It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I’m not really a believer in “retail prayer”, the idea that you pray for something and get it exactly as ordered in the next supernatural delivery run. Actually, I don’t see anything that convinces me that petitionary prayer in general has any effect. Reports of answers to prayer are very liable to confirmation bias, various studies have shown prayer to have no effect, and as ever, there’s the uncomfortable question of favouritism if God chooses to answer some prayers, but not all of them. But that’s not to say that I think prayer’s useless.
I think there’s a definite place for a more meditational form of prayer, one that isn’t about a celestial wish list, but contemplation, leading to an acceptance of the way things are and greater motivation to help those in need. It doesn’t promise a magic wand, just gradual realignment of our character and priorities. And it does work, at least anecdotally – when I was a young, enthusiastic evangelical, I went through a phase of spending an hour every day praying and reading the Bible, and during that time, I felt like a completely different person.
I didn’t deliberately try to engage in any sort of planned programme; I just wanted to put in the time to read and study the Bible, and the prayer followed naturally, especially as I was at university and had plenty of time on my hands. All I had to work with was an interesting analysis of the Lord’s Prayer, viewing it as a sort of template and breaking it down into key prayer themes. So I just got stuck in, and it had – well, I don’t know, exactly – some sort of impact on me.
My overwhelming impression of that time is that I was happy, and comfortable in my own skin. I also found that I was becoming more relaxed, more balanced. Normally, I’d have expected that the sort of zealotry that leads you to pray all the time would result in a very conservative theology. In fact, my memory is that I started to become more liberal. It was the only time in my life when I felt that the Christian idea of becoming more Christlike was more than just a pipedream, but my theology was actually becoming softer and less dogmatic.
I’ve got various faults, which I won’t bother to list in detail here, but if they didn’t vanish, they certainly felt more under control than at any other time I can remember. If I had to summarise, I believe I was a better person. I see a lot in Buddhist meditation – both the practice and the results – that’s reminiscent of this experience, as well as various mystical traditions on the fringes of religion. It doesn’t seem to have any connection to particular theological understandings, but it seems to bear fruit.
Of course there are reasons to be sceptical about this testimony. People and their moods and inclinations are incredibly complicated, and there are a huge number of potentially confounding factors. My memory may be inaccurate, and the effects may have been unrelated, could be an unsustainable short-term high, or I may even be getting cause and effect mixed up. There’s also the practical consideration of how I would go about finding that sort of time in my schedule these days.
Even if my recollection and understanding are accurate, I don’t think this says anything about the truth claims of Christianity – there seem to be versions of the same sort of thing in all religions and belief systems – but it may say something about how to operate the wetware inside our heads. Essentially, it may be a useful tool for improving character, and getting at least some of the temporal benefits of religion without religion’s claims necessarily needing to be true.
I find that quite an interesting prospect.