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The Laboratory of Prayer and the Science of Spirit
by Rev. Richard S. Kirby, PhD, Feb 17, 1999
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This statement was delivered by Rev. Richard S. Kirby, PhD., International Chairperson of the World Network of Religious Futurists on February 17, 1999, defining an Academy of Prayer as a laboratory of spiritual science.

I write these words on behalf of my colleagues, scholars in the future of religion and society.

Our subject is perhaps a strange one: innovation in the life of spiritual activity: prayer, meditation and worship, for example.

In this article I am developing the definition of the work of the World Network of Religious Futurists [WNRF] Youth division, whose academy of prayer was briefly described in my last article.

An academy of prayer! What does it mean? It means [for example] a place to inquire into the redemption and sanctification of science and technology.

An academy of prayer implies something new. It implies a new place, a new language even, for faith to encounter science and civilization --- and evil, entropy, horror --- in the 21st century.

Therefore it invites RESISTANCE. The same resistance which every innovation meets alongside its welcome, operates here. Resistances must be honored, not dismissed. So I shall present here some basic issues which must be considered to prepare many minds for the great tasks of constructing, inhabiting, improving, a laboratory of prayer.

"LABORATORY" - a very emotive word. Webster's Dictionary [1941] defines it as follows: [noun or adjective] 'A building or room in which scientific experiments are conducted, or where drugs, chemicals, explosives are tested and compounded." [p. 542.]

A not very peaceable definition! Perhaps that's not surprising, considering the wartime [1941] date. But that little piece of cultural history shows us several interesting things One is that words shift and change their patterns and emphases of the components of meaning --- as we see from Webster's more recent definition shown in the next paragraph of this article. Another is that "LABORATORY" implies investigation, science, technology, creativity ... and the discovery or harnessing of power.

More recently, Webster's new etymological dictionary defines "LABORATORY" thus:

1 a: a place equipped for experimental study in a science or for testing and analysis; broadly : a place providing opportunity for experimentation, observation, or practice in a field of study b : a place like a laboratory for testing, experimentation, or practice

2 : an academic period set aside for laboratory work

Etymology [word origin]: : Medieval Latin laboratorium, from Latin laborare to labor, from labor; Date: 1605

This more recent definition helps us to understand the natural affinity of the actions of prayer with those which take place in the laboratory: experimentation, observation, or practice.

Prayer, likewise, has to do with power, whether it is seen as the taking hold of it or the surrendering of it to God.

Prayer, however, like theology, is one of those subjects which seem invite the comment: 'There is nothing new under the sun.' That is indeed a Biblical phrase [Ecclesiastes 1:9], though it would be hard to apply to science and technology. A similar viewpoint was represented by an author, a senior citizen in the beautiful countryside of Vermont who said to me a few years ago, "Theology - that all finished with the New Testament, didn't it?"

If we see religion, and even spirituality, as a kind of agent of the status quo, a force for conservatism, it is natural to see the whole social purpose of prayer as legitimating the established order. "God bless the Squire and his relations - and keep us all in our proper stations," as a late medieval European prayer was supposed to run. Then, too, the New Testament can also be quoted to support the view that obedience to the entrenched civic authorities, even concerning slavery, was obedience to God.

But opposite viewpoints are possible. A Religious [member of a vowed religious order] said to me and others in Philadelphia around 1980, "To raise one's hands in prayer is to offer an assault on the entrenched social forces of inertia and evil."

However, the STUDY of prayer, despite the existence of thousands of books on the subject, is seen by many as either irrelevant, impossible, or subjective. Despite such vast books as 'The Study of Spirituality,", The Philokalia, and countless books on contemplative prayer, those who are determined to ignore or resist a scholarship of the spiritual life, let alone a science of it, can always roll out such positions as the following which I have heard: "Why read Thomas Merton on prayer - it's just his opinion" [variant: 'It's all so subjective']. "It's all relative." "The mystics all say so different things - why believe any of them?" "The experiences of 'the spiritual life' are interesting, but not part of 'science', because they are not experimental, they are not public data, and they are not verifiable."

Here too opposite viewpoints are on offer in the market place of ideas. Rudolf Steiner, an esoteric philosopher at the extreme opposite end from the 'subjectivity' argument proposed the possibility of a spiritual science [Geisteswissenschaft] or 'Anthroposophy' in which scientific perception and meditation would or could converge. Advocates of Hindu practice declare that Yoga IS the Science of Spirit. T. F. Torrance, a modern theologian, contends that 'theological science' is the real science. Faith is the fulfillment of rationality. Parker Rossman and I, writing about ten years ago, tried to organize some of these ideas about the notion of experimental religion.

There is, however, a very simple test, an acid test, by which we can inquire of these competing viewpoints about the stature of the Science of Spirit. It is to ask: Where is the Laboratory of Prayer?

Some possible answers to this range across the following positions:

1. "Every church [building, congregation, etc.] is a Laboratory of Prayer - or could be. Here we are reminded of the parishioner who said to his minister, "Pastor, I love prayer so much it is easy to me. I could pray on the golf course, even." The minister replied, "Yes, but do you?" "No," admitted the parishioner. There is the world of difference between the idea that every congregation in the world, every church building COULD be a Laboratory of Prayer, even if we knew what that meant, and the reality of such a Laboratory of Prayer existing, even in the imagination of the members.

2. "The human mind is the real Laboratory of Prayer." Here faith is put to the test; the knowledge of God becomes experimental reality.

3. "The architects haven't figured that out yet."

4. "We must not put God to the test."

5. "Prayer and labs. are like Democrats and Republicans - they're best not cohabiting.

