Prayer, Time and Causality
In a video on the story of the prophet Jonah, Jonathan mentioned that when we pray, we connect to God through memory:
The relationship between the margin and the center, between the low place and the high place, is memory. If you remember God, if you remember the thing that unites you, remember the thing that unites us together, it doesn’t matter, to a certain extent, how far you are. It’s the connection. Memory is being connected to something even if you’re far away from that. So, remembering God is right away being connected to God 1.
When hearing this, certain materialist readers may acknowledge the connection while denying its causal import beyond “the psychological”. After all, prayer is primarily a supplication to God. We pray to Him that He may transform us or the world in some way, and that’s what materialists don’t want to take too seriously. How could there be real causal power in Jonah’s prayer beyond “the psychological”? To show how this can be so, I will reuse a strategy I have employed in previous articles—namely, using examples from non-reductive naturalism to approximate aspects of Christianity.
In a non-reductive naturalist worldview, higher-level patterns in general can have non-reducible causal effects. A common example is water versus oxygen and hydrogen. At room temperature, oxygen is a gas that we can breathe to fuel our cells, and hydrogen is a highly inflammable gas. However, when you mix the two, you get water, which is a hydrating liquid, nothing like its atomic constituents. In other words, you have the emergence of a higher, non-reducible pattern. For the non-reductive naturalist, this kind of emergence occurs between several levels of reality and gives him elbow room to take on tons of theoretical puzzles that reductive physicalists cannot address, such as the mind-body problem. The human mind emerges from its constituent neurons (in a body in an environment) while remaining irreducible to those constituents.
I’ve talked about this at length elsewhere 2, so let me jump right away to an example that is closely related to prayer. I’m thinking about the placebo effect. Say you go to see your doctor because of never-ending migraines. Your doctor hands you a set of flour pills and tells you that it’s a certain chemical that should fix the issue. Over the next few days, you remember the scene and you ritually take your flour pills. You take the initial encounter with your doctor, which only lasted a minute, and unfold it in time throughout your week. As this liturgy works its magic, your migraines progressively disappear. Now, remembering your past doctor’s appointment is a kind of prayer.
Especially if during that remembrance you are ritually taking your daily flour pill. You are connecting to the placebo ritual, and this prayer has non-reducible causal effects. Flour doesn’t have the causal power to heal migraines, and migraines also don’t typically spontaneously disappear just like that. The healing rather emerges from the irreducible ritual between you and your doctor.
Let me also mention that this non-reducible ritual effect of medicine is true of all medicine, not just medicine deliberately used as a placebo. We shouldn’t think that the placebo effect is a fringe effect that we can ignore and leave at the edge of medical science. Every medicine is a placebo. The irreducible liturgical power of this kind of medical prayer is part of the world. Another example of prayer that is open to non-reductive naturalists comes through abstract truths. Say, for instance, that a mathematician is trying to prove a new theorem.
In doing so, he is remembering all kinds of other theorems and examples he has worked on. He is also imagining new examples, potential proofs, and so on. In carrying out these operations, he is connecting to an extremely abstract level of reality. Mathematical objects are immaterial, i.e., they would exist even if the material world didn’t, and they are also eternal, i.e., they would exist even if time itself didn’t 3. And yet, the mathematician is able to connect with them and bring them into concrete reality. This is a kind of prayer. He brings his questions to the realm of mathematical objects, and there he finds answers. Once he has those answers, he can keep adding to his proof, maybe publishing it and spreading it in the world. Maybe he can find some practical application for it in industry, giving it very concrete causal power. He is unfolding in time and space a mathematical truth that is outside of time and space.
Now, it’s not like there’s no disagreement in the philosophy of mathematics about the nature of mathematical objects, but realism is a respectable position, so a lot of naturalists would agree with what I just wrote.
Thus, what you have here are two kinds of secular prayer whose genuine causal power a non-reductive naturalist can admit. First, we can remember and connect to discrete historical events to unfold their causal power in time. For certain events, such as placebo healings, the causal power in action is not reducible to material causality or even to individual psychology. It rather takes place in irreducible relations between people. Second, we can connect to abstract immaterial entities like mathematical objects, outside of space and time altogether. Doing so can unlock causal powers that mathematical realists would not want to reduce to human psychology, though those truths do go through human psychology, for example through the psychology of individual mathematicians.
