By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning
First, I think I need to start this post by saying that I believe in prayer and am a practitioner (although I must confess that I didn’t really know how to pray until I was forty, even though I grew up “churched” and in a Christian home—but that’s another story. In fact, I believe in prayer such that I don’t make it a practice to open class lectures with prayer for fear that it become merely a utilitarian function of quieting a roomful of students, getting their attention, and signaling the start of class. There are pedagogical techniques for that function. Prayer has its place and its function, and it isn’t utilitarian.
That said, I also appreciate how practicing a “habit” of prayers throughout the day can cultivate mindfulness of the presence of the Holy and can help set both tone and attitude in how one approaches tasks, conversations, and activities.
I’ve been reading about the “scientific” studies of prayer with both interest and skepticism. I find attempts to “prove” the validity of prayer as a source of energy and causality an unnecessary activity, and ultimately, perhaps misguided. The experiments are interesting insofar as I’m interested in research methodology. But the findings, as that which David Haas reports in Prayer: A Neurological Inquiry, are, not surprisingly, “inconclusive.”Here are a couple of reviews that hold up the studies to more rigor.
Some critics of the prayer-as-energy-of-causality research make the point (which, when raised in the company of “spiritualists,” would-be Jedi masters, and martial art aficionados has stopped the conversation dead and marked me as an unbeliever) that can help put things in perspective, namely, there never has been scientific evidence for ESP, cosmic Chi, telekinesis, The Force, or other cosmic mind-over-matter phenomenon. But then, like my spiritualist, Jedi, and Kung Fu friends—as it is with any true believer—it’s often a matter of faith, not proof.
Like all mental states, prayers are neither matter nor energy. Thus, they are not transmissible to or readable by another being by any means within the laws of nature. Whether they can be known to a supernatural being hinges on the effects of the prayers’ solicitations as judged by proper scientific studies.
I believe that people want to believe; in fact, it’s probably more true to say that people need to believe. But I think it’s important to believe for the right reasons. And I think it’s important to be clear about upon what, or whom, it is that one sets one’s faith. My hunch is that those who require constant “proof” or “evidence” for their beliefs or faith are on shaky ground to start with. After all, the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certitude.
Faith seeks understanding as part of its journey. But the journey of faith itself is one of mystery and walking toward the Unknown.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).