Science and Prayer

Week of Sunday July 28 - Pentecost 10
Gospel: Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ 2He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come. 
3   Give us each day our daily bread.
4   And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

5 And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”7And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

Prayer does not work.

When we ask God to change organic or physical realities, we find results that are not statistically significantly different from what we would expect to happen by chance alone.

Now that I have your attention, this does not mean prayer is pointless. It does not mean that prayer has no value. It does mean that to ignore competent medical advice, or to claim that organic healing will happen as a result of prayer alone is at best naive. If such advice and claims come from church leadership, they are abusive. Such behaviour should be subject to examination by those responsible for our ethical oversight!

As a minister, if I were to claim that I can pray your cancer away, I would be exhibiting a fundamental lack of courage because I was afraid to grasp the existential nettle which is the fact that such prayers are not answered. We clergy often avoid plain talking here because it threatens our faith in God. This exhibits a naive understanding of what prayer is and does, and abuses you just as much as the alternative therapy hawkers who may distract you from effective medicine until it is too late.

We also avoid plain talking on the issue because we are afraid of the wrath of people whose faith has been disturbed!

If I truly believe prayers drive cancer away, I am taking so little notice of the objective reality of the world that I should not continue as a minister, because I am being a false prophet

I am beginning this First Impressions of the Lord's Prayer in Luke with this salvo because when it comes to prayer, almost all of us are deeply influenced, or at least pressured, by  the claim that prayer effects physical and organic change, and many of us have been subjected to the emotional blackmail that claims our faith in God is lacking if we do not so believe.

People come to us for prayer, hoping beyond hope, that we can make the empirically impossible true. If we succumb to their need for hope, or our need to prove our faith, we not only abuse them. We may also deny them the marvelous and healing opportunity of the relationships with God and the people of God which prayer gives us.

In Listening Woman, Navajo Mrs. Cigaret said,  "I told him he ought to get someone to take him to Gallup and get his chest x-rayed because maybe he had one of those sicknesses that white people cure." Prayer has a most important place in life, but it does not replace chest xrays and chemotherapy.

Prayer is not about getting answers. Prayer is about relationship.

However, relationship with God is a problem in a non theistic world.

Prayer which expects organic physical answers assumes an interventionist God who is 'sitting there' somewhat akin to a person listening to us, and who relates to the world by pushing buttons when we ask; a God who suspends all the chemistry and physics on which the very existence of the world depends, so that we might have our way. We might call this a simplistic theism. We might also call it belief in magic.

Our world knows God is not like this.  If in some effort to defend our faith we say that the world has a problem at this point, we are correct. It does—us! We are not living sensibly and rationally.

It is hard for a child to hear the stories of faith and not form a simplistic theistic view of God, at first. It is, after all,  a childish understanding. Reality soon intrudes. I once tried to use the story of Hansi: The Girl who Loved the Swastika , to convince my minister of the power of prayer and the reality of this intervening God. Her mother prayed constantly, and she was brought home safely from the war. He simply asked me, "And what about all the other mothers who prayed? Did God not hear them?" That God, if he existed and answered only the prayers of Hansi's mother, would be a monster against whom we should rebel with all our being!

If the word "God" is not a symbol and signifier of something far greater than this simplistic theism we deserve all the ridicule we get; in fact, we are a menace to society.

What is prayer then? Is it merely something Jesus did, but which has no relevance to a modern person?

This is how I understand and experience prayer.

Religious faith and religious practice are the trust, and the living out of our trust and understanding, that our religion says something significant about reality. Faith and practice say that Jesus was not just a good person, or even a unique person, but that the stories about him speak to the ultimate realities and meanings of our existence, and of our universe. They are a teleological claim about the nature of reality, which is a sin in the eyes modern science and philosophy. (Obviously, I am writing from a Christian perspective.)

Put very simply, we are saying that if we live like Jesus would live , if he were here in our shoes, we will find out something about the reality of the universe. We will discover its meaning and purpose, and discover that it is ultimately fulfilling (providence) rather than an accidental happening, happy or otherwise.

Far more can be said, of course. But for those of us from a science background, this is the explicit difference from an a-theistic understanding that the universe just is, and that whatever meaning it has is constructed by us.

What we observe in religious practice; that is, by actually practising the religion, is that the universe gains intimacy or, becomes intimate. Standing in the desert night, under endless stars in the infinite acreage of the universe, can change from an intimidation to an intimacy; from alienation to belonging; from isolation to comfort; from solitude to absolute embrace. (This is not to claim that religious practice is the only path to this intimacy.)

What religious practice also does is recover a wholistic language for life for we Westeners. In his series on Demons and the Powers, Richard Beck uses the term residual.

.... science has created means--biology (medicine, genetics) and the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology)--to explain human behavior. And when science has done its work with cases like Hitler we still feel that there is aresidual, that some aspect of Hitler cannot be reduced to a scientific account. What we call evil is the experience of that residual. And, thus, by definition, evil can't be a scientific term. Evil is the malevolent residual that cannot be "explained" by the disciplines of psychology or psychiatry. Beck

He essentially says terms like demon and powers provide a language which deals with realities that science cannot deal with, and is not competent to deal with.

