Purpose

Key Questions

The key questions to be addressed by these seminars are:

  • How does a modern understanding of science affect our understanding of God?
  • Given this, how is it most appropriate to express our prayers?

A subsidiary aim is to develop an open and respectful approach to sharing and developing our individual and corporate understanding of God in a congregation which includes members with a range of theological views.

Ethos (from original application)

Prayer, both public and private, has always been an integral part of Christianity, of Judaism before that, and, presumably, of the prehistoric cultures out of which Judaism emerged. Some of the prayers we still offer today date back over 3,000 years and many of our prayer practices are deeply rooted in Christian traditions dating back for centuries.

The way we understand the world, however, has changed. Scientists suggest that the Universe is much bigger, older and likely to continue further into the future than previous generations could ever have imagined. They assume that physical and biological processes are governed by scientific laws. We know that many diseases are caused by pathogens and earthquakes by seismic disturbances. Randomised clinical trials gives us a conceptual framework for evaluating which interventions work and which don’t. Neurophysiology and brain imaging are giving us insights into how our thought processes are embedded in our physical brains.

This new understanding has the potential to affect how we express our prayers. Does the size and complexity of the Universe leave us even more in awe of our Creator, or does it make it harder to believe in a single creative mind? Does our increasing understanding of physical, chemical and biological laws impose limits on what it is appropriate to ask for in intercessory prayer? How does modern psychology affect how we confess and how we ask for and offer forgiveness?

Within the UK there is a healthy debate about how science and Christianity interact but little of this has addressed the issue of how we express our prayers. David Wilkinson’s “When I pray what does God do?” (Wilkinson, 2015), is the most obvious exception. Wilkinson writes from an essentially conservative theological position assuming that scripture gives us our understanding of the nature of God. He then explores how this can be reconciled with scientific advances. An alternative approach is to assume that what we “know now [of God] is only partial” (1 Cor 13:12) and that our understanding of science might help refine that understanding. This is essentially the viewpoint taken by Gerard Hughes in his classic book on prayer, “God of Surprises” (Hughes, 2008) when he writes, “True Christianity will always be critical, questioning and continually developing in its understanding of God and human life” and warns that if this critical element is not fostered that “religious belief and practice … will have little relation to everyday life and behaviour”. Hughes was writing from a theological perspective, but it is our intention to extend this to explore how a modern understanding of science might refine our understanding of God and thus how we express our prayers.

In reflecting on this application one member of our advisory group wrote about her reluctance to express personal views on prayer because certain members of the congregation “have very strong views and are not very tolerant towards those with alternatives views”. She suggested that with “respectful ground rules” she could imagine people like her leaving a session “feeling that they had become more comfortable with public prayer and expression of their Christian beliefs”.  The first aim of this project is thus to provide spaces where such ground rules open up a respectful conversation in which people can grow in their own faith through discussion with others.

References

Wilkinson D. 2015. When I Pray What Does God Do? Monarch Books.

Gerard W. Hughes, 2008. God of Surprises. Darton Longman and Todd, 3rd edition.