Last month, Thomas Chatterton Williams, a contributing writer for TheNew York TimesMagazine and Harper’s Magazine, tweeted an image of Vice President Mike Pence and the members of the Coronavirus Task Force praying in the White House. The simple photograph, originally uploaded to the White House Flickr account on Feb. 26, shows Pence sitting in a chair and bowing in prayer as at least 15 others in the room also pray. Williams seemed to be deeply troubled by the scene. “Mike Pence and his coronavirus emergency team praying for a solution,” he wrote. “We are so screwed.”
The tweet quickly garnered thousands of retweets. Initial criticism was mostly regarding the alleged lack of physicians or medical doctors in the photo. Others noted the few if any public health or policy experts. But ultimately the tweet devolved into a heated debate on social media about science, religion, and the efficacy of prayer. Astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson, for instance, tweeted that the coronavirus crisis requires science, “not magical thinking.” Angela Rassmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, also criticized the prayer. “I have yet to attend a scientific meeting that begins in prayer,” she wrote.
These are just some examples of recent “prayer shaming,” a term describing the ridicule toward people who offer their “thoughts and prayers” for victims of tragedies. But they are also part of an old debate about the conflict between religion and science. A similar controversy raged on both sides of the Atlantic during the second half of the 19th century.
In the fall of 1871, the prince of Wales, Albert Edward, fell gravely ill from typhoid fever. The crown pleaded with British clergy to pray for the prince. They did, and amazingly the prince survived. Queen Victoria called for a service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey, inviting all clergymen but none of the leading figures of Victorian science.
This enraged the prominent Victorian physicist John Tyndall. Earlier, Tyndall had entered into debate with Oxford theologian James B. Mozley, who defended the evidential value of miracles in his 1865 Bampton Lectures, which were published in 1867. According to Mozley, the “laws of nature” should not undermine belief in miracles, for science rested on the accumulation of empirical evidence and was thus descriptive rather than prescriptive. The principle of induction was useful in gathering information but could not give us a definitive understanding of the natural world.
Tyndall responded to Mozley’s sermons by defending the principle of induction, arguing that it was the backbone of modern science. He maintained that nature had no gaps and that all apparent holes in our knowledge would eventually be filled. Looking at the history of science, he argued that before the scientific method was adopted, “unbridled imagination” caused “keen jurists and cultivated men” to commit atrocious deeds. Science had advanced because its theories and claims could be empirically tested.
After Queen Victoria’s slight, Tyndall published an article in 1872 titled “The ‘Prayer for the Sick’: Hints towards a Serious Attempt to Estimate Its Value.” He proposed an experiment suggested by Henry Thompson, a prominent British surgeon. “I propose to examine,” he wrote, “a means of demonstrating, in some tangible form, the efficacy of prayer.” One hospital ward should be set aside for patients suffering from diseases with known mortality rates, and should for three to five years be made the object of special prayers but not medical treatment. Supervised by “first rate physicians and surgeons,” the progress of these patients would be compared to the progress of patients who had not been prayed for but had been treated medically. Tyndall believed the experiment would demonstrate the superiority of the “scientific” method over spiritual healing.
Tyndall’s “prayer-gauge debate,” as it was called, incensed the religious community. Many theologians argued that Tyndall misunderstood not only the nature of God but also the true nature of prayer.
Some Christians were all too willing to accept the challenge, though—to downplay prayer. For them, the controversy served as a call to reinterpret prayer for a scientific age. These more theologically liberal thinkers strove to bring Christianity into alignment with modern thought. Liberal-leaning clergy supported Tyndall’s exclusion of the divine from the physical world and called on believers to rethink prayer as merely therapeutic in nature.
But the debate is actually much older than the 19th century. The prayer-gauge controversy reframed an older debate over miracles between Protestant and Catholics. The Protestant Reformation powerfully upended traditional understandings of miracles and prayer. According to Martin Luther, for instance, ecclesiastical miracles were “lying wonders” and “tom foolery.” John Calvin explained that one should not expect to see miracles in his day, for “we are not forging some new gospel, but are retaining that very gospel whose truth all the miracles that Jesus Christ and his disciples ever wrought serve to confirm.” In other words, the age of miracles was over. With the Incarnation, God no longer needed to intervene in nature. All alleged miracles were superstitions or diabolical perversions.
But if God no longer intervenes in the physical world, what becomes of prayer? Here, Protestant writers made a distinction between miracles as such and acts of providence. Miracles were dramatic and immediate. But in his providence, God acted through the natural order. The beauty, harmony, and order of nature testified to the power, wisdom, and goodness of God. Law governed the natural world, and God neither broke nor altered these laws.
But this focus on what came to be called “natural revelation” came with a cost. It ultimately helped transform godly natural philosophy (i.e., science) to naturalistic modern science and thus brought about the perception that science and religion are at war. Indeed, Tyndall and others had appropriated the Protestant critique against Roman Catholics and used it against all claims of the miraculous.
Perceptions of conflict between science and religion are one of the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation. While we cannot possibly settle the debate here, the history of theology offers us a more nuanced view of both how God works in creation and the nature of prayer, which I think are especially relevant in such a time as this.
Drawing on development over several centuries by theologians as they grappled with the Bible and their experience of the created world, some Christian thinkers have concluded that God’s usual way of acting in creation is concursus—that is, acting through and alongside the processes of creation that were all made through the Son. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it:
God’s providence is His almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand.
This view is at once more biblical and Christological than the sort of semi-deism that many 19th-century liberal theologians proposed. The Christian faith is not simply a set of personal values or spiritual preferences, but a claim about reality. As Paul put it in his letter to the church in Colossae, Christ is the one in, and through, and for whom all things were created (Col. 1:15–17). We live in a cosmos ordered and sustained by God and destined to be perfected according to his good purpose. All things, whether quarks, cells, organisms, stars, or galaxies, were made and are continuously sustained by God.
When it comes to explaining miracles (and divine answers to prayer), this view calls for multiple layers of explanation—scientific but also theological, among others—to fully capture the richness of God’s activity in creation. Scientific investigation helps us understand some of the “how” of God’s ways of working in and through creation, and the Bible and theology help us understand some of the “why” of God’s intentionality in creation.
In 1919, German theologian Friedrich Heiler defined prayer in six categories—asking for deliverance from misfortune and danger, liturgical or ritualistic prayers, and contemplative prayers, among others. But Heiler felt the highest form of prayer is speaking directly to God without formula or meditation. This is what he called “prophetic prayer,” following after the biblical prophets, in which no limitations are placed on method, location, or liturgical ranking. Prophetic prayer involves importunity, passionate pleading, lament, and even wrestling with God. As biblical scholar N. T. Wright recently observed in a Time magazine op-ed on the pandemic, lament does not always bring answers. But that is not the point. We lament because God also laments with us.
Prophetic prayer is both a gift and a task. Indeed, the whole ministry of Jesus exemplified the prayers of a prophet (Matt. 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16). In fact, a view of creation that affirms Christ’s role in creating and sustaining all things compels us to think about the world’s current meaning and structure, with clear ethical implications. What is creation telling us? While creation is no doubt good, it is also currently an embattled place. All creation is groaning (Rom. 8:22). It has been subjected to disorder. Knowing that Christ responded by intervening in creation to heal the sick, befriend those on the margins, and more, Christians are called to follow his example. Thus, prophetic prayer should be a call to action.
Prayer empowers us to work in the world for God’s glory. We pray not only for personal blessing but for the extension of God’s kingdom. The work of Christ through us does not extricate us from a damned world—it seeks to redeem it. We come before God as finite creatures who do not fully understand, who need the mind of Christ, the wisdom of God, and who rely on the Holy Spirit’s power. We are not in control. We’ve made remarkable scientific and technological advances, but a microscopic organism has unleashed a torrent of disruptions, closing cities and even entire countries. To pray in this time is what people of faith have always done when they face trials and tribulations—pray for wisdom and courage, acknowledging that God is ultimately in control, and that his grace is sufficient, made perfect in our weakness.
James C. Ungureanu is an intellectual historian with a particular interest in the history of Christian thought. He is currently historian in residence at the George L. Mosse Program in History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is author of Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the History of Conflict (University of Pittsburgh Press).
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