January 20, 2007

The good folks at National Review Online’s Corner blog have been going round and about on the fertile (and near and dear to me) subject of prayer. It all started Wednesday with this Michael Novak post in response to a column by fellow conservative Heather McDonald in which she forcefully defends her athiesm and conservative principles. in it, Novak writes, in part:

…Second, if Heather “really” wanted to know [re: her comment on ‘the puzzling logic of petitionary prayer’], she would look up some good books on prayer, on which there are thousands.

She might also begin with a slow, meditative reading of the Book of Job, to see how little “moral worthiness” counts in the sufferings (or the relief thereof) that humans endure. God’s ways are his ways, not ours. Everything that happens —everything, good and bad — springs from his will. That is why the great classic prayer of all the prophets and saints, and of Jesus, as of Mary, is (in one form or another) “Thy will be done.” We petition, but we also bow before the inscutable will of God.

Which got Peter Robinson thinking about the nature of suffering, something I’ve also posted on in the past. Robinson himself writes:

I’m always a little taken aback when someone attacks religion because life can prove painful and unjust or because prayers often go unanswered, as if believers simply hadn’t noticed. Praying in Gethsemane, for example, Jesus himself offers a petition that goes unanswered, asking to be spared the bitter cup of crucifixion. Pain? Injustice? Take a look at the Church calendar. The day after Christmas? The feast of St. Stephen, a blameless man executed by stoning. Two days after that? The feast of the Holy Innocents, the infant males whom Herod had slaughtered.

Which, in turn, inspired John Derbyshire to submit this interesting post on Leonhard Euler, considered ‘one of the greatest mathematicians of all time’. Here’s an excerpt from his quote by Euler on the subject of prayer:

“…When, therefore, a man addresses God a prayer worthy of being heard it must not be imagined that such a prayer came not to the knowledge of God till the moment it was formed. That prayer was already heard from all eternity; and if the Father of Mercies deemed it worthy of being answered, he arranged the world expressly in favor of that prayer, so that the accomplishment should be a consequence of the natural course of events. It is thus that God answers the prayers of men without working a miracle.”

Upon which, Novak responded with this post, upon which he closes with this observation:

Under pressure, practically everyone prays. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, he tried hard all his life to be a serious atheist, but even he felt himself breaking out in thanksgiving to God for certain beautiful days, certain stunning events. Of course, he then withdrew these “prayers,” but he quite recognized the naturalness of the impulse in himself. He wrote that being atheist is in practice much harder than many let on. One needs to stay on watch at every moment against little surrenders. The world so often seems “as if” there is a God.

If a committed atheist feels thus, what does one with a hard-won faith feel?

To which Iain Murray then trumped all the cards on the table, so to speak, with this post invoking the words of none other than that literary giant and renowned Christian apologist, C.S Lewis:

“Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men? For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents, whether living or inanimate.

…It is not really stranger, nor less strange, that my prayers should affect the course of events than that my other actions should do so. They have not advised or changed God’s mind — that is, His overall purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.”

Murray then closes with a remark I entirely disagree with:

[Lewis] also points out that prayer is a request – it may, or may not, be granted. That simple realization immediately invalidates all the “medical” studies into the efficacy of prayer, which are junk science whatever result they come up with.

Whether or not the efficacy of prayer, proven or unproven, is, in fact, ‘junk science’ or not, to me has never been at the root of what prayer, even petitioning prayer, is all about. Murray might also be aware of Lewis’ quote that “we pray to know we’re not alone” – one of the most powerful arguments for prayer I’ve ever heard. If all prayer ended up being was an act undertaken purely as a means to get something, we reduce God’s nature to nothing other than some kind of distant loan officer who either approves or rejects your application.

Does prayer work? In the end, it all depends on what the weaning of ‘work’ is? If prayer is, as I believe it is, actions and words that reflect the existence of a Creator, something greater than us, and succeeds in helping us recognize and realize that we are all in need of God’s love and mercy, than yes, prayer works. Does God answer prayers? I believe the answer is yes, but, like Henry Travers’ Clarence to Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, not necessarily in the way they are intended.

Filed in: Religion & Culture by The Great White Shank at 01:23 | Comments Off on On Prayer
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