The Possibility of Prayer – Lev Shestov and Niels Bohr

“Learn to pray from the Hassidim,” was the advice given to me by a friend. This counsel is not trivial. Much can be learned from the Hassidic Masters about prayer, but in the modern world, before being able to appreciate their teachings, we need clear away so much baggage, so much confusion and doubt. Before we can penetrate the celestial sphere, we need repair our ladder to the heavens, for it has been stunted and leveled.

We live in a chiefly secular world, where wonderment and primal vision have been replaced by absolute and unswaying devotion to the rational and its offspring, causality, explanation and technology. And while it is still possible to get caught up in the emotional frenzy of prayer, the doubt lingers, the inner voice asking all the time if the very act in itself is true. And if true, how so? If there is no rational explanation for an intervening God, the object of our prayer, is it possible its performance is nothing more than a psychologically satisfying delusion? (How many people would have even known to ask this question before the myriad universities and psychology departments sprang up?)

Sensing this crushing affect on our psyche, the Hassidic genius, Nachman of Breslov, dissuaded and chastised those that would study philosophy, including the Jewish rationalist philosophers such as Maimonides. Today, however, the problem is more acute, more stressful as we are not rationalists solely by philosophical choice, but rather by subtle educational and cultural indoctrination. It is not only in our minds, it is deep within our guts.

We may not actually know much about science and technology, but we know that it is Truth! We may not know much about artificial organs, but they seem to save lives, even without prayer.  Most of us have no idea how the GPS in our cellular phones work, but we are enthralled by its power more than we are by the first fruits of the trees in our backyard. Connectedness to nature and its Creator has never been so relegated to the back door of our cerebral and even visceral consciousness as it is in today’s world; our rational and technologically awesome world.

Thus, despite the lessons of the Hassidic Masters, prayer seems impossible for modern man, a still practiced relic of a vestigial belief system. And in fact, belief in and of itself may be on its last legs, swept away by the universal language of the modern Tower of Babel, the binary system of computer codes. How is it possible to live today with the paradox of an all powerful God when man seemingly controls nature so masterfully? How is it possible to reconcile the majesty of the Lord with the empirical majesty of the corporate test tube?

These questions need be addressed before turning our eyes, ears and hearts to the lessons of the Hassidim.

Ironically, the two modern Jewish thinkers that have helped me back from the doubt, from the pestering inner voice, were not even practicing Jews by any standard, although it may be argued that their being Jewish most definitely influenced their doctrines.  This, however, is irrelevant; their great contributions to humanity were not narrow contributions to Jewish thought, but rather contributions to the entirety of human contemplation.

Niels Bohr, famous for his philosophical and scientific arguments with Albert Einstein, was a founding contributor to the field of quantum physics. Lev Shestov, who lived as well during the period of the early twentieth century, was a Russian philosopher who took aim at the rise of the rationalist totalitarianism that still governs our minds.

They both keenly understood the limits of rational explanation and Shestov, in particular, warned against the kind of society that will be shaped by an ideology that is governed only by what is deemed possible, only by what science and technology can achieve. Both saw paradox and the rationally unexplainable as a strength, not as a weakness, and both found in the depths of religion (for Bohr, religion in general, for Shestov, the bible), a legitimate and absolutely needed expression of the totality of the human experience.

Quantum physics shook the world of science at its very foundations, much about the time that Einstein had done the same with his theory of relativity and the subsequent questioning of strict causality. After Bohr and Einstein realized (along with other notable physicists such as Dirac, Born, Schrodinger, Pauli, Heisenberg and others), each in their own way, that our mental experiences and rational understandings were far different than the realities of the macroscopic space-time and microscopic world of the elementary particles, that things were downright “spooky”, to coin a phrase by Einstein, they set about to making peace with a world that was anything but strictly causal and anything but easily explained. (Einstein never really did find peace with the new quantum physics. “God does not play dice with world,” he roared.)

