But will the theology lead to prayer? That’s the real test!

In thirty years of seminary teaching, I attended chapel on campus a thousand times or more. Of all the prayers offered—by professors, students, staff, and campus guests—I remember exactly one: “God, our dear friend Georgia died, far before her time. We don’t understand why, and we want you to know how angry and filled with sorrow we are.”

The raw emotion in these words was one reason why this prayer has stayed in my memory for more than a quarter of a century. Its unconventional form was another. For some who heard the prayer, even more surprising was that it was offered by a professor noted for the hard logic of his process theology with its doctrine of God that defied the ideas that many students and faculty alike had learned in the semi-conservative, naïve Protestantism of our earlier years.

Students were accustomed to hearing that the Whiteheadian God of the classroom was someone you could pray to, but until that day in the chapel some had not believed it. Now they could. We realized more fully than we had before that the test of our theology is not the conventional question “does it preach?” but instead a much more difficult question “does it pray?”

There was nothing new about this kind of prayer. Even if we had not read the literature ourselves, another professor also deeply colored by process thought (even though his discipline was what in those days we still called Old Testament) could have pointed us to the Psalter and to the large body of scholarly literature describing “psalms of lament.” To use the words of Artur Weiser: “In the laments the most profound problems of life are tackled and ultimate decisions are contended for in prayer. The question, age-old yet ever new, of whether, and, if so, in what manner, destiny and God and guilt and destiny are related to each other recurs in many variations and is answered in different ways.” Weiser continues the discussion is his dense academic prose, but his point is important.

The lament is our way to work through the most severe challenges of life at a level that is foundational both to our intellects and to our emotions. Weiser makes it clear that these Hebrew prayers—these laments—lead to “affirmations of trust” and these lead to “psalms of confidence.” They serve as evidence of the creative power and vitality which has been at work in this sphere of Old Testament faith” (The Psalms, 83). They also lead to psalms of thanksgiving, which express the confidence that despite the deep distress, the fear of death, the opposition of enemies, the failures of family and friends, God is present as the one who can be trusted to hear, understand, love, identify with, and ultimately to sustain us through all things.

Prayers of lament are important to Christians today. There is much that goes wrong in the world, much that seems to counter everything that we believe about God and the world which God declared to be good. Our worship becomes authentic—and, in the spirit of this series, we could say unconventional—when we tell God what we think.

In this regard, however, the Psalms are a better example than the prayer of my professor colleague. In the Psalter, the autobiographical details have been subsumed into language that is general enough that all worshipers understand the distress and bewilderment and fear. Similar experiences of their own slip into their emotional consciousness and they, with Paul, find themselves offering prayers in “sighs too deep for words.”

These prayers are completed when our confidence has been restored through lament, confidence, and thanksgiving, and we are able to express prayers of intercession and petition. In these prayers, we reveal our hopes for a world in which sorrow and suffering are overcome and the paradise that God intended becomes a reality.

Prayers of this kind serve as the transition from the believable explanations that our sermons provide to the dramatic rehearsal at the eucharistic table of the world that already has begun and, we dare to believe, will someday—in this age and the next—be all in all.

In order for prayers in public worship to express the depth and range that I am proposing, they have to be prepared with care. People who speak these prayers are lending their mind, heart, and voice to the congregation As best they can, they say to God what they believe the congregation as a whole wants to say. In laments, they remember the suffering of the days just past, and in prayers of confidence and hopeful anticipation, they ask that the powers for life, which show forth most fully in Jesus Christ, crucified and triumphant over the grave, will drive away the despair and reestablish trust and hope.

The only theology worth preaching in progressive churches is a theology that is fulfilled in prayer.

4 Responses to But will the theology lead to prayer? That’s the real test!

  1. Warren Nelson says:


    You are now bookmarked! Great to see you at Starbucks this morning!

  2. eirenetheou says:

    “That will pray!” i like that.

    Yet we may ask, When “theology is fulfilled in prayer,” how does that happen? Is theology “fulfilled” in the praying — in the act of praying, in the content of prayer?

    Is prayer — and, indeed, the theology that brings us to pray — “self-fulfilling”? Or does God “answer” prayer? This is the question that “progressive” Christians most often want to avoid, yet it cuts to the heart of our understanding of God and our compelling need for God.

    Beyond the testimony of Scripture, our experience and understanding of “answers” to prayer is anecdotal rather than systematic. To pray at all is a test of faith. The great question of prayer is, “Who’s listening?” How we answer that question is a statement of our faith . . . or lack of faith. Lex credendi, lex orandi.

    God’s Peace to you.


  3. I remember a discussion period following a public lecture at our seminary many years ago. When asked by a student to suggest how we can “prove” the existence of God, the lecturer said. “When someone asks me that kind of question, I tell them to do exactly as I do. Then I get down on my knees and pull the other person down beside me. I pray the Lord’s prayer, phrase by phrase, insisting that the person repeat them after me. When you have learned to pray this prayer, I tell the person, we can talk about the question you asked.”

    I’ve never tried this method of evangelizing, but it illustrates, in its own pointed way, what many people find to be true to experience. Trust that leads to prayer gradually matures into faith and finally may lead to doctrine. My understanding of the Latin phrase is that the orandi part is the initiating partner, and if the faith community is faithful, the credenti may follow.

  4. eirenetheou says:

    You have — of course! — remembered correctly the formula as it is usually presented: “As we pray, so we believe.” That is why i reversed it. Is prayer the prerequisite for faith, or does prayer emerge from faith? Prayer seeking faith and faith making prayer are quite different kinds of prayer.

    When “progressive” Christians pray, as some of them often pray, to the Great Indefinite or To Whom It May Concern, that could be seen as a search for Something or Someone in whom to believe, trust, and commit. Almost always, however, it is a misguided compromise aimed at “inclusiveness,” so that persons in the assembly who may not share its ostensible faith commitments will not “feel excluded.” That is a travesty of prayer. Prayer seeking faith — as in the cry of a shaken and distressed agnostic to “God, whoever you are . . .” — is a quite different phenomenon.

    Over many years i have come to understand the “faith” of the New Testament in a Bultmannian way, as “belief, trust, and commitment.” Your “trust that leads to prayer” is faith in a God who is listening. Adherence to “doctrine” is something else. That “belief” as intellectual assent may be a component of “faith,” but it is far from the whole of “faith” that we find in the Gospels and the letters of Paul. As a wise old brother once said to me, when i had been presented with one of those “evangelical” creeds that begin with “the Bible inerrant in the original autographs,” — “the Devil could sign this and never look back.”

    God’s Peace to you.


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