DELIVER US FROM EVIL

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These are the final 4 words of the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 6: 9-13) – but what do they mean? Wait, isn’t that obvious? Maybe not!

The entire prayer is really an invocation of Good:

  • Thy kingdom come
  • Thy will be done
  • Give us this day our daily bread
  • Forgive us our trespasses
  • Lead us not into temptation

Then the prayer ends with, “Deliver us from evil.” Is that just a restatement in negative form of the 5 positives that went before? Are we to define Evil merely as the opposite of ‘thy kingdom, ‘thy will’, etc? Or is something more intended here? Does this phrase add to the information content of the prayer or just restate what’s already there?

Some theologians and scholars have read “evil” as “Evil One” (aka Satan). According to this interpretation, the final exhortation of the prayer is for God to save us from the embodiment of evil, Satan.  Does this merely push the problem from ponerology (the study of evil) to Satanology: ‘how do you understand evil’ now becomes ‘how do you understand Satan’? Or is an active agent of evil somehow materially different from evil per se?

Clearly, if we are to understand this enigmatic phrase, we have to define what we mean by “evil”. According to most Roman Catholic theologians, evil is not a thing in itself; it is merely the absence of good. In his treatise, On the Incarnation, 4th century theologian and saint, Athanasius of Alexandria wrote: “Evil has not existed from the beginning…”; C.S. Lewis in his Introduction to this work added, “(Evil) is not a proper characteristic of created existence but is rather a deviation from the right relationship between God and creation.”

For Augustine (d. 430) and others after him, ‘being’ per se is ‘good’ and therefore anything that is is ‘good’, at least to some degree. I am reminded of the Book of Wisdom (12:24a): “For you love all things that are…”

Therefore, there is no such thing as absolute evil. It might exist as a concept but absolute evil cannot actually exist in any ‘real’ world: if it did exist, it would by definition not exist. We are stuck with a world that is basically good…albeit in degrees.

This idea is not as strange as it sounds. We understand that ‘darkness’ does not exist as a thing as itself; it is the absence of light. Likewise, ‘black’ is not its own color but rather it is the absence of any color. The same model applies to evil.

Yet, if this is how we are to understand ‘evil’, the final 4 words of the Lord’s Prayer, so carefully crafted throughout, seem out of place. Except in poetic language, we don’t need anyone to ‘deliver us from darkness’; we just turn on a light (or light a fire). Likewise, we don’t need to be delivered from the absence of color (black). So why would we sum up the entire Lord’s Prayer by asking God to ‘deliver us from the absence of good’ when we just finished asking him for an abundance of good? It’s not wrong…but it doesn’t make much sense.

Or maybe Augustine is wrong after all? Maybe absolute evil does exist. If so, what form might it take?

Memento mori: Remember death! In our current humanistic age, we are told from infancy that “death is just another part of life”. But clearly it is not! Even Ludwig Wittgenstein, no friend of theology, wrote, “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.”

We are fond of saying, “Everyone dies;” and from the point of view of an objective observer (i.e. anyone still living) that is true. Yet from the subjective point of view of the person dying, it is never true: no has ever experienced her own death.

The poet and theologian, John Donne (c. 1600) had it right, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee might and dreadful, for thou art not so…nor canst thou kill me.” Not the ‘subjective’ me anyway.

Wittgenstein and Donne agree that there is no subjective experience of death; but after that their views diverge. Donne puts his faith in God and the promise of eternal life: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally and death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

Where does that leave Wittgenstein? It’s unclear but let’s try to fill in the blanks. If death were real, what would its impact be? First, it would erase all subjective memory and that in turn would erase subjective experience itself. So called ‘past experience’, itself an oxymoron, cannot exist in any present; experience only happens in the present. There is no ‘dead’ in the present; ‘dead’ by definition refers to something that existed in the past.

Sure, once dead, we would ‘live on’ in the memories of those who knew us; but soon everyone who knew us will also be dead (Jules Romains, Death of a Nobody). Of course, we would ‘live on’ in the material products and social institutions we created…

Ok, let’s stop this nonsense now! Someday there will be no Planet Earth and, if that’s not good enough for you, someday there will be no Universe, period (Big Freeze or Big Crunch). So the notion of any form of permanence in a temporal universe is an illusion.

So back to our earlier question: what is death? Death is time; and what is time? Time is the great cosmological and ontological eraser. It simply makes everything that ever was to have never been. It is the ultimate ‘time traveler’ of science fiction fame, going back in time to kill his grandfather so that he himself will never be born.

If death were real, every fitful attempt at cosmogenesis would be still born. The fact that there is a cosmos at all proves that death is unreal. If there was a universe that included death, there would simply be no universe.

C. S. Lewis: “Created from nothing, creation rests upon nothing; it depends totally for its existence upon the will of God alone, by which it was called into being. Yet rather than allowing it to relapse into nothingness, God acts to ensure its stability: ‘…and thus not suffer what would otherwise have happened, I mean a relapse into non-existence…”

Existence and non-existence are not reciprocal terms. Something that exists is always in danger of no longer existing whereas something that no longer exists can never exist again: the information is lost forever. In fact, something that no longer exists never did exist since information is a measure of existence.

So if being per se is good (Augustine) and death (aka time) annihilates being, then maybe there is a species of absolute evil after all; its name is Death. Let’s be clear: understood this way, death (evil) is no longer merely the absence of life (being, good) but the annihilation of being (good). Death becomes a verb. As a noun, evil merely denotes an absence of good; but as a verb…

Of course, as Christians we do not believe that this is possible. It’s not possible because God is Being, God is Good, and God is not subject to annihilation. But without God, it not only could happen, it would happen…and it would have already happened! Does that fill in the blanks for you, Ludwig?

I am reminded of a line from Be Thou my Vision, an Irish poem traditionally attributed to 6th century poet, St. Dallan: “Naught be all else to me save that Thou art.”

