Is God Listening?

Mimi rumpp stopped praying for a winning lottery ticket years ago. With a husband, two kids and a full-time job, she didn't have time for trivial pursuits. But after a doctor told her sister Miki last year that she needed a kidney transplant, the family began praying for a donor. This, Mimi thought, was a prize worth praying for. Less than a year later, Miki has a new kidney, courtesy of a bank teller in Napa, Calif., to whom she had told her story. The teller was the donor; she was so moved by Miki's plight she had herself tested and discovered she was a perfect match.

Coincidence? Luck? Divine intervention? Rumpp is sure: ""It was a miracle.''

It was almost 20 years ago, but the woman, now a Los Angeles journalist, still trembles when she describes the scene. Late on a black, noiseless night in upstate New York, she decided to take a shortcut home, up a steep, unlit path. Then she heard steps behind her, faster than her own. An instant later the man was upon her, tightening her new striped scarf around her neck, then ripping at her pants. At home, her mother woke from a deep sleep, seized with fear that something terrible was about to happen to her eldest daughter. The mother immediately knelt down beside her bed and prayed. For 15 minutes she begged God to protect her daughter from the nameless but real threat she felt her daughter faced. Convinced she had won God's attention--and protection--the mother returned to bed and a sound sleep. Back on the stony path, the would-be rapist suddenly ceased his assault. He cocked his head, almost beastlike, the woman recalls, and fled down the hill.

Coincidence? Luck? Or divine intervention? Were prayers answered or were prayers irrelevant? The devoted mother and her daughter, a professional skeptic, are certain in their belief. That was the Devil on the hill, and it was God who led him away.

Such are the mysteries of prayer. For those blessed with faith, of course, there is no doubt: these are answered prayers, pure and simple. And Americans are a praying people. In a new NEWSWEEK Poll, a majority of American adults--54 percent--report praying on a daily basis, and 29 percent say they pray more than once a day. For them, it is not an unrequited relationship: 87 percent say they believe that God answers their prayers at least some of the time.

AND WHEN HE DOESN'T, WHAT THEN? GARY Habermas is chairman of the philosophy department at Liberty University, the institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist televangelist. By belief and by habit, Habermas is a praying man. In the 1980s, he kept a prayer list, with hundreds of names, often of people he didn't know. He prayed for their jobs, their health, their children, and, after watching a remarkable set of healings, concluded that personal prayer works. So when his 87-year-old grandmother fell deathly ill he sat at her bedside in ""serious prayer.'' To his delight, she recovered. And then, in May 1995, his wife of 23 years was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Once again he prayed, more anxiously than ever, to his trustworthy God. He didn't mean to be selfish, he prayed. ""If it's not your will that she be spared, then your will be done.'' But he didn't want to be judged indifferent, either. ""But you understand, I really want her back.''

By one measure, he failed. Debbie died. But before she did, she told her husband that ""God spoke to me. Three words: I love you.'' Habermas was torn between grief and gratitude for a power he could no more master than understand. ""She had doubted God's love all her life, yet now she was as sure of his love as she was of mine,'' he says today. ""I trust him to have a good answer to my prayers. That's not the same as knowing what that answer is.'' Habermas is in the mainstream. According to the NEWSWEEK Poll, 85 percent of Americans say they accept God's failure to grant their prayers. Only 13 percent say they have lost faith--at any time--because their prayers went unanswered.

It is remarkable that in millennial America, where public cynicism seemingly knows no bounds and the coin of the mass-culture realm is cheap, ironic detachment, trust in God persists. The prayers keep coming--for health, safety, love and, to a remarkable degree, for others. At her Roman Catholic parish in Newton, Mass., Dorothy Reece runs a prayer line in which 50 congregants pray for a long list of needy people. Her current prayer registry reveals a Job-like list of human miseries: a heart attack, a spleen removed, stomach cancer, drug addiction, infertility, a husband's desertion, a job interview. ""We really do believe that God can take care of more than one person at a time,'' says Reece.

