Does petitionary prayer make any sense?

We do many things in prayer.  Sometimes we thank God for things.  Sometimes we praise God.  But sometimes we ask God for things.  We are encouraged, in fact, to present our needs to God.  But this is odd.  Doesn’t God already know what we need?   Furthermore, if God is eternal, then it seems as though God could not change.  So why present my needs to God if he can’t do anything about it?

These are deep questions about the very meaning of prayer.  In this post, I would like to offer a hypothetical answer.  My answer turns on the concept of a sacrament.  This concept may be the central concept of Catholic Christianity.  A sacrament is an instrument used by God to bless, heal, or convey grace.  The objects used by God in this way are entirely ordinary but God has set them aside to use them as a vehicle of grace.  We can understand the nation of Israel as a sacrament used to bless the world.  The scriptures can be understood sacramentally.  So can Jesus.

But what about prayer?  Could prayer be a sacrament?  It seems likely.  God could in fact use people’s prayers as a vehicle for blessing or conveying grace.  How would this work?  Well, God could choose to bless my mom, for example, by answering my prayers for her.  The answering of my prayer is the particular form or way in which God blesses my mom.  If you will, my prayer opens up a channel that God can then use to convey blessings or grace.  Much in the way that God brings grace through the baptismal waters why can’t he use prayers in the same way?  If we understand prayers in this sense, then petitionary prayer seems to make more sense as part of the broader sacramental system by which God blesses the world.  Of course, God could bless the world without the use of any physical element.  Nevertheless, he seems to choose to use sacraments to convey his grace.  Perhaps prayer is just another one of these sacraments.

Near Death Experiences What (if anything) do they mean?

There have been a number of books recently on the phenomenon on Near Death Experiences (NDEs).  These are reports based on remembered experiences written by people who have physically died for a few minutes and then are brought back to life.  Some people report dramatic experiences of bright lights, heightened consciousness, visions of heaven, a life review, a great sense of peace, visiting with dead loved ones, etc.  These experiences are pretty common with 5% of the population at any given time reporting to have had such experiences.  They also occur in every country and culture studied and seem to have occurred even in the distant past (there are ancient drawings of tunnels and dead people flying up into them.)  The best recent account of such an experience is certainly Eben Alexanders popular book Proof of Heaven (2012).  The book is an exhilarating read and vividly written.

Another recent book is Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near Death Experiences (2011).   I find some interesting  statistical summaries in the second book, but the book is a bit forced in my view.  There is  too much talk about how scientific all of this is.  Also, some of the used methods are not particularly compelling.  For example, while reviewing the stories submitted to the website one of the criteria for determining if the story is fabricated is whether it seems believable to the authors of the study.  
Unsurprisingly almost all the reports make it into the study.  I am not sure that this is a bad thing because having lots of reports is probably a good thing (even if some unknown percentage are invented.)  But there may be some sort of selection bias operating here.

Nevertheless, a few things are pretty clear.  First, it is hard to believe that all of these people are simply lying.  I do believe that a lot of these people (for example, Alexander) are more or less accurately reporting remembered experiences that they had.  So I think it that most of these people are  honest.
There is a lot of overlap among the different stories which suggests that there is a common cause which is giving rise to these experiences (perhaps a fact about human brains perhaps a fact about the beyond.)  But it seems that lots of people (something like millions of people alive today) have had such experiences that were in many respects pretty similar.   Third, the people who have these experiences believe that they are real.  Most have no doubt at all about the reality of their experiences and so the reality of the afterlife.

But are all of these experiences evidence for the existence of an afterlife?  Most philosophers and scientists seem to think no.  The reasoning here goes like this:  All of these experiences seem to (or could) arise from the brain activity.  At the time of death the brain undergoes a pretty dramatic change and this change can cause the brain to fire in certain ways that cause dramatic experiences.  Since these experiences can be traced to the functioning of the brain, they must be illusory.