So what does this have to do with the Lord’s Prayer? Well, now ‘Deliver us from evil’ means ‘deliver us from death’ and by logical extension, ‘deliver us from time’.

What form could that take? Now we’re back to John Donne: “One short sleep past we wake eternally…”

So yes, God…

  • May your kingdom come
  • May your will be done
  • May you give us our daily bread
  • May you forgive us our trespasses
  • May you lead us not into temptation

But most of all, may you deliver us from evil (death, time) and grant us the only thing that can possibly make life worth living: eternal life. That is a climax worthy of the Lord’s Prayer!

 

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HOLOGRAM

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Although the story is told twice, once in Matthew and once in Luke, both versions amount to a single account of Jesus teaching his disciples to pray, the only such account in all scripture. No wonder they call this prayer “The Lord’s Prayer”.

Over the course of two millennia, this very short collection of words has maintained an amazing appeal. Even people who are not Christians, or who are not even religiously inclined, often know it by heart. What is it about this prayer that makes it so unique and so captivating?

Well, many things, of course! But I want to focus on one that is often overlooked: The Lord’s Prayer is a “hologram” or, to be more precise and more technically accurate, a “fractal” (fractals are the mathematical objects behind holograms).

What is a fractal? In layman’s terms it is a self-similar pattern. When you see a fractal you see a certain pattern. If you zoom in to see just a small portion of the fractal up close…you see the same pattern. Zoom in again, same pattern; zoom back out, same. The fractal reproduces itself infinitely at every scale.

When a fractal is used to generate a hologram, the fractal pattern is encoded onto a piece to film. Under proper circumstances, shining a laser beam through the film creates a 3D ‘holographic’ image.

Now here’s the cool part. Cut the film vertically and horizontally so that you’re left with 4 pieces. Now throw away three and shine your light through the one remaining. Voila…same image, nothing missing!

Or is something missing? It is the same image, no doubt. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the image is little bit less detailed. The whole image is still present, but it’s just not quite as clear.

What in the world does this have to do with the Lord’s Prayer? Well, check out the text:

Our Father, who art in Heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil.

The Lord’s Prayer tells a pretty clear and simple story about God’s majesty and power, about our dependence on God and about our hope for a better life on earth and in eternity. In some ways, it sums up all prayer!

But look at the prayer more closely. It’s made up of just 8 lines and those lines are grouped into 4 couplets, each one a complete sentence. Now look even closer: the entire message of the prayer is completely contained in each of those 4 couplets. The prayer is a fractal (or hologram).

The first couplet tells us that we are related to God as we are to a father. But unlike our biological fathers, this father transcends the world of space and time. This father is “in heaven”. Heaven is what we call that aspect of reality that is beyond space and time…that is eternal.

Even though God is beyond space and time, He has a name. In today’s world, names are not terribly important. But in the ancient world, names were everything. If you knew a person’s name, you knew his place in society, his function in the world.

What is God’s name? In the Book of Exodus, God tells Moses that his name is “I AM”; later he tells him that his name is also “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.” God’s name is what God is for us, how God shows himself to us in our world.

In the New Testament, God’s name is simply, “Abba, father.”

God’s name is “hallowed” (which means holy). What is holy is good or does good or produces good. In our world, in his relationship with us, God is always good. Therefore his name is holy.

So God is supreme (heaven) but caring (father) and always good (hallowed). Now zoom in a little closer:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Heaven is the Kingdom of God. Now we pray that that kingdom will come onto earth. When God’s will is done, then the kingdom has come. And when the kingdom has come, earth and heaven are one.

Do you see how this is really the same message as before? What we call God’s “will” here is what we called his “name” before. It is how God operates in our world and in our lives. It is how God is good, does good, produces good. It is how God is holy. But in the first couplet, God’s role is somewhat abstract (name); in the second couplet, God’s role (will) is more concrete.

Don’t stop now! Keep zooming:

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Now we are as concrete as we can be. We’ve moved from God’s ‘will’ in general to what God wills in particular. What is it that God wills? First, the satisfaction of all of our needs! When the kingdom comes, everyone (us) will get what is needed (bread) whenever it is needed (daily). This is universal justice. This is God’s will for his creatures.

Notice that the couplet does not refer to an equal distribution of income or wealth. That is outside the scope of this theology. What The Lord’s Prayer does demand is that everyone’s real human needs be met.

In Theory of Justice, John Rawls makes a similar argument. Justice requires political equality and a generous safety net; beyond that, invention, competition and enterprise may be allowed to operate freely.

What else can we say about God’s kingdom? All of our mistakes, our sins (trespasses) will be forgiven, not just by God but by each and every man and woman (as we forgive). We are God’s essential partners in this enterprise. To forgive a trespass is to de-fang it, to take away its power over us. This is essential for the reign of mercy, which is peace. Peace too is God’s will for his creatures.

Justice (bread) and peace (forgiveness) are the indelible defining characteristics of God’s kingdom. When our needs are met and a state of peace characterizes our relations with others, our personal freedom is optimized and we are empowered to “be all that we can be”. We are our full potential. The kingdom of heaven is earth…with its potential fully realized.

Now zoom in even further!

And lead us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil.

It is nice to say, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done,” but it’s not as easy as that, is it? Sure, we want to do the will of God. Well, most of us do, most of the time, but often we don’t. We succumb to temptation and do what is contrary to God’s will (evil).

St. Paul said it best, “I do not do what I want but I do what I hate…I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” (Rom. 7: 15 -19)

Evil is the absence of good. If justice (bread) and peace (mercy) are good, then it is the absence (or opposite) of justice and peace that is evil. Injustice and conflict inhibit our existential freedom and undermine the realization of our potential.

Brief and local flashes of justice and peace prove that the Kingdom of God is already “among us” (Luke 17: 21b); but the more general absence of justice and peace in the world proves that the heaven and earth are not yet one.

