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Reflections On Prayer And Natural Law 1861

( Originally Published 1916 )

A MID the apparent confusion and caprice of natural phenomena, which roused emotions hostile to calm investigation, it must for ages have seemed hope-less to seek for law or orderly relation; and before the thought of law dawned upon the unfolding human mind these otherwise inexplicable effects were referred to personal agency. In the fall of a cataract the savage saw the leap of a spirit, and the echoed thunder-peal was to him the hammer clang of an exasperated god. Propitiation of these terrible powers was the consequence, and sacrifice was offered to the demons of earth and air.

But observation tends to chasten the emotions and to check those structural efforts of the intellect which have emotion for their base. One by one natural phenomena came to be associated with their proximate causes; the idea of direct personal volition mixing itself with the economy of nature retreating more and more. Many of us fear this change. Our religious feelings are dear to us, and we look with suspicion and dislike on any philosophy, the apparent tendency of which is to dry them up. Probably every change from ancient savagery to our present enlightenment has excited, in a greater or less degree, fears of this kind. But the fact is, that we have not yet determined whether its present form is necessary to the life and warmth of religious feeling. We may err in linking the imperishable with the transitory, and con-found the living plant with the decaying pole to which it clings. My object, however, at present is not to argue, but to mark a tendency. We have ceased to propitiate the powers of nature—ceased even to pray for things in manifest contradiction to natural laws. In Protestant countries, at least, I think it is conceded that the age of miracles is past.

At an auberge near the foot of the Rhone glacier, I met, in the summer of 1858, an athletic young priest, who, after a solid breakfast, including a bottle of wine, informed me that he had come up to "bless the mountains." This was the annual custom of the place. Year by year the Highest was entreated, by official intercessors, to make such meteorological arrangements as should in-sure food and shelter for the flocks and herds of the Valaisians. A diversion of the Rhone, or a deepening of the river's bed, would, at the time I now mention, have been of incalculable benefit to the inhabitants of the valley. But the priest would have shrunk from the idea of asking the Omnipotent to open a new channel for the river, or to cause a portion of it to flow over the Grimsel pass, and down the valley of Oberhasli to Brientz. This he would have deemed a miracle, and he did not come to ask the Creator to perform miracles, but to do something which he manifestly thought lay quite within the bounds of the natural and non-miraculous. A Protestant gentleman who was present at the time smiled at this recital. He had no faith in the priest's blessing; still, he deemed his prayer different in kind from a request to open a new river-cut, or to cause the water to flow up-hill.

In a similar manner the same Protestant gentleman would doubtless smile at the honest Tyrolese priest, who, when he feared the bursting of a glacier dam, offered the sacrifice of the Mass upon the ice as a means of averting the calamity. That poor man did not expect to convert the ice into adamant, or to strengthen its texture, so as to enable it to withstand the pressure of the water; nor did he expect that his sacrifice would cause the stream to roll back upon its source and relieve him, by a miracle, of its presence. But beyond the boundaries of his knowledge lay a region where rain was generated, he knew not how. He was not so presumptuous as to expect a miracle, but he firmly believed that in yonder cloud-land matters could be so arranged, without trespass on the miraculous, that the stream which threatened him and his people should be caused to shrink within its proper bounds.

Both these priests fashioned that which they did not understand to their respective wants and wishes. In their case imagination came into play, uncontrolled by a knowledge of law. A similar state of mind was long prevalent among mechanicians. Many of these, among whom were to be reckoned men of consummate skill, were occupied a century ago with the question of perpetual motion. They aimed at constructing a machine which should execute work without the expenditure of power; and some of them went mad in the pursuit of this object. The faith in such a consummation, involving, as it did, immense personal profit to the inventor, was extremely exciting, and every attempt to destroy this faith was met by bitter resentment on the part of those who held it. Gradually, however, as men became more and more acquainted with the true functions of machinery, the dream dissolved. The hope of getting work out of mere mechanical combinations disappeared: but still there remained for the speculator a cloud-land denser than that which filled the imagination of the Tyrolese priest, and out of which he still hoped to evolve perpetual motion. There was the mystic store of chemic force, which nobody understood; there were heat and light, electricity and magnetism, all competent to produce mechanical motion.' Here, then, was the mine in which our gem must be sought. A modified and more refined form of the ancient faith revived; and, for aught I know, a remnant of sanguine designers may at the present moment be engaged on the problem which like-minded men in former ages left unsolved.

And why should a perpetual motion, even under mod-ern conditions, be impossible? The answer to this question is the statement of that great generalization of modern science, which is known under the name of the Conservation of Energy. This principle asserts that no power can make its appearance in nature without an equivalent expenditure of some other power; that natural agents are so related to each other as to be mutually convertible, but that no new agency is created. Light runs into heat; heat into electricity; electricity into magnetism; magnetism into mechanical force; and mechanical force again into light and heat. The Proteus changes, but he is ever the same; and his changes in nature, supposing no miracle to supervene, are the expression, not of spontaneity, but of physical necessity. A perpetual motion, then, is deemed impossible, because it demands the creation of energy, whereas the principle of Conservation is—no creation, but infinite conversion. It is an old remark that the law which molds a tear also rounds a planet. In the application of law in nature the terms great and small are unknown. Thus the principle referred to teaches us that the Italian wind, gliding over the crest of the Matterhorn, is as firmly ruled as the earth in its orbital revolution round the sun; and that the fall of its vapor into clouds is exactly as much a matter of necessity as the return of the sea-sons. The dispersion, therefore, of the slightest mist by the special volition of the Eternal, would be as much a miracle as the rolling of the Rhone over the Grimsel precipices, down the valley of Hasli to Meyringen and Brientz.

