“As long as there are final exams there will always be prayer in school.”—a popular saying of former president Ronald Reagan
It’s that time of year again—the end of the semester. Time to pray, right?
Many of you know exactly what I mean.
If you are a student, you likely have more papers, projects, and other stuff to complete and turn in than you have time for.
If you are a teacher, you likely have more papers, projects, and other stuff to grade and return than you have time for...and you know that more (many, many more) are coming soon.
Some of you may be thinking about turning to prayer for help. Or a rabbit’s foot. Or something else.
Relax. Take a deep breath. I do not write to scold. But I do write to propose a few things.
1. In February I was in San Jose on a Sunday morning. So I drove to hear John Ortberg preach at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. That morning I heard a story of what happened when an ordinary man named Bob was offered $500 to pray “God, use me” with an eye towards somehow helping the country of Uganda (watch 26:00 to 30:20 in the video; and/or read pages 8-9 in the transcript).
2. In March I was reading an article by the late Dallas Willard (who taught philosophy at USC) titled “Jesus the Logician.” I read a story about Catherine Marshall, who “tells of a time she was trying to create a certain design with some drapes for her windows. She was unable to get the proportions right to form the design she had in mind. She gave up in exasperation and, leaving the scene, began to mull the matter over in prayer. Soon ideas as to how the design could be achieved began to come to her and before long she had the complete solution. She learned that Jesus is maestro of interior decorating.”
3. In April I happened to be putting this post together and I was reminded of a story of something that happened to me in graduate school. I was writing my dissertation proposal when I found myself facing a looming deadline. My then-current draft was for a project with eleven chapters—far too many for a dissertation, and far too logically disconnected anyway. So I dropped my family off at the in-laws for the weekend. And I began my four-hour drive back to campus with a prayer: for divine help about how on earth I might turn my current mess of a proposal into something more logical and manageable. Within ten minutes of driving, I had a new idea just pop into my head, appearing in my mind seemingly out of nowhere, about exactly how to reorganize the contents of my eleven chapters down to a more manageable, and logical, five chapters—and that idea proved stable enough to be permanent.
Several philosophical questions could emerge from all this. Here are two:
(Q1) Does prayer ever “work”?
(Q2) More to the point, (how) should I pray right now about something I’m facing (like my academic situation at the end of this semester)?Of course I come from a particular set of beliefs and traditions about the topic of prayer.
But I hope to convey a bit of what I think is helpful wisdom and even knowledge, no matter of what your beliefs and traditions (and wisdom and knowledge) already are.
In case it’s not obvious, I do not hold to what is sometimes called (A) “metaphysical” naturalism—the idea (very roughly) that the realities investigated by the natural sciences are the only realities there are.
Nor do I hold to what is sometimes called (B) “methodological” naturalism—the idea (very roughly) that the methods used by the natural sciences are the only useful methods for investigating or dealing with reality.
But even if I did hold (A) or (B), here’s an even weirder thought: I think an experimental approach to (Q2) is one way any person can make progress with (Q1).
In other words, investigate whether prayer works for yourself—by trial and error.
An interesting indication that I may not be alone in thinking this weirder thought: a recent Pew study (see “fact 5”) suggests that 3% of even self-identified atheists pray, at least on some occasions.
I have argued on other occasions for the reasonableness of what’s sometimes called “the skeptic’s prayer”: “God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!”
During the end of term, am I suggesting a “skeptic’s prayer lite”? “God, if there is a God, save my C, if I have a C”?
Well, sure. Why not? The underlying logic behind one prayer is supportive of the other. For what it’s worth, I recommend both.
I suggest a few concrete tips when offering academic-related prayers:
1. Be specific. (Pray in such a way that you might think the chance is higher that you might actually recognize it if you got an affirmative answer.)
2. Be honest. (Pray with an acknowledgment of your own shortcomings and failures, academic and otherwise.)
3. Be humble. (Pray without a sense of entitlement, and with the awareness that you are not All That, The Big Cheese, etc.)
4. Be persistent. (Like Bob in the Uganda story above.)
5. Be flexible. (As one of our own prophets has sung, be willing to “make that change…to the man in the mirror” as you pray.)Oh, and one last thing: although I am no priest or pastor, if you want me to pray for you about school (or something else), I will—no strings attached.
So: what do you find works well (or not) when it comes to praying during finals week?