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On Prayer As A Form Of Physical Energy

( Originally Published 1916 )

THE Editor of the "Contemporary Review" is liberal enough to grant me space for some remarks upon a subject which, though my relation to it was simply that of a vehicle of transmission, has brought down upon me a considerable amount of animadversion.

It may be interesting to some of my readers if I glance at a few cases illustrative of the history of the human mind, in relation to this and kindred questions. In the fourth century the belief in Antipodes was deemed unscriptural and heretical. The pious Lactantius was as angry with the people who held this notion as my censors are now with me, and quite as unsparing in his denunciations of their "Monstrosities." Lactantius was irritated because, in his mind, by education and habit, cosmogony and religion were indissoluby associated, and, therefore, simultaneously disturbed. In the early part of the seventeenth century the notion that the earth was fixed, and that the sun and stars revolved round it daily, was inter-woven with religious feeling, the separation then at-tempted by Galileo rousing the animosity and kindling the persecution of the Church. Men still living can remember the indignation excited by the first revelations of geology regarding the age of the earth, the association between chronology and religion being for the time indissoluble. In our day, however, the best-informed theologians are prepared to admit that our views of the Universe and its Author are not impaired, but improved, by the abandonment of the Mosaic account of the Creation. Look, finally, at the excitement caused by the publication of the "Origin of Species"; and compare it with the calm attendant on the appearance of the far more outspoken, and, from the old point of view, more impious, "Descent of Man."

Thus religion survives after the removal of what had been long considered essential to it. In our day the Antipodes are accepted; the fixity of the earth is given up; the period of Creation and the reputed age of the world are alike dissipated; Evolution is looked upon without terror; and other changes have occurred in the same direction too numerous to be dwelt upon here. In fact, from the earliest times to the present, religion has been undergoing a process of purification, freeing itself slowly and painfully from the physical errors which the active but uninformed intellect mingled with the aspirations of the soul. Some of us think that a final act of purification is needed, while others oppose this notion with the confidence and the warmth of ancient times. The bone of contention at present is the physical value of prayer. It is not my wish to excite surprise, much less to draw forth protest, by the employment of this phrase. I would simply ask any intelligent person to look the problem honestly in the face, and then to say whether, in the estimation of the great body of those who sincerely resort to it, prayer does not, at all events upon special occasions, invoke a Power which checks and augments the descent of rain, which changes the force and direction of winds, which affects the growth of corn and the health of men and cattle—a Power, in short, which, when appealed to under pressing circumstances, produces the precise effects caused by physical energy in the ordinary course of things. To any person who deals sincerely with the subject, and refuses to blur his moral vision by intellectual subtleties, this, I think, will appear a true statement of the case.

It is under this aspect alone that the scientific student, so far as I represent him, has any wish to meddle with prayer. Forced upon his attention as a form of physical energy,, or as the equivalent of such energy, he claims the right of subjecting it to those methods of examination from which all our present knowledge of the physical universe is derived. And if his researches lead him to a conclusion adverse to its claims—if his inquiries rivet him still closer to the philosophy implied in the words, "He maketh His sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain upon the just and upon the unjust"—he contends only for the displacement of prayer, not for its extinction. He simply says, physical nature is not its legitimate domain.

This conclusion, moreover, must be based on pure physical evidence, and not on any inherent unreasonableness in the act of prayer. The theory that the system of nature is under the control of a Being who changes phenomena in compliance with the prayers of men is, in: my opinion, a perfectly legitimate one. It may of course be rendered futile by being associated with conceptions which contradict it; but such conceptions form no necessary part of the theory. It is a matter of experience that an earthly father, who is at the same time both wise and tender, listens to the requests of his children, and, if they do not ask amiss, takes pleasure in granting their requests. We know also that this compliance extends to the alteration, within certain limits, of the current of events on earth. With this suggestion offered by experience, it is no departure from scientific method to place behind natural phenomena a Universal Father, who, in answer to the prayers of His children, alters the currents of those phenomena. Thus far Theology and Science go hand in hand. The conception of an ether, for example, trembling with the waves of light, is suggested by the ordinary phenomena of wave-motion in water and in air; and in like manner the conception of personal volition in nature is suggested by the ordinary action of man upon earth. I therefore urge no impossibilities, though I am constantly charged with doing so. I do not even urge inconsistency, but, on the contrary, frankly admit that the theologian has as good a right to place his conception at the root of phenomena as I have to place mine.

