Friday, January 7, 2011



Any attempt to speak of prayer in the 21st century is likely to lead to a confrontation with a cluster of objections - the two most notable being that prayer is irrelevant in a sophisticated age of science and technology; and that prayer is primarily a solipsistic dialogue with the self. Both rest on a belief that prayer is by its nature psychologically suspect. But its critics, if they are intellectually honest, ought to ask themselves whether they can dismiss or deny profound interior experiences claimed by others merely because they themselves are strangers to those experiences.

We should not lose sight of the fact that psychology itself is a remarkably fluid and mysterious discipline, one that deals with all manner of highly variable conjectures and subjective interpretations. Various schools of analysis have emerged, and partisans often apply their own fixed systems as templates for interpreting each and every human life or dilemma. This methodology, however, tends to reduce the unique human person to a standard issue that can be "treated" by certain established principles. But good science does not proceed in so reductive a fashion.

Just so, it is helpful to recall that no less a figure than Albert Einstein observed that human awareness of the divine could not be summarily discounted, and that in fact (as he wrote) "science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." Since Einstein's death a half-century ago, most scientists would agree that what we call "laws of nature" are best regarded as a series of probabilities in a universe that remains mysterious and open.

The idea that there are fixed laws of nature is in fact useful only as a way of assessing the current state of what is known about the material world: in other words, these so-called laws enable us to understand certain phenomena as they appear to us now, at our current stage of interpreting the world.

On the other hand, the realms of creative thought and art, the worlds of aesthetic and interior spiritual life, gain little from being subjected to a priori principles. In this regard, we can consider that when Aristotle contemplated the universe, when Mozart composed, when Monet painted and when Mendel experimented with plants and seeds, they were engaged in interior activities that were not ultimately comprehensible through merely rational methods.

Still, for some people prayer is fundamentally incompatible with a modern scientific worldview. What good is it, they ask, to pray for rain in the midst of a drought? After all, tomorrow's weather is determined by today's conditions - more accurately, it was determined by yesterday's. A similar argument might be made about the course of an illness. What use is it to pray once all the medical remedies have been applied? Nature, they conclude, has taken and will take its course, either in response to scientific protocols or despite them.

Two replies come to mind. First, we constantly alter the course of "nature" by expressions of our will and in light of evolving knowledge. We seed the clouds; we build breakwaters and construct complex irrigation equipment; we discover that a rare herb just might treat a grave illness. It is ridiculous to suggest that we can always know the circumstances under which a desired end might be accomplished. The second response is more abstract and yet more to the point. Scientists receptive to a mysterious and often unpredictable universe can, as we have seen, admit that the laws of nature have more to do with a current sense of probability than with anything like certainty.
From In Silence - Why We Pray
by Donald Spoto

No comments: