Clayton grew up on a farm in Kinsley, Kansas. I’ve known him his entire life, though I haven’t been around to watch him play Little League or participate in 4 -H. Fortunately his mother Lyneé has superbly documented those things. Packing for a recent move, I was astounded at how many pictures I found of Clayton and his sister Megan.
This past Spring, I was on the phone with Lyneé. The family was nervous because Clayton was graduating from Kansas State and waiting to hear whether or not he had been accepted into medical school at The University of Kansas. He had done well enough at Kinsley High School, where he was more athlete than academic. Clayton had a four-point GPA at K-State, had done well on his MCATs, and, if I recall correctly, was practically president of the Cadaver Club, but he didn’t think that his personal interviews had gone well enough. I told Lyneé, as I had done before, that I would pray.
She responded, "Clayton says prayers will no longer work, because, however he did on the interviews, the decision, about whether or not to accept him, has already been made. We’re only awaiting the envelope."
"It doesn’t work that way, Lyneé. I can continue to pray."
"I thought you could too, but Clayton says it’s too late. God can’t undo what’s already been done."
"Tell him that he’s trying to get into med school, not divinity school, and that I know well enough whether or not I can still pray."
"If you don’t mind, you pray, and I’ll tell him later. He’s a little too stressed to argue theology just now."
In four years of college, Clayton certainly had mastered empirical methodology, which is all about linking cause and effect. Great stuff! It’s how we understand and alter the world around us: know the cause and you can change the effect.
Given his presupposition of God as an agent of change within this world, Clayton would be correct. Empirical causes always antedate their effects: being out in the sun must precede the sunburn, just as the bee must sting before the welt forms. And, even if God could go back and change one part of the past, wouldn’t that change everything about the present, not just the piece troubling us?
The problem, which many people have in understanding prayer, lies in thinking that God operates in this world like an empirical cause. That’s not true, and, as a theological hypothesis, it leads to a number of dead-ends.
People, thinking that God is a cause within the world, often decide that God hasn’t acted at all, not when some other cause can be found. So, for example, they decide that praying for Grandma Vera’s recovery didn’t make her well, not if a physician prescribed an antibiotic. But God doesn’t compete with other worldly causes. So the question isn’t: who cured Grandma, God or the antibiotic?
Saint Thomas Aquinas can help here. When he called God "the First Cause" he didn’t mean that God is the first link in a long chain of temporal causes. God isn’t the invisible bee that precedes the sting. Aquinas understood that, as pure Spirit, God isn’t in time or space. God doesn’t precede or follow; God isn’t near or far.
Contemporary astro-physics runs into a similar paradox when it asks what preceded the Big Bang. If space and time began with the Bang, what does it mean to ask what came before it, or where that happened? Before the Bang, there is no when or where.
Aquinas actually left open the question of whether or not the world had a beginning in time. For him, to say that God creates the world means that it wouldn’t exist without God, any more than a novel would exist without a novelist. But the novelist isn’t found on the first page of the novel, or on the last, or on any of the pages in between.
Within the novel, the story unfolds, as it does in the world, according to laws of cause and effect. If the heroine dies in the last chapter, it’s because she was stabbed in the penultimate one. Of course, it’s also true to say that she dies because the novelist willed it.
That’s why it’s helpful to picture God as a novelist, with the world itself as God’s text. When Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were assailed by their readers for killing off beloved heroes, they didn’t enter their novels as characters and change the course of events. They rewrote the novels.
God is the ground of being, not one more being within the world, not even an all powerful, invisible being. Standing outside of space of time, every moment and place is equally present to God, like a novelist who can open his creation to any page. So, for God, Moses is still crossing the Red Sea, Jesus is still rising from the dead, and, for God, your yet-unborn descendent has already died.
God doesn’t run about altering elements of the world every time someone prays, and God doesn’t need to travel back in time. It would be better to say that, when we pray, God rewrites the world, the whole world. Then why, you might ask, isn’t the world exactly the way we suggest that it should be, when we pray? If we’ve offered our suggestions, why doesn’t God revise the manuscript?
He’s not generally recognized as a theological genius on the level of Saint Thomas, but once, on a television talk show, I heard the Rapper Snoop Dogg address this very question. He said, "When you pray to God, and God doesn’t do what you want, that doesn’t mean that God didn’t hear your prayer. It means that God is telling your derriere no." Actually, Snoop used the Anglo-Saxon noun, not the French.
Snoop’s right. We pray because Christ commanded us to do so, because Our Lord told us that God hears our prayers. In his Paradiso, Dante insisted that ardent love and living hope can conquer Heaven’s will (20.96). As hard as it is to believe, even to comprehend, God’s love and God’s creativity are so boundless that God stand ready to rewrite the world when we ask.
Yet, as any parent knows, love often says no. Indeed, if saying yes diminishes or impoverishes love, then love must say no, and then our faith must yield to God.
Clayton began medical school at KU this month. The cause was his hard work, not my prayers, though the later were not in vain. Prayers aren’t causes. They’re creative rewrites.
Genesis 18: 20-32 Colossians 2: 12-14 Luke 11: 1-13