Apr 29, 2008

Reflections on Answers to Prayer

This is a section of an interesting discussion with questions that many, myself included, have had to ask with regards to prayer. To see the discussion, click here. This is not a comprehensive treatise on the matter, but it has points worth considering for people of all belief systems.

Here is an excerpt:

I agree that many human beings exhibit a tendency to enjoy worship, for whatever reason. The annals of history contain much of people worshipping. One may take the stance that this tendency is explained by a nuance in their being, a psychological or sociological element that drives them to worship. Though these sociological and psychological elements have no doubt played into the fact that humans do worship, there is no evidence in these fields of study to declare that these are the only possible reason. We cannot observe a result only and say that we know the cause definitively. Many, with varying a priori assumptions, have conducted studies on the matter. Acknowledging that there may be psychological and sociological influences, I suggest that there is also genuine worship based on the existence of God, that the existence of God and our relationship with Him propagate some of this behavior, and that this statement cannot be proven true or false. We are left with the observation: humans worship. The cause is unknown, but we’ve definitely discovered influences. We have correlation, but not causation.

Your next statement takes us to the same question of underlying assumptions. “That prayer makes people feel different is certain.” Again, there are many records of people “feeling different” connected with prayer. But again, as third-party observers, we only have correlation, not causation. One can equally assume that the “feeling different” comes from God as they can assume that it comes from another source, like our hypothalamus or limbic system. To say that chemicals in our make-up have no part in our feelings would be utterly false. To say that series of chemical reactions were solely responsible for every reaction within our bodies is beyond the scope of science, or at least, humans’ ability to confirm. So again, we are left with the observation: prayer often correlates with “feeling different.” The cause is unknown for every situation. One may legitimately believe or disbelieve either claim.

So if I am saying that prayer, as a third-party observer, gives no definitive answer to whether or not God exists, how is it a tool to give us knowledge of God? Prayer is only a tool with which we can perform the experiment of belief. It is faith (belief is the word that we have been using) that God is interested in cultivating, and prayer is an effective means to that end.

It is logical, therefore, that if God wants us to develop faith, many of the answers that we receive may reflect enough wiggle-room to make us turn to faith again. If the development of faith is a prerequisite to knowledge, there may be a number of answers received that seem frustrating: we want a definitive answer, but we only got “feeling different” or something that seems only coincidental or nothing at all. At these junctions of analyzing our experiences we are presented with an option: will I continue to believe or not? I have no outstanding evidence in either direction. Personally speaking, it is after these crux-moments, choosing to believe, that I gain added insight, clearer thoughts, and ultimately, knowledge.

Why would God want us to develop faith? The God I know definitely wants us to develop knowledge, but why also faith? Is there any intrinsic value to faith? Most conceptions of God are associated with some form of life after death. I do not presume to know all that such an existence would entail, but I believe that God would have a very good idea of what is expected in such a realm, and it is likely that faith development is important, for whatever ends God has in mind. I give the following example from our lives to illustrate a possible application: faith, on a rudimentary level, is the driving force in all things. I believe my car will start, so I go out and I turn the key. I believe that home owners insurance is helpful, so I pay for it. I believe that a scientific experiment will yield meaningful results, so I perform it. Our calculations or our expectations prior to any meaningful action lead us to that action, and in a very basic sense this is belief. Now, I do not submit that it is this rudimentary case alone that God wishes we develop. It could be that there is something intrinsically valuable to faith that is apparent to God, but not yet apparent to us. Considering that it often precedes action, the development of faith suggests an involvement or a worthwhile movement or meaning to our existence after this life.

When will God grant the knowledge we seek connected to our experiment of belief? God would be the only one who knows how much faith developed is sufficient. It may be immediate for some, or after a prolonged testing for others. I wish that there were a cut-and-dry measurable answer for belief, but alas, we have no ability to measure such a thing as belief.

