Meet Suzie. She’s a not a real person, but rather a hypothetical Christian who stars in a rather professional-looking YouTube video by “TheThinkingAtheist.” Suzie, who is devoted to prayer and begins and ends her days talking to Jesus, is a source of amusement for the producers of this video. The narrator ridicules her for thanking Jesus for things she has received from other people: specifically her food which was grown, harvested, processed, and prepared by men here on earth. The narrator is incredulous: how could she be thanking Jesus when so many others were involved in making sure she had the food she needed?
Prayer is a part of Suzie’s life at more than just meal times. She turns to him for every sort of problem. When Suzie is sick, she turns to God. Her mother is in a car accident, and she prays. She prays about all of the problems the world faces.
But when Suzie confronts problems in her own life, or in the lives of her family members, she also turns to professional help. She visits the doctor when she is sick, and sends her mother to the hospital after a car accident. To the narrator, this dual reliance on prayer and other means of aid is absurd.
True, our hypothetical prayer warrior is not exactly a model Christian, but this has nothing to do with her visits to the doctor. Instead, as the Christian viewer can notice, it is Suzie’s implied failure to give alms to the poor for whom she prays and her willingness to consult a Magic 8 Ball rather than exercise the virtue of prudence that seem in need of correction. Human action does not rule out divine causality. Prayer is not a substitute for taking action; rather, it inspires, accompanies, and flows from charitable activity.
The “god” that the atheists reject is one who is just like us. In reality, however, God is radically different from men. I don’t both call for pizza and make dinner, but praying for God to feed the community is not in conflict at all with chopping vegetables. God is a cause in a different way than we are causes.
TheThinkingAtheist sees divine and human action as mutually exclusive alternatives. The video seems to suggest that when Suzie prays about big, abstract problems, she is being foolish but consistent. When, on the other hand, she confronts problems close to home, she is demonstrating by her actions that she really trusts in science and man rather than in God.
But this contradiction is not real. St. Thomas teaches that everything is in God’s providence, yet God chooses to act through secondary causes. God’s use of natural and human causes in executing his divine plan does not manifest a weakness in his power, but precisely the opposite. It is because of his strength that God is able to order all things to their end:
There are certain intermediaries of God’s providence; for He governs things inferior by superior, not on account of any defect in His power, but by reason of the abundance of His goodness; so that the dignity of causality is imparted even to creatures. (ST I, q. 22, a. 3)
God does not need our prayers or our works to accomplish his will, but, as the universal cause of everything, he chooses to give secondary causes their natural effects. He even gives human beings the dignity to participate in his providence by way of prayer.
God created everything—He is the cause of existence itself—and thus He gives even natural causes their power to act. Natural causes are not contrary to God’s causality, rather they are a result of it. The butcher, the chef, and the doctor are able to do their work, because God gives them that power.
To give an analogous example, I took a break from writing this to make coffee. Now, an observer who passed the coffee machine might say that the coffee machine actually made the coffee. But the machine would not have made coffee without me; I gave the machine its purpose at that moment. In an infinitely more perfect way, God, himself uncaused, is the primary cause behind all of the acts of lesser beings since he gives them their purpose, their end. Unlike me, God does not use secondary causes because he has to; he does so by choice.
God does not work solely through the miraculous. As creator of the natural order, he primarily acts through natural causes. God’s providential ordering does nothing to take away the power of human action; it makes it possible.
Image: World Map, from a thirteenth-century English psalter