So, what exactly is missing for the Christian at this point? Why do we need to bring God into this? Well, the two kinds of secular prayer just mentioned fall short of what the Christian would want for two opposite reasons. While remembering past events, such as placebo rituals, has clear causal power, it also seems bound to the temporal world. How could you ever get to God, who is beyond space and time, by connecting to events that occurred in time and space? Could remembering and reenacting discrete spatio-temporal events ever be more than pagan prayer? How could it reach as high as the mathematician manipulating eternal objects?
But on the other hand, studying eternal truths has the opposite problem: you arguably reach God but this God seems very detached and impersonal. It has long been a standard move in philosophy and theology to locate eternal truths, such as mathematical theorems, in God’s mind. This is originally a Neoplatonic idea that was then taken up in Christianity, notably by Saint Augustine 3. Very roughly, the idea being that because abstract truths do not depend on space and time in any way, they must be grounded in a cause that is outside of space and time, namely God. But by itself, this makes for a very impersonal God. Mathematical truths don’t really seem to “act”, for example. They exist and somehow constrain the possibilities within nature, but that’s not really an action, much less the action of a personal God. Spinoza held much this position, and so does John Vervaeke, everyone’s favorite non-reductive naturalist in this corner of the internet 4.
Alright, so we seem to be caught between the personal and causally powerful, but idolatrous remembrance of temporal events on the one hand, and the causally detached contemplation of an impersonal and inactive God on the other. Where do we go from there?
You probably already see the possibility that Christians opt for in the face of that conundrum. Ultimately, the Incarnation allows us to have our cake and eat it too, or at least so we hope. I have argued for this in more depth elsewhere,5 and it would take me too far off topic to rehearse it all here, where I want to focus on prayer. Let me just say that it is theophanies in general, with the Incarnation first and foremost among them, that unite temporal events with the eternal God. In affirming that the Logos became flesh in the Incarnation, Christians claim a radical connection between the highest event in history and the divine mind behind history. The highest event is thus far higher than medical rituals, and God acts far more widely and directly in history than Neoplatonists would’ve thought. Remembering the Incarnation, an event in time, and pondering the deepest eternal truths behind time become one in Christ. Pagan remembrance and Neoplatonic contemplation fuse together.
In remembering the Incarnation, we not only connect to a series of events which occured in Palestine two thousand years ago, we also pierce into the great interlocked system of eternal truths behind Creation. We reach for the eternal Logos outside of space and time altogether, and this then allows us to unfold that Logos in the space and time of our own lives, in an image of the Incarnation.
When we ponder Christ, we do something continuous with what the mathematician does, but with much more widely applicable truths. If a mathematician can change an industry by contemplating a theorem, just imagine how societies could change by contemplating the Logos. No wonder Christianity transformed the world so radically. Similarly, when we remember Christ’s life, we are doing something continuous with remembering a medical appointment, though infinitely grander. If remembering getting a pill from your doctor can heal your migraine, imagine what can happen by remembering how Christ healed the world.
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- Pageau, Jonathan. Jonah and the Upside-Down World Youtube, October 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loL7O49iPDE and The Symbolic World Blog, January 2021, https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/jonah-and-the-upside-down-world-2/
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Investigating Miracles with Lewis and Vervaeke, The Symbolic World, October 2020 https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/investigating-miracles-with-lewis-and-vervaeke/. Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Rediscovering Forms, The Symbolic World, April 2020 https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/rediscovering-forms/
- Feser, Edward. Five Proofs for the Existence of God. Chapter 3: The Augustian Proof. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2017
- Vervaeke, John; Kochan, Mary; Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Dialoguing between non-theism and theism about what is ultimate with JP Marceau and Mary Kochan. Youtube February 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baQQQwPAcMY
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Miracles – Responding to Objection. The Symbolic World Blog. November 2020 https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/miracles-responding-to-objections/. Marceau, Jean-Philippe. Joyful Suffering in Christ – How the Cross Brings Cosmic Meaning to Our Afflictions. The Symbolic World Blog. June 2020 https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/bible/joyful-suffering-in-christ-how-the-cross-brings-cosmic-meaning-to-our-afflictions/