It is not enough to affirm the values of justice and peace or to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” It is necessary also to reject the enticements of evil. A close friend of mine once said, “Virtue is not virtue unless vice is tempting. You get little credit for doing a righteous deed unless you simultaneously overcome an inclination to do otherwise.”

Monogamy is no virtue unless one is tempted to commit adultery. Honesty is no virtue unless one is tempted by material wealth. Where our strongest inclination to do evil lies, there also lies our greatest opportunity to manifest earth-transforming good.

The passive acceptance of God’s values is not sufficient to transform earth into God’s kingdom; it does not generate enough intensity. In fact, it doesn’t generate any intensity at all. Absent the lure of evil, acquiescence to the will of God is nothing but inertia and inertia is not an event.

The real events that constitute our lives involve reaching for God’s values and pulling them toward us at the same time as we push opposing values away from us. Our appetite for good and our aversion for evil, our choice of one option and our rejection of all others: this what constitutes an event, this is what transforms the world.

Pulling on God’s values gives us the leverage we need to push away the alternatives and pushing away the alternatives gives us the leverage we need to hold fast to God. There is no such thing as passively doing God’s will.

This is the meaning of Grace: God’s values, actively appropriated by us, are the source of our ability to reject evil. They are our strength. To be transformative, the acceptance of God’s values must be accompanied the active rejection of their polar opposites. And so we pray, “deliver us from evil”; and before that, “lead us not into temptation”.

“Deliver us from evil” is the mirror image of “thy kingdom come” and “lead us not into temptation” is the mirror image of “thy will be done”. Like the other three couplets, the final couplet of the Lord’s Prayer reflects the pattern of the entire prayer; only the orientation is reversed. We are looking at the same process but from the other side.

Truth to tell, that reversal of orientation began when we prayed “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. When we forgive, we don’t just embrace God’s value of peace; we actively reject the lure of vengeance and resentment and retribution. That can be a lot to give up!

Temptation is the inclination to appropriate the world’s goods (economic and otherwise) for ourselves at the expense of another’s right to “daily bread” (justice) or the inclination to exploit or harm another in a way that violates human solidarity or the solidarity of all creation (peace).

Temptation specifically concerns behaviors that undermine justice and peace. Here, the Lord’s Prayer is reaching all the way back to the Ten Commandments:

“Thou shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. Thou shalt not desire your neighbor’s house or field, his male or female slave, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Deut. 5: 21)

Violations of the 9th or 10th commandments (above) undermine pea (wife) and justice (house et al.).

Here is where free will, or more generally, the absolute freedom of the created world, comes into play. To realize the Kingdom of God on earth, it is not enough just to embrace what is good (justice & peace); it is also necessary to reject what is evil. If the world is not a level playing field, if the choice between good and evil is not terrifyingly real, then the game is rigged and the coming of the Kingdom is not a real event; it is just the final unfolding of a result that was already implicit in the rules of the game itself. Salvation cannot be an algorithm!

When a Las Vegas casino fleeces a guest, it is not a feat of skill or virtue; it is simply a matter of mathematics…odds. The game of salvation cannot be like that. We must freely choose God over the glittering alternatives and our choice must be real and it must matter. That is the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

A fractal is a mathematical object. As such it is infinite. No matter how deeply you dive into the pattern, the same pattern remains. Because the Lord’s Prayer is composed of words and phrases, there is a limit to the depth of our dive. In this essay I have pointed out that the prayer is a fractal down to the level of its 4 component verses. Could it also be a fractal down to the level of its 8 component lines? Try it and see for yourself.

So what? Why is any of this important? Most of the messages we encounter in our lives are linear. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They follow the pattern of narrative or of argument. They depend on space-time and/or logic and, as such, they instantiate and reinforce both.

Not so the Lord’s Prayer. This message is radically non-linear. It follows the pattern of the eternal. As a hologram, it instantiates and reinforces eternity: “on earth as it is in heaven”.

There is no temporal or logical progression in the Lord’s Prayer. The entire message is a single ‘quantum’ of meaning. That quantum is always true, everywhere, in every universe of discourse.

Whole ontologies has been built on the idea that there are infinite gulfs separating transcendent God from the kingdom of heaven, separating heaven from the daily events of earthly life, and separating those mundane events from the ultimate spiritual struggle against evil. The Lord’s Prayer challenges that notion head on! There are no infinite gulfs; in fact, there are no gulfs at all. It all happens altogether in one place and at one time, which is to say at all places and at all times.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Parmenides, spoke of a way of truth (aletheia) and a way of appearance (doxa). The later is the domain of variety and change, space and time; the former concerns what is uniform and eternal. Most messages concern Doxa; the Lord’s Prayer concerns Aletheia.

There is one single thing that is always true on every scale and in every universe of discourse and that one thing is expressed, whole and entire, in every one of the 8 lines that constitute this prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is a hologram…and that makes all the difference in the world!

PSALM 146

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The Old Testament Book of Psalms consists of 150 Psalms, divided into 5 ‘books’. The last 5 Psalms of the final book (Psalms 146 – 150) constitute the climax of the entire work. They recapitulate all that has gone before and give it a decidedly eschatological bent, ending with the final stanza:

“Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord. Hallelujah!”

Distinctively, each of these 5 Psalms begins and ends with word “Hallelujah!” Our prayer journey has at last led us into the realm of ecstatic celebration.

The first of these final Psalms, Psalm 146, juxtaposes the historical realm, the starting point of all Psalms, with the eschatological realm. Compare the introductory stanza:

“Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, my soul; I will praise the Lord all my life, sing praise to God while I live.”

with the final stanza:

“The Lord shall reign forever, your God, Zion, through all generations! Hallelujah!

The focus has shifted from the actions of the mortal Psalmist to the actions of the eternal God.

Between these two stanzas, the Psalm is divided into two sections: a short section on the futility of mortal power and planning; and a longer section devoted to the actions of God.

