* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Evaluating the Power of Prayer: Is It Magic, Meaningless, or Personally Transformative?

A couple of times in the story of Isaac and Rebekah, the practice of prayer comes up. It will continue to come up frequently in scripture, obviously, so a basic understanding of prayer seems appropriate at this point. Even among religious people, there are different beliefs about the value of prayer. Some people claim that prayer can heal disease, mend broken relationships, provide guidance or comfort. However, there are also medical studies which suggest that people have more post-surgery complications if they know that strangers are praying for them. Whatever the case, any understanding of prayer has to take into consideration the belief system in which it originates.

Most Christians would agree that the God they believe in is omniscient, omnipotent, and loving and compassionate beyond human capability. In light of this view of an external divine being, prayer can have only a few possible interpretations. Sincere prayer can only be magic, meaningless, or solely valuable to the person doing the praying. Public prayer can also be used by people who want to convey the appearance of righteousness and holiness for political reasons, and prayers can be used by people who want an excuse for certain actions or decisions. These distortions are less than sincere, however, and this is an important distinction to make. It goes without saying that the practice of using prayer to manipulate other people’s opinions or perceptions is despicable and abusive.

But why would sincere, effective prayer be equated with magic? Any time people believe that they can have a supernatural effect on the world around them, this is the practice of magic, witchcraft, or alchemy. If God can be convinced to take action by a person’s persistence or faith, this actually places power in the hands of the believer rather than a deity. It is really no different from deciding that if the right color candles are lit and the right incantation spoken, you can make another person fall in love with you, or recover from an illness. Of course, one may believe that God is a loving and all-powerful being who simply waits for the actions of believers in order to have an impact in the world. There’s nothing to prevent a person from believing that the prayers of the faithful can move God to action. But a person who believes in that particular flavor of witchcraft or magic should at least recognize it for what it is.

If there is an all-knowing, loving deity who cares for people, then it follows that such a being would do what it was willing to do, whether people asked for it or not. If God intended to heal someone, it would seem that the person would get healed whether anyone prayed for it or not. So, if prayers are not magic, and if God is completely powerful and loving, then there’s actually no real value to prayer. God will do what God will do, whether believers request it or not. Otherwise, people are constantly at the mercy of those who choose to pray rather than a divine power.

None of this changes when one considers the idea of prayers for guidance. In witchcraft terms, this would be called divination. People have also used astrological charts, tea leaves, Tarot cards, bones, gut instinct, self-help books, and any number of other resources for guidance. It’s natural to want to know what the right answer is before making a decision. But if one can coax an answer from God by fervent prayer, this is really no different from sorcery. Likewise, if God wishes to put a believer’s feet on a particular path, wouldn’t he do so with or without a specific request for guidance? There is nothing loving or compassionate about playing games with people’s fates based on whether they ask the right questions.

There is another option, however. Whether any sort of divine being exists or acts in the world, prayer can alter the perspective and the attitude of the person doing the praying. When people take the time to quiet their minds and sincerely align their attitudes with their values, there can be a profound personal impact. One may not be able to cure cancer with an attitude adjustment, but a person can certainly find peace and guidance from a still moment of contemplation or prayer. There is also the matter of gratitude to be considered. Recognizing and expressing one’s gratitude can be an extraordinary way to align one’s actions and intentions with deeply held values.

The objection may be voiced that prayer must be directed outward, by definition. How can one seek guidance if there is no higher power to do the guiding? How can one express free-floating gratitude without someone to be grateful to? I honestly don’t see the problem with turning inward for guidance, or in acknowledging gratitude without a deity to address. Just as happiness and anger and sadness are emotions that don’t always have discretely defined objects, gratitude is an emotion. One can be thankful without addressing the thankfulness to anyone in particular. And I believe that many people already know the answers to their important decisions, although we don’t always trust ourselves. We want some sort of reassurance, especially when our ideas seem out of sync with mainstream thought. Realizing one’s capability to guide oneself can empower a person to take action even when there are no blatant signs from above to rely on.

In fact, taking action is perhaps the most effective way to ensure that a prayer will be fulfilled. There is perhaps a temptation to wait for an external deity to do something. This temptation is fueled by a perception of an external divine that is wiser than any person and capable of producing miracles with the same ease that human beings breathe. Without an illusory deity to grant wishes, it falls to the individual to act in accord with a sincere prayer. Hopefully, such action will not only be in accord with an ephemeral wish, but also in alignment with deeply held values. So often, people can be their own answer to prayer, if they are only willing to act in accord with what they want and bring forth the power of creation that dwells within every person.

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