Apr 21, 2008

One Method of Experiment: Notes on Prayer

With the appropriate preparation mentioned in previous posts, we can begin to perform an experiment. There are many methods to experiment our belief in God, I’m sure, and I can’t claim that the one I suggest here is the only possible way. I cite the following as a method that has been tried repeatedly with substantial success for many people (however I do recognize the varying responses outside of my point). For me, the most natural step forward in trying this experiment would be prayer.

For many, the word prayer is a foreign term. Many who describe themselves as having no belief in God occasionally find themselves reaching towards a Greater Source at important points in their lives. One such man, an antagonist of religion in general, said the following in a document wherein his goal was to debunk religions, “I confess that I sometimes find myself praying in times of great fear, or despair, or astonishment at a display of unexpected beauty.” I don’t say that this man has “given in” to believing, for I don’t think he would agree with that. However, I think we both recognize, at some point in our lives, we are likely to feel the desire to reach out to Something More. I believe that this Something More is God, and that as we reach out, we can cultivate the ability to understand God in our lives. And there’s no loss in trying.

The value of this experiment is that it can be done anywhere. To begin this aspect of experimentation on believing, one only needs to address God, whether in mind or vocal, at home or abroad, for relief or for gratitude, in inquiry or in awe, for strength or even for sleep. If this experiment is valid, He will hear us in our individual situations; we do not necessarily have to be in a specific environment for prayers to be valid. However, as persons who have prayed much have observed, that the more conducive our situation is to having reverence for the Divine, the more productive our prayers.

The response to prayer is not a function (meaning, I input x and can always immediately expect to receive y); many things factor into our receiving that response: our sincerity, our willingness to accept a response, our desire to know truth, our willingness to not distort the response, and God. God is a factor, because knowledge of this kind would not happen without His consent, as He would be in control of such knowledge. It is possible that the knowledge answer may not come for a while: not until a lot of effort and mental exertion and willingness has been put into it. I mentioned before that if we were to ask a question to someone that we revered as very intelligent, we could not predict their response, or we would have no reason to ask them in the first place. I think of Socrates and his disciples; when asked a question, Socrates could answer in many very-unexpected ways. (And as a side note: if God were to answer our question with a question as Socrates was wont, it would be in our best interests to try to figure out the answer to that question, bringing it again to Him.) I do not wish to paint the picture of God as Socratic guru, but I want the reader to recognize that God is not a computer, wherein we can simply upload our inputs and then download His outputs. If God, as far as many believers are concerned, exists, He is a supremely intelligent Being. (Some would argue that He isn't a Being, but for the case at hand, I'm just trying to point out that He is more intelligent than anything we could imagine.) If we couldn't predict the responses of Socrates, Admiral Nelson, Winston Churchill, or Nelson Mandela, why should we assume that God's responses can be predicted?

Nevertheless, the promise has been made; God will answer. The big caveat on that promise is that He will answer when and in the way that seems appropriate to Him. I give an imperfect analogy: if a father's child consistently asks for ice cream and candy every day, should the father give the child the ice cream? No, because fathers know better than that. To the child, it seems perfectly reasonable that he/she have ice cream and candy all day, every day. Isn't candy good? The child can't see the consequences, nor, really, is the child interested in the consequences. The father may respond with a "no" or with something healthier, or maybe with "later", or "after you've eaten your vegetables." There are many plausible responses, depending on a situation what a father could give a child, as he has wisdom, and the child does not.

While recognizing the weaknesses in the analogy, we can say that if we ask for something, it may seem perfectly reasonable for us to have it. Why shouldn't we get everything that we ask for, in the way we ask for it, when we ask for it? We would have to recognize that things in this life that seem good or convenient or reasonable may be just candy and ice cream to us in our lack of wisdom and foresight; if there is something more beyond this life, wherein God has interest, He may have a better idea of what we do and don't need and when. If the time, situation, and our state are right, we might just get our candy and ice cream. But even more, when the time comes, we may have changed, and we may realize that we want something better than candy and ice cream anyway.