Pentecostals are firm believers that God works miracles all the time. At Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., students run a round-the-clock prayer ministry, taking requests by phone, fax and e-mail. For those who prefer the Web, there's the Praise & Prayer Center site. If you're Jewish and can't make it to Jerusalem, an Israeli company offers e-mail service with direct delivery of prayer requests to the Wailing Wall. At Foundary Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., where the Clintons usually worship, there are Thursday-evening healing services for the sick in body, mind or soul. Although the president has never attended one of those sessions, congregants prayed last week for a quick healing of his damaged knee.

This ubiquity of prayer came as a surprise to Foundary Memorial's pastor, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman. He had spent most of his career teaching seminary students before he took Foundary's pulpit five years ago. And, as he said last week, ""I had no idea people were doing these things.'' This is a subject that frankly embarrasses some religious intellectuals. ""If you look at formal liturgies,'' says Robert Bruce Mullin, author of ""Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination,'' and a religion professor at North Carolina State University, ""they come right to the point of talking about the power of intercessory prayer. But they don't want to cross the line saying, "Yes, God can intervene in the world'.''

Many of the nation's leading theological schools have become obsessed with liberation theology, feminist theology, all forms of serious icon-shattering postmodern theology. But the people in the pews never forgot that they had come to pray. When Roberta Bondi, now a professor at Emory University's Candler School of Theology, was herself a Methodist seminarian, asking God for personal favors was considered ""an exercise in narcissism and dishonesty: prayer was a way of bucking us all up to be socially responsible.'' Today, for her, it is something much more personal and direct. ""If I want a real relationship with God, I have to tell him what's going on,'' she says. ""As with any relationship, you don't know in advance how it's going to turn out. You just do it, you make yourself accessible so you're prepared to receive grace when it comes.''

Jesus, of course, repeatedly urged his followers to petition the Father for their needs. Many of his own miraculous cures occurred only after others begged him to heal their afflictions. ""Ask and you shall receive,'' he said, ""seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you.'' By that measure, millions of Americans are finders as well as seekers.

How do the faithful know that God really answers prayers? More than any other issue in religion, the response depends on point of view. If you believe, no proof is necessary; if you don't, no proof is sufficient. For nonbelievers, prayer of any kind is folly, and relying on God for favors is the worst form that folly can take. In his final book, ""The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,'' the late Carl Sagan included prayer along with astrology, spoon-bending, witches, ESP, spiritualism and repressed memories as examples of the persistence of irrationality (next story). That most Americans both pray and believe that Earth has been visited by odd-shaped extraterrestrials, he pointed out, does not offer much confidence that faith in God--the Supreme Extraterrestrial--is rationally warranted.

The challenge Sagan raises is one that bothers many theologians and other religious intellectuals. The issues involved are particularly acute for Christian faith and practice. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus taught his disciples specifically to ask the Father for their ""daily bread'' and for deliverance from ""evil.'' That covers a lot of ground, and pious Christians have been filling in the details ever since. But while ordinary believers continue asking God for favors, an international group of Christian scientists, philosophers and theologians has been grappling with the implications of this old and seemingly innocuous habit. Although their arguments are often abstruse, participants believe they are necessary for the coherence and integrity of religious faith. Given what science tells us about the laws of nature, what does it mean to say that God intervenes to answer individual prayers? What do answered prayers say about God? Since many prayers go unanswered, does this mean that God plays favorites? And what kind of prayer is it that tries to manipulate God for personal benefit? Doesn't all petitionary prayer treat God as a kind of divine vending machine? In short, what does the simple act of begging for this or that presuppose about our understanding of God, the world of nature and ourselves?

