Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

From Prayer Activities to Receptive Prayer: Godly Love and the Knowledge That Surpasses Understanding

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

From Prayer Activities to Receptive Prayer: Godly Love and the Knowledge That Surpasses Understanding

Article excerpt

Research on prayer, even when using measures beyond simple prayer frequency to create typologies, has ignored the dynamic relationship between God as a "divine other" in interaction with the pray-er. Using statistics from surveys on prayer as a backdrop, qualitative accounts that demonstrate the relational nature of prayer are explored through the lenses of the Godly love model. Based on data collected as part of the Flame of Love project, prayer is conceptualized as integrating active and receptive streams, with tributaries of prophetic and mystical prayer experiences. Taken together these dimensions of prayer play an important role in describing what the Apostle Paul calls "knowing the love that surpasses understanding" and are confirmed by multivariate analysis of new survey data. Although active prayer has received much scholarly attention, our findings suggest that a closer look at the receptive forms would provide a more complete picture of what people actually do when they pray.

  For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his
  whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.
  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen
  you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,
  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
  And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,
  may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp
  how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,
  and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that
  you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness
  of God (Ephes. 3:14-19, NIV).

Despite the plethora of theological and philosophical articles and books on love, the topic has failed to capture the imagination of most social scientists. The brilliant pioneering work of sociologist Pitirim Sorokin (1954/2002) in the 1950s that explored the power of love in moral transformation was overshadowed at the time by positivistic empiricism that was regarded as the key to "real" science. Even after positivism lost its strong hold on American sociology and new social philosophies (including social constructionism and post-modernism) opened the door for taking seriously non-material factors in human behavior, love remains a largely forgotten topic. It is only within the past decade that a new reprint of Sorokin's work on love was made available, bringing with it a renewed interest in this important but complex topic. The interdisciplinary Flame of Love Project in which this article is grounded is one important example of a concerted effort to study self-giving love, especially as it is related to God's unlimited love. (1)

Prayer also has been subject to a similar pattern of neglect and seeming indifference in social science research. Little progress has been made in unpacking a practice that psychologists Meadow and Kahoe (1984, p.120) once dismissed as "remain(ing) outside the domain of science," and sociologist Ian Robertson (1981) used to describe social deviance, stances that are still widely held. Fueled by conflicting and inconclusive results from clinical studies of healing prayer, (2) many scholars continue to assume that prayer cannot be researched or that it is simply an illustration of irrational behavior. Although survey data collected over six decades has consistently shown that nearly nine out of ten Americans engage in prayer, little is known beyond these reported frequencies about what people actually do when they pray. (3) Even less is known about what people may experience when they pray or how prayer and its attendant experiences affect their lives.

Inspired by Paul's prayer for the Ephesians in the epigraph of this paper and made possible through a John Templeton Foundation funded interdisciplinary four-year project on The Flame of Love (FOL), these two widely neglected topics-namely, prayer and love-are here brought together for discussion. Our guiding thesis explores the relationship between divine love and prayer, considering the effects of reported divine-human encounters on human behavior and attitudes. …

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