Led by Hebert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher, I’ve spent nights and early mornings the past few months rereading many of the ancient Church Fathers as well as St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the ‘Doctors’ of the Church.
I discovered McCabe a few years ago by tracking back through the footnotes of in one of Stanley Hauerwas’ books, and he’s provoked me to return to material I’ve not read since my very first theology classes with David Bentley Hart.
Back then, as an undergrad, I had no inkling that archaic church doctrines like immutabilty could be explosive in both the life-giving and death-causing connotations of the word.
Back then, I had no idea my inbox would one day be filled with messages from all over the globe, from believers and non, pro and non, because of this simple pericope from a blog post:
‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’
Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.
God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.
This has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.
To some, the idea that God is unchanging allows them to hear the gospel for the very first time.
After all, who would want a god whose love could change because of little old me?
To others, the insinuation that God is unchanging sounds like an a-biblical intrusion into a narrative that gives us nothing but a pathos-filled God.
And, after all, who would want a God whose immutable nature necessarily means he’s also impassible- unaffected? By my love and devotion? By the world’s sin and injustice?
To the former, a God who changes based on relationship with us not only contradicts God’s self-disclosure (‘I am He who is’) it threatens to break the first commandment. Such a god bears a striking resemblance to us.
To the latter, however, a God who is unchanging seems to bear no resemblance to the God of Israel who frequently rages and weeps like a cuckolded husband.
For reasons that fill more space than I can devote here, my feelings convictions passion lie with the former. I’m convinced the first Christians rightly held God to be immutable.
Not only do I think this is the only logical way to insure that the God the first testament is identified with the God who takes flesh in the second, I also do not think it renders a dispassionate god.
Far from saying God has no feelings or love towards us, immutability secures the fact that God has nothing but loving feelings in perfection towards us. Our relationship with God doesn’t change God because God literally can’t love us more than God already does.
Nor do I think the ancients’ immutable God an abstraction since at several points scripture tells us that the Word made flesh is the visible image of this immutable God.
Alright, but admittedly that begs the next question.
If God is immutable, if God doesn’t change, if God can’t change, then what exactly is prayer?
Isn’t prayer the spiritually-sanctioned means by which we manipulate god to do what we want, ask, or desire?
Doesn’t answered prayer imply a changed god?
In line with Thomas Aquinas, McCabe sees all prayer as a kind of parable of the Trinity. All prayer is made possible by the fact that the Son prayed to the Father and all prayer continues that prayer in that whenever we pray it is not us praying but the Spirit praying through us, as St Paul says.
Just as no one can understand or know God except God himself- the Word being God’s idea of himself made flesh- no one can speak to God except God himself. It is the same with prayer, McCabe argues.
“Prayer is God’s communion with God, prayer is the Holy Spirit breathed forth by the Father and by the Son because of the Father. We share in the Spirit in the inarticulacy of our prayer…When we pray we are prayed in, we become the locus of the exchange between the Father and the Son, the Trinity has made its home in us- for that we don’t need the right words with which to pray.’
So we don’t pray to God so much as God prays through us. Or, we pray to God in the sense that the Spirit prays through us to the Father and the Son.
As Aquinas says, ‘we should not say in accordance with my prayer God wills that it should be a fine day’ we should say that God wills it to be a fine day in accordance with my prayer.’
God wills our prayers as much as God wills the fine day.
What does that mean?
It means, says McCabe/Aquinas, that God wills it to be a fine day through my prayer; in other words, that it should be more than a fine day. God wills through us that that fine day should be a sacrament of God’s love.
To understand prayer in the categories of answered/unanswered prayer gets prayer exactly wrong, according to Aquinas, in the same way that the category ‘miracles’ gets God’s activity in the world all wrong.
God is never not active in any part or at any moment of the world. A ‘miracle’ is not when God is suddenly intervening in the world; a miracle is when only God is acting upon something in the world.
Similarly, an ‘answered’ prayed implies God is not active until/unless the answer arrives but rather, says Aquinas, the very wants and desires we pray are themselves the handiwork of the ever-present Triune God.
The desire you pray pray for healing, love, fill-in-the-blank is not your desire.
It’s God for you.
Implanted in you by God.
Prayed in and through you by the Holy Spirit.
Put another way, prayer is the sacrament that God wants healing, love, fill-in-the-blank for you as much as you do.