"When I pray, what does God do?" - Book Review

"When I pray, what does God do?"

By David Wilkinson 

Another book on prayer can be one too many, but another book by Professor David Wilkinson is always welcome!  Here the Principal of St John’s College, Durham, with PhDs in astrophysics and theology, lends his scientific mind to an honest, challenging and stimulating study of the thorny issues raised by prayer.  His main thrust is to show that the scientific ideas which sprang from the mechanistic Newtonian worldview are now outdated.  They shaped theology and left no room for God to intervene in a world where everything could be explained by scientific laws and predictability.  This left God to be addressed in prayer as a repairer or “a patronising adult listening to a child’s endless prattling, knowing that everything has been decided already” (p.21).

More helpful, says Professor Wilkinson, are the new understandings of the natural world provided by quantum theory and chaos, which open up greater possibilities for theology, especially for prayer and the role and ‘response-ability’ of God.  Theologians, he insists, need to extricate themselves from the tight, closed Newtonian world and base their scholarship on the insights these theories provide.  His God is a great God, majestic yet merciful, beyond his universe and not dependent on it, “a free agent rather than at the beck and call of our prayers” (74).  Any view of how he answers prayer “may be far too simplistic to do justice to a complex universe” (202) and to its Creator and Sustainer.  Professor Wilkinson reminds us that prayer is really about “luxuriating in the warmth of the presence of God” (56), and adds the warning that too often ‘I’ rather than the great ‘I AM’ is the focus when we’re praying.

The hard questions posed by science, theology, and you and me are faced and discussed.  Especially helpful is a chapter on biblical examples of prayer: a study of Nehemiah’s plea for favour with the Persian emperor; a response to prayer by Jesus in the case of the paralytic and his friends which broadens the issue from an individual’s needs to who Jesus is; a discussion of James’s call for prayer with faith; and a look at the incidents of Lazarus’ illness and Paul’s thorn to help us when prayer returns unanswered.

Before this, everyday myths of prayer are dealt with at length, and the book closes with an attempt to bring together the biblical, scientific and practical ideas which Professor Wilkinson has found helpful in understanding how God answers prayer.  He gives five answers to the question in the book’s title: God is sustaining the structures and laws of the universe; he is transforming this creation into new creation; he is transforming the one who prays to collaborate in building the kingdom; he could be answering some prayers through working in the uncertainty and hidden areas of the quantum world and in chaotic systems; he could be transcending his normal ways of working for specific purposes (209-210).

In all, a sincere and enlightening exploration of an essential part of us, which yet gives the glory to the Almighty and most merciful God who always listens.

Robert Lunt

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