins joins Jonathan Jacobs (find that post here) in thinking about prayer as a kind of joint activity with God—despite the fact that neither consulted the other prior to developing his ideas on the topic. This independent convergence on a similar idea by two creative Christian thinkers certainly inspires me to think twice about prayer as a means of cooperating with God.