On telly the other night there was a programme called Does Prayer Work. Basically some American researchers have done some trials in which under controlled conditions the effects of being prayed for were measured. The pilot trial had suggested that prayer might have a measurable effect, but the full study found no difference as to whether someone had been prayed for or not (which should have those who made a noise about the pilot study eating some humble pie!). Interestingly there was a reference to this recently on the West Wing.
Opinions as to why the result should be negative, ranging from the relatively sane (Tom Wright saying that prayer is not a slot machine) to the less so (it was because there were Muslims praying that no results were achieved).
I had heard of the research before the programme, and had felt rather ambivalent about it. On the one hand if prayer did make a difference it raised all sorts of theological problems for me largely to do with the specifics of how the prayers were answered. Why should this person be healed and another die? On the other hand, if (as turned out to be the case) the results were negative, why do I persist in praying? It feels a bit intractable. Damned if you do, damned if you don't sort of thing. (My wife insists that this is all part of God's sense of humour, but that sounds a bit too much like hiding dinosaur skeletons to confuse nasty evolutionary archaeologists to me!)
It certainly seems that the study lacked theological rigour. There was a very blunt understanding of prayer as intercessory and as having measurable results. Yet the Christian tradition (to cite only one) has a long tradition of prayer as conforming oneself to the will of God. Indeed those traditions of prayer that focus on the cross might end up with a very different set of hypotheses to be tested. Some theologians (notably Karl Barth) spend some time wrestling with the problems that are created by the fact that human prayers will be contradictory and often immoral or wrong. How then can God answer prayer? (Barth's solution is that God perfects the prayer as he receives it - although I'm not sure that this doesn't simply add to the problems.) In last week's Gospel reading (Mark 10.35-45) James and John ask Jesus to sit at either side of him in his Kingdom. Jesus reply is 'You don't know what you're asking for'. I'm not sure the researchers on this study did either!
Perhaps at the end we're left with the Old Testament injunction, used by Jesus, that 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test'. Is this a cop out? That's the question that I'm left asking myself. Something inside me wants to be able to say simply that prayer works and not to have to spend a great deal of time in theological hand-wringing. This study raises many more questions than it answers.