For some theologians, the basic issue is simple. Modern science presents an increasingly compelling model of how the world works to which religion, if it is to remain intellectually honest, must adjust its ideas about God. For these theologians, prayers of petition are understandable but intellectually outdated. ""It's not very helpful to think of God as an old man in the sky waiting for communication and answering it,'' says Gordon Kaufman, emeritus professor at Harvard Divinity School. ""We have to think of God much more in accordance with the general picture of the world.'' According to that picture, Kaufman argues, the universe is an ecological system where scientific laws govern the course of events, making the idea of a transcendent personal God untenable. ""I prefer to think of God as creativity, rather than as creator,'' he says. In this reconfigured world, therefore, praying to a personal God, as he once did, makes no sense. Instead, says Kaufman, the only kind of prayer that works is ""meditation--trying to understand faults, mistakes, where I've gone wrong.''

But there are a number of academics who think that Kaufman's view claims too much for science, too little for God. Several of them are both scientists and Anglican priests, members of a group called The Society of Ordained Scientists, who believe faith and science share a common ground of intellectual inquiry. ""Twentieth-century science has seen the death of a nicely mechanical view of the world,'' says the Rev. John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist and currently a visiting professor at New York's General Theological Seminary. Nor is the world, he believes, a place where laws of nature determine and explain everything that happens. Modern physics alone reveals a world shot through with uncertainty and indeterminacy. ""The causes that bring about the future are not just the causes that physics processes in bits and pieces,'' says Polkinghorne. ""They also include what I call active information from human beings and from God.'' In his model of the world, there is room for nature to be itself, human beings to make choices and God to influence history through Divine Providence. ""The world isn't God's puppet theater,'' he observes.

If there is ample room for God in the perspective of these theologian-scientists, there still isn't much space for miracles. To scientists who look for universal laws and work with repeatable experiments, a single inexplicable event can only be described as nature's ""misbehavior,'' says physicist Paul Davies of the University of Adelaide in Australia, who has written numerous popular books on the philosophical dimensions of modern science. A miracle by definition is a direct act of God--and that, often enough, is what ordinary people say has been the answer to their prayers. According to the Bible, miracles are signs and wonders that point to the reality and power of God.

BUT ALL MIRACLES ARE IN THE EYES OF THE beholder, and can be recognized only if those eyes are open to faith. ""Healings are certainly healings, but if you take them as just the restoration of somatic health, then you've missed the point,'' says Episcopal theologian Charles Hefling of Boston College. If one is sick, prays for healing, gets better and then forgets about what's happened, that's not a miracle, says Hefling. ""Even if the doctors can't explain why it happened, it's not a sign and wonder in the Biblical sense because it hasn't opened one's eyes to that Something Else.''

There is, in sum, no way to prove empirically that even the most inexplicable event is an act of God. His ways are indeed mysterious. But many doctors are convinced that prayers can significantly improve a patient's health. And several of them are designing tests to try to prove the power of prayer.

The most intriguing experiment involves 60 patients at the Arthritis Treatment Center in Clearwater, Fla. Because rheumatoid arthritis has clear manifestations--including swollen joints and crippling pain--relief of these symptoms can be easily measured. The study is under the general direction of Dr. Dale Matthews, an associate professor of medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. Matthews is also a Presbyterian who has been praying for and with patients for years and now wants to find out if science can confirm that prayer really has healing effects.

He has divided the participants into two general groups. All patients will receive four days of healing prayer through the traditional Christian practice of laying on of hands by members of the Christian Healing Ministry. In addition, half the patients will receive six months of long-distance inter- cessory prayer. Both groups will be examined by the same clinician before the experiment, immediately afterward and again at one, three, six and 12 months. Throughout, Matthews is using strict scientific protocols and standards set by the American College of Rheumatology. By the end of this year, after an outside physician has scrutinized the data, Matthews and his team hope to show what difference, if any, prayer has made.

Already, a videotape of the early phase of the study shows that some individual patients have experienced extraordinary short-term results from prayer. ""There's something weird going on here, and I love it,'' says one patient. At the beginning of the experiment he had 49 tender joints. After four sessions with a hands-on praying minister, he had only eight. Six months later, he says he has no pain at all and no need of medication.