Compare the first section:

“Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save, who breathing his last, returns to earth; that day all his planning comes to nothing.”

with the opening stanza of the second section:

“Blessed the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord, his God…”

The historical realm is the realm of ‘perpetual perishing’. Sure, it is also the realm of new beginnings but whatever comes to be ultimately comes not to be. “To be or not to be,” is not a choice, it is a sequence, as Hamlet quickly discovered. No matter how fecund the world may be, time (a function of entropy) always wins out in the end.

From the perspective of the historical realm, what ceases to be never was in the first place (“all his planning comes to nothing”). To die is never to have lived! Therefore our hope cannot lie anywhere in the space-time continuum. Our hope, the only possible hope, must lie in the eternal realm, the realm of “the God of Jacob”, because it is he who “shall reign forever…through all generations!”

We cannot find actuality in the realm of perpetual perishing. Actuality is rooted in permanence and permanence is rooted in eternity. The Psalmist was not alone in this understanding. A contemporary Greek philosopher, Parmenides, had the same insight. He divided the world into Doxa, the ever-changing realm of appearances, and Aletheia, the never-changing realm of truth.

Don’t believe in the God of Jacob? That’s cool! But you might want to rethink that position…because there is absolutely no other hope for us! Psalm 146 echoes Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death…therefore choose life.” (Deut. 30:19)

Psalm 146 suggests a version of Pascal’s Wager: if there is no God, it makes no difference whether you believe in him or not; but if there is a God, believing might quite literally be ‘everything’. Or to borrow a line from a state lottery ad, “You can’t win if you don’t play!”

The main body of the Psalm 146 is a catalogue of God’s actions. We learn that God, “the maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever…”

  • “Secures justice for the oppressed,”
  • “Gives bread to the hungry,”
  • “Sets prisoners free,”
  • “Gives sight to the blind,”
  • “Raises up those who are bowed down,”
  • “Protects the resident alien,”
  • “Comes to the aid of the orphan and the widow,”
  • “Thwarts the way of the wicked.”

We can, I think, understand this litany in three ways. First, God occasionally intervenes unilaterally in history via miracles and when he does, he does so to bring about precisely these results.

Second, God regularly intervenes in history through the actions of human beings. When we undertake the good works enumerated in Psalm 146, we perform God’s work in the world.

Finally, I believe that this litany is meant to describe life in the eschatological realm, the Kingdom of God. These are the values that mark the ultimately just social order. This is what we are referring to when we pray The Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Therefore, when God intervenes in history or when we intervene on God’s behalf, it marks the in-breaking of the eschaton. Ultimately, the Kingdom of Heaven is the transfiguration of the historical realm according to God’s eternal values.

Whenever God acts, or whenever we act in God’s name, a corner of the historical realm is transfigured and we catch a fleeting glimpse of the eschaton beyond. The nature of life in the Kingdom is thereby made manifest in the historical realm.

We also learn something else about God from Psalm 146. The God of Jacob “loves the righteous”. This aspect of God’s nature is very different from all the others. There’s no mention here of correcting injustice or altering the course of historical events. In every other aspect, God is acting physically and unilaterally, but love is not like that at all.

Love is inherently relational and ideally mutual. Sure, we read all the time about ‘unrequited love’; but the reason we read about it is that it is the aberrant case: Dog bites man! Love is naturally mutual.

In Psalm 146, it is the ‘righteous’ (or just) person that God loves. What does it mean to be righteous? It means to embody in your being and in your doing the values that characterize God’s Kingdom (as enumerated above, for example). So in the case of the truly just man, there’s no risk that God’s love will be unrequited.

The evangelist John quotes Jesus:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments…Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.” (John 14: 15, 21)

The righteous man is the man who does God’s will, the one who does God’s will loves God, so by definition the righteous man loves God.

When we love someone, we recognize ourselves in our beloved and we recognize our beloved in ourselves. When love is mutual, we see ourselves through the eyes of our beloved. This does not mean that we are ‘alike’ or that we ‘share a lot in common’; it means that behind all the phenomenal differences that separate us there are fundamental shared values that unite us.

In The Presence of the Kingdom, Jacques Ellul, an existentialist French philosopher and theologian, writes of the Christian mandate to be the Kingdom of God in the world, not to work for the coming of the Kingdom, not to build the Kingdom, but to be the Kingdom.

The one absolutely real and certain thing about the world is the Kingdom of God. When we live the values of the Kingdom in the historical realm, we are a sign of that Kingdom for all to see.

When we praise God’s values, we demonstrate faith; when we praise God’s actions, we demonstrate hope. But when we perform the works of the Lord, we demonstrate love. It is through the actions of the just man that the Kingdom of God is made manifest: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (John 12:13, et al.)

Literally, ‘blessed’ means ‘wounded’. When we act “in the name of the Lord”, we are “blessed” (or wounded); through our wounds the world can see the Kingdom of God. Our acts of justice are windows onto the eternal realm. When we act justly, we are a sign for the world of the Kingdom to come.

Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and later to Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 11:25 & 14:6)

The Kingdom is not built from the bottom up. Our acts of justice, important as they are in their own right, do not build the Kingdom. Rather the Kingdom is built from the top down. More accurately, the Kingdom of God draws the world to it. When our actions reveal the Kingdom to the world, they function as a model, as a lure. Gradually, the historical realm conforms itself to God’s values and is transfigured; heaven and earth become one.

Just as the perpetual perishing of the historical realm threatens to erase every trace of our being, so the ongoing transfiguration of that realm promises to preserve every such trace. “The world and its enticements are passing away, but whoever does the will of God remains forever” (1 John 2:17), not because they have earned eternal life but because they are eternal life. That is our one and only hope and it rests with the Lord, the God of Jacob… “who keeps faith forever”.

PSALM 151

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“The Book of Psalms consists of 150 songs praising or exhorting God” – (Psalms, another essay in this collection). This essay, however, will suggest that there may be at least one more Psalm in Judeo-Christian scripture. We’ll call it ‘Psalm 151’…but you’ll recognize it as ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.

