A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Can a Scientist Pray? (Part 1: Introduction)

Does God answer prayer? Why does it seem as if our prayers are not always answered? What do we pray for? Do we pray to get the job that fifty other people, also in need of employment, have applied for? Do we pray for sunny weather for the family reunion when farmers are praying for rain for their crops? Do we only pray for the big things like peace between warring nations or is it also OK to ask God  for the seemingly trivial matters like not having to wait for a table at the restaurant because we are hungry?

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...


Dr. Tony said...

Can a scientist pray? Does one's vocation remove or enhance their ability to have a spiritual life?

One possible answer might be to say that because scientists "know" things that cannot be answered by prayer, they should leave praying to the professionals such as their minister.

But then that approach would remove their spiritual life and where would they be?

Whether one is a scientist or not, prayer needs to be a critical part of one's life. But we have to realize that sometimes that which we pray for borders on the selfishness. Do I pray for a good grade on my exam as a substitute for having not studied for the exam? I am certain that God will not answer that prayer.

Do we pray that God relieves the suffering of mankind that comes from drought and flood, earthquake and tornado? But again, His response is to push us to do His work.

Sometimes prayer maybe nothing more than something psychological but it puts us in a position where we are more receptive to the things that God would have us do.

And sometimes the prayer that God answers is one that we haven't spoken. I kept thinking that one of Polkinghorne's book is somewhere in my office but I couldn't find it. Seeing the reference you provided allows me to order the book so that I do have it. Somehow that's how prayers work.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your thoughts. As always they are helpful.