Chapter two in Blake Ostler’s new book is titled “Prayer and Providence”. Although it is a full 50 pages I’ll try to cover it all in this post (and using my own words). The chapter mostly explains why many theological assumptions accepted by creedal Christianity make effective petitionary prayer impossible and why Mormon doctrines do allow for effective petitionary prayer if we are willing to accept them.
Last year after being granted a particularly important miracle I wrote a post titled “Twisting God’s Arm“. The point of that post and others surrounding it was the same as a major thrust of chapter 2 in Blake’s new book. The notions are:
1) The future cannot be fixed if petitionary prayer is effective.
If the future is fixed then no one – including God can change it (if God could change it it would not exactly be fixed now would it?) If the future is unfixed and open that means there can be no exhaustive foreknowledge. That is a subject we have covered at great length here in the past (so read those threads before bringing it up here again, please). But I will say that in my opinion this petitionary prayer issue is perhaps the most important reason to completely reject the notion of a fixed future (and thus exhaustive foreknowledge). Mormons, perhaps more than any other people in the world, ought to believe in the power of petitionary prayer. The restoration was instigated by a simple petitionary prayer of a 14 year old boy after all. Blake defends the idea of an open future masterfully in his first book and leans on that foundation in this chapter.
2) God cannot be impassible and immutable (unchangeable) if petitionary really works.
Some theologies hold that nothing can affect God emotionally or change his mind, will, and plans. But isn’t that the entire point of petitionary prayer? To affect the will of God and thus get his assistance in something we want or need? It is not uncommon to even hear Mormons say things like “The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s will, but rather to align our will to his.” (Such Mormons probably don’t realize they are essentially parroting Calvin and Aquinas in this position.) Sure, aligning our will to God’s is a part of praying, but another part is to convince him to do things for us that he otherwise would not have done! It is, in fact, to convince God to change his plans – very much akin to my children’s often cute but occasionally annoying petitions to me.
3) Prayer in Mormonism is very much about relationship.
We Mormons take this Parent/Child relationship with God very seriously and very literally – more so than any other religion that I am aware of. We consider humankind to be of the same species and kind as God after all. Therefore, my comparing the petitions that the little Johnston children make to Kristen and me (and believe me, there are a ton of them) can be very literally compared to the petitions we make to God. Sometimes our children prevail upon us; sometimes they don’t. This pattern is mirrored with our petitions to God. Just as our relationship of love with our children here matures and grows over time and through our granting and rejecting petitions (often with some form of explanation), so grows our relationship with God. Just as our children become more like us in this process, so we become more like God in our ongoing conversations with him. Further, just as we are changed by our children, so is God changed by being in relationships with us.
The upshot of this all is that I think once again Blake is spot on in his theology. By rejecting the creedal notions of an all-controlling and immutable God and embracing the theological assumptions that come so naturally to Mormonism (which are similar to the ideas Open Theists teach) we gain the most robust version of petitionary prayer that I know of.