In her Washington Post column today, “Does God play favorites?” (5/9, A17), Kathleen Parker argues that Christian prayers are no more special than the prayers of say a Hindu or a Muslim because “new brain research supports the likelihood that one man’s prayer is as good as any other’s.” To back this up she introduces NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty and her book Fingerprints of God a book that shows neurologically that “whether one is a Sikh, a Catholic nun, a Buddhist monk or a Sufi Muslim, the brain reacts to focused prayer and meditation much in the same way. The same parts light up and the same parts go dark during deep meditation.” I don’t doubt it. But she makes a fundamental mistake.
A drunk man blabbing in the street and a man filled with the Spirit of God and speaking the gospel in a foreign language apparently have some similarities to an observer. But they are doing very different things (Acts 2:5–13). Similarly, an act in the bedroom that is borne out of sinful lust between an unmarried couple as compared to the same act in the bedroom that originates from marital love and faithfulness are two radically different acts, even if they are physically indistinguishable. The physical appearance of the act often does not distinguish the sinfulness or the holiness of the act itself. This is what C.S. Lewis called “transposition,” when higher and more complex elements of the spirit world are acted out in a less complex material world they often don’t look particularly unique to the human eye. Or, as Lewis explained, when you take a book that was written in a very complex language and translate that book into a much more simplified language you must (out of necessity) give certain words multiple meanings. The same is true spiritually. The prayers that are pleasing to God—those prayers that are mediated by the blood of Jesus Christ and are reinterpreted and amplified by the voice of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 10:19–22, Rom. 8:26) are prayers that may in fact look exactly the same in a neurological scan as all other prayers and meditations that are not sanctified by the blood of Christ and not prayed through the Spirit.
To understand spiritual complexities we don’t study the simplified translation, we study the original book. In seeking to understand the spiritual world we must look down from heaven to earth rather than from earth up into the heavens. This is only possible through God’s revelation. God’s word is the only source that will help us make spiritual sense of physical acts that appear to be similar. And this is why brain activity can never determine the spiritual value of one’s prayers and meditation. It’s to attempt to understand spirituality by looking in the wrong end of the funnel.
For more on transposition see Lewis’ marvelous essay in The Weight of Glory (pages 91–115).