I do not say the experiment has to be this way, only that it usually comes much slower than we think we need. Why? Because there’s something valuable in cultivating belief. Thus, God’s answers will come at the level that we can understand, the intensity that we can appreciate, and at the frequency that we can bear. I don’t presume to answer all the questions of prayer at this time, nor do I presume to know all the answers, but I have thought much on the topics of both answered and unanswered prayer. My guess is that there will be posts that explore some of these questions later on.

Apr 14, 2008

Desire for Truth: A Clarification

There is a very interesting exchange in comments that may be worth the read. For those who aren’t interested in the exchange, I’ve included here some responses. Most of these are in clarification of the previous post.

… the whole point of performing a scientific experiment is to provide empirical data. True. As I mentioned before, this is where the analogy with science fails. I continue to use the term "experiment" because it can be approached in an experimental way, i.e., there are (and will be) steps given in pursuit of knowledge, which steps will produce a result, likely immeasurable. I think I’ve mentioned that with the experiment that I will outline, the results will likely be based on personal experience and not based on empirical data through current scientific measurement. The logic is as follows: if God does exist, He has the power to make Himself known empirically, scientifically, measurably—yet He does not. Those who have come to a knowledge of God have done so through experiences that are rooted first in belief, insofar as I can tell. The experiment of belief, as I have called it, is not scientific, in that it uses unempirical methods. But it is, as far as the Oxford English Dictionary is concerned, an experiment, given that it is “an action or operation undertaken in order to discover something unknown” or “a test, trial”. So, even though it does not fit the terms of a scientific experiment, it is on all counts an experiment. (Interesting side note: as we dig into the etymological foundation of “experiment”, we learn that it has the same Latin roots as “experience”.)…

…We recognize that as a sentient being, God would not be a function; He is not restricted to predictable results like an algorithm or petri dish measurements. Just as we never know how an intelligent person will respond to questions, we cannot assume that God has to meet our answers in the way we thought best. If He exists, we cannot program His reaction or response, expecting that if we ask X, He will automatically respond Y in the way and with the timing that we want. While we cannot predict the manner or the timing of the answer from God, He has promised to respond to and answer the appropriate application of belief, according to those who have come to know Him. I suggest that there may be something in belief worth cultivating (a topic to be explored later), providing us with at least partial explanation for why belief may be a prerequisite for knowledge of God…

…implicit in our performing experiments, is the willingness to give up the status quo if it is not true. That same willingness is what I was trying to refer to as the prerequisite for the experiment of belief. We’re willing to accept the consequences of believing if that is what is required.

…Desire to know the truth… is enough, and with that desire, we acknowledge, there comes the equal willingness to pay the price to know…
…The first step in gaining any kind of knowledge is to really desire to know the truth. I belabor, but not regretfully, thoughts that might help others to develop the desire for truth, and with that, the assurance that they will have to seek after it. I was trying to convey our necessity of being open to new knowledge and of being willing to experiment, to seek, to move, and not just passively hope that knowledge will bonk us on the head like the proverbial Newtonian apple. I intend that for believers and non-believers alike…

… First, here is what I am not referring to: “God, I want you to be there, please be there, I really need it,” and then convincing oneself that what you really want is true…
… what I am referring to is this: “I have heard from a variety of people that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if You are God, will you help me to know You? I would give away my current lifestyle and thought tradition; I would give up whatever necessary to know this truth, that I may deepen the meaning and richness of my life.” The statement questions: what are we willing to pay for what would be the greatest knowledge in the universe? If it were knowledge that we obtained, would we be willing to take the truth, no matter what it implied? I think having that desire, that hunger for truth, is necessary. Desire for a certain outcome to occur is not what is required: it is the willingness to take the consequences no matter the punishment. I asked myself, would it be enough to say: “God, I have not previously believed in you, feeling there was no evidence to support it. But I am willing to change my belief system and who I have become if you are there. If you truly exist, I want to know you.” My feeling is yes, if the desire for truth produced sufficient humility to the point that one is willing to address God. Perhaps the greatest interference with receiving results from this experiment is in fact the willingness to receive an answer…
… The argument to “desire” to believe is more akin to the willingness to surrender one’s own opinion or viewpoint of something for more accurate information, if it exists. That is the desire that we all must have…

