(Another re-posting of an earlier piece. In light of some of the Evangelicals and Mega Churches insistence on staying open, I thought this piece most appropriate during this pandemic)
There is an almost infinite number of writings, texts (in the old-school sense), books, and essays related to the power of prayer. Some of the world’s most learned theologians have written brilliant pieces on the subject.
Which is meaningless since none offer any real proof.
Now my friend and fellow blogger, Kent Harrop, always accuses me of being enamored of science. He would say I see science as the only path to truth. In some ways, he is correct. But I would modify that position with a caveat.
I adhere to the philosophy we may not be able to explain everything. But accepting things without challenge is dangerous. To believe prayer works in the complete absence of any evidence is fraught with danger. We would not tolerate praying over a broken arm as an acceptable form of treating an injured child. Why should we accept praying for something to change as opposed to seeking to make changes happen?
As one of my favorite teacher’s often reminds me when I write these pieces,
“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet, William Shakespeare)
But our point here is the efficacy, or in my perspective the lack thereof, of prayer. I also fear the populist trend in America toward returning to a “better time” which is a smokescreen for Christian domination and lip service to tolerance. That should frighten every thinking American. Thus, my point that if you see a value for prayer in school, or in government proceedings, show me how it makes things better, or offers any beneficial effect.
Given this position, let me say this. A prayer is a powerful tool for the individual. It can bring focus. It can bring revelation. It can bring realization.
What it cannot do is influence the physical world, never has and never will. Only human actions have ever done that, for good or bad.
Now I could spend time recounting the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Bertrand Russell, Rene Descartes, Plato, or even Paul Simon about prayer and how none ever demonstrated any measurable effect in the world.
Instead, I will offer two examples as evidence of my position. One of historical significance and one personal.
Between the years 1933 and 1945 two out of every three European Jews were killed during the Holocaust. I stood in the barracks at Auschwitz and Birkenau. I passed mere feet from the ovens used to burn millions of men, women, and children.
Acts of horror committed by people from a predominantly Christian country, people who prayed to god as well. Did their prayers for success in their actions bear fruit with God?
In the silence of the camps, next to the piles of shoes, bundles of human hair, and images of those turned to ashes by the Nazis, I heard the echoes of the Rabbi’s prayers. The pleadings of mothers. The crying of the children. The helplessness of men praying to God for help.
Obliterated by death and flames.
Unanswered prayers while 6 million Jews were murdered. Unanswered prayers while 50 to 60 million died in the war. Unanswered prayer to end the war. A war that ended with the development of the weapons of our own destruction.
Our prayers didn’t end the war. Our prayers went unanswered unless you see the answer in our discovering the power of the Gods in the form of Atomic weapons.
The Nazi’s burned the Jew in the ovens while people prayed.
The war killed millions while people prayed.
There were billions of unanswered prayers. If it took all that time for God to answer prayers, what’s the point?
Prayers rose, intermingled with the ashes of human beings murdered because of hatred, and God did nothing.
Why? For mankind to find a way to kill not just his fellow man, but to vaporize entire cities and perhaps the planet?
Where was the power of prayer then?
Now, the more personal example. Some would argue such an argument is disingenuous since I believe prayer does not work. This example is not about me, but my mother.
No one embraced her faith with more certainty than my mom. She held onto her belief despite life’s many challenges.
She faced life-threatening health issues. She was a victim of infidelity and the breakup of her marriage. She suffered the loss of a child.
Despite it all, she held onto her religion. To the point many would find troubling. Despite my father’s infidelity, despite his taking her back to court to reduce alimony, she still kept her wedding picture on the wall. Because in her faith, marriage was forever.
My mother believed and never wavered.
Even when my father’s other wife, the woman who was the second part of the infidelity, would call and ask for help in dealing with my father’s demons, my mother never hesitated to offer her assistance.
Because her faith compelled her to.
What has this to do with prayer? Everything.
When my sister Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer, no one prayed harder or in a more sincere way than my mother. No one lived the life expected of her based on the tenets of her Roman Catholic faith more purposefully than my mother. No one held more hope in the power of prayer than my mother.
She would say God’s failure to allow my sister to live, to let her die from cancer, was a mystery of life. A mystery of faith. She would say the prayers worked because God took Mary home.
I would say God broke my mother’s heart if I thought such a thing possible. It is not, because God, in the anthropomorphic interfering in this world sense, isn’t listening.
Would I say my mother’s prayers were wasted? No, because they gave her hope in her helplessness to save her child.
What I would say is blind faith absent proof is a pox on mankind. It tricks us into wasting our time and effort.
Many would argue God answers all prayers, it is our inability to understand the answer that is the problem.
I find that sad. If ever there was a prayer that deserved God’s attention, it was one from my mother. Or, if volume matters, the mothers of six million Jews.
One of my mom’s favorite expressions was life is not fair. We shouldn’t compound that with false hopes.
“We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.” William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice