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.


Diogenes said...

The fact that even the irreligious have a tendency to "pray" simply demonstrates that human beings have a tendency to enjoy worship, for whatever reason. That prayer makes people feel different is certain; but, feeling different as a result of a prayer says nothing about God's existence.

Prayer does, on the other hand, provide an easy outlet for the religiously inclined. If someone doesn't receive an answer to prayer, it is because "they weren't listening," or "God hasn't answered yet," or "they didn't pray with real intent," or "they weren't looking for the right kind of response." The explanations for the failure of prayer abound. At the same time, the "faithful" are ever watchful to see the results of their prayers. "I was somehow able to pay all my bills this month; God must be listening!" "John made a swift recovery after his car accident; prayer works!" "After praying, I was able to find my car keys; wow!" Of course, no consideration is given to the distinct possibility that the prayer had no impact whatsoever. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell whether prayer helped or not. Even so, believers have a tendency to attribute every good thing that happens to the benevolence of their "God." And this is viewed as a good thing in religious circles.

Mikha'el said...

Thank you, Diogenes, for your comments. They always help me clarify what I have said. I enjoy your comments because they are questions that I, as a thinking believer, have had to rationally understand. I have to hunger for truth.

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.

Surely, there have been abuses of the understanding of prayer. As you noted, “The explanations for the failure of prayer abound,” and there are many people willing to give excuses for not receiving an answer or to attribute things to God seemingly in defense or justification of their faith. But the problem with accusing everyone of doing this is that it reveals an underlying assumption: I assume God doesn’t exist, so they can’t be receiving answers to prayers, so they are just making excuses. Just as often as people don’t acknowledge “the distinct possibility that the prayer had no impact whatsoever”, others don’t acknowledge the possibility that prayer may have had all the impact.

To illustrate these points, I will use the examples that you gave, and contrast the underlying assumptions. If we don’t receive an answer to prayer, we might say any number of things, as you suggested. If we assume that God doesn’t exist, then these explanations seem contrived and ignorant. If we assume that God does exist, they become viable explanations. I recount my analogy in the post: if the child (us) asks for candy (whatever it is we’re asking from God), the parent (God) may display any number of reactions. As a child, we didn’t know how our parents would respond; we hoped that they would respond in the way that we wanted, and when they didn’t, we were disappointed. However, the parent, being much wiser than the child, knew whether or not candy was the appropriate response. Just so, when we are talking about faith and prayer, we may be quick to say that the reasons for not receiving a response are just trying to hide where prayer has failed. But if the underlying assumption is that God is real, any of those explanations is viable, ad infinitum, according to our individual circumstances and our own willingness to believe such an answer, were it given.

Your examples of prayer working express the same idea: if God doesn’t exist, attributing coincidences related to prayer is foolish. If God does exist, then it is good and right for people to react as though He did indeed answer. Yet again, we are left with the observation: people who believe in the efficacy of prayer see God’s hand and people who don’t believe in prayer see lunacy. Both are a matter of belief, and neither can be proven. As a third-party observer, using another’s prayer to prove or deny the existence of God is circular logic. I believe that God exists and answers prayers, thus the experiences I have connected to prayers come from God, therefore God exists; or I don’t believe that God exists and answers prayers, thus the experiences connected to prayers are contrived or psychological, therefore God does not exist. (Remember, in theory, even if all experiences recorded with prayer were errant, God could still exist: He still remains beyond the scope of measurability, as we’ve discussed before.)

However, I do suggest that prayer, to a first person observer, may be a viable medium wherein to receive knowledge. I am not saying it is a one-to-one result; there are many viable reasons for why one might not receive an answer, assuming God exists. However, if God wanted an individual to know, He could bring about knowledge in an individual who met His requirements. I feel that oftentimes those requirements include belief. And one way we can exercise belief is through prayer.