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.
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.
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.
Why ask the saints to pray for us? Wouldn’t it just make more sense to go to the source? Why not just send my prayer requests directly to Christ?
These are good questions. In his wonderful new book on the Trinity, Fr. Michael Gaitley provides an intriguing and daring answer to this question. His answer comes in three steps.
Step One: Christians Become Incorporated Into Christ. It isn’t that Christians become Christ-like or similar to Christ in some way. They literally become part of the Body of Christ. This isn’t a metaphor. Rather there is a literal ontological change that a Christian undergoes when she comes incorporated into the Body of Christ. Christ literally dwells in us and we dwell in him.
Step Two: After Death, the Saints join in with the Second Person of the Trinity. Heaven, on this view, is a participation in the inner life of God. We participate in the inner life of God by means of the Second Person of the Trinity. He writes that our participation in the life of the Trinity is to become one of the persons of the Trinity. Specifically, we become part of the Incarnate Son (p. 55). Now we will never become the Divine Head, but we will somehow be incorporated into the Divine Body of the Second Person. We will become a small part of it. We will join in with the activity that takes place within the inner life of God. In this way, we will reign with God over all that is. We will reign with him because we will literally be incorporated into him.
Step Three: Praying to a Saint is Another Way of Praying to Christ. When we ask a saint to pray for us, what we are doing is praying to the Body of Christ. Because the saints are literally incorporated into the Second Person, God the Father can act through the saints much as he acts through Christ. They are in complete harmony with the Father and have become a small bit of the Second Person. Praying to a saint is another way of praying to Christ.
I consider this a daring and thrilling understanding of the saints. It makes sense of many otherwise puzzling ideas like how we will reign with God But we still must be careful to distinguish the Head from the Body within the Second Person. This image also gives a much more interesting understanding of heaven and how God will one day be all in all.