C. S. Lewis on the Problem of Unanswered Prayers

I admire much about C. S. Lewis’s writings. He’s a great model of thoughtful engagement with his faith. The more I read of his, the more aware I am of how much deep reading and deep thinking lie behind his sentences.

But I am equally impressed – honestly, maybe more impressed – by how clear his prose is. He can be writing about difficult topics, and he phrases things carefully, with a clarity rarely matched. I often pause to think more deeply about the subject he is addressing, but rarely do I have to stop and work hard to understand him.

A few months ago, I was reading his essay, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer.” I’d been meeting weekly with a group of college students, discussing Origen’s work on prayer. (Origen was an early Christian theologian.) And when I read how Lewis set up a common theological problem with prayer – that we are told that God would answer our prayers and that the Bible and our own experience show us that there are unanswered prayers – I found it to be another occasion when Lewis worded a problem so well.

Lewis mentions that one “pattern of prayer” is to qualify our prayers with “Thy will be done.” In praying so, we recognize that our specific prayer requests might go unanswered, but that what God wants will be done. But, yet, we are also called to have faith that God would “give precisely what we ask” and not simply that He would give us “the best.”

Lewis writes:

“It is as if God demanded of us a faith which the Son of God in Gethsemane did not possess, and which if He had possessed it, would have been erroneous.”

C. S. Lewis, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer” in Christian Reflections, p. 144

What a great way of stating the problem of prayer. Some verses read as if we are called to have a faith that our requests will be answered, which is precisely the kind of faith Jesus did not have the night before his death.

How could one not read that sentence and grasp both the logic and the emotion of the problem?

Finding Your Identity By Asserting Yourself

While reading Thomas Merton’s classic, New Seeds of Contemplation, I came across a passage that might be the most powerful passage on identity and self-assertion I have ever read. He writes:

People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world. They try to become real by imposing themselves on other people, by appropriating for themselves some share of the limited supply of created goods and thus emphasizing the difference between themselves and the other men who have less than they, or nothing at all.

They can only conceive one way of becoming real: cutting themselves off from other people and building a barrier of contrast and distinction between themselves and other men. They do not know that reality is to be sought not in division, but in unity, for we are “members one of another.”

The man who lives in division is not a person but only an “individual.”

I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something, and I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me; at times this even helps me to forget the other men who have what I have not and who have taken what I was too slow to take and who have seized what was beyond my reach, who are praised as I cannot be praised and who live on my death…

The man who lives in division is living in death. He cannot find himself because he is lost; he has ceased to be a reality. The person he believes himself to be is a bad dream. And when he dies he will discover that he long ago ceased to exist because God, Who is infinite reality and in Whose sight is the being of everything that is, will say to him: “I know you not.” (47-48)


(By the way, I am starting a podcast. The Thinking and Believing Podcast should launch at the start of June. I am already working on the first episode. It will be about topics that I’ve written about over the years on this blog — theology, philosophy, politics, etc. — but with an approach that is quite different than the one I take on this blog. Stay tuned for more updates about it.)

Theaetetus, Simple Relativism, and Gurus

I’m rereading Plato’s Theaetetus, which has long been my favorite Socratic dialogue. The discussion of what constitutes knowledge has long fascinated me.

The section I read this morning concerned Socrates, Theaetetus, and Theodorus’s discussion of Protagoras’s idea that “man is the measure.” Socrates describes this as the idea that what each person perceives to be true is true. (Socrates applies this to what we perceive with our five senses, but he even applies it to geometric proofs or city governance. So “perceive” does not seem to strictly mean sense perception.) There is more sophistication to Protagoras’s view, which gets developed in the next section of the dialogue. But, at this point in the discussion, Protagoras’s view appears to be simple relativism about truth.

Socrates’s response to this basic version of relativism is interesting. Socrates says:

Or what are we to say, Theodorus? If whatever the individual judges by means of perception is true for him; if no man can assess another’s experience better than he, or can claim authority to examine another man’s judgement and see if it be right or wrong; if, as we have repeatedly said, only the individual himself can judge of his own world, and what he judges is always true and correct: how could it ever be, my friend, that Protagoras was a wise man, so wise as to think himself fit to be the teacher of other men and worth large fees; while we, in comparison with him the ignorant ones, needed to go and sit at his feet–we who are ourselves each the measure of his own wisdom? Can we avoid the conclusion that Protagoras was just playing to the crowd when he said this?…To examine and try to refute each other’s appearance and judgements, when each person’s are correct–this is surely an extremely tiresome piece of nonsense, if the Truth of Protagoras is true, and not merely an oracle speaking in jest from the impenetrable sanctuary of the book.

Think about this point. Why would a relativist seek out gurus, teachers, or advice-givers? If the truth is merely what the relativist perceives it to be, then he would not need a guru, teacher, or advice-giver. After all, one major reason we listen to a teacher or guru is to learn from them. They have truths that we want (and sometimes need) them to impart to us.

Why do we want them or need them to impart to us? Usually, because we have a jumble of false beliefs that we want to be corrected. (Of course, we don’t know which beliefs are false. But we know some of our beliefs are false.)

Think about common scenarios:

  • A doctor tells you which of your beliefs about your health, diet, or medications are wrong.
  • A good teacher often corrects false beliefs you have about, say, history or political theory or psychology.
  • A financial adviser shows you that your beliefs about your retirement savings being adequate are, in fact, false.
  • A real estate guru tries to convince you that your beliefs about the difficulty of investing are wrong.

We seek out the advice and thoughts of a lot of people because we want them to correct our beliefs (even if we do not characterize a doctor’s visit this way). A simple relativist cannot consistently go to these people for these reasons. They hold no false beliefs to be corrected.

Of course, I’ve never met someone with this simple version of relativism about truth. (I’ve only ever met one person with a similarly simple version of moral relativism.) Relativism was one of the great boogeymen of my childhood. I grew up hearing about the dangerous relativists who threatened my faith and nation. But I’m thirty-three years old, and I’ve spent the last fifteen years around state universities. And I’ve never met anyone with this view of simple relativism. It’s just not a popular view. Protagoras, despite his fame and brilliance, really hasn’t convinced many people that “man is the measure.”

There is more sophistication in Protagoras’s view, which Socrates goes on to explain. But the simple relativism that is initially described doesn’t seem to make sense of human behavior, as Socrates argued. We seek out advice. We seek out gurus. We seek to learn. We aren’t merely to seek new perspectives. We want false beliefs corrected.

And I bet all those rich personal gurus are happy that Protagoras’s view didn’t catch on.