in response to this conversation.
Maybe what I’m having problems with is this: it seems like prayer, as you describe is, is not – even in principle – capable of having anything that could disconfirm it. Allow me to explain.
I could envision prayer working in such a way that, given one set of circumstances (how or what or to who or when, etc., etc., etc. we pray for), I could then show someone, “Look, prayer works in exactly the way I’ve described;” and, the flip side of that is that, given that same conception of what prayer is, that a different set of circumstances would allow someone else to say, “Well, prayer is certainly not working in the way you’ve laid out because of X, Y, and Z.” One way or the other, this vision of prayer would either fit what we see on the ground, or not, or only to some extent or not.
But the conception of prayer that you describe doesn’t seem to be like this, at least as far as I can see. Is there any circumstance that you could lay out to me, concerning anything about prayer – how it’s done, why it’s done, when it’s done, whatever specific you could imagine- – such that, someone could legitimately say, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t fit how you described what prayer is, something must be wrong somewhere, either with what is being reported about prayer, or the conception of prayer that you described, or something else.”
One other important point: because you laid out a conception of prayer that could be, in principle, shown to be inconsistent with the results of prayer, then, we could legitimately say, “This conception of prayer works because it fits what we see.” Of course, if it didn’t fit what we see, we’d say the opposite.
I suspect you are right. Prayer does not seem to have been instituted for its apologetics value. No doubt for many folks, of course, it has contributed to faith (“It’s a miracle! An answer to prayer!”) But typically such moments depend, in part, on other factors already being in place. When Satan proposes prayer as an apologetics tool (“if you are the Son of God, ask that these stones become bread”) he is brusquely refused with among other things, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” The Christian tradition is (maddeningly for the expermental mind) notoriously resistant to the proposition that God can be examined in a lab. So “prayer trials” with controls and subject and such like are a famous waste of time. God won’t play and if he won’t then we shall learn nothing by that route. That is probably one of the reasons St. Thomas never attempts to use answers prayer in his five demonstrations. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in answered prayer. Just means he doesn’t think prayer is something you can prove from reason.
There are, of course, moments in Scripture that look an awful lot like “competitive prayer trials”: Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal for instance, when the prophet places a bar bet that God will light the sacrifice soaked in water and Baal can’t (“Hey! Maybe he’s asleep or taking a leak!” jeers Elijah.) That sort of experiment works if God complies with the prayer. But since he usually *doesn’t* comply all we can say is that we are faced with a choice between a) God chose not to show up or b) there is no God to show up. Without further information, there’s no reason to privilege b) over a) or vice versa.
All that said, the Tradition does commend, if you will, experimental (in the sense of “experiencing”) prayer. Jesus says that the one who does his will will know whether he comes from the Father. So among other things, the Church says, “If you are unsure whether Jesus is the Son of God, what could it hurt to try a) praying as he instructs us to do”, b) asking him for the gift of faith, c) looking at the basic arguments, not simply for the existence of God, but the deity of Jesus and d) trying your hand at doing the stuff Jesus says to do?” That would, of course, entail reading the gospels and such to find out what that is, but it seems like a start.
You note what’s happening here. Prayer is not being proposed as a “proof” of anything. Rather, it is proposed as simply a way of “stepping into the traffic”: getting into the normal practice of the covenant life Jesus is already engaged in with his Church. The confidence of the faith is that, as you do that, things start to get clear.
Not sure if that scratches where you itch. What do you think?
By the way, just by way of thanks: Thanks. You are a pleasure to talk with.