Does God Change His Mind?
I am a urologic cancer surgeon, a Christian, and I am passionate about learning and teaching the interface between science and religion. As such, I am continually challenged by what I call the “Christian physician’s dilemma”. Specifically, from Monday through Saturday we physicians treat the human body as a “machine” whose “workings” are revealed through reductionist processes. On Sundays those of us who are believers squirm in our pews while the congregation prays for healing.
Several years ago, we operated on a man with prostate cancer (we will call him Mr. Jones) that had very bad preoperative parameters, I feared that there would be many positive pelvic lymph nodes, and I would have to simply close him without taking out the prostate. However when I explored him, it wasn’t that bad and I was able to do a prostatectomy. That evening during rounds, I told Mr. Jones the good news and he replied: “Doctor, I knew it because I had a thousand people paying for me.” As often occurs in these situations, behind me I heard a few snickers and saw some of the residents and students roll their eyes much as they would do if a patient had extolled the benefits of some mysterious potion obtained in Mexico. Later outside the room we crowded around for a little round teaching and suddenly one of the residents who was an “evolving” Christian asked: “Dr. Lange, do you really believe that?”
I responded that what he was really asking was NOT the fact that because this man knew he had many people praying for him (including himself), that knowledge probably could help him face his crisis and possibly, though mechanisms that we still don’t understand, make the physiological response to his illness better. While we still are struggling to reliably measure this effect scientifically, most of us believe that believers (from any religious tradition) do better mentally and probably physically in handling disease. In that sense, prayer does work and most of us believe that.
No; what that resident really wanted to know was whether I believed that because Mr. Jones and his friends prayed for a good outcome, God directly intervened and the disease in his body suddenly changed for the better. In other words, metaphorically speaking: DOES GOD CHANGE HIS MIND? What follows are my continually evolving thoughts on this issue sharpened by my memory of that event.
My Thoughts on Prayer
Before I talk specifically about God changing his mind, let me comment on two aspects of prayer that are related. First I believe in prayer and do pray regularly because God’s Word tells us to pray. That is not a cop-out or the mindless obedience of a ritualistic believer. Rather it is at the center of this issue: I believe in God and in the ‘testimony” of the scriptures as a relatively accurate (and testable) approximation of His character and will. This belief is based on what is often called faith, which is often a central issue in any science/religion debate. For now let me here merely paraphrase St. Augustine who said that we believe in order to understand rather than understand in order to believe.
Another aspect of prayer outside the main point here is that we mostly pray not to ask God to do what we want, but to help us place ourselves in His hands—believing (as He promised) that all will work out for “the best”. The benefit of that attitude (believing in some ‘higher purpose”) is obvious and, as previously stated, almost certainly has some physiological “advantage” which someday will be scientifically measured and understood. But it is much deeper and involved. Using prayer to move away from an egocentric view toward a more selfless state produces a peace that is a mystery (which truly “surpasses all understanding”) that many wise men (especially the mystics of many religious) have described in very believable but profound terms.
But now to the main point: My thoughts about God’s mind and does it change when I pray. Incidentally what we’re talking about when we use the expression God’s mind are the fundamental laws of nature and in general what we’re talking about when we consider God’s involvement in our world is “divine action” (DA). Of course I don’t know but it seems to me that God’s mind (or the fundamental laws of nature) does not change, though our understanding does. Certainly so far whenever strange things are observed (in and out of medicine), things that heretofore and even now are called miracles, always, scientific scrutiny, when capable of comment, has found that these things follow natural laws or at least widely agreed upon “descriptions”. For example medical “descriptions” of seemingly fatal cancers have a wide range of possibilities ranging from extremely virulent to somewhat protracted courses, even (rarely) spontaneous cures which we euphemistically call “the freak rate” to dismiss our ignorance of what is going on. But always we have the confidence that eventually these “freak” occurrences will be understood; we never really consider them miracles; that is, phenomena that truly violate the fundamental laws of nature. In that sense, I certainly have not seen a miracle in my medical career (now spanning over 30 years) and know of no physician who has. Yet that viewpoint, in my opinion, does not rule out a belief in God’s continued involvement in our world, in divine action.
As a scientist it is much easier to believe in DA than it was when the worldview was so-called static; that is, the view that the world was created in toto, once and for all, and governed by infallible consistent “laws.” Now we “see” a much different universe; one that started with the big bang, has a history and geography that positions our world and a humankind (that evolved over eons of time) into a very small place and time; black holes; dark matter; time travel; string theory with unfathomably dimensions exceeding six; maybe multiple universes making other intelligent life in the cosmos probable; and so forth. Taken together this “ real” world is now much more unfathomable than Eve from a rib, water into wine, or a resurrection. No wonder physicists concerned with matters related to cosmology are now so filled with wonder that they appear spiritual.
So where does DA fit into this strange world? I don’t know exactly, but the point is it can fit and much better than in our former scientific worldview. For example, time is now known to be relative, and a God unconstrained by time seems now very plausible. As such, what looks like a miracle within the constraints of time, outside of time seems much more understandable. Thus Mr. Jones’s ‘freak rate’ cancer and the prayers for and by him could make rational sense when there is no before and after.
Another example is our realization that the world (especially the quantum world) is “open-ended”, evolving, emerging in ways that may not be totally predictable even by God. This easily “allows” God to be “inside” rather than “outside”. Thus a God that is involved in our lives is much easier to imagine.
My point is that the more one learns about the very sophisticated interface between science and religious concerns including DA, the more one realizes that much of what religious faith involves is approachable rationally. Thus the more I examine and experience, the stronger my conviction that the ‘leap” toward faith is just as legitimate to those who live and function in the world of science as it is for those a leap away from it. Also a God that can appear to institute miracles, answer prayer and love us and, yet not ‘break” the “ laws” He set up is a much more awesome God than one that is constantly rearranging the universe based on this or that (often contradictory) entreaty.
Mr. Jones continues to do well; he still thinks God changed His mind…I don’t. Yet we both continue to fold our hands to the same God; in awe at His creation, in humility at His love, in thankfulness and hope for His grace, and in Jesus’ name.
- Russell RJ, Murphy NC, Isham CJ: Editors: Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications & CTNS, 1997.
- Russell RJ, Stoeger WR, Ayala FJ, Editors: Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications & CTNS, 1999.
- Russell RJ, Murphy N, Peacocke AR: Editors: Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications & CTNS, 1996.
- Russell RJ, Murphy N, Meyering TC, Arbib MA, Editors: Neurosciences and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications & CTNS, 2000.
- Russell, RJ, Clayton P, Wegter-McNelly K, Polkinghorne J: Editors: Quantum Mechanics: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory Publications & CTNS, 2002.
- Haught, JF, Is Physics Fundamental? Russell on Devine Action, Zygon 45:213-220, 2010.
- Russell RJ, Cosmology from Alpha to Omega: Response to Reviews, Zygon 45:237-250, 2010.
Paul H. Lange, M.D., is the Pritt Chair in Prostate Cancer Research and a professor in the Department of Urology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Dr. Lange is also director of the Institute of Prostate Cancer Research and the UW and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.