This type of reasoning is extremely common, but I think that it is deeply flawed. If I were able to track your brain, I would see your brain firing in certain complex ways.  But I cannot infer from this that your experience is an illusion and that the sun does not really exist.  Rather the sun is affecting your brain and your brain is producing the conscious experience.  If all we knew about was the activity of the brain then it would be pretty hard to tell whether there was an external cause or not.  Perhaps the brain activity is caused by some external thing (e.g., the sun) or perhaps it is some kind of an illusion.  


Are We Special? A Response to Certain Atheists

There is a common idea that human beings are not really special, valuable, or important. We know that we do not live at the center of the universe but in a fairly random place three quarters of the way out in an average spiral galaxy which itself is just one of billions.  We occupy an inconceivably small part of the universe.  With this discovery we have learned that we are not actually special.  We are just a small and insignificant species.  We really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.  I have heard versions of this argument from almost every thoughtful atheist with whom I have had the pleasure to speak about such things.

This problem is that this argument includes a hidden assumption which is almost certainly false.  The assumption is that the value of something is directly proportional to its size and location.  The larger the amount of space something takes up, the more valuable it is.  The closer something is located to the center of the universe, the more valuable it is.  (Though my physics friends tell me that the center of the universe itself is growing along with space-time, so perhaps this should read the center of the center.)  But why do they think so?  Why can’t something be small or rare and valuable?  In fact, one might think that the rarity of something increases rather than decreases its value.  Similarly, why do they believe that the most valuable things exist at the center of the center of the universe?  I see this assumption as utterly unjustified.  But once we reject this assumption, it is hard to see how to draw any inferences at all concerning our value from our physical size and location.

You can see that the borderline of this discussion is quite simple: atheists deny the value and unique characteristics of our civilization and use this argument in order to prove that God doesn’t exist while we claim that the location of our planet shouldn’t be taken into consideration when we discuss matters which have nothing to do with physics, they are all about faith.

Recovery Is Coming. Are You Ready?

In an article Saturday in Slate magazine, Daniel Gross makes a case for a job recovery sooner than later.  Using productivity as a key economic indicator, Gross writes, “we’ve just witnessed the fastest two-quarter productivity surge since the first year of the Kennedy administration. . . but just as hamsters can run only so fast on their treadmills, there are limits to productivity growth.”

Gross goes on to relate a footnote by Michael Darda, Chief economist at MKM Partners, who says, “Should the economy expand in the fourth quarter at the same 2.5 percent annual rate it did in the third quarter—as it shows every sign of doing—companies won’t have any choice but to hire.”

It’s an interesting argument.  I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Gross on how fast this economy is recovering (or Mr. Darda either, for that matter).  Most other economists are telling us that it’s going to be Q3 or Q4 of 2010 before we start to see any real job growth in this country.  But what is Gross and Darda are correct?  Are you ready to get hired when things start picking up again?  If not, here are 3 things you can do to prepare yourself:

1)    Get clear about what you have to offer.  You don’t have to be stuck doing something you don’t love doing, even if you are good at it.  In order to effectively promote yourself, you will need to show quantified results you have had in your past on things you are both capable of and willing to do in the future.  You should have 3 – 4 clear key areas in which you shine.  Then you should have 4-5 clear statements that prove you can do these things.

2)    Get focused on EXACTLY what you are looking for. If you don’t know what you want how can anyone else help you find it?  Focus your career objective to one (two at the most) position.  Then use your clearly articulated statements from #1 above to help brand yourself as an expert in that area.

3)    Get connected.  You have no doubt heard the statistics on networking and finding a practical  job.  More than 60% of job seekers find their next opportunity through someone they know.  To be effective at networking you need to offer value to the people in your network.  Don’t just try to sell yourself.  Identify needs of the people with whom you are networking and try to help them.  That way they will both remember you and want to reciprocate with you by finding opportunity for you.

Sooner or later this economy will turn around.  The question is, will YOU be ready to take advantage of opportunities when they come along?