Even though Jesus gave us this prayer half a millennium after the majority of the Psalms were composed and complied,  the Lord’s Prayer has all the defining elements of a Psalm. It praises God, it petitions God and it celebrates God’s action in the world.

The Old Testament Psalms praise God for being God and, what amounts to the same thing, exhort God to be God. Prayers of thanksgiving meet prayers of petition! When we read the Psalms, we seek nothing less than to uncover the mind of God (his values) and discover his will. When we pray the Psalms, we seek to conform our values to God’s values and so our actions to his will.

The Lord’s Prayer occurs twice in the New Testament, once in ‘Matthew”, once in ‘Luke’. While the two versions have much in common, there are differences. Furthermore, the form of the prayer most of us recite today is not a literal translation of either scriptural version.

But none of that matters! Psalms are meant to be liturgical. The version of the Lord’s Prayer that we recite as part of our various Christian liturgies is the version that concerns us here:

Our Father,

Who art in Heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come,

Thy will be done,

On Earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our trespasses,

As we forgive those who trespass against us,

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer begins by addressing God, our Father…Yahweh. We praise God for his transcendent role (“who art in heaven”) and for his immanent role (“hallowed be thy name”). Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality) points out that the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is not God’s postal address; it’s who God is, transcendentally, i.e. outside space-time, outside history.

Likewise, the ‘name’ of God is not just something he’s called; it is who God is, immanently, i.e. inside space-time, inside history. The ‘name of God’ is the role God plays in the world. This is why, when Moses asks God his name (Exodus), God responds, “I AM”. First and foremost, that is how we know God…as Being itself.

The Lord’s Prayer begins by praising God for who he is, transcendentally and immanently. From praise, the prayer turns to petition. In fact, the Lord’s Prayer includes three distinct types of petition, all found throughout the Book of Psalms. The first petition is eschatological, the second is social (concerning justice and peace) and the third concerns our own personal salvation.

The petitioner is certainly not bashful.  Why ask for anything less than everything?

The first petition is delivered on behalf of the entire universe: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

In the language of Whitehead, the Kingdom of God will ‘come’ when all entities conform their ‘subjective forms’ to God’s Primordial Nature (values) and their ‘subjective aims’ to God’s Consequent Nature (will). When our values conform to God’s values and our actions conform to God’s will, then has the Kingdom of Heaven ‘come’, then is God’s will ‘done’. At that moment Earth and Heaven become one (I Cor. 15: 24 – 28).

The second petition concerns justice and peace, two major themes in Psalms.  “Give us this day our daily bread.” Here we are not praying for some private or transitory advantage (“O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.” – Janice Joplin). Rather we are praying for ‘bread’, the precondition of all life, not just for ourselves but for all of ‘us’ and not just for today but for every day.

Implicit in this petition, but unstated, is our commitment to do nothing to prevent the universal distribution of this ‘bread’ that we have prayed for and that God has given. By implication, we agree as part of this petition not to engage in any activity that might deprive another of the ‘bread’ that God provides. We have conformed our values to God’s values, so we will conform our wills to God’s will.

God’s advocacy for the poor and the oppressed, his obsession with justice, permeates the Book of Psalms. The Lord’s Prayer echoes this insistence that everyone’s basic human needs be satisfied. A society that follows God’s titular commandments but does not provide adequately for the legitimate needs of all its citizens will find itself very far indeed from God.

In fact, nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer is there even a mention of obeying God’s commandments. Psalms generally celebrate God’s law but they invariably go further: they strive to discover his will. And his will, what God wants for the world, is only hinted at in the law.

In the Gospels, much of Jesus’ criticism of his fellow Pharisees is based on this distinction between God’s law and God’s will. This baffles many of his hearers: how can you separate the two? Psalms show us the way: begin by uncovering God’s values, then cultivate an appreciation for his law, but finally discover his will.

The physical petition concerned with justice but it is paired with a spiritual petition concerned with peace: “And forgive us our trespasses.” Our physical survival is dependent on ‘bread’; our spiritual survival is dependent on ‘mercy’ or forgiveness. If ‘bread’ is a pre-condition of justice, ‘forgiveness’ is a pre-condition of peace; and justice and peace are both pre-conditions for the full realization of God’s Kingdom on Earth.

“Feed us and forgive us!” Isn’t this the baseline prayer that children everywhere direct toward their biological fathers? Why then not all creatures toward their ontological Father? Theology just doesn’t get any more concrete than this!

With forgiveness, the social compact, implicit in the matter of bread, becomes explicit. We specifically add to our petition, “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” Passively avoiding unlawful action may be enough to foster justice but it is not enough to foster peace.  Here we must actively project God’s will into the world; we must be God’s ‘change agents’.

When we pray Psalms we first and foremost seek to discover and interiorize the mind of God; secondarily, we seek to learn God’s will and project that will into the world through our actions. If compassion is a value in the mind of God, if mercy is an act of God that we praise, then it is imperative that we also practice mercy. We must forgive those who trespass against us in the same way God forgives us who trespass against him.

We prayed first for the coming of God’s Kingdom, the union of Heaven and Earth. Then we prayed for the twin Judeo-Christian values of Justice and Peace.  Everything is going so well. We are praising the God of Heaven and Earth. We are conforming our minds to his mind, our hearts to his heart. We have agreed to treat no man unjustly and to forgive all trespasses. What could possibly go wrong?

Temptation! It is temptation that throws us off our game. We see an opportunity for some private power or profit or pleasure that we can only realize at the expense of another. Perhaps we just don’t care; but more likely, we find a way to rationalize our actions. In either case, we undermine the foundations of justice and peace we just laid down.

“And lead us not into temptation.” Our penultimate petition is for God to shield us from such temptations, knowing that we are weak and normally can’t fend them off for ourselves. Note that this petition, and the next, are more personal. We acknowledge our weakness and plead with God as individuals.

