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If Jesus, revisiting the earth, were to enter our modern churches, and listen to the litanies flowing from the lips of avowedly miserable but apparently selfsatisfied sinners, how great would be his amazement in learning that all this pious verbiage is addressed to the Almighty in his name who so emphatically condemned all vain repetitions !
If we had never heard anything more of the opinions of Jesus on the subject of prayer, we might assume that he had almost grasped the scheme of providential government through immutable laws. But the Evangelist depicts him declaring in the same discourse that all things are attainable through prayer; and, at a later period of his ministry, he makes the startling announcement, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impos sible unto you. (Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.) '1 If this language be authentic, its extravagance indicates that Jesus had not risen above the popular superstition which depicts the vacillating gods disturbing the natural sequence of events in response to human wishes, which, in their capricious diversity, would necessarily evoke universal chaos. But, as the bracketed words are an ecclesiastical interpolation, the entire passage may be quite as apocryphal as its final clause.
Ecclesiastical legends sustain the most extravagant views attributed to Jesus by numerous miracles. assignable to the prayers of saints and martyrs: but, if these exceptional powers were not purely imaginary, they cannot have been withdrawn from modern saints, whose prayers should, therefore, cause so appreciable a variation in physical phenomena as to render science an impossibility. Modern physicists engaged in original research, however, fail to trace the abnormal variations due to prayer; and, when they attain attested knowledge of a natural law, its immutable action persistently discredits the pious theory of miraculous variation.
1 Matt. xvii, 20, 21.
Faith in prayer, in fact, means nothing more than ignorance of law. Each addition to scientific knowledge of causation is a fresh encroachment on the domain of prayer ; and Piety, convinced of the naturally inevitable, seeks divine intervention only under conditions of obscure causation, apparently amenable to the supernatural. Threatened by devastating floods, men do not pray that water may flow up instead of down hills ; but terrified by storms, they implore divine intervention with the winds, because imperfect knowledge of the laws controlling their action fosters faith in the supernatural direction of their forces.
Piety, from time immemorial, has claimed the couch of the sick and the dying as the special domain of prayer, which reigns supreme in medical, but proves quite inefficacious in surgical cases. No prayer is uttered for the miraculous restoration of a shattered limb; but if, after inevitable amputation, fever should intervene, and demand the presence of a physician, Piety forthwith resorts to prayer and implores divine assistance, because the uncertain course and doubtful result of the disease supplies credulity with the materials of constructive miracles. The Deity, therefore, declines to interfere with the knife of the surgeon, but imparts divinely healing virtues to the drugs of the physician. Prayer is powerless in the presence of broken bones, but accomplishes miracles in virulent disease.
The Peculiar People, who, in reliance on the promise of an Apostle, logically reject the use of medicine, when charged in our police courts with the crime of manslaughter, must wonder in their fanatical simplicity at the strange inconsistency of legislators who combine belief in the efficacy of prayer with penal enactments against men who honestly desire to reduce their faith to practice.
Illusory miracles of healing, however, vanish in the presence of the statistician. The actuary of an insurance company cannot inform an individual how long he is likely to live, but he can forecast with scientific accuracy the average duration of a thousand lives-an obviously impossible result if the death-rate varied in response to prayer. No
prayers ascend more frequently to heaven than the supplications of trembling mothers imploring divine compassion for their suffering babes ; and yet statistics tell us that death deals with them more ruthlessly than with hardened sinners, and not prayer, but sanitation controls the appalling average of infantine mortality.
Evangelical apologists profess to solve all these anomalies.
I. The Almighty only responds to prayer when conformable with the divine will. Then, ecclesiastical liturgies are but a mockery of God and man, and should be forth with replaced by the a single sentence Thy will be done on earth as in heaven.'
II. Again, we are assured that the Deity only grants miraculous aid when natural resources fail to supply a remedy; but is not human ignorance of the remedy identical with its non-existence? Before the discovery of vaccination, was the plague of small-pox stayed by the prayers of the faithful ? and was pain miraculously assuaged in ages unconscious of the existence of chloroform? When nations ignorant of sanitary laws were decimated by pestilence, did the prayers of priests or people snatch the doomed inhabitants of undrained cities from the jaws of death ?
III. Other apologists, conscious of the impossibility of reconciling natural law with efficacious prayer, suggest that, although prayer may receive no miraculous response, it exercises a beneficial influence on our minds by fostering pious trust in divine Providence. In other words, theological fictions, deceiving man as to his true relationship with the Deity, are favourable to the interests of Humanity. But men will not pray
for objects which they know will not be granted. They must, therefore, be ignorant that they may pray; and if the utterance of impossible requests fosters piety, we must, necessarily, extend our approval to the ignorance which dictates the prayer.
Faith in prayer has been from time immemorial the very stronghold of the heathen gods. Grant us a fruitful harvest, O Baal! O Molech! O Jupiter ! The rain descends, the sun shines, the corn ripens, the husbandman reaps. O mighty Baal! omnipotent Molech ! beneficent Jupiter ! who thus respond to human prayer. But the clouds refuse their moisture, the earth is parched, vegetation withers; the gods are therefore angry, and Molech demands a human sacrifice for the devouring flames. See the cloud rising on the horizon as the victim dies! Who therefore can question the providential rule of the great fire-god; or the undoubted efficacy of sacrificial worship?
The superstition which teaches men to pray is, in fact, an embarrassing heritage from ages which saw in all natural phenomena the personal action of the gods. But now that modern science has revealed the universal reign of law, we necessarily see in prayer a vain illusion fatal to the progress of civilisation ; for not only did trust in the supernatural rob mankind, for ages, of the inexhaustible resources attainable through knowledge of unbroken order in the universe, but it aroused a spirit of bigoted hostility towards the mediæval physicists who sought to question Nature instead of importuning God; and if a Darwin or a Huxley had been the contemporary of Bruno and Galileo, his choice would have lain between scientific martyrdom and penitent admission that the origin of man dates from Eden, not quite six thousand years ago.
As the passage which associates miracles with fasting is an ecclesiastical interpolation, Jesus may well be acquitted of preaching the superstitious asceticism enthusiastically adopted, in later generations, by squalid anchorites ignorant of the physical basis of mind. Could these pious men have known that, in refusing to restore the daily waste of their bodies, they were robbing the mental organism of capacity for rational thought, they would doubtless have hastened to restore brain-power by food, and thus exchanged the crazy hallucinations of famine for the rational thoughts of well-fed men, unconscious of Satanic temptation or celestial visions.