I grew up in a Christian church where there was a pretty significant emphasis on prayer. We prayed over everything: family meals, sick relatives, algebra tests, moral dilemmas … misplaced shoes. Seeking God’s blessing and help was an automatic response to the fraught drama of being human.
What did we think was going on in heaven? God was just lounging around, not sure what he ought to be paying attention to … then he heard us pray for Aunt Dorothy’s open-heart surgery to go well, so he sprang into action because we were so sincere? I mean, he was going to let her die, but since we prayed and all, God changed his mind and Dorothy came through with flying colors, going on to live another decade.
It would be pretty weird if God operated like that, arbitrarily intervening in human affairs: holding up airplanes through turbulence, guiding people home in blinding snowstorms, seeing to it that little Timmy survived brain cancer. Because the other side of that idea is that God is also allowing some planes to crash, letting some people freeze to death, and standing by while some children die of cancer.
Maybe I once believed something like that. I don’t anymore.
Yet I still pray. All the time, about all kinds of things.
My theology isn’t what it used to be. If you tried to pin me down about what I believe God is like, I’d struggle to sound coherent. Yet, I am a theist. And I don’t view God as an impersonal blob of energy.
I acknowledge that everything I believe may be wrong. It might just be the bullshit I tell myself so I can face life: this life that is full of wonder and terror, good and bad fortune, pleasure and pain, love and hate, joy and desperation and death. Maybe I’m not brave enough to handle all that without my “invisible friend.” I accept that possibility.
But my faith matters to me. God matters to me. Prayer matters to me.
So, when I pray for strength, for wisdom, for an extra dose of love and courage and faith to get me through something, or even for the welfare of others … what do I think God is doing in response?
I don’t know. It’s not my problem.
Everything is energy, right? We’re made of invisible spinning particles. We’re made of what the cosmos is made of. The universe made us. Our thoughts and emotions are energy. You can feel them move through you. When your heart breaks with love for someone who is suffering or in danger, that energy burns in you like an all-consuming fire. When you hope desperately on behalf of someone you love, that hope has weight and substance, it exists in the world as a measurable phenomenon.
My dear atheist friends, when you tell your loved one that you’ll be thinking of them while they’re having an operation … that’s your version of a prayer! When you wish someone “good luck” on their job interview or entrance exam … that’s you praying for them in your way. You are saying, “This is the intention of my heart for you. That you are well. That you are happy. That your life is good. That you find love and peace and purpose.” As an atheist, you see no divine agency moving in the background, still you are lobbing the energy of your positive intention into the universe, even if you believe at the end of the day that the universe is ultimately absolutely cold and indifferent to the desires of your heart.
Prayer is the energy of hope, lobbed into the universe.
Does prayer change how things turn out?
I don’t know. Maybe.
Prayer changes me. It alters my disposition. It softens me toward those I might perceive as enemies. Prayer reminds me that the sun is giving off light and warmth even when it is hidden behind clouds. It reminds me that I still feel the energy of love left behind by people who no longer walk among us. Prayer is the voice of human consciousness speaking to itself, connecting to a conscious universe that gave birth to mind and matter and love. Prayer (like faith) is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Prayer is a weird thing. But, it’s a weird thing in a pretty damn weird and mysterious universe. Life, it seems to me, frequently calls for silly things like faith, hope, and love, to get us through the challenges of the human drama. That’s my story. And I’m sticking with it.