For Christianity, prayer is not a non-essential activity. It is as necessary to the Christian life as blood is to the human body. But there are perplexing questions that surround the activity of prayer, and that is what I hope to poke at in a series of posts that begins with this one.
To get at the matter, I am going to enlist one of my favorite thinkers, John Polkinghorne, who is a theoretical physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest. In his excellent book, Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion, Polkinghorne writes a chapter entitled, "Can a Scientist Pray?" He starts the chapter asking this question taking note that prayer can mean different things, such as the wonder a person of faith might sense as she enjoys the beauty of creation. Yet, Polkinghorne notes that the difficult questions surrounding prayer have to do specifically with petitionary prayer-- the kind of prayer that makes requests to God.-- and that is the focus of the chapter.
First, it needs to be said that prayer is a biblical activity. There are prayers uttered throughout the Bible. Many of the Psalms are petitionary prayers. The Gospels indicate that Jesus prayed regularly and taught his disciples a prayer that is uttered in worship some two thousand years later in churches all over the world (Mathew 6:9-13).
Polkinghorne thinks that prayer is a very natural human activity. I am not sure he is right on this, but he is certainly correct to note the significance of prayer in Christian experience. He speaks of his experience visiting parishioners in the hospital, particularly those who were very ill and the almost urgent need he had to pray for them. He writes, "I did not do so expecting that each would be granted some instant miracle, but, rather as a way of sharing in their experience and of seeking God's grace and presence for them in what was happening, which might bring either recovery or the acceptance of death" (p. 79). Polkinghorne also relates how important the prayers of others were to him when he was in the hospital extremely ill.
It is one thing to speak of the importance of prayer in the personal experience of many, but is that all prayer really is-- a comforting human activity that can be explained psychologically? Polkinghorne gets to the heart of the matter in question:
Can we really pray today in a way that asks things of God? In a drought, could we pray for a change in the weather? When people believed that rain came from turning on the heavenly tap, it might have made sense to do so. Now we're a bit more sophisticated. Doesn't the weather just happen? Hasn't science shown us that the world is so orderly and regular that there's no room left for God to do anything in particular?
Is prayer more than wishful thinking on our part?
To be continued...