THE FUNCTION OF PRAYER. [To THE EDITOR OF THE "SPECTATOR."]
October 22, 180.
Sin,—An interesting article in your number for the 14th inst. on "The Competing Prayers against Plague" raises a question calling for the gravest consideration at the present day, because in it the opposition of theological and scientific thought is summed up as in a nut-shell, namely, the question, "Whether prayer has any influence at all upon outward events beyond that indirectly produced by its influence on human conduct ?" The purely scientific thinker answers, boldly and decidedly, "No." The modern theological teacher commonly answers, though under various reserves and qualifications, "Yes." What are we to do in the presence of this conflict? To patch up a hollow truce between science and theology by ignoring the difference or attempting to explain it away, is unworthy of any who believe religion to be as real as science. We must decide which side is in the right, and ascertain the consequences of our decision. Now if with this object we ask on what ground is each of these answers founded, we shall find that the scientific thinker takes his stand upon the whole mass of observations and inferences constituting our present experience of nature. While the theologian scarcely attempts to adduce any present experience in support of his answer, but rests it upon stories or exhortations contained in the Scriptures, which no doubt do ascribe, expressly and repeatedly, to prayer that power of influencing external events denied to it by scientific research. But such an answer is really suicidal. It introduces in support of religious trust that which destroys this trust, namely, the notion of a changeable God,—of a Deity who bestowed on men formerly an attention withdrawn from them now,—a God who has "gone to sleep, and must be awakened " — a notion directly opposed to the whole spirit of the Bible, which from beginning to end represents God as ever present with us, "about our path and about our bed,"—" Him in whom we live, and move, and have our being."
How, then, are we to get out of the difficulty caused by the opposition between the statements of the Bible and our own expe- rience in this matter of prayer? Are we to throw the Bible over altogether as a source of religious truth, and rest on our present experience alone ? It is impossible to do this ; first, because what the Bible says about prayer does correspond to our own expexiencein all that concerns our inner or spiritual life, though it is contrary to our experience in that which concerns our outer life, our life in the world of sense ; secondly, because, as is urged in a recent article in your paper upon "Biblical Criticism," the Bible contains the history of a vast religions development, which has profoundly influenced the subsequent religious progress of mankind, and cannot be passed over by any one who would give an intelligible account of that pro- gress. But it appears to me that a real way out of the difficulty may be found in the suggestion contained in the same article, that the revelation of God to man made through the Scriptures is not a finished work, shut up within certain books arbitrarily assumed to be infallible, but a continuing process, turning on one central fact, the manifestation of the infinite love of God by the Incarnation of the Divine Essence in the person of Christ, but involving a con- stant advance in the appreciation by mankind of all that this fact implies. If we admit that, in this continuous revelation of Him- self, God uses the faculties of man without superseding them ; that those who in each succeeding age are its vehicle, think in every case as men of their age and country would naturally think, while they are yet the means through which the Spirit of God gradually brings to light deep truths concerning Himself ; the difficulty aris- ing from the opposition between the statements of the Bible relat- ing to natural phenomena and our experience disappears.
Religion rests ultimately upon the consciousness attainable by man of a Being present with his innermost being, on whom he can rely for support, a will sympathizing with that governing moral will which Kant classed with the stars as equally exciting his contemplative admiration, that will which differentiates the man from the animal. Can we be surprised that those in whom the consciousness of such a presence was vividly awakened, whilst as to the external world they possessed only a general impression of its grandeur, and beauty, and adaptation to the wants of the living creatures comprised in it, should suppose that the God of nature would mould events according to the desires or deserts of His faithful servants or their enemies? Nay, must we not admit that there is a profound spiritual truth beneath this conception, though one requiring to be differently apprehended, that it may be adapted to the profounder knowledge of nature attained at the present time? Is it not true that the system of natural laws is in a deeper sense than St. Paul ascribes to the Jewish law, "a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ ;" a teacher, fitted .by the union of inflexibility and tenderness, by alternately stimulating us to action and disappointing our hopes, calling forth our warm affections and then thwarting them, to rouse us from mere animal carelessness, and lead us to seek for a repose which cannot pass away, " treasures " which " do not corrupt," laid up where "thieves cannot break through and steal ?" But it does not follow that we are to reject the light given us by the great "Father of light" in the revelations of science concerning the true cha- racter of the universe wherein we are placed, beyond that afforded to the earlier generations of mankind, and to insist upon presenting the divine action in nature, in our religious teaching, from the point of view of their ignorance, instead of from that of our own knowledge.
What can we expect indeed from such conduct but that thick crop of unbelief of which our clergy complain, without considering that they are themselves sowing its seeds broadcast, by their habit of converting the imperfect conceptions formed by the writers of the Scriptures about natural phenomena into fetters upon modern thought, instead of drawing from the great spiritual development in which these writers, notwithstanding their scientific ignorance, have taken so important a part, motives for trust in that Divine Spirit, who is as truly present with those who seek Him in this age of scientific research,. as He was to the ages and races to which science was unknown ?
Between the spiritual aspect of prayer presented to us by the Bible and the Church, as the communion of our will with the source of moral will, and science considered as the communion of our intelligence with the Being manifested in nature, there is a complete harmony. The fixed order which science lays.at the bottom of her demonstrations is quite consistent with the prin- ciple of moral will, which is essentially a faculty of order ; and in the connection between will and motion, of which we are directly conscious, we appear to have a clue to the source whence the phenomena of nature arise. Thus, if we restrict our conception of the function of prayer to that communion with God which the Scriptures and the Church recognize as its highest function, we shall remove the hinderances to the spread of religious feeling created by our present attempts to ascribe to prayer effects con- tradicted by experience ; while surely it cannot be supposed that the religious efficacy of prayer will thereby be in any way dimin- ished.
To imagine that God can have associated the efficiency of the highest spiritual act, the communion of the will of a free intelli- gent agent with Himself, with the maintenance of false conceptions about His action in nature, is a proposition which requires for its refutation only that it be distinctly stated. Piety will become more manly by learning to open its eyes to the realities of the universe, but to fear that it will thereby become less effective of good is a blasphemy against the Creator. It may have to lay aside some forms of words consecrated by ancient use in the times of men's ignorance, but our own book of Common Prayer may assure us that the ancient forms which it will not have to lay aside are precisely those to which it has always turned with the
purest satisfaction.—Believe me, yours faithfully, E. V. N.