But without verification a theoretic conception is a mere figment of the intellect, and I am sorry to find us parting company at this point. The region of theory, both in science and theology, lies behind the world of the senses, but the verification of theory occurs in the sensible world. To check the theory we have simply to compare the deductions from it with the facts of observation. If the deductions be in accordance with the facts, we accept the theory: if in opposition, the theory is given up. A single experiment is frequently devised, by which the theory must stand or fall. Of this character was the determination of the velocity of light in liquids, as a crucial test of the Emission Theory. According to it, light travelled faster in water than in air; according to the Undulatory Theory, it travelled faster in air than in water. An experiment suggested by Arago, and executed by Fizeau and Foucault, was conclusive against Newton's theory.

But while science cheerfully submits to this ordeal, it seems impossible to devise a mode of verification of their theories which does not rouse resentment in theological minds. Is it that, while the pleasure of the scientific man culminates in the demonstrated harmony between theory and fact, the highest pleasure of the religious man has been already tasted in the very act of praying, prior to verification, any further effort in this direction being a mere disturbance of his peace ? Or is it that we have before us a residue of that- mysticism of the Middle Ages, so admirably described by Whewell—that "practice of referring things and events not to clear and distinct notions, not to general rules capable of direct verification, but to notions vague, distant, and vast, which we cannot bring into contact with facts; as when we connect natural events with moral and historic causes?" "Thus," he continues, "the character of mysticism is that it refers particulars, not to generalizations, homogeneous and immediate, but to such as are heterogeneous and remote; to which we must add that the process of this reference is not a calm. act of the intellect,, but is accompanied with a glow of. enthusiastic feeling."

Every feature here depicted, and some more questionable ones, have shown themselves of late; most conspicuously, I regret to say, in the "leaders" of a weekly journal of considerable influence, and one, on many grounds, entitled to the respect of thoughtful men. In the correspondence, however, published by the same journal, are to be found two or three letters well calculated to correct the temporary flightiness of the journal itself.

It is not my habit of mind to think otherwise than solemnly of the feeling which prompts prayer. It is a power which I should like to see guided, not extinguished—devoted to practicable objects instead of wasted upon air. In some form or other, not yet evident, it may, as alleged, be necessary to man's highest culture. Certain it is that, while I rank many persons who resort to prayer low in the scale of being—natural foolishness, bigotry, and intolerance being in their case intensified by the notion that they have access to the ear of God—I regard others who employ it as forming part of the very cream of the earth. The faith that adds to the folly and ferocity of the one is turned to enduring sweetness, holiness, abounding charity, and self-sacrifice by the other. Religion, in fact, varies with the nature upon which it falls. Often unreasonable, if not contemptible, prayer, in its purer forms, hints at disciplines which few of us can neglect without moral loss. But no good can come of giving it a delusive value; by claiming for it a power in physical nature. It may strengthen the heart to meet life's losses, and thus indirectly promote physical well-being; as the digging of Aesop's orchard brought a treasure of fertility greater than the golden treasure sought. Such indirect issues we all admit; but it would be simply dishonest to affirm that it is such issues that are always in view. Here, for the present, I must end. I ask no space to reply to those railers who make such free use of the terms insolence, outrage, profanity, and blasphemy. They obviously lack the sobriety of mind necessary to give accuracy to their statements, or to render their charges worthy of serious refutation.

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