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Objections to Petitionary Prayer 3

Over the last couple days I’ve reviewed two objections to petitionary prayer raised by a second century pagan philosopher named Maximus of Tyre. Today I want to examine his third argument. In the fifth paragraph of his fifth oration, Maximus argues that petitionary prayer is useless because “[d]estiny is a tyrant, unbending and supreme” and “tyranny brute force reigns supreme.” The point is that, if one believes that all things are determined by a cosmic force (“destiny”) – or God – then, according to Maximus, it simply makes no sense to pray. It’s like Doris Day sang long ago: “Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be.” Nothing can be altered from the path it is destined to take. It really makes no difference whether things are determined by blind fate or by a personal God. The point is, things are (one way or another) predetermined at the time a person is making their request. And this, Maximus argues, simply means that the request can’t make a real difference in what comes to pass.

Now, there is a response to this argument that some in the ancient world offered. Ancient Stoics – and later, St. Augustine – tried to get around this problem by saying that some things are “co-fated.” (Because of its pagan connotations, however, Augustine refrained from using the word “fate”). That is, it may be fated (or “predestined,” in Augustine’s terms) that a certain person will recover from an illness. But it may be that the fated means of this person’s recovery is a friend’s prayer. So a person’s prayer is co-fated with another person’s recovery, as the end is co-fated along with the means to that end.

Maximus doesn’t consider this response, and a lot could be said for and against this argument. For the moment I will just register my opinion that I don’t think it carries much weight. As a number of ancient philosophers (e.g. Carneades) argued, among others problems this view seems to seriously weaken the significance of what it means for something to be up to us. In the Stoic/Augustinian view, the decisions of people – including the decision to pray or not – is reduced to being nothing more than a falling domino in a virtually infinite chain of falling dominoes. It’s true that, if the domino of your decision to pray doesn’t “fall,” the domino of another person recovering from their illness won’t fall. Hence the Stoics (and St. Augustine) could say, “If you don’t pray, the person won’t recover.” But it’s also true that the domino of your prayer has to fall, given that the whole chain of dominoes has been fated (or predestined) to fall exactly the way it in fact falls. So really, nothing is left up to us to decide. Or better, all that we decide has already been decided for us (whether by blind fate or by God) from all eternity. Nothing now hangs in the balance of our decision. And in this sense, I think Maximus’ argument has some force.

Against this, the Bible repeatedly depicts things as genuinely hanging in the balance – in the present – on whether or not people pray. In Ezek. 22:29-31, for example, the Lord was planning on bringing judgment on Israel, but he told Ezekiel that he “looked for someone… to stand in the gap” to avert this disaster, but he found no one.

Now, if it was from all eternity a foregone (fated/ predestined) conclusion that no one would be found to “stand in the gap,” one has to wonder how God could with any degree of integrity tell Ezekiel that he looked for someone to “stand in the gap.” Can you genuinely look for something you eternally know isn’t there – or worse, that you yourself predestined not to be there? This passage, and many, many others like it, suggests that when the Bible tells us things hang on prayer, it means things are really hanging in the balance at the time the command is given.

Right now, our prayer can change the course of events – as can our lack of prayer. And this, in turn, requires that neither our past, nor our future, is under the “tyranny… of destiny.” Our hats should go off to Maximus of Tyre for helping us appreciate the incompatibility of petitionary prayer with a view of God and/or of reality that doesn’t allow for genuine freedom of choice.


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