Now the climax! “Deliver us from evil.” At the end of the day, all evil comes down to one thing: ‘privation of being’. Lying, stealing, injuring encroach on the being of others; and the ultimate deprivation of being is death itself, mortality! The Old Testament Psalmist is obsessed with mortality, whether it be the risk of personal death in battle or the existential realization that “everyman is but a breath (Ps. 39)…his days are like a passing shadow (Ps. 144)”.

It does no good for God to feed us and forgive us…or for God to share with us his values or teach us his will…if we’re all destined for the ontological scrapheap. The last thing we ask of God, the one thing we MUST ask of God, is not to allow our existence to be erased. Our final plea can be nothing other than “Deliver us from evil!” It sums up all the others. “Does dust give you thanks?” (Psalm 30)

The final “Amen”, not found in either scriptural version of the prayer, completes the cycle. We began with “Our Father”. The Father is the ground of all Being, the source of all potentiality, “I AM”. It is from the Father (through the Son and by the Holy Spirit) that everything that is comes to be. When we say, “Our Father”, we celebrate the potentiality of the world.

When we close with “Amen”, we celebrate the actuality of world…the world, not just as pure potential, but as a completely realized matter of fact. God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven. Justice (‘bread’) and mercy (‘forgiveness’) do suffuse the entire world, and our futile, temporal lives are transformed and incorporated into God’s eternal life.

Psalm 151 is not just one Psalm among others, it is the prototypical Psalm. It summarizes the 150 Psalms that went before it into one, single, simple theological statement, one universal prayer. That is why the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most important collection of words ever written.

PSALMS

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The Book of Psalms consists of 150 songs praising and exhorting God. While Psalms of praise and Psalms of exhortation arise out ot very different circumstances and project very different tones, the fundamental content is the same. As we shall see, some Psalms praise God for being God while others exhort God to be God. In either case, the focus of the Psalm is on God’s nature and, of course, we know that God is God and cannot be otherwise.

Almost half of the Psalms are attributed to King David but in fact the Book probably consists of smaller anthologies (e.g. Ps. 120 – 134) and individual entries collected and integrated into the master text over a period of several hundred years.

The Book of Psalms is organized into 5 books, each ending with a doxology. For example, the 4th book ends with the closing verse of Psalm 106: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Let all the peoples say, Amen! Hallelujah!”

While there are many similarities and even overlaps among the Psalms, there is also great thematic and stylistic diversity. Plus, the Psalms span a wide range of theological and philosophical sophistication.

Notes prefacing the Book of Psalms in the New American Bible divide the Psalms into 3 major categories:

(1)   Psalms of Praise

(2)   Psalms of Thanksgiving

(3)   Psalms of Lament

And several minor categories:

(4)   Royal Psalms (Ps. 20, 21, 72)

(5)   Wisdom Psalms (Ps. 37, 49)

(6)   Torah Psalms (Ps. 1, 19, 119)

(7)   Historical Psalms (Ps. 78, 105, 106)

(8)   Liturgical Psalms (Ps. 15, 24) (All Psalms are ‘liturgical’ but these Psalms may be self-contained liturgies in themselves.)

Rather than separate Psalms according to their stated purpose or style of composition, I would prefer to identify the major currents that run throughout the entire text. Instead of slicing the Book of Psalms vertically into categories and I would prefer to slice the text horizontally into its primary themes.

For example, the very first Psalm begins, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked…the law of the Lord is his joy and on his law he meditates day and night.” This theme, delight in the law of the Lord, recurs many times throughout the Psalms:

  • The law of the Lord is perfect…the decree of the Lord is trustworthy…the precepts of the Lord are right…the command of the Lord is clear…the fear of the Lord is pure…the statutes of the law are true, all of them just. (Ps. 19)
  • I delight to do you will, my God; your law is in my inner being (Ps. 40)
  • In your statues I take delight…my soul is stirred with longing for your judgments…lead me in the path of your commandments for that is my delight…my heart is set on fulfilling your statues, they are my reward forever…your law I love. (Ps. 119)

Delight in the law of the Lord leads naturally to a desire to understand better God’s will:

  • Lord, guide me in your justice…make straight your way before me (Ps. 4)
  • Make known to me your ways, Lord; teach me your paths (Ps. 25)
  • Teach me, Lord, your way that I may walk in your truth, single-hearted and revering your name (Ps. 86)
  • I am a sojourner in the land; do not hide your commandments from me. At all times my soul is stirred with longing for your judgments. (Ps. 119)

Why does the Psalmist delight in the law of the Lord and seek a better understanding of his will? Psalm 9 sums it up: “The Lord is revealed in making judgments”, and it is precisely that revelation we seek when we pray the Psalms.

Surprisingly, the Psalms offer few details about the content of God’s law and will. Perhaps the Psalmist assumes his hearers know these details by heart; but there is one remarkable exception to this generalization. The Book of Psalms is infused throughout with a concern for and a dedication to the poor. God’s law and will are all about the welfare of the disadvantaged:

  • The Lord is a stronghold of the oppressed (Ps. 9)
  • You win justice for the orphaned and the oppressed (Ps. 10)
  • They would crush the hopes of the poor, but the poor have the Lord as their refuge (Ps. 14)
  • O God, give your judgment to the King; your justice to the King’s son, that he may govern your people with justice, your oppressed with right judgment…that he may defend the oppressed among the people, save the children of the poor and crush the oppressor… (Ps. 72)
  • He raises the needy from the dust, lifts the poor form the ash heap (Ps. 113)
  • I know the Lord will take up the cause of the needy, justice for the poor (Ps. 140)

Indeed, the Book of Psalms cites justice for the poor as one of the three marks that Yahweh is the one true God. In all, the Psalms offer three testimonies to the universal sovereignty of Yahweh. First, he is the creator of the heavens and the earth:

