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Prayer, Metaphysics and an Eskimo Named Nuckkerweener

by Ron Durham

Dr. Durham, who edits Mission Journal, is minister of human concerns at Central Church of Christ in Irving, Texas. This article appeared in the Christian Century  October 3, 1979, p. 948. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Oddly enough, it was an Eskimo Indian named Nuckkerweener who set me to thinking about metaphysics and prayer. A Wall Street Journal story told of his plight in the Canadian jails. Failing in his attempt to join the white man’s world, Nuckkerweener had turned to crime. Jailed, he was cut off from his roots. No one in the vicinity could even speak his language, and he has not spoken for 23 years. He cannot plead his own case, and he has no known relatives, no privilege of rank or class. He languishes in confinement month after month, a cipher among the nonpersons of our fallen world, seemingly beyond the reach of either justice or demonstrated love.

How could I help Nuckkerweener? I am unable to hire mercenaries to storm the prison, and at any rate I am not convinced of the righteousness of violence. Since I am not a Canadian citizen, a letter-writing campaign is not likely to impress the authorities. The agendas of international councils are clogged with more colorful cases, and besides, their machinery moves too slowly to help. None of these “social action” remedies seemed open to me. I decided that, as embarrassing as it might be to my more liberal friends, I could only pray for him, bombarding heaven with appeals against the injustice of it all.

Only pray for him? Sermons on the power of prayer insist that this avenue of aid is the most potent of all. But being a child of the age, I find myself asking questions. Can such meditative missiles glance off the pearly gates and land on the locks of Nuckkerweener’s jail door, setting him free like Paul and Silas? Or dare I hope that the shock waves from my prayers will penetrate the Eskimo’s skull at the point where the brain’s chemistry triggers warm, secure feelings, so he will know that someone cares? We are familiar with radio and television waves, and we are learning the physics of penetrating light, as in laser beams. But how does prayer work? To ask such a question is to plunge us into the murky waters not of physics but of metaphysics. And no one has bothered much with that topic for years.

Whatever Happened to Metaphysics?

We hear the term “metaphysical” now mainly in reference to modern mystery cults like spiritism. I use it here in the older sense: to denote that which is beyond the physical, but not so esoteric or spooky that one has to be a mystic or a medium to deal with it. In fact, metaphysics was long the province of philosophers, who sought to explain how mind is related to matter, how bodies act on each other, and how to extend these laws of the physical universe into the realm of theology. Just as the empirical world operated on such principles as cause and effect, so the spiritual world was supposed to be the effect of God, as First Cause. Metaphysics was therefore studied as a science, on a basis similar to mathematics or physics.

The conventional recitations usually include the assertion that David Hume refuted cause-effect relationships, and plunged the world into doubt. Actually, Hume believed that the world was attributable to God, but that the old metaphysics hardly proved it. The development of science since Hume has followed the premise that cause and effect still work as reliably as ever. But the precise mechanism remains obscure. Hume merely pointed out that there is nothing external to two bodies which demonstrates a causal relationship. Applied to theology, God and answered prayer were, for Hume, undemonstrable.

Immanuel Kant’s contribution at this point was crucial. Of course metaphysics does not rely on external deductions based on the behavior of bodies. Physics relies on empirical knowledge; metaphysics must be truly beyond physics. Its concepts must be intuitive, self-evident from the start, like the universal moral law. The bottom line to Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics was that the truths of metaphysics must be couched in “analytical” statements. That is, the predicate, when analyzed, must have already been implied or intuited in the subject.

It appears therefore that metaphysics is required to bow to the limitations of natural theology. On the one hand, answering Hume’s question, it borders on scientism in its attempt to “prove” the spiritual cause of empirical events. On the other hand, rising to Kant’s challenge leaves it exposed to the charge of circular reasoning. G. W. Hegel’s dialectic was successful, for some, in showing that the spiritual world penetrates the physical, but it did not explain how. And at any rate, the familiar history of the dialectic raises more questions than it answers. On Hegel’s terms, Spirit could be so thoroughly imbedded in the state that Nazism could be identified with the will of God, and American expansionism with our manifest destiny.

