Prayer: It’s not rocket science

I517udw6am2l-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_n his interesting book Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World, Mark Miodownik examines the science and history behind many of the most common objects of our daily experience: glass, steel, cement, paper, chocolate, etc.

One of the main questions he asks is: “Why do these materials have the properties they do?” He often takes the investigation to the molecular level to explain why steel bends and why chocolate tastes and feels so good as it melts in your mouth. Today’s scientists understand why materials are the way they are with a precision never before known. It is impressive and fascinating.

At least as fascinating (to me at least), is the fact that humans figured out how to manipulate these materials long before they had the skills and equipment to examine what was happening at the smallest level. Long before we could understand the complex changes that are involved in the formation of steel from iron and carbon, sword-makers had developed the processes necessary to make steels of varying strength and flexibility. The same can be said for chocolatiers, bakers, and experts in any number of other fields. In the absence of precise scientific knowledge, humans were still able to develop impressive results with a variety of materials.

There may be a spiritual lesson for us in this. Our modern, scientific environment has trained us to expect precise explanations for most phenomena. We may not ourselves know the explanation but we trust someone does and could find the information if we needed to. (Just google it!). This expectation is frequently frustrated when it comes to spiritual realities. How does prayer work? How do miracles happen? Is there really a spiritual realm? The absence of satisfactory, precise answers to these questions disappoints the modern mind.

But as the examples above illustrate, the absence of detailed knowledge of a reality at the most precise level is not a barrier to fruitful use of that reality. We don’t need precise, technical knowledge of steel-making to benefit from steel or even to make it! The same is true of the spiritual disciplines and particularly prayer. We don’t need to know precisely how prayer works for prayer to do its work in our lives.

To be sure, we may desire deeper knowledge of these realities, much as ancient bakers may have wondered why some loaves turned out and others didn’t. But it can be freeing to know that our knowledge—or lack thereof—is no barrier to our benefitting from these divine gifts.

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Who’s speaking?

Much hay (and, frankly, money) has been made in recent years by authors playing the humanity of Scripture against its divinity. The human element in the production and preservation of Scripture is without a doubt a challenge to many Christians who hold to some concept of the “Inspiration of Scripture.” Most reject simple dictation but articulating the nature of the divine-human synthesis in the inspiration and canonization processes in particular is challenging and therefore open to reductionist critiques of the “the canonization of Scripture was a thoroughly political process oppressive of minority opinions” type and the like.

The source-book of science–nature–has no such convoluted origin, we are told. Rationalist scientists merely read the facts off the face of nature. Human involvement is purely observational. However, upon closer inspection, perhaps it is not that simple.

In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour reviews the conflict between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes concerning the scientific investigation of vacuums (as narrated in Steven Shapin and Simon Shaeffer’s 1985 book Leviathan and the Air-Pump). Hobbes rejected Boyle’s ‘new’ scientific approach in which  phenomena were experimented on and observed in the laboratory. The fledgling scientists maintained that this was superior to previous science because it allowed the facts to speak for themselves. But is it as simple as that?

Latour picks up this notion of the facts speaking. He writes…

[Boyle] invents the laboratory within which artificial machines create phenomena out of whole cloth. Even though they are artificial, costly and hard to reproduce, and despite the small number of trained and reliable witnesses, these facts indeed represent nature as it is. The facts are produced and represented in the laboratory, in scientific writings; they are recognized and vouched for by the nascent community of witnesses. Scientists are scrupulous representatives of the facts. Who is speaking when they speak? The facts themselves, beyond all question, but also their authorized spokespersons. Who is speaking, then, nature or human beings? This is another insoluble question with which the modern philosophy of science will wrestle over the course of three centuries. In themselves, facts are mute; natural forces are brute mechanisms. Yet the scientists declare that they themselves are not speaking; rather, facts speak for themselves. (28-29)

Latour is calling the scientists’ bluff. In what meaningful sense can it be said that the facts are speaking for themselves without human involvement, when the very machine (in this case the vacuum pump) that created the ‘natural’ state being examined, was designed and manufactured by humans?

And we could go on. The systems of measurement used in science were defined by humans. The devices with which the measurements are taken were designed and built by humans. And, of course, the languages used to articulate nature’s facts are human artifacts. (This list doesn’t even begin to touch on the problem–so helpfully pointed out by our postmodern friends–of the effect of one’s human vantage point on observations–“there are no uninterpreted facts.”)

So perhaps with both Scripture and science there is an unavoidable “speaking together.” Humans speak and God/nature speak and defining precisely where the speech of one ends and the other begins is an impossible task.

This is humbling and ennobling. On the one hand it points up our limitations as humans. On the other, it shows God’s intention to catch us up in his creative, life-giving speech.