  • When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place… (Ps. 7)
  • The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the work of his hands. (Ps. 19)
  • The heavens praise your marvels, Lord…Who in the skies ranks with the Lord? Who is like the Lord among the sons of the gods?…Yours are the heavens, yours the earth; you founded the world and everything in it (Ps. 89)

Second, he intervenes in history, preeminently to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, but also to rescue each of us from life’s every day perils:

  • God, when you went forth before your people, when you marched through the desert, the earth quaked, the heavens poured… (Ps. 68)
  • Graciously rescue me, God! Come quickly to help me, Lord! (Ps. 70)

Third, and most radically, he is consistently concerned for the poor and the oppressed; it is this more than anything else that sets Yahweh apart from other gods and from mortal rulers:

  • For he rescues the poor when they cry out, the oppressed who have no one to help. He shows pity to the needy and the poor and saves the lives of the poor. From extortion and violence he redeems them, for precious is their blood in his sight (Ps.72)

In fact, the Psalms exhort all temporal rulers to follow Yahweh’s example and to govern according to his will:

  • And now kings, give heed; take warning judges on earth, serve the Lord with fear… (Ps. 2)
  • Do you indeed pronounce justice, O gods; do you judge fairly you children of Adam? No, you freely engage in crime…O God, smash the teeth in their mouths; break the fangs of these lions, Lord!…Let them wither like grass. (Ps. 58)
  • How long will you judge unjustly and favor the cause of the wicked?…Defend the lowly and the fatherless; render justice to the afflicted and needy. Rescue the lowly and the poor; deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Ps. 82)

While there are three testimonies to Yahweh’s sovereignty, there is only one God. The God who made heaven and earth is the same God who intervenes in history and the God who intervenes repeatedly in history is the same God who loves justice and advocates for the poor. Somehow, these very different aspects of God’s nature are connected and the Book of Psalms does a good job of connecting the dots:

  • The Lord is king, the peoples tremble, he is enthroned on the cherubim, the earth quakes…O mighty king, lover of justice, you have established fairness; you have created just rule in Jacob…Moses and Aaron were among his priests…from the pillar of cloud he spoke to them (Ps. 99)
  • The Lord is on high, but cares for the lowly (Ps. 138)
  • The maker of heaven and earth…secures justice for the oppressed…the Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind. The Lord raises up those who are bowed down…the Lord protects the resident alien, comes to the aid of the orphan and widow, but thwarts the way of the wicked. The Lord shall reign forever, your God, Zion, through all generations! Hallelujah! (Ps. 146)
  • The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem and gathers the dispersed of Israel…He numbers the stars and gives to all of them their names…The Lord gives aid to the poor (Ps. 147)

What is it about God that makes these three seemingly disparate roles expressions of a single nature? Love. God is Love. Therefore God creates, therefore God intervenes, therefore God redeems. Out of love God made the world, out of love God diverts its course and out of love God ensures that all creatures will ultimately be citizens of a just Kingdom where the needs of the least are fully satisfied.

Although the Book of Psalms pre-dates the Christian doctrine of Trinity by at least 500 years, the ideas behind that doctrine are already nascent in this text. Yahweh as creator of heaven and earth suggests the Trinitarian Father. Yahweh’s intervention in history presages the Incarnation, the Trinitarian Son. Finally, God’s dedication to justice and his active concern for the poor reflect the Trinitarian Spirit, the eschatological Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven, the realm of eternal justice.

When God creates the heavens and the earth, he sets the initial conditions necessary for the ultimate realization of his Kingdom. History, the spatiotemporal realm, is the evolution of the actual world, gradually but freely, toward that Kingdom.

We learn from the Nicene Creed that it is through the action of the Holy Spirit that God is Incarnate in the world. The Holy Spirit is the eschatological Christ projected back into history. Temporal justice is a foretaste of the Kingdom to come when “those who seek the Lord lack no good thing (Ps. 34).”

These ‘initial conditions’ are God’s values. The Psalms seek to discover those values and manifest them. By praying the Psalms we seek to make God’s values our own. God’s values are who God is and according to the Book of Psalms

  • He is refuge, security, comfort, shield, shelter and peace
  • He is fair, just and righteous
  • He is trustworthy and faithful
  • He is compassionate and merciful
  • He is a lover and defender of the humble, the needy, the poor, the oppressed.

God’s values are his guidebook for the evolution of history and they are his blueprints for the Kingdom of Heaven:

  • The plan of the Lord stands forever, the designs of his heart through all generations (Ps 33)

In sum, we can say with the Psalmist, “The One who fashioned together their hearts is the One who knows all their works.” (Ps 33) The God of creation is also the God of redemption.

When we pray the Psalms we seek to synchronize our minds and hearts with God’s. We strive to make the world’s initial conditions our own ‘initial conditions’. We seek to set in motion our own spiritual evolution toward our own personal realization of God’s Kingdom; but at the same time we know that that realization must translate into just acts and charitable works which we project back into the world to encourage the universal evolution toward Kingdom.

The Law of the Lord is a projection of God’s heart and mind, values and will, into the historical world. It is in that sense that Jesus, God incarnate, can say, in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Therefore, the values of the Psalms and the statutes of the Torah are opposite sides of the same tapestry. When we pray the Psalms, we become like the ‘blessed man’ of the first Psalm: the law of the Lord is our joy; we meditate on it day and night.

Psalm 15 translates God’s values translate into law; it exhorts us to walk without blame by…

  • Doing what is right
  • Speaking truth
  • Avoiding slander
  • Doing no harm to a friend
  • Never defaming a neighbor
  • Disdaining the wicked and honoring those who fear the Lord
  • Keeping oaths no matter what the cost
  • Lending no money at interest
  • Accepting no bribe

We learn the will of God by praying the Psalms; we conform our lives to that will by following his commandments; and by our deeds of justice and charity we project his will back into the evolving history of the world. Psalm 15 (above) ends, “Whoever acts like this shall never be shaken.”