It seems to me quite beyond the present power of science to demonstrate that the Tyrolese priest, or his colleague of the Rhone valley, asked for an "impossibility" in praying for good weather; but Science can demonstrate the incompleteness of the knowledge of nature which limited their prayers to this narrow ground; and she may lessen the number of instances in which we "ask amiss," by showing that we sometimes pray for the performance of a miracle when we do not intend it. She does assert, for example, that without a disturbance of natural law, quite as serious as the stoppage of an eclipse, or the rolling of the river Niagara up the Falls, no act of humiliation, individual or national, could call one shower from heaven, or deflect toward us a single beam of the sun. Those, therefore, who believe that the miraculous is still active in nature, may, with perfect consistency, join in our periodic prayers for fair weather and for rain: while those who hold that the age of miracles is past will, if they be consistent, refuse to join in these petitions. And these latter, if they wish to fall back upon such a justification, may fairly urge that the latest conclusions of science are in perfect accordance with the doctrine of the Master Himself, which manifestly was that the distribution of natural phenomena is not affected by moral or religious causes. "He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." Granting "the power of Free Will in man," so strongly claimed by Professor Mansel in his admirable defence of the belief in miracles, and assuming the efficacy of free prayer to produce changes in external nature, it necessarily follows that natural laws are more or less at the mercy of man's volition, and no conclusion founded on the assumed permanence of those laws would be worthy of confidence.

It is a wholesome sign for England that she numbers among her clergy men wise enough to understand all this, and courageous enough to act up to their knowledge. Such men do service to public character, by encouraging a manly and intelligent conflict with the real causes of disease and scarcity, instead of a delusive reliance on supernatural aid. But they have also a value beyond this local and temporary one. They prepare the public mind for changes which, though inevitable, could hardly, with-out such preparation, be wrought without violence. Iron is strong; still, water in crystallizing will shiver an iron envelope, and the more unyielding the metal is, the worse for its safety. There are in the world men who would encompass philosophic speculation by a rigid envelope, hoping thereby to restrain it, but in reality giving it ex-plosive force. In England, thanks to men of the stamp to which I have alluded, scope is gradually given to thought for changes of aggregation, and the envelope slowly alters its form, in accordance with the necessities of the time.

The proximate origin of the foregoing slight article, and probably the remoter origin of the next following one, was this. Some years ago, a day of prayer and humiliation, on account of a bad harvest, was appointed by the proper religious authorities; but certain clergymen of the Church of England, doubting the wisdom of the demonstration, declined to join in the services of the day. For this act of nonconformity they were severely censured by some of their brethren. Rightly or wrongly, my sympathies were on the side of these men ; and, to lend them a helping hand in their struggle against odds, I inserted the foregoing chapter in a little book entitled "Mountaineering in 1861." Some time subsequently I received from a gentleman of great weight and distinction in the scientific world, and, I believe, of perfect orthodoxy in the religious one, a note directing my attention to an exceedingly thoughtful article on Prayer and Cholera in the "Pall Mall Gazette." My eminent correspondent deemed the article a fair answer to the remarks made by me in 1861. I, also, was struck by the temper and ability of the article, but I could not deem its arguments satisfactory, and in a short note to the editor of the "Pall Mall Gazette" I ventured to state so much. This letter elicited some very able replies, and a second leading article was also devoted to the subject. In answer to all, I risked the publication of a second letter, and soon afterward, by an extremely courteous note from the editor, the discussion was closed.

Though thus stopped locally, the discussion flowed in other directions. Sermons were preached, essays were published, articles were written, while a copious correspondence occupied the pages of some of the religious newspapers. It gave me sincere pleasure to notice that the discussion, save in a few cases where natural coarseness had the upper hand, was conducted with a minimum of vituperation. The severity shown was hardly more than sufficient to demonstrate earnestness, while gentlemanly feeling was too predominant to permit that earnestness to contract itself to bigotry or to clothe itself in abuse. It was probably the memory of this discussion which caused another excellent friend of mine to recommend to my perusal the exceedingly able work which in the next article I have endeavored to review.

Mr. Motley's book belongs to that class of writing of which Butler may be taken as the type. It is strong, genuine argument about difficult matters, fairly tracing what is difficult, fairly trying to grapple, not with what appears the gist and strong point of a question, but with what really at bottom is the knot of it. It is a book the reasoning of which may not satisfy every one. . . . But we think it is a book for people who wish to see a great subject handled on a scale which befits it, and with a perception of its real elements. It is a book which will have attractions for those who like to see a powerful mind applying itself, without shrinking or holding back, without trick or reserve or show of any kind, as a wrestler closes body to body with his antagonist, to the strength of an adverse and powerful argument.—TIMES, Tuesday, June 5, 1866.

We should add, that the faults of the work are wholly on the surface and in the arrangement; that the matter is as solid and as logical as that of any book within recent memory, and that it abounds in striking passages, of which we have scarcely been able even to give a sample. No future arguer against miracles can afford to pass it over.—SATURDAY REVIEW, September 15. 1866.

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