On the same terms, it is easy to see why Karl Barth and others revolted against natural theology. Neo-orthodoxy’s rejection of metaphysics, however, allied with atheistic existentialism to close the first half of our century with the rather negative question: Who needs metaphysics?

Only Scientists and Charismatics

After philosophers and theologians tired of metaphysics, the strangest bedfellows took up the enterprise. Take clinical psychologists, for example. Recently I allowed a psychologist friend to attach me to a biofeedback machine. By imagining that my hands were immersed in hot water, I was able to increase my body temperature by four degrees. On every hand such evidence abounds, showing as never before that spirit, or mind, penetrates matter, by whatever means. Editor Norman Cousins, struck down by a mysterious arthritic ailment no one could cure, had jokebooks brought into the hospital and good-humored himself well. Others are “thinking” their blood pressure down, “supposing” pain away by substituting hypnosis for anesthesia, and, in a unique counseling program in Fort Worth, Texas, “imaging” cancer cells to death. The bio feedback era has brought us to one of two conclusions: either there is a dimension of reality beyond the physical which can indeed relate to the physical, or the mind is only rarefied matter and what we have is merely one kind of body acting on another. And even if the latter hypothesis is correct, the connecting force between the two is a metaphysical action.

But I spoke of strange bedfellows, and this brings us back to prayer. I sat recently in an Episcopal charismatic service which relied on metaphysics more strongly than any prescientific philosopher could have. We assembled amid severe weather warnings that included the threat of tornadoes. “Lord!” cried a young lay leader in prayer. “In the name of Jesus we bind Satan this moment and forbid him to control the weather tonight. We deliver it instead into your hands and claim the promise that you will care for your own and not allow this storm to damage the person or property of a single one of us gathered here tonight!”

Sure enough, the storm hurt no one. We cannot prove a metaphysical connection, just as the thousands of reported miracle healings or other presumed answers to prayer cannot be proved to the satisfaction of the Humes and the Kants of the world. (Far less, of course, can we explain the fact that similar prayers did not stay the tornadoes that killed 50 people in Wichita Falls, Texas, a few months later -- but that is a different problem.) But it somehow seems odd that those who believe in this kind of answered prayer are rarely interested in Spirit, at least to the eye of faith. The scientists actually seem more interested in the relationship between mind and matter.

But if the simple believer joined the discussion, what might be said?

Toward an Arguable Metaphysics

1. Jesus is alive. The believer must first realize that he or she is to stick to the simple proclamation of the Good News as the first utterance, instead of allowing Hume or Kant or Heidegger to set the agenda unilaterally. It was natural theology’s mistake to begin with nature apart from its relationship to the empty tomb. The classical “proofs” may illustrate the God-world relationship, but they do not prove it, and the Barthians were right to criticize them on this ground.

But against the Barthians, the gospel does interlock with metaphysics. Jesus was designated the Son of God (a metaphysical claim) by the resurrection (a physical-metaphysical event) (Rom. 1:4). This event is at the boundary between this world and the world of Spirit -- the Greek word translated “designated” in this passage also gives us our word “horizon.” Despite the existential element in the proclamation, it is the historical testimony of those earliest this-worldly witnesses, and not their subjective faith, that distinguishes Christianity from many other faiths.

But if Jesus is risen from the dead, where is he? For the original witnesses, it would never have been enough to say with old-line liberals that Jesus is alive in my thoughts, or embodied in my Christlike acts, or symbolized in the Lord’s Supper. If Jesus is really risen, he has a metaphysical existence, one that allows him to be both with me and with the prisoner Nuckkerweener. He may enjoy what Paul called a “spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:42 ff.). I do not know what that means, and am glad to admit to a metaphysics de fidei. But I contend that the historical nature of the resurrection accounts indicates that this assertion has content.

Is the statement “Jesus is alive” an “analytical” judgment, as Kant required? Yes, to the believer; and it is fully open to the nonbeliever who is willing to accept the idea that a resurrection is at least possible. For the predicate “is alive” is necessarily implied in the subject, Jesus, who is the living Word.

