Archive for "Mar 26 2011"

On prayer: Simone Weil and the excluded God

Simone Weil‘s 1935 factory identification photo. In that year she began working as a power press operator at the Alstom Company in Paris. She was highly educated and had many options but chose to work alongside those who had no power. She later wrote, “A modern factory reaches perhaps almost the limit of horror. Everybody in it is constantly harassed and kept on edge by the interference of extraneous wills while the soul is left in cold and desolate misery. What man needs is silence and warmth; what he is given is an icy pandemonium.” Image source: arinapaiva.blogspot.com


LAST WEEK we were poking around some of our favorite blogs and came across this amusing list of propositions written by Kim Frabicius for Faith & Theology. Just for grins, here are some of our favorite items:

Losing your faith is part of the pilgrimage of faith.

Koan: choosing a vocation.

My wife once threw an ashtray at me. It whizzed by my head and took a chunk out of a brick wall. That is what grace is like — except God doesn’t miss.

Good stuff, no? See the rest of the list here and other collections of Frabicius’s propositions here.

Now to the point. One of Frabicius’s comments stopped us in our tracks. It was:

Are people who pray happier and healthier than those who don’t? Only if they are not doing it right.

His point, as we understand it, is that real prayer isn’t about making things (including the pray-er) better, happier, or healthier from any conventional or objective point of view. This quip immediately resonated on two different frequencies.

First, it resonated on the Simone-Weil-On-Prayer frequency. Weil’s notion of prayer is closely related to the practice of paying attention. Here’s the idea, from a wonderful essay about the relationship between academic work and the love of God:

Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies. School children and students who love God should never say: “For my part I like mathematics”; “I like French”; “I like Greek.” They should learn to like all these subjects, because all of them develop that faculty of attention which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.

This may seem too vague to those who insist that prayer must be a clear and obvious thing. But for Weil, prayer is always a deliberate act and is almost always counter to what we want for ourselves. She wrote that paying close attention to fellow human beings, particularly those who are suffering, is the highest and most difficult kind of prayer:

The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.

When seen in this light, the idea that prayer makes us somehow healthy or happy is, in the words of the great physicist Wolfgang Pauli, “not even wrong.” So far as we understand Weil (which may not be very far, admittedly), prayer is about openness to life as life really is. Words may assist us in getting to this place, but they may also — conveniently — block us from getting there.

The second resonance occurred on the Those-New-Atheists-Just-Don’t-Get-It frequency. We were reminded of the various double-blind experiments, much publicized by some who aspire to disprove God’s “existence,” that show that prayer does not work. It’s true; there are plenty of these investigations and none of them affirm the efficacy of prayer, at least insofar as “efficacy of prayer” is understood to mean “the power of prayer to give people what they ask for.”

We think it’s just fine and dandy for people to pursue research projects like this. Pursue them all you want. Have fun, we say. But if you think such projects say more about God than they do about us and our idolatry, think again. It is a chasing after wind, for in the words of a favorite professor, “It is the nature of human beings to think wrongly about God.”

That’s because “God” can’t be thought. Or experimented on. “God” is not a scientific category. We can hear yowls of protest from those who say that Christians have defined God as that which confounds all scientific poking and prying, and that we have therefore broken some set of rules that all clear-thinking people should accept as self-evident.

In truth the situation is far worse than that. God confounds more than scientists doing science. God confounds everyone and everything that presumes to know anything at all about God, including the greatest of Christian saints (see Mother Teresa) and theologians (see Thomas Aquinas). For God is, from a certain perspective, nothing (no-thing). God is the silence against which we make our noise and the void against which we construct our world. God is not one among any collection of items.

Once you set yourself over against any part of the world, your scientific data included, you have lost God. Sorry, but God has a way of silently slipping through the sieve of our efforts to trap him. God won’t be trapped because the setting of the trap and the exclusion of God are one and the same act. As Walker Percy observed,

Scientists operate in the very sphere of transcendence which is not provided for in their science. That is, a god is present. A scientist is a god to his data. And if there is anything more offensive to him than the suggestion of the existence of God, it is the existence of two gods.

God is not a thing and cannot be thought. God can be apprehended in a way but not comprehended in any way, and the way of apprehension is the way of prayer, the way of paying attention. That, and not performing controlled experiments, is how to catch a glimpse of God. It’s a matter of location: The scientist brooding over her data is set outside and above the world (in her conceit, that is; in reality she is outside and above only her data, which are not the world), while the person paying attention is fully enmeshed in the world yet is unaware of that fact.

But science and prayer are hardly at odds. It is hubris, not science, that makes prayer impossible. And hubris is incompatible with true science, for what is true science but intellectual humility? Nor is true science opposed to prayer, for what is science but a very specific way of paying attention? A kind of openness to the world as the world actually is?

NB: I don’t presume to have sufficiently answered, nor have I tried to answer, those who insist that prayer experiments provide evidence of God’s nonexistence or show us anything else about God. The post is not intended to refute the experiments, but to point out the contrast between Weil’s prayer of attention and the prayer studies. To be honest I have not thought much about the prayer experiments and I have nothing much to say about them. However, my jumping-off platform would likely have two planks: (1) I have no problems whatsoever with the quality of the science I have seen, and (2) these researches depend on a terribly mechanical and shallow vending-machine model of the God-human relationship.