The power of prayer in a sickroom

The God Experiment
April 21, 2000

Russell Stannard is a brilliant communicator. His Uncle Albert books on physics for children have won high praise. The same skill in conveying difficult ideas in a simple, chatty, anecdotal style is fully in evidence in The God Experiment. The fact that this book was originally a series of Gifford lectures at Aberdeen University and, unlike most Gifford lectures, drew packed audiences, says something about the need to package ideas attractively if cross-disciplinary discussion is to be possible for more than a select few.

But there are problems. How does one prevent an accessible and wide-ranging presentation from becoming slick? In seeking to relate two very diverse fields, in this instance the natural sciences and theology, is it possible to convey adequately the different nuances of each?

As a physicist Stannard's main work was on high-energy particles. He recently retired from a professorship in physics at the Open University, is a reader in the Church of England and has long been one of the most popular exponents of a scientifically literate Christian faith. The evangelical constituency, with its predisposition towards biblical literalism, is his main target. Much of it is a gentle encouragement to such Christians not to be frightened of Darwin or Einstein, but to accept that science has positive contributions to make to an understanding of God.

He faces a harder task trying to persuade those for whom science rules out all thought of God that they are themselves being unscientific in brushing aside such evidence and indications as there are. These are to be found in Bible stories, in the mystery of human consciousness and in the extraordinary constitution of the universe, which has made human life possible.

There are no surprises here and no dogmatism either. The whole book is touched with a readiness to argue a commonsense case and to admit uncertainties. The life of faith is a kind of experiment in which traditional beliefs are put to the test and, where necessary, reinterpreted in the light of new knowledge.

The book takes its title from an experiment designed to test whether prayers for the sick make any difference to them, in comparison with a control group that is the object of no such prayers, or at least not such an intensity of prayer.

Stannard has misgivings about any such attempt to put God to the test. As experiments go, this one is unlikely to yield many answers, certainly not any which will be generally agreed.

But the fact that it is given such prominence in the book casts a shadow over the remainder. If this kind of quasi-scientific experiment is what is really meant by the experiment of faith, then the book presupposes a methodology that is deeply at variance with what theologians have usually imagined themselves to be doing.

Stannard has God debating with himself about the best way to set up a universe. He invites readers to agree that God made sensible, albeit sometimes painful decisions, and is therefore credible as an explanation of why things are as they are. The debate is undeniably well done and there are valuable expositions of some quite complex science. He is not claiming that these scientific insights prove the existence of God, only that they confirm what have been longstanding theological insights. St Augustine, on time, for instance, anticipated modern cosmology by about 1,500 years.

Given that there is an experimental dimension to faith ("O taste and see that the Lord is good"), the whole business of believing seems more bound up with participation in a hopeful, struggling, praying, self-critical tradition of coping with incomprehensible mysteries than Stannard allows for.

Science can show us wonders. But the scientific method as applied to the subject matter of faith has a curious tendency to trivialise it. Science aims at a completeness of explanation, theology works with broken images.

Archbishop Rowan Williams makes the point well: "There is a rigour and a discipline appropriate to theology, but it is the rigour of keeping on the watch for our constant tendency to claim the 'total perspective': it is almost a rigour directed against the naive scientific model."

This note is somehow missing from an otherwise attractive book.

The Rt Revd and Rt Hon Lord Habgood was formerly archbishop of York.

The God Experiment

Author - Russell Stannard
ISBN - 0 571 19623 3
Publisher - Faber
Price - £9.99
Pages - 248

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