Matthews doesn't expect that all the patients will turn out so well. He's mainly interested in discovering whether prayer has long-term benefits. But what is being tested here, the power of prayer or God's willingness to take part in scientific experiments? ""That's a fair question,'' Matthews acknowledges. ""God can bless or not bless this study.''

Indeed, one of the great problems in asking God for any favor is that he often does not grant it. And when he favors some and not others, it appears that he does indeed play favorites. Is God unjust or does he only appear that way?

THE QUESTION IS AS OLD AS THE BOOK OF JOB, and believers have been wrestling ever since with the answer God gives there: ""Who has a claim against me that I must pay?'' Deists take the view that God set the universe in motion and then withdrew from intervention in its unfolding: that is why bad things often happen to good people. But that makes God a remote and unapproachable being. Protestant theologian Ronald Goetz of Elmhurst College in Illinois doesn't see how a God worthy of the title has any choice but to interact with the people he has created. ""I don't think a deistic god, who doesn't involve himself, is any less innocent than the God of Scriptures who says he is committed,'' Goetz argues. ""If a creator is uninvolved, then I shall be uninvolved with him.''

A vision of God who can act but won't--who sits back paring his nails, in James Joyce's famous phrase--can be unsettling. The Jewish community in the West continues to ask how an event so horrific as the Holocaust could have happened, and this can generate skepticism about the power of prayer. Petitionary prayer is not foreign to Judaism; healing centers have opened recently in New York and San Francisco. But most rabbis prefer to pray for wisdom, not relief. The master of this view is Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose ""When Bad Things Happen to Good People'' was just the first in a series of best sellers. ""I don't like the notion that when we pray and don't get answers, God has considered our request and said, "No','' Kushner says. ""I'd get very angry if I felt God had the power and chose not to. I don't know anything about the nature of God. But I know prayer makes life better and rich- er for me.''

Prayer can certainly be manipulative and trivial. Must God choose between a boxer who thanks Allah for victory and his opponent who prays to Jesus? When Notre Dame played Texas Christian University in basketball last week, was the Irish victory a sign of divine preference? In fact, coaches today use prayer as a form of team bonding, asking only that players perform up to their full potential. On professional teams like the New York Knicks, athletes who want to pray sometimes do it together with members of the opposition. Serious athletes--if not passionate fans--know that God does not provide a competitive edge.

Still, prayers of petition can be the beginning of a lifelong relationship. ""We go to God with dirty hands and ambiguous motives,'' observes theologian Goetz. But with repetition, elementary prayer can develop into more refined, less self-centered habits. ""If you're learning to play the piano, do the exercise first,'' advises theologian Hefling. ""Chopin comes later.''

At Easter time, all Christians are reminded that Jesus himself did not always get his own prayers answered. At least not the way he wanted. As the liturgy of Good Friday recalls, Jesus pleaded with the Father, just before his arrest by Rom- an soldiers, that ""the cup'' of suffering he was about to drink be taken from him. He literally sweated blood, the Gospels say, while thinking of the hideous death that lay before him. Yet his supplication was refused, and he went to the cross in obedience to the Father's will. Mark's Gospel records that his last words were dark indeed: ""My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.'' It was the Father's will, Christians believe, that Jesus should be crucified for others. And the purpose, the Gospels also tell us, was that all might enjoy everlasting life. Such are the mysteries of prayer.

In this NEWSWEEK Poll, 82% say they ask for health or success for a child or family member when they pray; 75% ask for strength to overcome personal weakness; 87% say that God answers prayers; 51% think God doesn't answer prayers to win sporting ev ents; 36% never pray for financial or career success; 29% say they pray to God more than once a day; 25% pray once a day; 82% say they belive that God does not play favorites in answering prayers; 79% say God answers prayers for healing someone with an i ncurable disease; 73% think prayers for help in finding a job are answered; 54% say that when God doesn't answer their prayers, it means it wasn't God's will to answer; 82% don't turn away from God when prayers go unanswered.