Wednesday, August 24, 2011

About Prayer and Stuff...

On the way to Starbucks today I saw this sign on a church lawn. I made my friend stop the car and I snapped the photo.
I thought I'd like to discuss my ideas about the thought process that might have gone into such a public advertisement.
[You have too much time on your hands, Cipriano!]
I know. I'm on vacation. So here I go…
Firstly, what I have to say is not some sort of blanket criticism of the sign. I have nothing against anyone that would drive by and think it the most profound statement they ever saw. Especially since a decade ago I would have been that person. My ideas, d'apres mon experience [as the French might put it] have definitely morphed, no doubt about that. I have nothing against faith, per se. But I do feel the urge to address some of the fridge-magnet mentality of what is being suggested here. Mostly I would pose questions.
Prayer does not change God.
Why should anyone do it, then?
Well -- because the practice of doing it will change you, we are told.
Change a person…. how?
If I asked the pastor of this church, he or she might say that it gives the person hope. It provides a sense that the situation they or someone else is facing may be altered by an intervention from on high.
Or not.
But the "or not" part is what confuses me, nowadays.
The first part of the sign's statement takes any intervening force directly off the hook. It seems that the important part of the transaction is the "hope" part. It makes me wonder if a similar effect might not be achieved by simply talking to a good friend about what one faces from day to day, vis a vis, living life. Hearing someone say, "I wish you well" or "I'll be thinking of you," etc.
Granted, such a privilege may not be afforded a person that is drowning in the Atlantic, surrounded by circling shark fins. In that situation, I too would surely call out to... something to help me. The thing is [and I know it's the glass-half-empty outlook, but] ultimately, I've come to believe that my real hope on that day would lie somewhere among only two or three real tangible scenarios:
1) How hungry those sharks are.
2) How fast can I grow gills.
3) Is there a boat passing by?

Again, I am not trying to belittle what we call "belief" or "trust" in God -- but doesn't experience sort of show us that no matter how hard we pray [or not] life is going to happen to us, regardless? Some things good, some things bad? Pretty much all the time? When it comes our time to say goodbye to it all, won't the particulars of our demise, whether peaceful or tragic, be more dependent on mitigating circumstances than on either prayer or divine intervention in response to those prayers?
Never mind death, but if we are in financial crisis -- is this the time to pray [and hope]… or is it a time to quit being stupid with your money?

So essentially, the sign on the lawn tells us we will be rewarded if we hope.
And I believe there is a measure of truth in that.
But where the sign most crucially errs is in suggesting that a) prayer has everything to do with the attainment of that hope, and b) that the change will [ipso facto] be positive or beneficial.

I would like to suggest that prayer, at best, can have a placebo effect.
Are placebos, necessarily, a bad thing? No.
But what needs to be understood is that their effectiveness is an exception to the rule. Medically speaking, placebos have been known to be a source of healing for some people because of some sort of connection between hope and health. There are cases where it is evident that through hope alone, the body itself can be cheated of its own legitimate ailments. But what if our hospitals adopted this procedure as a first [or only] course of action? It would be absurd. Placebos are nothing better than a last resort, a last ditch effort.
So what is it about the sign that bothers me?
Well, not a whole lot, really. In fact, I believe there is a lot of truth to it. For one thing, I completely believe the first part of it is truer than true. I would probably attend a church that had a sign out front that said ONLY that part.
What bothers me is the subtle nature of the negative possibilities of the second part of the sign.
Just as in medicine not all placebos are effective, neither in prayer are all hopes beneficial, in their effect. "Answers" are not only an exception to the rule, but [I maintain] they are also a manifestation of what would have happened anyway! The boost that any "answer" may have received from hope is, at best, negligible. And always questionable. Beyond this, I believe that a lot of people are actually damaged by prayer and/or the "hope" that it engenders. After faithfully living in expectation of a result that never comes, no amount of telling someone that all along it was meant to change their personality and not the circumstances, will assuage their disappointment and grief.
In the Bible, Jesus said, "Ask and it shall be given to you…" [Matt.7:7]
This sign seems to be revising that to become, "Ask, and it may possibly be considered, but most likely, not." The important thing being how much hope you've gained.
My only soapbox here is to suggest that there are other, more rational ways to live, and have hope. A god who is entitled to answer prayer[s] in several diametrically opposite ways and yet retain ascribed attributes of omnipotence and omniscience, is to me, at the very least -- self-negating.
Saying God "did" something is not very different from retrospectively saying "What happened happened."

Below is an image taken from my balcony this morning. If you click on it, you will see it in all its glory. It was a gorgeous sunrise.
It strikes me that there was a time when an entire civilization worshipped that glow to the east, as god. That very sun. The same one, even. Think about that. An exploding ball of hydrogen and helium. They addressed all of their hopes to it, in prayer.
Did "it" answer their prayers? I'm thinking not.
It certainly didn't do much for King Tut who died as a teenager, either murdered by a blow to the head or poisoned -- the jury is still out on that one, but it is pretty much affirmed that his death was accidental.
Just makes me wonder is all.
Out front of some pyramid, I envision a big sign in the sand...
Prayer does not change The Sun but it changes the one who prays.

To further investigate this issue, click
--> HERE.
-- Cip



Merisi said...

The greatest danger of blind faith in "prayer" may be that it renders a person passive, awaiting that "someone" will solve the crisis, instead of actively working to change the outcome.

Cipriano said...

Merisi, I agree.
I pray... I mean, I "hope" you are doing fine over there in lovely Vienna.

Priori said...

Prayer does not change God.

Prayer does change the pray-er.

The catch here is that not all of the 'changes' rendered upon oneself through prayer are beneficial. If you pray for the ludicrous to become reality, then of course you are just damaging your perception of what is true and can be, thus deranging yourself. To pray for your favorite hockey teams athleticism, or your 97 year old grandfathers longevity are simple examples of this.

If you pray that your friend gains the wisdom to see that their lot in life is not as bad as they seem to think it is, and you know that this wisdom will only be gained in non-miraculous fashion, they hey, your prayer is great and will help you develop your own sense of compassion. (ps go have a coffee with them and watch how the fact the you are wise enough to recognize the issue to begin with makes you the answer to your own prayers.)

If your prayers reach the point where you are accepting what is, not wishing for anything, just breathing, well, then come teach me how to better pray, because I'd love it to change me.