How has science impacted my prayer life? I hope this is a question our series on prayer is leading you to ask. It certainly is for me.
Two weeks ago I deconstructed scientific studies of prayer, showing why the best of them fail to deliver the kinds of results we anticipate when the faithful approach our Lord. Last week Greg used his patron saint, the exalted St. Clive (Staples Lewis), to help us see why science should not threaten our prayer lives.
The kind of work that Greg did last week keeps me secure in my prayer life by assuring me that science cannot rule out the possibility of God’s action in the world. Therefore, I remain confident that God can still answer my prayers. But I no longer pray the same way today that I did in my early years as a Christian, in part because of what science is teaching us about prayer and meditation.
One of the most popular areas at the intersection of faith and science is what many call “neurotheology,” or the application of neuroscience to the study of religious experience.
Perhaps you’ve seen images or read studies of meditators, often Buddhist monks, with skullcaps covered in sensors meditating as scientists trace the activity of their brains. I find much of this work to be somewhat ho-hum. The fact that the brain is active in prayer and meditation is unsurprising. Discovering exactly where the brain lights up is more interesting, but the brain is so complicated that what we learn via the mapping of activity is limited. Where it gets interesting, in my mind, is when the activity in the brain is linked to changes both in the brain and in our character or behavior.
Every physical or mental activity changes the brain; repeated activities strengthen pathways and improve neural capacity to excel in those same activities. This is called neuroplasticity. So expert meditators and those who pray frequently will have maximized the neural pathways associated with prayer and in doing so, changed their minds.
For example, in her fascinating study of Vineyard Church parishioners, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how some Christians train their minds so that when they talk to God they experience God talking back to them. As a people who believe God cares and interacts with us, this finding reveals that regular practice can change our neural pathways in ways that enable us to experience God more directly.
In this way, science has changed my understanding of prayer. I now believe regular prayer may be less about God answering a litany of requests and more about tuning myself to experience and, I pray, love the Lord my God.
- A prominent researcher in neurotheology, Andrew Newberg, describes how spiritual practices can change us.
- Tanya Luhrmann’s work fascinates me. Here’s a nice introduction to her book When God Talks Back. Her latest book, which I haven’t yet read, is How God Becomes Real. She has also published many compelling op-eds at The New York Times.
- Here is a nice summary of studies psychologist Frank Fincham has conducted on prayer among couples.
- We explored neuroplasticity in this newsletter last year and in 2018.
- A pastor discussed the benefits of “breath prayer” for BioLogos.
Couples That Pray Together…
Kevin Ladd is the son of a United Methodist pastor and one of the leading psychologists studying prayer. He recently summarized the field in a 25-page report for the John Templeton Foundation. His analysis should give us pause when considering the latest prayer studies—they are indeed complicated.
He did, however, find great promise in prayer research that studied couples. [We know from Pew Research Center that 60% of married adults pray.] Looking at couples solves one of the challenges of prayer research—allowing researchers to see the impact of prayer on both the giver and the recipient.
Two findings jump out from this research on couples that pray together and for one another. First is increased capacity to forgive one another (or others for whom we are praying). Alongside forgiveness comes increased cooperation. The second is around goal-setting: “Our willingness to engage in the behaviors necessary to achieve these goals increases. When the goals include positive relational changes—taking on a more cooperative attitude or improving listening skills—satisfaction in love follows close behind.”
Collectively, these studies show that prayer—at least in the context of couples—can change us and change how we relate to our partners. We, by God’s grace, become agents of change. As the Templeton report summarizes, “Prayer may not move a rock, but it often inspires people to move rocks.”
This research reinforces the reality that prayer impacts the one praying as much as it benefits the recipient of our prayers. God works in us as we pray, often bonding us to one another as well as to God. I’m not suggesting that we stop praying for others—or that God cannot reply to our intercessions—but that we don’t forget prayer is also about the one praying. Specifically, it is about how the one praying physically changes their mind in ways that help them experience God and inspire them to forgive, to set goals that foster flourishing, and maybe even move a few rocks.
Are you hearing what I’m hearing? The benefits of prayer echo the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40): “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Has science changed my prayer life? Absolutely. Today, my prayers are not only about intercession for others but also about how I can change to better follow Jesus’s command to love God and neighbor.