Thursday, April 06, 2006

Is Prayer Really Powerful?

(Baha'is at a Devotional Meeting at the New York Baha'i Center)

I finally got around to reading about the recently published study on the effectiveness of prayer as far as reducing complications after heart surgery.
There's been all kinds of buzz around the significance of the study from people all over the religious and political spectrum. My contribution to the commentary surrounding this story is that is suggest a rather simplistic way of looking at prayer in the first place. The fact that a prayer does not result in a preferred outcome does not mean that the prayer was not heard or was ineffective. Below is one of the many selections from the Baha'i Writings that touch on this issue:

Spirit has influence; prayer has spiritual effect. Therefore, we pray, "O God! Heal this sick one!" Perchance God will answer. Does it matter who prays? God will answer the prayer of every servant if that prayer is urgent. His mercy is vast, illimitable. He answers the prayers of all His servants. He answers the prayer of this plant. The plant prays potentially, "O God! Send me rain!" God answers the prayer, and the plant grows. God will answer anyone...But we ask for things which the divine wisdom does not desire for us, and there is no answer to our prayer. His wisdom does not sanction what we wish. (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 246)

The fact that the answer to a prayer is "NO" does not mean that prayer was not heard or that it was not effective. Because our understanding of reality is always limited by the limitations of the human mind, we often do not recognize the hidden wisdom in things that do not go our way, including the loss of a loved one due to poor health. The way that prayer is conceptualized in the study suggests that God is like a "Genie" in a lamp who is obligated to grant us wishes on demand. If God fails to grant our wishes, then either our prayer didn't work or there's something wrong with God. As a Baha'i, I do not view God is a Genie obligated to grant me anything. God is the Sovereign Creator and Lord of the Universe, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise, the All-Powerful.

It's encouraging that people would invest time and resources into studying the phenomenon of prayer, whatever the outcome of the study or how flawed it's underlying assumptions about spiritual reality. I look forward to more research in this area.