Thursday, November 08, 2007

What is the nature of prayer?

To say it's been dry in Georgia the past few years would be an understatement. Our reservoir lakes are now just mudholes, and you can't even ride an inner tube down many of the rivers in north Georgia, flow and levels are so low. Only about 100 days' worth of water is said to be available for the metro Atlanta area.

Or so they say. The Army Corps of Engineers denies that Georgia's water supply is in jeopardy.

Whatever the case, we need rain, and lots of it.

Georgia's governor George Ervin "Sonny" Perdue has invited religious leaders from around the state to attend a Pray for Rain prayer service next Tuesday.

"The only solution is rain, and the only place we get that is from a higher power," Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said yesterday in announcing the service.

The prayer service will be held outside the state Capitol building next Tuesday, November 13.

Gov. Perdue is, I've been told, a Freemason and is a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the nation.

I was banned from a fundamentalist Christian forum a few months ago for daring to ask questions there similar to the ones I'm asking here.

Everyone knows when you have a problem, you can "take it to the Lord" in prayer.

But what, exactly, does that mean? What is prayer? How does it work? What are its mechanics?

Is there a Big, Bearded Anthropomorphic God taking 911 calls from prayer-petitioners, analyzing requests in nanoseconds, then dispatching angelic help if the request is deemed worthy?

Is God/Jesus/the Lord some cosmic Santa Claus?

Is prayer scientifically provable? Is prayer a form of meditation? Is it some quantum rearrangement of "The Force"? Do the words or thoughts actually travel anywhere, or just rattle around in your Bone Box or the church building?

Is prayer a form of "positive mental attitude," like that discussed in The Secret, which says that you will attract to you what you focus on?

Does prayer work better when many people are praying for or about the same thing? Is group prayer more effective? If so, why?

Is a recited, "scripted" prayer more effective than an off-the-cuff unscripted prayer?

Is prayer always about asking for something?

Gov. (and Bro.) Perdue's prayer meeting next week is for the purpose of asking a "higher power" to grant a favor. I would imagine that clergy from most of the mainstream religions in Georgia have been invited to attend, and that they, each in their own way, some quietly meditative, some red-faced and near-screaming, some pompously Falwellian, will offer up their prayers asking the Higher Power for rain.

This predisposes us to believe certain things: that there is a Higher Power; that this Higher Power pulls the strings of Nature; that this Higher Power is not always benevolent, or else we'd have had plenty of rain without having to ask; that this Higher Power can be begged, cajoled or convinced to give something that It has been purposefully or negligently holding back, rain, and that if It is asked enough, It will give in.

If soon after this prayer meeting, the skies open up and it rains for days and days, filling our lakes and putting us back above normal rainfall, does that mean the prayers "worked?" And again, if so, how did they work? Did Higher Power suddenly notice how dry it is here when the prayers reached Heaven, and say, "Oh, sorry... here ya go," like a pet owner when he realizes he forgot to feed his dog?

If it doesn't rain after this state-sponsored prayer meeting, and the drought endures, what does that tell us? Higher Power doesn't listen? Doesn't care? Is punishing us? Needs a bit more coaxing? Is ticked off that that one guy, yeah, you, over in the corner, didn't join in the prayer?

Do you have any answers? Can you explain this prayer thing? What is the nature and mechanics and purpose of prayer?

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  2. A Harvard study conducted by Dr. Herbert Benson, published in 2006, says that not only did intercessory prayer not help heart patients, but in some cases, the prayed-for patients became significantly worse after the prayer.

    A 2007 "systematic review" of 17 studies showed, according to David Hodge, assistant professor of social work at Arizona State University, that intercessory prayer does indeed help patients to get better. Systematic reviews, though, are prone to gross error and manipulation, since the person can pick and choose which studies to include or exclude in their review.

    — W.S.

  3. The question you bring up is an important one. It is, however, a larger subject than can be addressed comprehensively in a comment; here, I can just give bullet-points, and make suggestions for further study.

    Of course, everything I say here is deeply colored by the fact that I am a Latter-day Saint (LDS); different faith traditions may look at the subject at least somewhat differently. (I assume that the conventional ban on sectarian religious discussion—which I am scrupulous to observe in the Lodge—does not apply here. Sorry, guys, but I cannot discuss a religious subject like prayer from a totally non-denominational approach; if I could, I would.)

