Prayer and Physical Reality by Iain Palin
For those who believe that there is a God and that He does in some way relate to how the physical world operates there are two basic approaches for this process: Primary and Secondary Causation.
In Primary Causation things happen because He made them happen, directly, then and there. There are concerns to this: it means that one can never be sure that the way things operate yesterday even at the most basic level will be the way they happen tomorrow, it disempowers those seeking to understand and operate within the laws of the Universe (because there aren’t any in this scenario), placing people at the mercy of a capricious deity, and it gives a direct but brutal answer to the eternal question of “why does evil happen?” namely that “God did it – all of it”.
For these and other reasons, most thinkers have preferred the Secondary Causation model: God created the Universe to operate according to certain physical laws that are also part of that Creation. While this is generally much more satisfactory from viewpoints scientific and philosophical as well as moral and theological, for the religious believer there has to be the possibility of exceptions. For the believer God will occasionally intervene in a way that seems to violate the basic physical laws: we call these rare episodes miracles. Some may later prove explainable in terms of science, some may not.
But the basic point about miracles is that they are very rare. Frequent miracles undermine the idea of consistent secondary causation and can call it into question. Yet every day millions of believers are asking God to make an exception for them, to violate His physical laws for their benefit. Can this really happen? And should it? Is it in order for a person to ask God to violate His laws just for that person’s benefit? I suggest there is not: but it is in order for prayer to ask for a particular possible future option to occur.
The way things happen in this contingent universe can be seen as a series of bifurcations, usually small, with the path taken affecting all subsequent events. So we can visualise a person’s life as a ball sitting at the top of a vast angled board. Beneath it is a groove down which it will roll, the groove splits into two, each groove splitting into another two, and so on for a very long time. The rolling down of the ball represents the individual’s life and it follows the basic laws of physics. So it doesn’t go back uphill, and it doesn’t suddenly migrate from one groove to another far across the board. At least not for most people: that would be a miracle.
But the path the ball will take at its next groove is subject to all sorts of influences, of all degrees of subtlety. It may take only the tiniest of forces to make sure it takes one fork rather than the other. And that is where prayer may come in: not making a huge and dramatic change, not changing what has already happened, but influencing which of the future possibilities actually comes to pass.
If I might add another personal note there: I believe that while prayer has a part to play in this process, I do not buy into the notion of bombarding the Almighty with prayers for a given outcome, repeated fervently and over a period of time. This does not sit well: it makes the praying human into an annoying child seeking to wear down a parent (“Can we go to Disneyland? Can we? Pleasepleasepleaseplease. Can we can we can we?”) – and it seeks to reduce the Almighty to the role of the parent whose resistance is worn down to the point of agreement in order to get a bit of peace. Not the most desirable of relationships between a person and God.
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