If Jesus is alive and well today, but in a superphysical state, then he can make his home both in my heart and in the heart of Nuckkerweener. The same metaphysical power that opens tombs and creates worlds has been unleashed among us. Can it not also re-create hearts? The Mind that is the ground of cellular matter surely has no trouble entering the cells of the brain and effecting a change there. The Force that formed the earth and primeval seas, the Word that stilled the storm on Galilee, could easily snuff out the tornadoes threatening the Episcopalians. I have not set out to prove how this happens, nor to show why such miracles do not occur according to my own standards of justice or consistency. We are looking here for reasonable ways in which the world might be affected by Mind; and I contend that the resurrection of Jesus holds a clue to that possibility, if not its mechanism.

Mind and Body

2. Bodies are affected by something other than themselves. We have pointed out that whatever mind is, the biofeedback age indicates that it exercises control over matter called flesh. I have admitted that this may only show that mind is different from flesh in degree, rather than in kind. Yet the effects of the mind acting on the body appear to be metaphysical. That is the conclusion of my psychologist friend, who had been on the verge of rejecting faith. Recent work with placebos and psychosomatic medicine strengthens this conclusion. A placebo was formerly thought to effect healing only if the illness was “merely psychosomatic” or “not organic” It is now more fully recognized that actual chemical or organic changes can occur under the influence of a sugar pill.

This realization will not, I hope, plunge metaphysics back into such dead-ended explorations as the attempt to locate the soul, or the mind. Lucretius thought that the soul nestled in the human breast; Descartes located it in the pineal gland; and process theologian John Cobb, following Alfred North Whitehead, hopes to find mind wandering as a thread through the “interstices of the brain,” But if we are truly dealing with metaphysics, then the mind and the soul, like the risen Christ, will not be anywhere, but holistically related to the body. Gilbert Ryle was right to scoff at the idea of a ghost in a machine. Biblical metaphysics deals with persons, that peculiar mix of body and mind and soul that relates so intriguingly both to matter and to Spirit.

Alvin Plantinga (God and Other Minds) has argued that since we accept the reality of other human minds while seeing not the mind itself but good evidence that it is there, so we can reasonably accept the reality of a supreme Mind. Similarly, if we can see evidence on a biofeedback thermometer that something other than the physical is affecting body temperature, the metaphysical possibility of prayer’s efficacy may be close at hand. The evidence is analogical, but nudges us toward accepting the fact that the Supreme Mind can affect the lives of those for whom we pray.

A Realm Beyond the Physical

3. The hills are alive. One eddy alongside the mainstream of Roth century philosophy has dared to continue to speak of metaphysics: the process thinkers, who view the basic building blocks of matter as open to outside -- and at least in that sense, metaphysical -- influence. Not all of these philosophers are traditional theists; some simply hold, with atomic theory, that reality consists of relationships (as protons with electrons) instead of “hard matter.” Charles Hartshorne’s term for all this is panpsychism: even the hills are at least metaphorically “alive” to the extent that they can act on and react to events about them. Purged of sheer animism, this sort of language is open to the Christian. Whether we are speaking of the matter of the hills or the mind of humankind, the creation is open to the mighty acts of the Creator. It is in such terms that we can talk about a creation that “groans in travail” while awaiting its redemption (Rom. 8:21-22).

Further, process is the philosophy of organism -- matter and mind are related holistically. Each affects the other because they exist in dynamic relationship. For Whitehead, all “actual entities” have both physical and mental poles. In this set of terms, is it too difficult to believe that the entity called the human brain is susceptible to its Creator’s mental nudges?

None of this is offered as self-evident proof of a realm beyond the physical. It does, however, constitute a basis for continued conversation with those who ask about the ability of God to work in the world. With Kant, as well as with Scripture, we must warn ourselves not to presume to prove too much -- God is still in heaven, we are on earth, and our words can well be few. But as for me, whether or not I can fully explain how God works in the world, I cannot avoid such matters. And whether or not I can prove prayer’s effects, I said a prayer for Nuckkerweener anyway.


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