    Why does God require prayer from us? This is not because he does not know our needs unless we tell him; he knows our needs before we do, and better than we do. God’s larger purpose is to help us to become like him; part of that project involves our humbling ourselves and acknowledging our dependence on him, and that we wish to follow his directions, for our greater good. Thus, we acknowledge our dependence on him by looking to him in prayer. God does not need our praise, or our acknowledgement of his supremacy, or our discipleship. We need to acknowledge his supremacy, and commit ourselves to following him, as best we know how.

    All prayers are answered. Sometimes the answer is “no.” Why would he say ‘no’? There are many potential reasons. God’s larger purpose (as noted above) is the overriding issue in God’s behavior. Sometimes we may need greater humility, and that is best served by denying what we have asked for. Sometimes we need to suffer the consequences of our actions. Sometimes it is necessary to let ‘the bad guys win,’ so as to allow them to suffer the consequences of their actions. If what we pray for is a continuation of mortal life, we need to understand that denial of that request results, not in the cessation of life, but its graduation to a different sphere of life. Sometimes we cannot see that what we ask for is not what we really need.

    Concerning the mechanics of answers to prayer: you might find it useful to locate a copy of an article I wrote long ago, “Mysticism and Mormonism,” published in Sunstone
    magazine (April 1989). I describe how the few glimpses we get into the psychology of God from the LDS scriptures closely parallels the classical mystical experience: such mentality perceives and acts outside the normal bounds of space and time. Thus, God as the ultimate multitasker is able to attend to everything simultaneously (including all our prayers), and can act throughout all space and time to effect whatever results he chooses to. Anecdotally, in my life, and in the lives of my family and friends, the answers to prayer clearly had to be put into motion before our prayers actually occurred.

    Further study: One of the better discourses on prayer I have ever read occurs in the Book of Mormon, in the portion called the Book of Alma, chapter 34. (Chapter 32 is pretty good, too.)

  4. A pastor of a church I used to attend preached on prayer, and intellectually, I thought some of his insights were quite interesting.

    Basically, he preached that generally, prayer is a way for the person who is praying to better align himself with the will of God. It is about strengthening one's dependence upon God and reducing ones selfish, self-centered view of life.

    For example, praying that you win the lottery to solve all of your financial woes will likely not be answered in the positive. But praying that God to intervene in your life to help you become a more responsible person and to become a better steward of your resources, then an answer is more likely to come in the positive.

    While there certainly is Biblical evidence that God directly answers prayers, prayer is not a way to cash-in by going to the great ATM in the sky.

    On the other hand, to assume that God is not capable of managing all of the specific prayers of all people is to place limitation on God that undermines the concepts of omnipotence, omnipresence, or omniscience.

  5. And I forgot to mention, as far as knowing what is the will of God, that comes through worship, prayer, and Bible study.

    And if it matters, this is from a non-denominational, Bible-believing Christian perspective.

  6. The older I get and the more sorrow and tragedy I see around me in the world the more trouble I begin to have with the whole concept of prayer and God.

    This may be part of the reason I'm having so much trouble dealing with what Freemasonry has become in my area. I'm finding myself in total agreement with the Grand Orient of France's take on things, which is that a man's religious leanings are no business of Masonry's, including his having no particular religious beliefs at all.

    I just can't align myself with the Christian belief in a loving God who wants what's best for us anymore. I read a book recently that expressed the belief that if God exists he either won't stop the evil in the world, which makes him an accomplice to it, or he's incapable of stopping it which makes him impotent, but either way he's not looking out for us.

    I'm not ready to call myself an atheist yet, but I'm certainly not the good Methodist boy I was raised to be anymore either. I'm not sure what I am except to say that I'm increasingly uncomfortable going to lodge, opening and closing with prayers that I'm not sure anyone listens to and saying I believe things that I'm increasingly certain that I do not. I'm not sure how I'm going to resolve this...

  7. WS: The whole bogus field of psychoneuroimmunology is partially based on the absurdly fallacious notion that if you believe something, it is more likely to happen. Anecdotal reports cloud the pseudoscientific literature on the subject. The reason you don't hear more about this field is because objectivity and measurement are not features of the research. The "power" of prayer is a big subject in this field's literature.

    Just as prayer has been studied in the "research" you mention, so has human intervention in mental illness. The field of psychiatry was turned on its head a few years ago when a landmark study showed that mental patients would get better when they had medicine alone or medicine with psychotherapy but not psychotherapy alone, thus proving that psychiatrists are worthless except for diagnosing mental illness and prescribing medicine. I'm sure Tom Cruise and the cult of Scientology didn't like that study.

    Bro. Norman Vincent Peale addressed this topic in The Power of Positive Thinking. My take is that if you believe in something, it is natural to look for signs that what you believe is indeed true because you have invested a part of your life in it. Whatever somebody says to derrogate that belief naturally stirs up emotion.

    Live and let live. Trying to convince believers in an "anthropomorphic" fairy godfather that the believe is fanciful achieves little except antipathy between the believers and non-believers.

    Fraternally yours,
    The Libertarian

  8. Anon,

    People often ask why bad things happen to good people. The Biblical reality is that there are no "good" people. We are ALL of sin, and the only way to achieve redemption is through salvation through Jesus Christ.

    The better question to as is why do good things happen to bad people?

  9. I find I agree with Br. Mark, and I am coming from the same religious tradition he is, and suggest the same caveats on my statements.
    I believe that all prayers are answered. All of mine have been, and frankl, most of them have been answered positively. Not necessarilly in the time frame I hoped for, but answered.
    The key, I believe, is in the prayer Jesus made in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he said, "not my will, but your will be done."
    The nature of prayer, I suggest, is that it focuses our attention on our needs and the Great Architect's will and how they are to mesh.
    A god that interferes in the world to the extent of giving us a pony because we ask for one, or a field goal, or no heart attack, even when we abuse food, drink and tobacco, is not a god, but a devil.

  10. WS,

    You are definitly very thoughtful in all your ponderings and wonderings.

    Being the very intelligent person you are, you have to agree with me on this one: "The more you learn, the more questions you get."

    We as humans try to learn all that we can, not that theres anything wrong with that, but no matter how much we learn, we still can't answer everything. I believe this is where faith comes in.

    I believe that God doesn't spoon feed us. We are on this earth to learn and be tested and it is our actions that make us who we are. Prayer is communication between us and our God in an attempt to align our will with His.

    Seeing as I am responding as an LDS like Bro. Mark and Bro. Steve...

    Heavenly Father expects us to do more than merely ask Him for blessings. When we have an important decision to make, He often will require that we "study it out in [our] mind" before He will give us an answer (see D&C 9:7–8). Our prayers for guidance will be only as effective as our efforts to be receptive to the whisperings of the Holy Ghost. Our prayers for our own welfare and for the welfare of others will be in vain if we "turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need" (Alma 34:28).

    If we have a difficult task before us, Heavenly Father is pleased when we get on our knees and ask for help and then get on our feet and go to work. He will help us in all our righteous pursuits, but He seldom will do something for us that we can do ourselves.

    "There is an inexaustable source from above"

    Sometimes we need to feel with our hearts along with following with our heads.


  11. I don't know if there is a God. I believe there is, but I have no concrete proof. I only have strong feelings about it when I think about math or look at my kids or something equally mundane that reveals,, all of a sudden, an inner beauty and crazy wonderfulness that I elect to attribute to the generosity a higher being.

    I don't know how prayer works, either, or even if it does. If I pray hard about finding old friends and later in the month several old friends just happen to find me on the internet, was it prayer that did it? Was it coincidence? Was it me opening a MySpace account tree minutes after praying? Who the fuck knows?

    I know this: I elect to believe in God for reasons I find hard to articulate. I don't pray for ponies, but I do pray. I pray because my unreasonable belief in God leads to me believe that the world is far more complex and weird than I'll ever understand and sometimes I need to remember that I sure as fuck don't control anything but my own way in it and praying helps me remember that.

    Prayer, for me, is most powerful in the way it keeps me in check. It's one of the tools I use to "subdue my passions." Weirdly, I never, ever, except an answer to my prayer. I assume my prayers are like lost I Love Lucy episodes that continue on from the middle of my head out into the far reaches of the known universe.

    Is it stupid for the people in Georgia to stand in front of the courthouse and pray for rain? Well, it's certainly too late to pave less or conserve what they've got. So maybe it's not so stupid as it is a desperate act of people who are freaked out and worried. It sure as hell can't hurt--like I said, I don't know if there's a God. What if there is and what he's waiting for is a halfway decent prayer from people in Georgia?

  12. Kierkegaard said that a leap to faith requires us to have more than belief. Faith and belief are not the same. Faith carries with it the possibility that there is no one or nothing out there to catch us.
    We come to a cliff in a dark cave, and a voice says "jump and I will catch you." You can't see the source of the voice. No amount of belief will allow you to trust yourself totally to jump. There may be no one there, or whoever is there may not be capable or truly willing, to catch you.
    The leap is a sign of and a effector of faith.
    Faith is a knowing using the same word used in Genesis for "Adam knew his wife." It is a uniting with, not an intellectual assent. Prayer comes from this place. Whatever answer is the right one.

  13. This is a useful article from a non-Christian perspective:


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