Tuesday, May 9, 2017

How to pray when the end (of term) is near

This post begins with some conjectures, runs through three quick stories, and ends with a philosophical question and answer (or two) about prayer.


“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.


Consider three short stories:

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?

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Hi Russell. You make an interesting post. I wonder if there is also a prayer that might help instructors to do a good job grading all of their exams by the time grades are due.

    First a quick comment, and then a question.

    The comment: I have been told that St. Joseph of Cupertino is the patron saint of test takers. I have forgotten how he got this attribution, but I believe Prof. Pyne can enlighten us on the matter.

    And now the question: You say that you do not subscribe either to metaphysical naturalism, or to methodological naturalism. But I have trouble seeing anything in your post that is inconsistent with any form of naturalism. Indeed you suggest taking an experimental approach to prayer, in order to see whether prayer works. I suspect that “works” here means that petitionary prayers satisfying certain observable criteria will reliably be followed by the specific results that have been prayed for.

    This method seems quite naturalistic- which you seem to acknowledge- and it strikes me that the success of this kind of “prayer experiment” might provide evidence for the existence of God that would satisfy a metaphysical naturalist. But then God- or whoever/whatever is responsible for the success of our prayers- becomes a natural entity, does he not? At that point, someone who believes in God seems not to need, any longer, to say that God is a being that lies beyond the investigative power of the scientific method. Do you agree? Is there some other reason why you would wish to continue denying either form of naturalism if our prayer experiment were successful?

    To put the question differently: Doesn’t the endorsement of this kind of experimental method commit you to some form of naturalism? I expect your answer will be ‘no’ but I am interested to hear your explanation for this.

    Of course, the downside of the prayer experiment is that, if prayer does not work, this would militate against the existence of God, at least insofar as God is understood to be the object of (consistently successful) petitionary prayer. I wonder whether theists typically wish to reject naturalism in all of its forms because they do not expect religious practices such as petitionary prayer to meet scientific standards of success. (If they do, I think that is a mistake as well, but that is the subject of another conversation.)

  2. David,

    "Take philosophical naturalism to be the belief that there aren't any supernatural beings--no such person as God, for example, but also no other supernatural entities, and nothing at all like God." (Alvin Plantinga, "Introduction" to Naturalism Defeated? Essays On Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, edited by James Beilby, Cornell University Press, 2002, page 1.)

    That's what I had in mind by philosophical naturalism. (My provisional definition in the post was a stab at being charitable for why it might make sense to call it "naturalism" at all.)

    Still, I think you are correct in your reply--that if we were to be a bit philosophically unorthodox and allow for the possibility that somehow or other God counts as a "natural" object that "natural" science can study, then it turns out that prayer is potentially one piece of "natural" science.

    The more interesting bit was, I thought, about methodological naturalism. Since I take it that many "methodological" naturalists are not "metaphysical" naturalists (= "philosophical naturalists" in Plantinga's parlance), but are people who believe in God but still have a strong desire to give natural science a decisive and overwhelmingly important role (perhaps too decisive and too overwhelming, in my view) when it comes to adjudicating questions of what is real and reasonable to believe.

    So I've been toying with writing an article like "Intercessory Prayer and Methodological Naturalism." It might seem like the former poses trouble for the latter. (And vice-versa.) If God were outside of time and space entirely in something like a traditional view, God could still foreknow all the petitionary prayers of people at different times, and hard-wire the universe from the get-go with all the quirky natural properties it needs in order to answer some of those prayers affirmatively. Or so it seems to my naive view. Which is why I hedged in the post: even if you think A or B is true, there's still room for experimental prayer to be reasonable for you.

    More later.

  3. Hi Russell. Thanks for your response.

    It seems to me that Plantinga excludes God from the universe of philosophical naturalism because (as you note) the usual conception of God in the Abrahamic religions is as a supernatural entity- whatever that, ultimately, amounts to. Of course if one is a pantheist, one may be quite comfortable with understanding God as a natural entity.

    One general issue that interests me is this: God is normally conceived as causing various states of affairs in the natural universe. But I wonder how God can act as a cause in the natural universe without himself becoming part of that universe.

    It seems to me that many who profess belief in a supernatural God then proceed to speak in ways that suggest that the God they are talking about is not a supernatural entity after all. Plantinga is less obviously guilty of this than other philosophical theologians, by the way.

    As part of my general concern, I wonder how it got to be so important to theology to think of God as being somehow outside of nature- a historical question- and whether this is really required of the modern theistic traditions.

    With that, let's all get back to our gradng!