“When Prayer Meets Science”

May 6, 2012


II Chronicles 7:12-18

Philippians 4:4-9


We’ve been doing a lot of reading and talking and thinking about faith and science around here in recent months. There have been conversations about the origin of the universe, the evolution of life on earth, the exploration of the human genome, quantum physics, and the nature of truth. We’ve started to ask about the practical implications that new developments in science might have on the life of faith.

So this morning, let’s think together about what happens when prayer meets science. It occurred to me that this title suggests some bad experiment: pouring a test tube of prayer into a boiling beaker of science to see what happens—some noxious gas rising into the air or an explosion.

Maybe there’s a better way to think about prayer and science.

We can begin with a sense of wonder. Wonder at creation carries us quite a distance. And perhaps we can even understand wonder as a kind of prayer—the creatures giving awestruck praise for the creation in which we are astonished and grateful to find ourselves. This is the prayer that occurs as much in Van Allen Hall and the Biology Buildings that are our neighbors as in our sanctuary. As the physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne wrote: I believe that many scientists pray without being aware of it, for their experience of wonder at the marvelous order of the world is surely to be understood theologically as an act of praise to the Creator.”[1]

If God is a distant Creator we might stand in awe and wonder, we might be filled with gratitude. But we would not pray and look and listen for a response.

The good news of Christianity announces that the Creator does care about the creation, that the living God hears the prayers of the living creatures. We look to Jesus as the revelation of what God is like, indeed, we proclaim Jesus to be the incarnation of God. We listen as he tells us to pray: “give us, forgive us, deliver us.” We watch as he feeds the people, as he offers forgiveness of sins, as he leads his followers.

Responding to the invitation of Jesus, we pray. We expect that in some way our prayers will be answered. For Christians, prayer becomes a problem when it seems to be “unanswered,” when the loving Creator to whom we pray seems impassive and unconcerned.

When our prayer moves from wondrous awe to actively petitioning God, questions are raised, not only in our own hearts but also in the minds of scientists.

Every now and then a new “study” comes out that purports to either “prove” or “disprove” the effectiveness of prayer. All of this makes a lot of people uneasy. Some scientists worry that empirical studies of prayer will be misused to advance religious agendas. Some religious people worry that scientific testing could undermine faith.

There was a study a few years ago of the effect of prayer on over 1,800 heart bypass patients. You might remember that the results were not encouraging. The research found that the patients showed no benefit when strangers prayed for their recovery. And patients who knew they were being prayed for actually had a slightly higher rate of complications. The headlines announced:

“Prayers on others’ behalf show no effect in speeding recovery,” and

            “Study concludes praying for sick doesn’t aid recovery,” and

            “‘Distant’ prayer for ill called ineffective.”

Well, all right then.

Reports of this study led Martin Copenhaver, the Senior Minister at the Wellesley Congregational Church in Massachusetts to imagine writing a memo to his congregation: “Dear Friends: You can stop praying now. In fact, as your pastor, I am asking you: please stop praying…At our church prayers for others will cease until further notice…In light of this study, we will be making some changes at church. When I leave your bedside after visiting you in the hospital, I will now say, “I just want you to know that I will not be praying for you.”

I haven’t changed my pastoral practices to that extent—but is this the direction in which science is taking us?

A few years earlier the pendulum was on the other side. There were books with titles like Prayer Is Good Medicine and The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer.

Ah, those were the days. As a minister I could stand up in the pulpit and tell people we had scientific “proof” that prayer made a positive difference.

We in the church have a hard enough time understanding prayer—what it means, what it does. How much more difficult it must be for those outside the church to get it. This becomes apparent anytime scientists start to study things like the efficacy of prayer.

Brandeis sociologist Wendy Cadge evaluated eighteen published studies on intercessory prayer that were conducted between 1965 and 2006. Collectively, the studies provide a fascinating snapshot of changing American religious demographics, evolving ideas about the relationship between religion and medical science, and the development of the clinical trial as the gold standard of biomedical research.

The researchers leading the studies applied clinical scientific methodologies to the study of intercessory prayer, but Cadge found that even that approach was fraught with problems. For example, researchers asked whether the people not being prayed for by the intercessors were truly a control group, since their family members were probably praying for them. Researchers also asked what the right “dosage” of prayer would be, how prayers should be offered, and what to do about non-Christian intercessors.

