On intercessory prayer

Prayer is not a technology and therefore doesn’t work.

Okay, so a thing works whenever it reliably gives us some good result, and there are non-technological ways of getting good results. But if a randomly selected group of persons were asked to figure out if (intercessory) prayer worked, we’d expect them to come up with something like the Templeton-funded Harvard Prayer Study. which clearly examines prayer like any other technological approach to an illness or problem.

If we noticed that we compare prayer to technology, it’s hard to avoid the idea that we are making a category mistake. Neither the Old or New testaments describe prayer as a rival to technology, and they are even of two minds about even the efficacy of intercessory prayer in a way that we are not of two minds about the efficacy of technology (even if we are ambivalent about its effects taken as a whole).

But what is intercessory prayer trying to do, then? If we are praying for divine intervention we are praying for either a miracle or something miracle-like, and no one expects events like these to be statistically significant. This might explain why it won’t show up in statistical studies (along with the obvious problems of putting God or any superior to the test) but this account could never work as an account of prayer itself. We’d be left only with an account of prayer that made it a technology that worked only rarely.

Intercessory prayer might be not a call for divine intervention, but a recognition that all whatever happens or fails to happen somehow traces back to divine causality, and so whatever happens can be seen as what God prefers. When we ardently pray, we either get what we want or recognize how contrary it must have been to the right order of things, if it needed to be denied even in the face of such ardent pleadings. We always get what we should have wanted, but coming t recognize this requires that we first come to God wanting something.

Is that it? The temptation is to the cynicism of seeing ourselves in a situation where prayer changes nothing, at least not in any statistically significant way. Leaving aside miracles, whatever happens, happens. But the cynical evaluation expects that prayer should be some sort of speech technology that humans control, as opposed to being speech directed at one that we already believes is a creator, and therefore presumably already has reasons for wishing secondary causes to work as they are working.

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