Yesterday, whilst browsing the internet semi-conscious, one hand firmly gripping a cup of strong coffee, my usual way of spending Saturday morning, I was stuck by an article at the Independent. It was the headline that caught my attention: “People who are impressed by inspirational quotes have lower IQs, study says”. I sighed inwardly; yet another piece in a liberal broadsheet about the stupidity of people who are, we assume, not amongst the newspaper’s target audience. Much though the mushrooming use of supposedly inspirational quotes is annoying, I mused, doesn’t it tell us rather more about the society that produces it than about its consumers? What kind of world packages hope in oblong digital dollops? And what is lacking in circumstances where people feel the need for that kind of hope?
This wasn’t what commanded my attention, however. The article included an explanation of the research by its lead author:
Those more receptive to bullshit [the coy Indy asteriskes part of this word] are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability – numeracy, verbal and fluid intelligence), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.
Fewer than two hours into the weekend, I sighed again. I certainly recognise the phenomena of widespread credulity, superstition, and conspiracy theory, although again I think they force fundamental questions about our society rather than being an imprimatur for sneering. But the pairing of “religious” with “paranormal” beliefs in a context where both are clearly intended to be negatively evaluated was yet another example of the routine dismissing of people with religious beliefs as in some way lacking. (It won’t do, by the way, to appeal to “science” here – this is just the neutral presentation of research finding – scientists devise their research questions and report their own research, and neither are value-neutral processes).
So I read the original research article, and came across this passage, which purports to explain the concept of an ontological confusion:
Consider the belief that prayers have the capacity to heal (i.e., spiritual healing). Such beliefs are taken to result from conflation of mental phenomenon,which are subjective and immaterial, and physical phenomenon, which are objective and material.
This is not the clearest piece of academic writing ever consigned to print, but here is what I take to be the basic idea. Ontological confusions are the kind of mistakes expressed in language by category errors, attempting to say of some entity something that cannot be said of an entity of that kind. So if I say “The number two is brave”, “Teresa May is equal to the sum of the squares on adjacent sides”, or “God is big” I commit an ontological confusion. Now the thought is supposed to be that to say that prayer (“a subjective and immaterial phenomenon”) can bring about a physical effect (the healing of illness) is to render oneself guilty of ontological confusion.
Ought we to believe that prayers can heal? A straw poll of adherents of the monotheistic faiths worldwide would almost certainly get the answer ‘yes’. But there’s a fatal ambiguity in the question.
Prayer is something human beings do (Christians of course also believe that it is something God does, bringing us to pray by grace, and making present his eternal life as Trinity in our prayers – but we do not think that God can compete with our agency). It is not, as the authors suggest something “subjective and immaterial”; here they themselves have fallen foul of one of the foremost superstitions of the age, dualism – on the contrary, prayer is conducted by animals of a certain kind (us), in a public language (either aloud or ‘internally’), and often accompanied by bodily gestures. It is no more immaterial or subjective than the coffee I was drinking. Nevertheless, it is perfectly true that we, through our actions, cannot bring about the healing of illness other than through the natural order of things governed by the processes described in the natural sciences and pscyhology. We cannot do magic. To the extent that there’s an implicit criticism here of ‘faith healing’ (elsewhere the authors don’t distinguish this clearly from prayer for healing) and the kind of glitzy idolatrous Christianity which advertises itself by appealing to the miracles its ministers can bring about, that is all for the good.
But when we pray for someone to be healed we pray that God will heal the suffering person. If the action of our praying can’t, in an unmediated manner, bring about healing (other than to the extent that the normal causal order permits, by a placebo effect, for instance), can God? Well, yes: God is not a thing in the world, bound by its laws, but is rather the reason that world and those laws exist. To speak of God healing is not to make the mistake of thinking that one thing in the world could act upon another in a magical way, because God is not a thing in the world. The classification of divine healing with magic, and of belief in it as superstition, involves a misunderstanding of the word “God” – it doesn’t name a thing, a bit of the world. Communicating this is one of the most urgent tasks facing Christians today. And it isn’t helped by the fact that many Christians do talk of God as though he were one more wordly cause amongst others, in this case some kind of super form of celestial antibiotic. The language of “divine intervention” doesn’t help here; something to which I’ll return in a moment.
It’s worth distinguishing two ways in which God can bring about healing. God acts in every agent and every event in the world, since he is their cause, in a unique sense of that word, as creator. So, in particular, when a surgeon removes a tumour or a drug increases serotonin levels in the brain, God brings about that healing. This is not a metaphor, nor an expression of the deistic thought that God ‘got the universe going’ at the Big Bang so is, in a sense, responsible for everything that happens subsequently. God is not responsible for neurosurgery in the same way that the Queen is responsible for Prince Charles talking to tomato plants. God is directly the creative cause of the operation, holding it in being over and against nothing. We can agree, then with Sirach‘s call to “Treat the doctor with the honour that is his due, in consideration of his services; for he too has been created by the Lord.” Recovery through medical intervention is one form of divine healing, and in viewing it as an answer to a prayer for healing we incorporate it into the story of the world’s redemption.
However, God can also heal without a created entity also bringing about the healing. This is what is meant by a healing miracle. I think that Catholics are not bound to believe that any given case of a reported healing miracle took place, or was indeed a miracle (it would be wrong to think of the resurrection, in which we certainly are bound to believe, to be a kind of super-healing miracle) – although I also think that once one believes in God (and so that healing miracles are possible), a sober historical critical approach to scripture would deliver the result that they have taken place. But we are bound to believe that healing miracles are possible. For God to exist is for there to be a creator, and so for there to be that which can bring things about ex nihilo. God does this in every healing. It is not that in the case of the miracle he is more present than he is when the doctor stitches a wound: no, God is not more present (what could that mean?); the difference is that a created cause is absent. For this reason talk of “divine intervention” here seems muddled – I don’t particularly like the expression in general, much though it is wrongly thought to be a touchstone of orthodoxy in some quarters, but I can live with it as a pictorial way of talking about God’s action in salvation history. As a description of miracles, though, it is a disaster. I can only intervene in a situation to which I am not already present. The gods in Greek mythology can be described as intervening. God, meanwhile, is continually present to his creation as creator.
The relationship between intercessory prayer and divine healing is interesting, but not of the moment. God can, we believe, heal. Whether or not prayer can heal depends on precisely what is meant. In no way does any of this involve ontological confusion. Nor is believing it credulous or superstitious, unless belief in God is those things. And to make that claim the atheist needs an argument.
Yet, none of these are the most important issues around prayer for healing. Far more important are the heart-rending complaints: “why didn’t God heal my daughter?”, “why doesn’t he listen?”. I think there are things that can be said here, but it would often be heartless to say them. The only answer we have is practical, the expression of divine love in our lives: in context this might look like a listening hand or an arm around the shoulder. Ultimately it looks like the Cross. Still, in a more general sense, the confusion around such prayer is indicative of a deeper and deadening confusion, of God with an item in the world. This is a barrier to the reception of the faith. And for that reason it should be tackled.