A Few Thoughts on Prayer

I. There comes a moment in many church services when the congregation is asked to share cares and concerns, and someone “asks prayers for…”. Whenever we pray for this or that, in church or not, what really are we doing? The answer to this question is manifold, and includes insights from the social sciences as well as cutting edge research from quantum physics. But let’s begin with Jesus.

There is a section in the gospel that offers some particularly helpful insight. In the story Jesus tells his hearers: If you are a parent and your child asks for bread, would you give a stone instead? Of course not. It’s the same with your heavenly parent. If you ask, God will give. But what is it that God will give? How will God answer your request? Answer: with the gift of the Spirit.

“And I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion? If 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?”  (Luke 11:9-13)

The indication here is that the answer to prayerful request is not the new bike, not health, peace, or justice, not any of the results that we usually pray for. It is, rather, the gift of the Holy Spirit. What is this gift? It is a heightened awareness of who God is, who you are, and who your neighbor is. The answer to prayer, quite simply, is a level of consciousness that is more in tune with God’s ever-abiding love. Inasmuch as prayer leads to this result, prayer is its own answer! As that awareness grows, we will become ever more conscious of God’s presence. God is always for us, in every way we can imagine and those we can’t. Our task is to become ever more aware of this love, and talking to God can assist that process.

II.  Not only must we see that prayer is its own answer, but we must also recognize that God cannot answer prayer in the usual sense. People ask God for everything. Save the miners, guide the surgeon’s hand, cure my friend, help the deal go through, help our team win, bless America. It seems in each case that the operating assumption is that God can do anything S/He chooses to do, but somehow needs a little push from us. The presupposition of divine omnipotence is the foundation for prayer in the minds of most people, and that means miracles are possible. From this perspective, God just interferes in the natural course of events and does whatever seems best, therein providing the answer to prayer.

The concept of divine omnipotence, however, is very problematic, and the problem pertains to the existence of suffering and evil in the world. Most simply put: If God is loving on the one hand, and all-powerful on the other, why does God allow suffering? Why does God allow those situations that call for intercessory prayer in the first place? This dilemma seems inescapable. The only solution, it would seem, is to say that in the divine omnipotence God chose not to be omnipotent in relating to creation. God decided to limit God’s power. Forced to choose between God’s power and God’s love, how can we not choose God’s love? But in that case, asking God to do something just doesn’t work. Of what effect, then, is prayer?

As we saw above, when we inquired into Jesus’ teaching on prayer as presented in the gospels, we found that the answer to prayer was “the gift of the Holy Spirit”. That is to say, the answer to prayer is not that God do what we ask, but rather that the very act of praying enhances our awareness of God, opening our eyes more and more to the divine Presence. Furthermore, as we become more enlightened, we ourselves become more able to let God’s light shine through us.

God is present everywhere- rocks, trees, planets, people. God is around us everywhere, but for the most part is hidden from view because our blindness gets in the way. The void blocks the vision. But prayer chips away at the void, and prepares us for moments of revelation, those times when we become enlightened enough to sense and receive God’s love. Conversation with God is a very good thing, as long as we don’t demand of God what God cannot do. Conversation with God is a very good thing, because we become more aware of God’s love, and we then can become the occasion for others to find God’s love through us.

III. Prayer, of course, need not be asking God to do something. It can also be an expression of our gratitude. Many prayers are prayers of thanksgiving. Prayer also need not be limited to words, whether silent or spoken. We can be thankful even as we hear, look, and touch. And prayer bonds people. The prayers of intercession and thanksgiving offered in a church service bring people together and focus their common attention. Prayer can also be seen as an act of commitment: why would you ask God to do something without also dedicating your own life to achieve that very thing? All of these psychological, sociological, and, indeed, political dimensions are embodied in a simple act of prayer.

IV. From these perspectives, we might even say that a non-religious secular humanist can pray. When a person’s eyes swell with tears of joy, when a person’s eyes swell with tears of sorrow, when one is committed to the service of those suffering injustice, when compassion for the other directs one’s life- are not these moments of connection with the divine that are the equivalent of prayer?

V. There is more to say. Very recently, a team of quantum physicists apparently proved the existence of what is called particle entanglement. The basic idea is that when a particle is split into two, one has a “spin” in one direction, the other a “spin” in the other direction. The really crazy part is that if one can change the spin of one particle, the spin of the other particle is also instantaneously reversed, regardless of the distance between the two, and with no agent of causation. If two particles are entangled, and they are on opposite sides of the universe, changing one will instantly change the other. Such a prediction has long been part of quantum theory, a conjecture that Einstein pooh-poohed as “spooky action at a distance” that violated his theories of relativity. At last, however, the theory has been experimentally verified. In a Dutch laboratory, physicists worked with entangled particles that were separated by three meters, changed one, and that in turn instantly changed the other, with no agent of causality. As experimentation becomes more sophisticated, the separation distance will be vastly increased and the “instantaneous” quality will become even more impressive.

How, you may ask, is this related to prayer? The answer is unclear. At the least, quantum entanglement raises serious theological questions, for at the most basic level, we are forced to re-think causality. How is it possible that an event on one side of the universe can instantly affect something on the other side, wherever that may be? Does the word “causality” make sense in this context? Can God be said to cause anything?

Some people believe that nothing exists other than some sort of universal consciousness, whatever that might mean. From this perspective, everything, including us, is simply part of the One. Along this line but from another perspective, 20th century theologian Paul Tillich spoke of God as the Ground of Being, Das Grund, or Being-Itself, and he tried to identify this God with the God of the Bible, a God who wills and acts and loves in history. Whether he was successful or not in making that identification is questionable. How do we pray to the Ground of Being? How does the Ground will and love? Or what does it mean to pray to a universal consciousness of which we are a part? Does the energy of my prayer provide that extra little bit of energy that makes something happen? Am I the 100th monkey? the tipping point?

It seems that no one can understand God, and it behooves us to continually maintain open minds, especially when it comes to new discoveries. New discovery, however, cannot invalidate the old truth, the truth that Christians learn from Jesus, Buddhists from Buddha, and secular humanists from life, and that is that God, however described, is love, and that we are included in this love. For this we offer our prayer of thanks.

Based in part on my book, The Void and the Vision

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