The recent mass shootings, especially in the U.S., has caused people to question the power and effectiveness of prayer. Some has suggested that, if prayer worked, the Pope would play a more significant role in addressing mass shootings worldwide. I think this is a fair and pertinent question. The following is my response.
First, the most efficient way to engage this inquiry is to separate religion and spirituality. The Pope is the principal representative of the practice of Catholicism. With due respect to all my Catholic friends, the Pope is not endowed with special powers, at least not beyond that of anyone who is willing to take their devout beliefs in spirituality to the next level. If the office of Pope had powers beyond the possibilities of all practicing Catholics, Pope Frances would not have asked his global congregation to pray for him before he prayed for them.
Religion is a social construct that can have a positive impact on any society. Religion has also been the culprit behind the practice of slavery, dehumanization, marginalization, hatred, and barbarism, to name a few. Some religions claim to be an (often the) means to experience the ultimate source of existence, that which is often called God.
Religious practices are limited to the confines of their constructors, all of whom are humans. Humans are finite. Anything constructed by humans is limited to space and time. If a thing is limited to space and time, then it, by its very nature, cannot be spiritual. Therefore, religion cannot be supernatural, nor can it justifiably represent any ultimate form of spirituality. I’m not suggesting that religion is always wrong or illusionary. Religion is not always what people claim; nor does it produce what people often say it produces.
Laws, like religions, are limited to their makers, who are human. A reasonable argument can be made for the existence of laws within some animal herds. The social behavior of swine is an example. Pigs enforce acceptable pig swine behavior on newly introduced pigs. Like swine, functional societies use laws to maintain order and civility. Societies require laws to efficiently function. Humans have a self-serving tendency which inevitably causes incivility and destruction. Law enforcement, which claims to protect and serve civility, is a tool some humans use to control other humans. The necessity of laws and law enforcement is indicative of the limited nature of humanity. Therefore, despite religious practices, humanity will never ascend to the true liberty of spirituality.
While explaining the existence of God is beyond the scope of this inquiry, I would be remiss to reply to this question without mentioning the testimony of various peoples’ experience of what they have declared proof of the existence of the supernatural. If finitude separates humans from reaching God, how can God be experienced? There are documented cases where religious and atheistic people have experienced unexplainable events. Both the religious people and atheists have given testimony of their experience. Both groups have referred to their phenomenon as being supernatural or miraculous. Many Atheist claiming to encounter extraordinary events have converted to being agnostic, or have switched to being a believer in some form of Higher Power.
Prayer is best understood as communication with God. Communication is best understood as being constant, and it is consistently two-way. That said, prayer must be communication between you and an entity to whom I shall refer to as God. So that you don’t think that I’m contradicting myself, I’ll address the finitude issue regarding communicating with an Omni-Being. Humans, being limited to space and time, cannot supersede the confines of the material world. Hence, a nonmaterial, unlimited entity must transcend into the realm of the limited for humans to experience spirituality.
Prayer is one channel through which the Infinite reveals Its Self to humans. God, the ultimate Source of all things, often communicates revelation to humans through prayer. The omnibus nature of God is re-presented as a singularity seeded into human flesh. The seed was a Word, and that Word has an identity, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. For those practicing Judaeo Christianity, The Infinite is made knowable through the revelation of the Triune God in Jesus.
Jesus is the nexus of finitude (fully human) and Infinity (fully divine). It is through the identity of Jesus that the Omnipotences encounters limits, and where Omniscience encounters ignorance and the Omnipresence experiences space and time. Otherwise, the Omnibus nature of God would remain unrelatable and irrelevant. Some theologians propose two types of revelation. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms provides the following definitions:
General revelation – God’s self-disclosure and self-communication in the universe and created world.
Special revelation – God’s particular revelation at specific times and places and to particular people, as in the events of Israel’s history and, for Christians, fully in Jesus Christ. The Bible as the record of God’s word and action is also considered a special revelation.
Revelation is important because that’s how the answer of prayer is known. The consciousness of God is made knowable in the realm of the spirit. Prayer is an access to this realm. Prayer has various objectives like: to entreat, adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, and intercession. Prayer is not limited to entreating God to act miraculously on behalf of humans. Some prayers are an expression of gratitude to God for what God has done. There are prayers that are intended to ask God’s help; intercessory prayer is an example.
There is no shortage of documented cases in medical journals of the benefits of prayer. Studies show that those who pray and meditate regularly, are less stressed, and generally enjoy a healthier life. Studies also a longer lifespan for those who believe in God versus those who don’t. There are documented cases where miracles occurred in medical emergencies. Conversely, one does not have to be religious or spiritual to believe that rare events occur. Most non-believers would say, “Well, things happen that we don’t yet understand how it is that they happen. This doesn’t prove the existence of God.” And to that, I must agree.
Even though there are plenty of cases where people have encountered spiritual beings like angels, unexplainable events do not necessarily prove the existence of God. Prayer, faith, and hope are tools to help release the spirit of man beyond the limits of this material world. These same tools help lift the spirit of man above the finite actions of other humans. Can prayer be used to control the actions of another person?
I believe God is just. Choice has always been important to God, as is clear in the creation narrative. Therefore, it would be anti-christlike to use prayer to subjugate another person’s will. God didn’t suppress Adam’s will in Genesis, and He won’t negate the power of any individual’s will today. Jesus warned Peter that Satan had desired to sift him as wheat. Jesus continued with, “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith fail not.” LK 22:32. Jesus’ prayer does not subjugate Simon’s will. If it did, Jesus would not have needed to pray that Simon’s faith would not fail.
Research was conducted to study the effectiveness of prayer on the rate of crime in a particular American community. The analysis performed was scientific, and it showed reported offenses reduced at the rate consistent with the use of prayers performed by various prayer groups. This is not indicative of the will of criminal minds being subjugated. However, it does appear that prayer thwarted the deeds of some would-be criminals. Perhaps prayer created a calmer environment and reduced the catalyst for criminal behavior.
What if these shooters had been surrounded by praying people? What if they would have been exposed to much more fervent prayer than they had been? Regardless, prayer would not have subjugated the shooters’ will, though it might have helped change their minds.
Instead of saying, “Thoughts and prayers are nice, but we need action!” Perhaps we should encourage everyone to pray on their knees and while on their feet? Prayer is not inaction, but it doesn’t have to be the only action. I believe that we could entreat God to act-not just on our behalf but through our behavior.
When we pray, we avail our limited beings to the workings of an unlimited, and ever-loving God. Prayer is a channel of communication with God. Prayer can also be a channel through which we connect with each other in the spiritual realm. When we commune spiritually, we are more likely to expand our perception of new options and possibilities. Prayer also helps us handle the actions of those who act inhumanely.
Finally, I recommend doing your own study. Study the crime rate in your area. Then, publicly invite people to join a prayer group precisely for the sake of reducing crime in the area. Choose a start date and end date. Conduct regular prayer sessions throughout this time-period. To encourage participation, consider using creative prayer techniques. When the prayer sessions are complete, go back and research the various crimes reported in the same area. See for yourself.
Just my thoughts