A young friend of mine recently fell victim to an unexpected and horrific illness. For some time, it seemed that he would certainly die; the progress of the disease led expectations relentlessly in that direction. Prayers (including my own) for God’s mercy multiplied with a profound desperation. But as the hours went by, I could not ignore the tug at my shoulder and the horrendous voice behind me, whispering: “Your prayer is pointless; God makes no exceptions.”
Doubts about intercessory prayer are an age-old but especially modern worry, fueled by two especially modern convictions. The first conviction calls itself scientific: The world is a great system of natural “laws,” and to desire that God violate such laws (articulated by the science of epidemiology, in the instance of my young friend) is to imagine a world that is not the one we live in. It is to wish for the dissolution of all that holds this universe together.
The other conviction is ethical: Exceptions are unjust. Inequalities—in birth endowments, opportunities, outcomes—may be real, but justice requires that they be progressively eliminated. A world in which God might hear the prayers of a righteous man (and not someone else) and heal one man (but not another), as St. James teaches, seems cruelly arbitrary. It leaves so many of the ill and unfortunate to their suffering and death, prayed for or not.
Together, these convictions about the laws of nature and the imperative of equality produce the modern insistence that only “systems” can be just, systems in which the regular functioning of things reliably produces just outcomes. The highest good is “the best system,” the one that flawlessly delivers justice according to its inexorable procedures. Miracle, mercy, and divine exception unravel the world.
Christian faith will have trouble flourishing within this perspective. The very reality of divine grace dissolves in such waters. What to do with election? What to do with revelation? What to do with this particular time and place and person, whether named Moses, Mary, or Jesus?
Modern science gives a signal role to “system” based on efficient causality—the mechanism that “makes” something happen. Discovering the system allows us to predict and finally manipulate nature. But even before the Western “scientific revolution,” religious thinkers worried about the tendency of systems based on efficient causality to squeeze God’s grace out of the world. The medieval Arab philosopher Al-Ghazali laid out the first great theory of “occasional” causation, an alternative account designed to address what he saw as the Aristotelian physicalist’s subversion of divine miracle.
Al-Ghazali proposed that God is the only agent that links what came before with what comes after. The conjunction of events is but the “occasion” of God’s infinite and individual workings, which are always ongoing. Al-Ghazali’s was a vision of the strangeness of life, not as random irrationality, but as divinely given, not generally in a divine guarantee of ongoing existence, but in the particularity of each event.
Al-Ghazali’s occasionalism, which also existed in Jewish forms, gained traction among the Christian philosophers, however, only in the seventeenth century, as they grappled with the consequences of early modern experimental and theoretical naturalism. Nicolas Malebranche sought to explain the mutual influence of mind and body by doing away with creaturely causes altogether. The power of efficient causality resides only with God, he argued. Only God brings about changes in an entity’s condition on the “occasion” of its conjunction with another entity. The conjunction is a providential correlation, not a true cause. These correlations, willed by God, often fall into patterns that can be characterized as “general laws”—laws of “science,” even. But the laws themselves are only conventional descriptions of what God is in fact doing in every instance, at every moment: “continually” creating every entity of the world, in this or that relationship with everything else.
By and large, Malebranche’s occasionalism faded away, to live on only as a philosophical footnote. John Locke wrote two refutations but left them unpublished, confident that the occasionalist theory was harmless. Other critics were less patient. Occasionalism was viewed by many as misleading: Didn’t Malebranche himself smuggle back in the “general laws” by which scientists still perform their systematizing work, more or less as Hume suggested? Others, such as Mary Astell, thought that Malebranche’s picture of God undermined divine majesty, as if the Almighty must tinker ceaselessly with the bits and pieces of creation like a busy workman.
But these criticisms misconceive occasionalism. It is best understood not as an answer to the Cartesian mind-body problem or other metaphysical difficulty, but as an invitation to devotion. It regarded God not as a puppeteer or tyrant or cosmic computer programmer, but as the most intimate being and truth of all things. Occasionalism encourages prayer to God here, utterly and exhaustively. Whether or not “here” is part of a larger pattern—too big to be grasped, as Augustine (perhaps) and Leibniz (certainly) believed—just here is confidently God’s and only God’s.
Malebranche was a devout Oratorian priest in the tradition of Bérulle. In a small devotional writing on humility, he mixes meditations on theological metaphysics with ecstatic adoration. “Of ourselves,” he begins, we are “pure nothing.” Only because of God’s actions are we “something,” which means that as a something we cannot be divorced, in any aspect, from God’s creative agency and goodness.
From this account a profound view of sin derives: Sin is anything that obscures God’s exhaustive goodness and creative agency. Every aspect of our conscious lives is inescapably sinful, simply because our consciousness is always grounded in ourselves: “I think.” Sinlessness remains elusive in this life, for it requires (as Malebranche’s philosophy insists) our paradoxically “seeing all things in God” rather than in our own minds, seeing our very thoughts as God-caused. The path toward such self-abnegating creaturely existence runs through Christ. Taken up by him, joined to him, the one perfect creature becomes wholly at one with God. “My being is all Yours! The extent and time of my being is also all Yours! I can only search for and find myself when I search for and find You!”
Malebranche treats our suffering—not just this or that suffering, but the full range of creaturely existence, with all its aching pulls and contractions—as moments “just here” in Christ. We achieve the “thisness” of true creaturehood only in “perfect” dependence. The struggles with suffering and love that give rise to intercessory prayer, then, are truly gifts of divine perfection, for they drive us toward prayerful acknowledgement of this dependence. Intercession says, “I can do nothing. Please, Lord, act.” This form of prayer acknowledges the hopelessness of efficient causality. In that acknowledgement we often feel the painful anguish of the impotence of human efforts to master and “correct” what we imagine are the inexorable laws of efficient causality. But the anguish is a blessing, for it is God’s grace, driving us to see his truth and our own being as his gift.
Though it is born of our powerlessness, our “pure nothing,” there is something life-affirming in all this. As we plead for a single person or thing, we turn back to the divine “from-ness” that gives reality to truth, life, and final joy. Here is the act of intercessory prayer at its root and in its purity: O Lord, “this” matters to me above all things, just now, and I have nowhere else to turn, for “this” is all in your hands. So Georges Bernanos, in The Diary of a Country Priest, has his ill and dying young cleric, who has spent his short life praying for others, exclaim at the end, “All is grace.” We might say, “All is a marvelous exception!”
“The Most High is a Prayer-Hearing God,” Jonathan Edwards once wrote. He knew we are not granted all our wishes, but God is glorified in our prayerful attentiveness to his power and goodness. Petitionary prayer arises out of the thickness of the present: love, compassion, fear, overwhelming need, and disorienting perplexity. “What is this?” prayer asks, not disinterestedly, but because our happiness, even our very being, seems to depend on “this.” And if “this” does not depend on God, all is lost. Often said in desperation, prayers of petition are acts of proclamation: God is God.
“God has been pleased to constitute prayer to be antecedent to the bestowment of mercy; and he is pleased to bestow mercy in consequence of prayer, as though he were prevailed on by prayer.” In the “as though,” Edwards affirms God’s freedom.
My young friend, by the way, survived. To his parents, his family, and to me, it was a divine miracle. It was not a miracle to deploy in argument. Simply to receive with thanks, and with a sense that its meaning spreads like a translucent liquor coloring and suffusing all of life, just here, just now.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.