6. "The monastery is the real Laboratory of Prayer. Every monk's 'cell' is where s/he rises to contemplate God; and the whole monastery is a community where the Labora and Ora [work and prayer], are synthesized, unified. [We will speak later of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the time of King Henry VIII!]"

7. The most subtle answer is perhaps this one, which is a kind of amalgam of many constituent viewpoints: "Every scientific Laboratory is a Laboratory of Prayer. For in it the scientific conscience is focused and purified and shared in the piety of doubt and the holiness of inquiry." We will study this viewpoint in detail when time and space allow. It does invite the question how evil can be created, as it certainly can, in scientific laboratory. And that is the essence of the matter. How is a science made sacred, made dedicated to ultimate good? Theology is called 'The Science of God," by some [see Austin Farrer, 'A Science of God?'.] But the science is not the 'science' of Newton.

8. A thoughtful [physical] scientist could also offer the following comment: "I don't know why you are even asking about Laboratories. That's an old-fashioned idea anyway. Maybe in the 19th century the white-coated scientist did his research in a lab filled with test-tubes, but these days sciences aren't organized that way. The astronomer's work is one with computers linked from many locations to orbiting telescopes on extra-terrestrial satellites. There is no Astronomy Laboratory. Physics is partly just focused thinking, and physics experiments are done in many complex settings, not a lab. Geology and archeology are done on the hoof with lap-top computers linked to super-computers; meteorology doesn't use a lab at all. So the lab is not a good picture of science as it is really done, as opposed to the layman's myths about it."

The answer which I offer in this article honors these viewpoints. They all contain a grain or more of truth --- otherwise no-one would consider them for a moment.

But the answer which I offer in this article represents a different view of religion. It is that Laboratory of Prayer is an archetypal idea ripe for the 21st century - it harmonizes science and religion, which are dependent on each other, and invites religious practice to mature, while offering to science the vital notion of the sacred laboratory. In this way we can contribute powerfully to the problem of scientific ethics and business ethics. A Laboratory of Prayer is a chamber of moral ultimacy, and the fulfillment of spiritual psychology in the experimental sense [see Eysenck 1953 et seq. on the psychological laboratory]

A Laboratory of Prayer is also a gathering place, literally and symbolically, for the religious education of the youth of tomorrow. Youth need challenges, chances to re-invent institutions which they are bound to criticize. The youth of the future need fresh ways to understand the relationship between prayer and science. A Laboratory of Prayer is a project worthy of thousands of the religious youth of tomorrow - just as cathedrals were worthy of the loyalty and treasures of thousands of medieval citizens.

A Laboratory of Prayer is a project for the religious youth of tomorrow, which will call for their best skills and knowledge and faith in such varied fields as architecture, museum construction, scientific method, worship, liturgy, ---and the creative and performing arts. In it they will study and create the Periodic Table of the "Elements of the spiritual life" with around 100 cells, working in pairs.

Our young scholars such as Wyatt Matthews have already started designing that Table, which is a kind of backbone of the Laboratory of Prayer. As other young religionists join the project, they will prepare to be managed by the Rev. Bill Thompson, their Director-Elect. We expect Bill to take up his duties in the Fall of 2000. Over the next 18 months we will begin to fill in the blanks in the Periodic Table of the "Elements of the spiritual life," and the great work [Magnum Opus] of classifying the varieties of praying experience will be well under way --- calling out the energies and faith and hope and intelligence of thousands of youngsters from every corner of the earth.

And this is not a project for male energies solely. It is a splendid harmony of feminine and masculine virtue, vision, and energy. It is a great act of love which calls forth and focuses the moral genius of both genders. Like prayer and science, it is a work of creation which requires many marriages. A Laboratory of Prayer is a Magnum Opus of the moral life. It is an expression of ethical innovation, but one whose language of creation must be spoken both in the dynamism of male determination, and in the 'different voice' revealed by Carol Gilligan. The Ethics of the Feminine is permeating the science and technology of the future. The moral intuition of Woman will lead this harmony of the emerging forms of ecclesiastical architecture. The power-driven career of science is receiving a heart transplant, and learning to love. For a Laboratory of Prayer is a Laboratory of love. A churchly science is a potent compassion.

A true experimental Science of Spirit is being born. This Science is birthing amid the young --- where birth usually takes place, according to Nature's intelligent placement of great tasks among those with greatest energy, time, innocence and love.


Eysenck, H.J. Fact and Fiction in Psychology, London: Penguin, 1953.

Eysenck, H.J. Sense and Nonsense in Psychology, London: Penguin, ca. 1953.

Eysenck, H.J. Uses and Abuses in Psychology, London: Penguin, ca. 1953.

Farrer, Austin A Science of God?

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice.

Kirby, Richard The Mission of Mysticism London: SPCK, 1979.

Kirby, Richard "The theological definition of cosmic disorder in the writings of Thomas Forsyth Torrance," Ph.D. thesis in the University of London, 1992.

Kirby, Richard and Brewer, Earl D.C. The Temples of Tomorrow London: Grey Seal, 1993.

Merton, Thomas, Contemplative Prayer. New York: Herder and Herder, 1969.

Rossman, Parker and Kirby, Richard, Christians and the World of Computers. London: SCM, 1990.

Steiner, Rudolf, Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. Steiner/Anthroposophical Press. Various editions.

Torrance, T.F. Theological Science. Oxford U. P., 1968.

Webster's New American Dictionary. New York: Basic Books, 1941.

Whitehead, Alfred North, Religion in the Making [1926]. New York: Fordham U. P., 1996.

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