The somewhat puzzled Cadge said: “I do not know why physicians and scientists conducted these studies, but personal religious beliefs appear to have played a role, along with curiosity…With double blind clinical trials, scientists tried their best to study something that may be beyond their best tools,” she said, concluding, that the studies reflect “more about [the scientists] and their assumptions than about whether prayer ‘works.’”[2]

Think of your own praying. Does it “work?” Is prayer “working” even your goal when you pray?

At the forefront of the current dialogue between faith and science are the questions: “How does God work in the world? What does it mean to say that God acts?” The brief answer would be, “We’re not sure, but a scientific worldview does not rule out God’s action in history and in life.” So John Polkinhorne, after much consideration, states with confidence, “Taking science seriously does not imply a necessary denial of the reality of divine providential action. The interactive God of theism is one to whom it is possible to address petitions for particular outcomes in particular circumstances.” [3] That’s a theological way of saying, “It’s a good thing to pray.”

Certainly we have grown in faith beyond the childish point of thinking about prayer as “a cosmic crowbar.” You know, prayer as a lever to push God in a certain direction. Obviously a god who is there to our bidding is not the living God we read about in scripture and encounter in Jesus.

And yet, Paul urges the Philippians: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Prayer suffused with thanksgiving recognizes God as the giver of all good things, understands that all of life is lived in the presence of this generous Giver. To pray in this manner is to recognize that there is a power in the universe that is immeasurably superior to ourselves. To pray is to confess that there is a limit to our ability—to know, to understand, to act, to love. To pray is to confess that God is greater.

Dale Matthews is one of those physicians who is convinced of the healing power of prayer. He tells of a conversation with one patient in which she said, “My upbringing trained me to grin and bear it, no matter how hard things were, so I though that’s what God wanted me to do, too—to just be a good girl and keep a stiff upper lip. It turns out all along I could have been saying, ‘Okay God, you know I need your help with this!”[4]

So we will pray for all manner of needs—health, wisdom, good relationships, well being, common sense. Anything and everything are worth praying about. Do you remember Martin Luther’s extensive list to explain the meaning of “bread” in the Lord’s Prayer? It included food, drink, clothes, shoes, houses, farms, fields, land, money, property, a good marriage, good children, honest public servants, a just government, favorable weather, health, honors, good friends and loyal neighbors. Since Luther others have agreed that we can think of “our daily bread” in the widest sense of the term. And certainly we could quite quickly expand this list to include other necessities for our contemporary lives. All of our needs can be the subjects of our prayers.

When we pray, we seek to offer our human will to God to be used in the process whereby the will of God will be done. It’s been suggested that we might use a scientific metaphor here and think of prayer as seeking a “laser-like coherence between divine and human wills. Laser light, as you know, is powerful because it is what the physicists call coherent. All the waves are in step, so that all the crests coincide and add up, and all the troughs coincide and add down, yielding maximum effect.”[5]

So when we pray, we are not seeking to substitute God’s action for our own. Rather we are making a commitment to will and to work with God. When we pray for the homeless and the hungry in Iowa City, we are also saying that we will work toward their well-being. When we pray for those who are ill, we commit ourselves to be a part of that healing in whatever we are able and to look for that healing in whatever way it might be made manifest.

Yes, even as we think this way, questions start to arise. Why should God answer my prayer and not the prayer of someone else? Why do some—all—of my prayers go unanswered? Perhaps these are the wrong questions. They assume that God has not answered and that we will know an answer when we see it or it will come in the way and at the time we desire. Human imagination is limited, and we should not presume that we know all of the ways in which God can respond to us.[6]

Or as it has been said elsewhere: “If God doesn’t seem to be giving you what you ask, maybe God’s giving you something else.”[7]

With prayer, as with so much else, we begin and end with wonder. We are surrounded by mystery, but in Christ we have faith to say that the mystery is one of love.

Scientists will continue to do their important work. They help us to see with wonder, to better grasp the mystery. In doing so, science also issues its own call to prayer. And I think we can find encouragement to persevere in prayer, not from the positive studies of prayer, but from the new openness to God that contemporary science point to.

The value, the efficacy of prayer can never be proved by science, but it is seen in our lives each day.

[1] John Polkinghorne, Science and Religion in Quest of Truth, 2011, pg. 91.

[2] Journal of Religion, June 2009, reported in Science Daily, 6/17/09 http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090617154401.htm

[3] Polkinghorne, op. cit., pg. 92.

[4] Dale Matthews, The Faith Factor, pg. 204..

[5] Polkinghorne, op.cit., pg. 92-93.

[6] Kamila Blessing, It Was a Miracle, pg. 22.

[7] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg. 37.