Apr 4, 2008

Prerequisite for the Experiment of Belief: Desire

If belief is the only tool, what of those who feel they can’t believe? There are many who may read this blog and say, “That’s nice that belief is the only tool that you can use to know God, but I just can’t believe at all. I feel I’d be giving in to superstition” or “I just can’t believe in something that I can’t see and for which I find no empirical evidence.” I can empathize with this statement. I personally hope and search for empirical things and am skeptical of some claims from believers.

Something has brought you this far. Whether to get an answer for yourself about these questions, or to try to refute my words; out of curiosity, or out of trying to objectively understand a believer’s point of view, or, perhaps, because you may already agree with me, you have come and you’re willing to read. And hopefully, you’re willing to try the only tool we have for knowing: to believe.

There are many who say they would be willing to believe if there was some great and irrefutable manifestation of God’s existence, such as the earth beginning to orbit the sun in the opposite direction and us not feeling the reversal or flying off the planet—then, they say, they would believe. And that desire to have such a manifestation is understandable; nothing speaks to our intellects like direct, objective accounts, preferably measured by third-party scientists (if such neutrality existed regarding belief in God).

But the problem is that such a grandiose manifestation doesn’t create belief. If it came from God, it would produce knowledge: He could make it very obvious. However, as we’ve already discussed, there seems to be some redeeming quality about belief that God wants us to cultivate. As far as I know, all those people who have come to an undeniable knowledge of God have not done so solely, even primarily, through empirical evidences; they have done so through the tool of belief.

(I can imagine many thinkers willing to attempt to prove that turning the globe backwards couldn’t possibly be miraculous or divine, or that nothing, for that matter, could have divine origins, no matter how creative the physical manifestation is. As I said before, there are many who just don’t want to believe, and as such, there will be relatively nothing, except an actual beholding of God after death, that will seem convincing. They may say, “Well, if divine events or miracles were possible, I would not deny them, but since I know that they are not possible, there must be another explanation.” There are many who share this circular reasoning: “I don’t believe that miracles, however defined, are real, therefore your belief they are real is unfounded.” To those, I share my thoughts, and encourage them to at least be open-minded to those who feel differently.)

Even with undeniable knowledge of God, if some supernatural bizarreness were to happen, there would be plenty of scholars willing to attempt to show why it was a natural occurrence. People always seem to be able to convince themselves to believe or disbelieve evidences, depending what they want to believe—I have to recognize this statement from my standpoint as a believer. (This point in greater detail: forthcoming.) Belief on the part of scientists is akin to the belief that we are talking about: they, in order to perform an experiment, have to have some idea of what they think is going to happen. They have a belief in an idea, which they test. We also must have belief in an idea which we test, but the test we perform cannot be done with laboratory study.

This is where the necessity for the desire to believe is apparent. Without a desire to believe, we definitely won’t go on believing. This point resembles in some ways my previous point about “don’t want to believe” and “can’t believe”.

For some, asking the questions “Is God there? Does He care? What is His role in my life?” can be liberating. It can provide meaning to life and answers to deep questions of identity. It can provide peace. In a previous entry I mentioned a modified version of Pascal’s wager. Now, I understand that there are arguments all around the wager itself; we won’t justify Pascal’s logic. But the wager does illustrate a point: If God exists and can provide a happiness and joy greater than anything that we can find in this life, wouldn’t it be worth any price in this life to find out if that is true?