But Niels Bohr did make peace with the new scientific paradoxes, as well as with the human paradoxes that had always existed. Bohr explained his ideas in a 1927 conference. “I feel very much like Dirac; the idea of a personal God is very much foreign to me. But we ought to remember that religion uses language in quite a different way from science. The language of religion is more closely related to the language of poetry than to the language of science. True, we are inclined to think that science deals with information about objective facts, and poetry with subjective feelings. Hence we conclude that if religion does indeed deal with objective truths, it ought to adopt the same criteria of truth as science. But I myself find the division of the world into an objective and a subjective much too arbitrary. The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side will not get us too far.”

Bohr developed the concept of complimentarity as a way to understand the paradoxical experimental findings of quantum physics.  Even today, about a century after the birth of quantum physics, there is no simple, neat explanation for the seemingly contradictory findings of the behavior of the microscopic world of elementary particles. Bohr reasoned that it was enough to create a total picture of the microscopic world by accepting together a host of partial explanations, that paradox was in inherent in these explanations and that a new comprehension of both the language of description and the limits of the human rationalism must suffice in obtaining entrance to a new reality. As such, in a conversation with Heisenberg, he stated, “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.”

Lev Shestov, in his book “In Job’s Balances”, wrote: “on earth, everything has a beginning and nothing has an end……….”, a sentiment that Bohr may have well agreed with.  The idea that full explanation is possible, that A leads to B leads to C is attainable, is in reality folly. Today, modern physics readily accepts the possibility that A may lead to B as well as to the opposite of B simultaneously. Further, the devastation in science of the idea of definite causality, the simultaneous devastation by Godel of the idea of a completely self sufficient and logical mathematical proof, mirror what Shestov was trying to convince people of throughout his lifetime.

In “Athens and Jerusalem”, he writes, “But why attribute to God, the God whom neither time nor space limits, the same respect and love for order? ……….. And what a sigh of relief men will breathe when they suddenly discover that the living God, the true God, in no way resembles Him whom reason has shown them until now!”

From here we may go back to prayer. Finally, prayer is again possible. That is, to paraphrase Shestov, the impossible has indeed become possible. We may not be able to describe it in words, but it is the primal non-utterable truth that allows us to confront the personal as well as the unattainable God through a kind of spiritual complimentarity.

We need not be bullied by rationalism for it is an imperfect bully. For Shestov, the search for rational truth solely was in reality an acceptance of the fetters of natural laws that we impose upon ourselves, cutting off our wings from the possibility of the true freedom that results from God’s unlimited potentiality. As for technology, either we decide to rule it, or it will rule us.  We increasingly permit all things technological to enter and rule  without questioning if there may just be another way to bring happiness and health into our lives, a way that transcends the shackles we have voluntarily placed upon ourselves. Shestov looked to the biblical heroes and the biblical God as showing that nature can be overcome when man releases himself from the belief in the rational laws of nature, which Bohr himself  concluded were not actually  nature but rather our limited descriptions of nature. Bohr stated, “I consider those developments in science during the last decades which have shown how problematical such concepts as “objective” and “subjective” are, a great liberation of thought.” It was this liberation that Shestov found in the bible. For Shestov, most of us will not escape the effects of gravity, but that does not meant that it is impossible. For the prophets of the bible, in connection with God, nothing was impossible!

As such, we may fully pray to God without inhibition for we need not put into an all inclusive equation our inwardly felt transcendent powers to reach Him. Science and poetry, the human spirituality and logic, are not contradictory attributes, but rather complimentary attributes. Neither should rule – both have their place, their powers and their limitations. Prayer is in many respects the impossible laying to rest of our intellectual ego before God – which, it is hoped that both Shestov and Bohr have shown – is most definitely possible.

About the Author
Asher Keren writes about science and philosophy, is an author and religious settler who has lived in Israel for over thirty years.
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