A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
The way a majority in the West thinks about life and the world
differs radically from the past. People regard their world and relationships
increasingly as their own responsibility. They find it hard to imagine a
God-force intervening in the world from an outside, heavenly dimension.
Perhaps Christians need to re-imagine prayer and what it means to them in
worship and daily life.
This is an outlook on life which taps into an
ancient way of regarding the world. Even as the 21st century begins,
millions of religious people regard the "spiritual life" as a form of
being which allows them to reach into a supernatural and super-sensible
dimension. Certain practices and skills which impact the supernatural
enable them, they claim, to achieve effects in the natural world which are
not otherwise possible.
In general, the key practice of the spiritual life is prayer. If a
person masters certain skills in this discipline, he or she is enabled to
contact God and receive spiritual messages which enable them to live
ordinary (i.e. non-spiritual) life more effectively.
Some claim to use prayer to highlight concerns about the state of the
world - be it in relation to international affairs or the illness of an
individual - so that God will act to influence or right an undesirable
state of affairs.
Another key practice of the spiritual life is meditation. This involves
practices which calm or quiet the thoughts and emotions of a person. He or
she enters a state of detachment in which it is possible to directly
experience a spiritual dimension. Some say that in a state of deep
meditation (also called contemplation) it is possible to relate directly
to God and so enter a state of spiritual bliss, sometimes called the
The spiritual life isn't confined to Christians. There is anecdotal
evidence that many otherwise so-called secular people in the West practice
these similar disciplines though not necessarily with similar aims. Many
other religions have focus on a spiritual life. Buddhists, who don't think
of a dualistic universe (that is, one split into two parts, spiritual and
material), have perhaps developed methods of prayer and meditation further
What is known in the West as "New Age" spirituality appears to borrow
many of its techniques from Buddhism. There is a long history of
spirituality in Islam.
It is possible to retain both prayer and meditation in a non-dualist
world. Such a world can be thought of as having certain characteristics:
It is monistic. That is, it is a single entity or reality. There is
no "outside" or "beyond" the universe. God may be conceived of as
"outside" the universe. In that case, God is unknowable since nothing
other than the universe is accessible to us.
Or rather, God can be known adequately for our purposes through the
universe - through natural things. This is not the position of
traditional Christian theology which is largely based upon the idea of
The universe can be completely and satisfyingly experienced without
resort to an hypothesis that there is a supernatural dimension. A
principle of good thinking called Occam's Razor (also known as the
Principle of Parsimony) states that "What can be done with fewer
[assumptions] is done in vain with more." In my view, the supernatural
is an unnecessary complication, unverifiable, counter to the
experience of many, and contrary to the entire body of contemporary
There is ample evidence in the form of human testimony throughout
history that certain "altered states" yield a type of experience
apparently inaccessible from any other perspective.
Meditation and its "deeper" counterpart, contemplation, appears to be
the method - with many differing techniques, routines and sub-routines -
which yields this sort of altered state. New scanning technology allows us
to watch brain patterns change as these altered states are accessed, as
reports. It now appears highly likely that a sense of the numinous is
explicable in terms of brain function alone.
There is every reason to hold today that what we call meditation is a
perfectly valid set of methods through which we can experience the
universe in a way no other practice will give us. It appears that those
who are able to attain altered states through meditation are better for it
- mentally and emotionally - regardless of whether or not it gives them
access to a dimension called "spiritual". In these terms, the spiritual
dimension is an unnecessary complication.
What then of prayer? This is a huge subject and has been the focus of
religious people for millennia. I can deal with it here only very simply.
In a monistic universe, it could be asked "Why pray? It makes little
sense to pray to the universe. Is there a God to pray to?" If one chooses
to interpret the Big Bang as an act of creation (I say "choose" because
there's no way of proving it) then it seems silly to me to think that the
Creator can't in some way access in real time what we think and feel. God
the Creator can be thought of as an "in-between God" - somehow in-between
the smallest, least durable and most ephemeral elements of his universe.
In this sense "prayer" includes every thought and act of our lives.
And yet it's also those deliberately special thoughts, words and deeds,
whether public or private, which we ourselves label "prayerful".
The main problem in a monistic universe arises when we pray and expect
God to "answer" prayers by intervening in his creation. There are cogent
reasons for thinking that if God does this, our way of perceiving reality
today must collapse.
Put briefly, the universe is a total system, comprising a multitude of
sub-systems. Because they all interlock completely to form a working
whole, any intervention from "outside" the universe must disrupt the
entire web of the space/time continuum. Every time God intervenes (if God
does intervene) the universe in effect begins again from ground zero.
There is increasing reason to think that the physical structure of the
universe could not continue to exist if this is the case, since the
delicately balanced nature of the Big Bang doesn't allow the sort of
change which intervention by God would imply.
One other option is to suppose a reality in which not only the universe
but individual consciousness alters each time God intervenes. If every
element in the universe is linked with every other in a system, then to
change one part, however little, is to change the whole.
If this is true, then because we ourselves would also be changed by
every act of God from "outside", we wouldn't necessarily know that
anything else has changed. It follows that we perhaps can't know that God
intervenes in the universe.
If this is so, how is it possible to make sense of intercessory prayer
for ourselves, for others and for the world?
My response is to propose that prayer is a natural and powerful way of
altering and consolidating our individual cognitive-emotional patterns.
Underlying it is the natural mechanism of behavioural conditioning. This
mechanism is critical to our development and our survival both as
individual organisms and as a species.
Put briefly, conditioning is a natural process through which
behaviours we perceive as beneficial to ourselves are maintained, and
those we perceive as inimical to ourselves are eliminated. All living
creatures adapt in this way.
Prayer for ourselves, then, may be a method which helps us in
self-conditioning so that our behaviours can more easily and effectively
be changed. We deliberately focus through prayer on aspects of our lives
we wish to enhance and on other aspects we wish to reduce or eliminate.
What then of intercession? In a non-supernatural reality one doesn't
expect God to intervene at our beck and call. Intervention itself may be
counter to what we know about the nature of the universe. It seems to me
that one way forward is to recognise intercession as a valid activity in
It is a means of prompting ourselves into action. When we intercede
for people and events directly associated with us, we are as it were
orienting ourselves to take appropriate action.
Where we intercede for outcomes which are highly improbable, we
exercise the virtue of hope which, by its nature, must always include
an acceptance of "the ways things are" - in other words, that the
improbable may not come about. Certainty excludes hope.
When intercessions are made for larger or more distant matters
outside our sphere of influence, it's usually true that we can't
ourselves make any significant or immediate difference to the outcome.
But I think that intercession amounts to a commitment to discipline
ourselves to act in ways which, in our own spheres of life, will help
bring about the outcomes we wish for others.
So to intercede for the starving in another country is to commit
oneself to some local action which will [a] prevent any similar
outcome in one's own life and circumstances and [b] may help alleviate
hunger elsewhere through some action, however small, on our part.
This approach may suggest that traditional prayer, which cajoles God
into action on our behalf, doesn't work. That may be so - but it's
impossible to demonstrate, any more than it's possible to demonstrate that
God does act in response to prayer.
I think that it does imply that prayer and intercession which doesn't
result in action is open to a charge of hypocrisy. How is it possible to
validly pray for one's neighbour if one doesn't also take steps to make
the prayer happen. Leaving it all to God is, I think, a highly suspect
approach in a monistic universe.
 Why God Won't Go