Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Power of Prayer and the Mystery of Evil

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Power of Prayer and the Mystery of Evil

Article excerpt

I. Prayer in the Modern World

Prayer is one of the most pervasive practices of the religious life. Although not all religions have creeds or dogmas, bishops or priests, sacraments, sermons, or even churches, all religions practice prayer. From elaborate liturgies to the anguished cry of the heart in need, prayer is at the center of the religious life. As Schleiermacher reminds us in one of his sermons, "To be a religious person and to pray are really one and the same thing."1

There are many kind of prayers. There are silent prayers and audible prayers; there are public prayers and private prayers; there are prayers of adoration, confession, contrition, lament, thanksgiving, supplication, resignation, petition, and intercession. There are prayers that ask or even demand something from God, just as there are prayers of total abandonment to God. There are prayers of great joy, even ecstasy, as well as prayers of deep sorrow, depression, or even despair. Some of our prayers emerge out of the deepest recesses of our souls, while others are offered routinely out of our sense of gratitude and even responsibility.

But let us be honest: for some of us some kinds of prayer are problematic. Langdon Gilkey once told Newsweek magazine, "I suspect most contemporary theologians would be embarrassed to admit that they do not pray. And the others would be embarrassed to admit that they do."2

There are several reasons that some prayers are a problem for some of us today,3 even while we continue to pray faithfully. One reason is practical. It is not enough simply to say that we are indifferent or lazy. Most of us want to pray. But our world, especially our world of ecclesiastical and scholarly work, is busy and hurried and harried. We cannot easily find times and places to pray. Somebody is always on the phone; the computer is on all day. Prayer seems to be an escape from the harsh realities of the world, or at least the demands of timeliness, or it at best seems little more than a psychological crutch, a self-help technique to shut down for a few minutes or a substitute for an expensive and demanding therapist.

Another reason prayer is a problem is our modern secular view of the world. Ours is an age of science and technology, of medicine and management, and we face the question of whether prayer can effect or even affect anything. All of us do accept that picture of the world, with whatever reservations or qualifications we might want to offer as "postmoderns." Although Bultmann overstated the point years ago, he nevertheless touched a nerve that still tingles when we are faced with certain kinds of prayer. "It is impossible to use the electric light and the wireless and to avail oneself of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles."4 The remedy for famines is better planning of crops through the science of agronomy or better distribution of foodstuffs through political systems. How does prayer grow crops or distribute foodstuffs?

The most significant catalyst, though, is our notion of God. I offer Alice Walker's The Color Purple as an example. Through the first 180 pages of the novel, Celie has been addressing her letters to God. Then, suddenly, she begins to address her letters to Nettie. She says, recounting her conversation with Shug, "I don't write to God no more, I write to you. / What happened to God? ast Shug. / What that? I say." Shocked, Celie explains to Shug why she now addresses Nettie directly instead of God. "Yeah, I say, and he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister I probably won't ever see again. Anyhow, I say, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown."

Warned by Shug that God might hear her in her blasphemy, Celie answers, "Let 'im hear me, I say. If he ever listen to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.