Can a Scientist Pray?
Reflecting on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Two Days after Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 6
Old Testament: 2 Kings 5:19b-27
Epistle: Acts 19:28-41
Psalter: Psalm 119:73-80
Old Testament: Jeremiah 8:4-13
Epistle: Acts 19:28-41
Beckoning God, as you moved in the lives of Elijah and Elisha, move in our lives, inviting us to journey to unknown territory, to listen for your voice, and to speak your prophetic word in a world that does not want to hear. empowered by your Spirit, grant us the courage we need to journey, trust, listen, speak, and accept your commission to be your faithful servant people. Amen.
The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer (Psalm 6:9)
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 an 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 this post.
To get at the matter, I am going to enlist one of my favorite thinkers, the late John Polkinghorne, who was 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.—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 (Matthew 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?
Polkinghorne believes that prayer is more than just wishful thinking. He offers three observations to the contrary—one scientific, one human, and one religious.
First, the scientific reason—the world is not a predictable mechanism. The universe operates in a more subtle way than simply as a large always predictable clock. Polkinghorne offers the weather as an example as it is “incredibly complicated, in a way that makes it impossible to say exactly what will or will not make it rain next Saturday” (Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity, pp. 80-81). The smallest and most unpredictable events can have large consequences in our world and universe.
Second, the human reason—”we didn't actually need modern science to tell us that it’s not all mechanical, for we've always known—as sure as we know anything—that we are not automata” (p. 81).
Human beings truly have choice and the universe can act in random fashion. If human beings can truly act in a way that the future can remain open, then is it unreasonable to think that God can act in the midst of his creation as well?
Third, the religious reason—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all speak of God in personal terms. God is not a force or an abstract and impersonal higher power. Thus, if God is personal and cares for his creation, does it not seem logical that God could and would act in it and also hear our prayers and respond? “The Creator is not just the God of the whole big show, but also the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of you and me. Such a God must be able to do specific things. The laws of nature (which, after all, are themselves just general expressions of the will of the faithful Creator) cannot be such as to prevent divine interaction with creation” (pp. 81-82).
Polkinghorne moves into a discussion of what I will refer to as the sensitive universe. Polkinghorne acknowledges that our understanding here is quite limited. We do not know how the mind and the brain relate, but that doesn't mean we must be agnostic on how it is that we and God might act in the world—and it is this sensitivity of the physical world that assists us as we ponder.
Polkinghorne uses the example of the air around us. He asks this questions: “How accurately do we have to know things at the beginning in order to be able to predict how one of these molecules will be moving after... fifty collisions” (p. 83). It was Isaac Newton who demonstrated that if we know precisely how the air molecules will collide, we can know exactly how each will respond. The problem is there is always some uncertainty. Multiply this uncertainty after thousands of almost instantaneous molecular collisions, and uncertainty increases dramatically. Polkinghorne writes,
A simple calculation leads to the following astonishing conclusion: for air molecules, in less than a millionth of a second, we shall make a serious error in our calculation if we have failed to take into account the effect of an electron (the smallest particle of matter) on the other side of the observable universe (about as far away as you can get) interacting with the air by means of gravitational attraction (the weakest of the forces of nature). In other words, even for a simple system like air, for a period that is a very tiny fraction of a second, its detailed behavior is absolutely unpredictable without literally universal knowledge (p. 83).
The point is the midst of our predictable universe, it is reality unpredictable in its smallest behaviors. In the midst of the order of the universe there are random elements. Polkinghorne does not think that such randomness is an illusion, the simple result of our own ignorance, but rather that such “radical unpredictability” is a sign that nature is more subtle and supple than we had hitherto recognized. My instincts as a scientist encourage me to make the latter guess” (p. 85). Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle bolsters Polkinghorne’s instincts. Heisenberg’s Principle suggests that “if we know where an electron is, we can’t know what it is doing, and if we know what it is doing, we can’t know where it is" (p. 85). Heisenberg and most other physicists believed that this uncertainty was not a matter of human ignorance, but rather a principle of indeterminacy.
What this may suggest is that there is an openness in reference to the future and may indeed indicate that in such openness, God can act in answering our prayers. There is more to the universe than meets the eye, and more to the future than the predictability of the universe as a mechanism.
So, let us observe the Apostle Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Prayer matters.
PRAYER: Hear our prayers, God of power, and through the ministry of your Son free us from the grip of the tomb, that we may desire you as the fullness of life and proclaim your saving deeds to all the world. Amen.
Check out the John Polkinghorne question and answer page here.