C. S. Lewis on Prayer in a Scientific Age

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The legendary seventeenth century scientist Blaise Pascal once said that “God instituted prayer in order to lend his creatures the dignity of causality.”

Pascal saw a future that was ushered in with the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment: As science continued to reveal and define the laws of nature—that is, the laws that govern the universe—God seemed to have no place to work, especially when it came to prayer.

Last week Drew launched this series on the “scientific study of prayer.” Here’s another challenge. The picture of the world that emerged from modern science was hostile to prayer, particularly the kind that makes “petitions” (i.e., requests) of God. And since the Enlightenment, a commonplace assertion has been that no one (in light of the lawlike nature of the universe discovered by science) has reason to believe in a God who answers petitionary prayer. Nick Spencer relays this statement from Albert Einstein: “I believe in Spinoza’s God… who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists.” And thus not in answering specific prayers.

Closer to Pascal’s time, in the early eighteenth century, Alexander Pope put it eloquently:

“The first Almighty Cause acts not by partial, but by general laws.”

I suppose, if we’re not bothered by these challenges to petitionary prayer, then we haven’t fully listened to modern science and felt its implications.

Einstein’s contemporary, C.S. Lewis, living under the shadow of scientific naturalism (nature is all there is) and its formal elaboration in the early twentieth century philosophy of Logical Positivism, did listen to these voices and was bothered. Even as a child of nine, he experienced the inexorable flow of events when his mother was dying of cancer. He prayed for her recovery, but she died anyway. “The interesting thing is that my disappointment produced no results beyond itself. The thing hadn’t worked, but I was used to things not working, and I had no more thought about it.” The coldness of this immovable and apparently unresponsive universe began a process that led to Lewis’s decision—a few years later—to become an atheist.

He didn’t remain a non-believer, and yet the problem of prayer persisted for him. In his 1953 talk, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer,” Lewis demonstrated that it is not inconsistent for God, who is beyond space and time, to establish and uphold the laws of nature, and at the same time to interact with those laws, including through prayer. God integrates human agency in the design of the world. “The efficacy of prayer is, at any rate, no more of a problem than the efficacy of all human acts, i.e., if you say ‘It is useless to pray because Providence knows what is best and will certainly do it,’ then why is it not equally useless (and for the same reason) to try to alter the course of events in any way whatever?”

A winning answer, but still Lewis knew that the efficacy of prayer is a knotty problem, and so he returned to it throughout his life, revising his understanding of how God responds to our petitionary prayers.

  • Here is a brilliant look at the topic: “C.S. Lewis on Prayer
  • Some, like my mentor, Robert John Russell, are convinced that twentieth century quantum theory changes the game by creating an open universe where effective prayer is possible.
  • This series of articles discusses proposals by Russell and four other leading thinkers.

Before I return to Lewis, there’s a deeper issue lurking behind the topic of petitionary prayer in a scientific age. Drew wrote about the problematic perspective of “nothing buttery”—that is, the universe is “nothing but” what science describes. Similarly, as I’ve written in Mere Science and Christian Faith, “God as first cause works through, secondary, intermediate, and natural causes.” I’ve often thought that, if we get “dual causation” right, then we’d grasp how science and faith can work together. It’s almost that simple. And yet, too often we place the insights of science—how the causal connections of nature work—in contrast to God’s work.

Indeed, Lewis came back to Pascal’s “magnificent dictum” in the last book he wrote, Letters to Malcolm. Realizing that the issue of God answering our petitions is complicated, he admitted, “Pascal really does suggest a far too explicit agent-and-patient relationship.” God is not a magician, or a vending machine (my language, not Lewis’s), but we don’t really want a result to our prayers. Lewis says we want to be “heard.” Partly, it’s unintended consequences. Could we imagine the full effects if everything we asked of God was granted? (Remember Jim Carrey’s realization when he became divine and granted every petition in Bruce Almighty?)

Lewis made this conclusion in light of the challenges to petitionary prayer: “I can only reply that we are taught, both by precept and example, to pray, and that prayer would be meaningless in the sort of universe [Alexander] Pope pictured. One of the purposes for which God instituted prayer may have been to bear witness that the course of events is not governed like a state but created like a work of art to which every being makes its contribution and (in prayer) a conscious contribution, and in which every being is both an end and a means.”

This idea produces a glorious picture of the world, one consistent with contemporary science and with our experience as believers petitioning God for what our hearts’ desire. “The great work of art,” Lewis concluded, “was made for the sake of all it does and is, down to every way and the flight of every insect.”

To my mind, he’s hit on one beautiful vision of the world that both science and faith describe.



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