Beck is not talking about a  'God of the gaps.' I prefer the word wholistic rather than his word residual, because scientific language is a very defined and limited language, deliberately artificial and constrained, to allow us to begin to grasp what is happening around us in the physical world. It is stunningly powerful and we would not be the same humans without it.

There is a huge residual, as Beck puts it; an enormous area that science does not address. Science restricts itself to what can be physically observed, controlled, and reproduced by multiple observers, which gives us enormous power and efficacy in that area of our reality.

When I begin this article by saying "prayer does not work," I am speaking from the perspective of science; cancer is not stopped by prayer. This is an observable fact. Sometimes cancer stops coincidentally with prayer. This is not the same thing as scientific causation.

But the language and method of science is not wholistic. In science we deliberately limit the part of our total experience to artificial parameters that we can measure, control and reproduce.  The building of bridges, the navigation of planes, and the insertion of radioactive isotopes which kill cancers cannot be done adequately otherwise. 

Science has also provided astonishing insights into how we arrive at meaning and interpretation, and can protect us from grievous shortcomings in the way we relate. It heals us of much superstition; witness the witchcraft trials of times past, the equation of the womb with hysteria, and our fear of homosexuality.  Science  is also often more far reaching than we find comfortable. Our rationality is far more emotional than we think. (Beck has an interesting take on the relationship of the two.)

But science does not have much to say about very real things like love, care, and freedom. It is a language of how rather than why and what for.

Religion and prayer are about the why and what for dimensions of life. They seek not to reduce what for meaning to component bits of how, (reductionism) but to include as much data as possible. They are among the languages of art and poetry. They are a practice which experiments by imagining, and running thought experiments, in the realms where the control and narrow parameters demanded by the scientific method are simply not possible.

They use science and common sense as a grounding point and a landmark while they do a 'whole of life experiment' in imagining the meaning and purpose of the universe. In Christianity, Jesus is one such landmark; we would say the signal landmark, or our prime landmark, by which we navigate.

(Scientific hypotheses, by the way, are also an imagining of what might be. 'Scientists' who do not imagine are the most barren of technicians.)

What if instead of giving your life to yourself for profit, for power,  or for comfort, you lived it this way; for love, for joy, for justice, and for peace? What would it mean to live as if I were here for the world, rather than as if the world were here for me? Would this make me a more human human being? Would I be more in tune with the purpose of the universe?  

What if I were to hypothesise there is a "God" which is close like a good father, and a purpose to the universe that is worthy of respect? (the meaning of hallowed) What would happen if I were forgiving and compassionate, rather than mechanically dispassionately expecting a return on all debts, like any other electron?  

What if I were to experiment by living as though the universe is more than survival of the fittest, but is instead heading to some greater good? What if the pieces of life we see and understand quite well via the scientific method (eg, competition, survival of the fittest) are something of a much greater whole? What if the 'selfish gene' and the selfish individual seeking survival are not the peak of reality, but a much smaller building block of something greater? What if our distinct egos are actually a very limited understanding of that greatness?"

This is a 'whole of life hypothesis' if we choose to experiment with it. There is no getting to 60 with little superannuation as a consequence, and going back and trying another way to live life for a better monetary outcome! As Sam de Brito says, am I "actually disadvantaging my child encouraging virtues such as kindness, honesty and justice? " And as it says on the door of my daughter's studio, "To be an artist is to fail as no other dare fail."

When we live in this experiment we find a whole lot of data that is not so measurable according to the standards of the scientific method. It is qualitative rather than quantitative.

But in this qualitative data, the kind of data that gives meaning to our lives, God changes from a fanciful idea, and an unlikely hypothesis, to a lived experience. To pray to God, not expecting an answer, but expecting an intimacy (as when we talk with another person) is something that becomes real. It becomes real in the sense that it is trustable; it is not artificial; it is no pretence, a whistling in the dark because everyone else is. It ceases to be an hypothesis.  It becomes, in its own way, hard data.

... and so I pray, because God listens, and as inadequate as those words are to express this reality which I do not understand, it is real, rather than a pretend friend.

I was listening to a friend from Malawi last night, as he spoke about how he "decided to take God seriously" as a young man. I said that as a young man in Australia I had to decide, first of all, if God even existed.  

Perhaps some of us have a Malawian experience; of course God exists, we say! But for a student of science, and for many other people, God's existence  is not obvious. In fact, it often seems ridiculous.

Even more ridiculous is prayer that smells of getting results from a button pushing, intervening, magic God.  Prayer can only be real and reasonable is a part of how we relate to the universe; if it is part of the practice of our religion. We may begin to pray with quite impersonal meditation. We may begin with carefully considered deliberate ethical action for good based on the teachng of Jesus; weighing the costs, deciding a course; we may not even call it prayer! We may contemplate a Mystery which is imponderable. We may seek to appreciate the beauty of the world in which we live, despite all its horrors.

But as our ego strengthens enough to be allowed to break down, and lose its self-ishness, prayer allows us to discover the intimacy of the universe and of God. Then the act of praying—praying the Lord's prayer, and even asking shamelessly, takes on a whole new dimension.

And now... it is time to read Luke 11, and be challenged.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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