Though this is not the case with all who don’t believe, I have noticed that there are many who don’t believe because of what that would entail. If there is a God, the ones who know of Him historically speaking, in their various ways, say He expects righteousness, however defined. I will site a story from a Judeo-Christian text that gives an example of people who have no desire to believe because of what it entails. I recognize that there are those who disregard sacred writ, so for those people, I offer it as an illustration of the principle.

Ahaz was a king in the time of the Judeo-Christian prophet Isaiah. He didn’t really want anything to do with God and didn’t really live in the way God would expect him to, even though his kingdom was about to be attacked, and he would need all the deus ex machina he could muster. Isaiah, who is the mouthpiece for God in this record, offered Ahaz a remarkable proposition that many of us wish that we could have offered us. Isaiah said, “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God.” Basically, ask for anything as proof that He exists, and you can know that God exists and is available to help you. God is actually concerned. I think many of us would say, “Yeah! Have God do such-and-such! Then I’d believe!”

There would be many who would take that offer, but if God is interested in cultivating belief, there must be something else. In response to this question, Ahaz said, “No. I will not ask, and I will not test the Lord.” Why? Why on earth would someone turn down the opportunity like this? He had everything to gain from the experience, didn’t he? Everything except one thing: if Ahaz knew or even believed that God existed, he would have to change his behavior to the way Isaiah told him God expected him to act. This story is illustrative of people whom I have met. Sometimes we are too concerned about protecting our small piece of intellectual turf or our demands for hedonic rights or our fear of losing something that is popular, convenient, individualistic, or prestigious. Being more concerned about maintaining our status quo than learning if God (or anything) is real gets in the way of even beginning to really try experimenting. The desire needed to move forward or to have belief is gone.

That is not to say that those who prefer to never ask the question are somehow inferior people. They obviously have found something worth living for, which can be commendable. But if God does exist, passing up the offer to come to know Him, just because we’ve found something satisfactory to bide our time, would deprive ourselves of greater richness, depth, and joy in life and eventually, a knowledge that discloses meaning in life.

I repeat: we have to desire the answer to this question before we can start asking the question. I have known another great many people, perhaps more than the refusing group to which I had just referred, who felt they performed the experiment of faith and received no results. I had shared with them some ideas as to how they could go about trying and verifying, which I will include here in an upcoming post. It seemed to me that they had tried these suggestions, but without the desire to believe. Sometimes they did it because they liked me and wanted to do it to please me. Sometimes they did it just to prove me wrong. But oftentimes they did it without the desire of knowing for themselves. And without that desire, they learned nothing. Though they went through the motions, they did not want to believe, and therefore never actually performed the experiment. It would be like trying to study the stars through a telescope, by looking through the telescope, focusing it very well, but never taking the lens cap off.

I know of people who tried suggestions given to them by believers with great diligence, and were frustrated that results did not come in the way they expected. When I asked them about believing, many had never actually started that part. They never desired to believe. I would ask them, “Just think hypothetically: if God did exist, and He did let you know what you’re asking for, but as a consequence you would have to change your lifestyle, leaving friends, maybe giving up some vice, or surrendering some behavior, would you still be willing to find out?” Those who felt like they had performed the experiment and had received nothing (from my personal experience only, N=about 45) invariably said either “No” or “I’d have to think about it”, meaning they hadn’t actually had the desire to believe up to that point. I was always surprised at the honesty of their answers, because I personally would feel sheepish for doing something like this just for the means and not for the ends. The ends in this case would usually entail that we change: we would have new experiences that we need to factor in to our calculations. If we were just going to ignore the experiences, why have them in the first place?

The desire to believe can be cultivated for some by contemplating those difficult questions of “why am I here?” and “does life have meaning?” and “can these answers be found?” I leave it to the reader to figure out what questions they have, what they’d be willing to give up in response to those answers, and ask themselves if they have the desire to perform such an experiment.