Is It Time to Outgrow Magical Thinking in Regards to Prayer?

by Ken McIntosh

Shrine of St Andrew, Edinburgh, photo by Ken McIntosh
Shrine of St Andrew, Edinburgh, photo by Ken McIntosh

A few days ago I was chatting with one of my closest friends about the popularity of the movie War Room. That best-selling film tells the story of a woman who saves her marriage by prayer. My friend said “Isn’t that just magical thinking?” I agreed that it was—while reflecting that I don’t want to dismiss the idea of prayer and causality. Magical thinking is defined by Wikipedia as “the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which seemingly cannot be justified by reason and observation.” Increasingly, I find that my relations– both within the church and without– question the traditional understanding of prayer as a means of influencing reality. I share some of their concerns. Yet this discussion prompted me to think a bit more about what prayer is, and why I still practice it in the form of intercession.

Before reading further, be assured that I do not presume to prescribe anyone’s belief or theology. I embrace the UCC ideal that we have no tests of faith—only testimonies. I enjoy reading others’ theological ruminations –testimonies if you will. Whether I agree with them or not, I am blessed by all who voice or write their thoughts about God. I hope my own feeble musings might prove helpful in
some way.

Concerns over the ways that prayer has been misunderstood and misused

As I said, I share concern over the ways that traditional theism has perhaps misunderstood or misused prayer. Most obviously, the same people who wax eloquent regarding prayer also tend to embrace bibliolatry, hyper-literalism, prejudice, and rejection of science. Prayer is tainted by association. And prayer can actually be harmful when it becomes an excuse for inaction: what good does
it do praying for the environment, or for refugees, or for peace, if one is unwilling to spend time and money influencing the political decisions that foster these ills? Furthermore, prayers often seem directed toward “the Big Man in the sky”—too easily pictured as Michelangelo’s white-haired patriarch on the Sistine Chapel, an entity separated from the physical world.

It’s often pointed out that prayer primarily changes the person praying—and perhaps that is its efficacy. This is certainly true in my own experience. I’ve been driven to my knees hearing about an injustice, or seeing an image of suffering. Before I can rise again, something drives home my need for involvement. This leads me to the local government office to testify before a hearing, to deliver food
and diapers to a family in need, or to stand in lines protesting. Prayer does change things—and often the thing it changes most powerfully is me. But does it perhaps do more? Can we still affirm, rationally, that “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of”? (quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson).

Prayer and the nature of God

A common belief among UCC folks is “God is still speaking.” That keeps us on the forefront of the struggle for justice, and keeps us relevant in a quickly-changing world. As I thought about prayer recently, I had the very simple thought: “It does little good if God is still speaking but not listening.” Our wonderful dedication to justice and freedom—from Amistad to marriage equality—has come from a
long tradition that God is on the side of the oppressed, a tradition that hearkens back to the Book of Exodus. That Exodus event, in turn, is empowered by a God who hears: “They cried out …God heard their cry of grief, and God remembered his covenant…God looked…and God understood” (Exodus 2:23-25). What happened when God heard? God called Moses—and liberation began.

In much the same way, God spoke reassuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a turning point in the struggle for civil rights. As Dr. Julius R. Scruggs tells it, “King references the time during the Montgomery bus boycott when the bigots threatened to kill him and blow up his home. He retreated to the kitchen and laid his soul bare before God, praying for strength and guidance, and God sustained him then and through his difficult and challenging pilgrimage.”

If the only way that God ‘answers’ prayer were by influencing men and women to respond to his call, that would still to an extent fall under the criticism of ‘magical’ thinking: there is a cause (the cries of humanity for redemption) and an event (God speaks in response to their cries). Yet this action of God calling champions for love is a critical part of the legacy of the United Church of Christ.

My own belief in causal prayer comes from my understanding of God’s nature. I am a panentheist. Not a pantheist (where all is God) but a pan-en-theist (where the whole of physical reality is in God). As described in Acts 17:28 “In God we live and move and exist.” This also goes hand-in-hand with a process view of the Divine nature; God cannot be extricated from the flow of evolving consciousness in the universe. This means that I am indeed a part of God; Spirit indwells every person (and creatures as well); yet God also transcends flesh and matter.

If God then connects all that is, how can I pray without connecting to forces outside of my own body? I don’t pray to “The Big Man in the sky”…I pray as a part of the vast interconnected Reality that includes myself and reaches beyond the sum of the physical cosmos. And if that is so, then our prayers do matter. It may be “magical thinking,” but it still fits within a rational understanding of the nature of God and reality.

Inspiring words by a great theologian

I conclude with words from the late Walter Wink, who taught at Auburn seminary. In his book “The Powers that Be” he says:

“When we pray, we are not sending a letter to a celestial White House…rather, it is an act of co-creation, in which one little sector of the universe rises up and becomes translucent, incandescent, a vibratory center of power that radiates the power of the universe. History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being.”

So, as we work together for the Beloved Community…let us pray.

Kenneth McIntosh serves as Church Growth and Renewal Coordinator for Southwest Conference and also as pastor of First Congregational Church in Flagstaff, Arizona. He has his M.Div from Fuller Seminary and has been in pastoral ministry for over twenty years in four different denominations. He is passionate about spiritual practices, justice and Earth care. Ken is author of several popular books on Celtic Christian spirituality and a facilitator for Forest Church. He lives with his wife Marsha in Flagstaff and enjoys hiking, traveling and reading on a wide variety of topics.