When Prayer Fails

Sometimes when you blog exclusively on topics relating to Paganism, you forget that you are living in a country where the vast majority consider themselves Christian (not often mind you, but sometimes). When your mind really starts to shift from a monotheistic paradigm to a polytheistic one, certain questions become meaningless. For example, the recent study making the news that supposedly disproves the power of prayer.

“Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found. And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested. The researchers asked the members of three congregations – St. Paul’s Monastery in St. Paul; the Community of Teresian Carmelites in Worcester, Mass.; and Silent Unity, a Missouri prayer ministry near Kansas City – to deliver the prayers, using the patients’ first names and the first initials of their last names.”

Beyond the simple fact that those praying were all Christian monotheists, leading the blog Boing Boing to opine that perhaps “they were praying to the wrong god” (what would Asclepius do?), prayer studies and the quantifying of prayer are somewhat dependent on the idea of a singular, omniscient, interventionist God. When you are removed from such a belief, the idea of such a being granting prayers for the sick becomes an exercise in tortured logic. Dave Haxton explains why in a recent blog post.

“If God’s omniscient than He already knows if the folks are going to pray or not, and if he’s not, well, then the whole paradigm sort of breaks down, and God’s no longer in total control of things. Which is precisely the position my gods and goddesses are in: they’re within and part of the natural world, and while I believe they have some influence over events in Midgard, they’re neither omniscient or omnipotent – and I wouldn’t want them to be. Because the very existence of such a being would make all other beings essentially slaves, and the universe naught but a clockwork. There can be no free will at all in such a deterministic universe.”

Once you remove the idea of a sentient over-God controlling, observing, and at times changing our reality, and instead shift to a polytheistic worldview where all powers (even great powers) have limitations and are part of a greater pattern, then the simple idea of spending millions to harness the power of prayer starts to seem juvenile. Scholar Jordan Paper, in his book on polytheistic theology “The Deities Are Many”, explains the polytheistic perspective on prayer.

“It is assumed that there is a pattern to the flow of the cosmos, but it is dynamic rather than static…the deities…cannot thwart the natural pattern. If their requested assistance fails, no blame is attached to them, and there is no assumption of their willfully not allowing healing or whatever to take place. If, for example, it is our time to die, nothing can change this, for it is not determined by a deity but by the natural pattern…Theodicy, accordingly, is irrelevant within polytheism. To use a contemporary phrase, and please pardon the use of colloguial language, ‘shit happens.'”

Paper also explains that prayer is most effacious when combating an illness or trouble that isn’t part of the natural pattern of someone’s life; then the powers of the ancestors, gods, and spirits can be fully mustered to the aid of the sick. But in the end, each person’s life and death is their own. No amount of prayer will stall the inevitable or overturn the natural order of our reality. Certainly impersonal and disconnected prayers from slips of paper seems to remove the idea of community, empathy, and personal relationship that is the hallmark of sincere prayer.

In my years as a Pagan, I have seen things that could be considered miraculous – remissions, lives extended, prosperity and sanity regained – all events prayed and “worked” for by the groups I was associated with at the time. But I have also seen senseless tragedies, lives ended, and fortunes squandered. If I believed in an omniscient God, these times of trouble could have shaken my faith, or made me wallow in questions of theodicy. But I know I live in an interdependent and interconnected web of life that connects me to all other things divine or mundane. I don’t need a study to tell me that sometimes prayer fails, because to say otherwise is to make me a tyrant and nature my servant.