In this, we ourselves are imitators and agents of God. We conform ourselves to God’s heart and mind by adopting his values, the initial conditions through which the world was made. We make God’s will incarnate in the world by obeying his law. We project the eschatological Kingdom of God back into the world when we act out of a real concern for the poor and the oppressed.

And what do we know of this ‘eschatological Kingdom’?

  • …The poor will inherit the earth…the righteous will inherit the earth and dwell in it forever (Ps. 37)
  • I know the Lord will take up the cause of the needy, justice for the poor. Then the righteous will give thanks to your name; the upright will dwell in your presence (Ps. 140)

When we pray the Psalms, we praise God by celebrating his values and delighting in his law; but as we noted initially, that is only one aspect of praying the Psalms. In addition to praising God we also exhort God. Out of our darkest moments, our times of physical danger, emotional despair and existential angst, the Psalms call out to God for salvation and, ultimately, for redemption:

  • Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; heal me, Lord, for my bones are shuddering…I am wearied with sighing; all night long I drench my bed with tears…the Lord will receive my prayer (Ps. 6)
  • Like water my life drains away; all my bones are disjointed. My heart has become like wax, it melts away within me. (Ps.22)
  • My life is worn out by sorrow…my bones are wearing down…terrors are all around me…Let your face shine on your servant, save me in your mercy (Ps. 31)
  • Rescue me from my enemies, my God; lift me out of the reach of my foes. Deliver me from evildoers; from the bloodthirsty save me (Ps.59)
  • Lord of hosts, restore us; light up your face and we shall be saved (Ps. 80)
  • In your great mercy rescue me. For I am poor and needy; my heart is pierced within me. Like a lengthening shadow I am gone, I am shaken off like a locust (Ps. 109)
  • Out of the depths I call to you, Lord; Lord hear my cry!” (Ps. 130)

Of course, the root of all our fear and anguish is the dreadful knowledge of our own mortality. The Psalmist is often concerned with mortality at a very concrete level:

  • What gain is there from my lifeblood, from my going down to the grave? Does dust give you thanks… (Ps. 30)
  • Oppose, O Lord, those who oppose me; war upon those who make war upon me (Ps. 35)

But at other times, the Psalms rise to an existential appreciation of the human condition:

  • Every man is but a breath (Ps. 39)
  • Mortals are mere breath, the sons of man but an illusion; on a balance they rise, together they weigh nothing. (Ps. 62)
  • As for man, his days are like the grass; he blossoms like a flower in the field. A wind sweeps over it and it is gone; its place knows it no more (Ps. 103)
  • Man is but breath, his days are like a passing shadow (Ps. 144)

But the God of the Psalms promises salvation from the numbing futility of mortality:

  • He asked life of you; you gave it to him, length of days forever (Ps. 21)
  • I will dwell in the house of the Lord for endless days (Ps. 23)
  • I believe I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living (Ps. 27)
  • Into your hands I commend my spirit; you will redeem me, Lord, God of truth (Ps. 31)
  • Our God is a God who saves; escape from death is the Lord God’s (Ps. 68)
  • I will establish his dynasty forever, his throne as the days of the heavens (Ps. 89)
  • What is man that he should live and not see death (Ps. 89)
  • The Lord has decreed a blessing, life for evermore (Ps. 133)

To understand God’s promise of eternal life, it is helpful to understand the contrary. What becomes of evil acts and evildoers? First, understand that evil is its own punishment:

  • He digs a hole and bores it deep, but he falls into the pit he has made. His malice turns back upon his head; the violence falls on his own skull (Ps. 7)
  • By the deeds they do the wicked are trapped (Ps. 9)
  • Let the snares they have set catch them; let them fall into the pit they have dug (Ps. 35)
  • Their idols are silver and gold…they have mouths but do not speak…ears but do not hear, noses but do not smell…hands but do not feel, feet but do not walk…Their makers will be like them, and anyone who trusts in them. (Ps. 115)

God does not need to punish evil; he can afford to remain consistently compassionate and merciful. Evil is not consistent with the ‘initial conditions’ God established for the world. Evil is not compatible with God’s values. Therefore,

  • The wicked will not arise at the judgment (Ps. 1)
  • The future of the wicked will be cut off (Ps. 37)
  • The desire of the wicked comes to nothing (Ps. 112)

By contrast, obeying the law of the Lord is its own reward:

  • He is like a tree…that yields its fruit in season; its leaves never wither; whatever he does prospers (Ps. 1)
  • There is a future for a man of peace. (Ps. 37)
  • My heart is set on fulfilling your statutes; they are my reward forever…your law I love. You are my refuge and shield; in your word I hope. (Ps. 119)

Compassion and mercy may rescue the sinner…but never the sin. If a person consisted of nothing but sin, then his self, though rescued, would be empty. Justice, charity and peace, foretastes of the Kingdom of God, are what fills us.

Accordingly, the Psalms do not so much call for the punishment of wrongdoing and as they celebrate its inevitable annihilation. Ultimately, all evil, no matter how terrible, comes to nothing:

  • The Lord’s face is against evildoers to wipe out their memory from the earth (Ps. 34)
  • Like grass they wither away quickly; like green plants they wilt away…Wait a little, and the wicked will be no more; look for them and they will not be there (Ps. 37)
  • They are like a dream after waking, Lord, dismissed like shadows when you arise (Ps. 73)
  • My God, make them like tumbleweed, into chaff flying before the wind (Ps.83)
  • May his posterity be destroyed, their name rooted out in the next generation…May their guilt be always before the Lord, till their memory is banished from the earth (Ps. 109)

Notice how much this language sounds like the language used to describe mortality itself (above). We are tempted to compare the passive mortality of the human condition (‘original sin’?) with the active mortality of evil. They have much in common.

It is as true to say that mortality is evil as it is to say that evil is mortal. A world without God is a hopeless, futile, vacuous place. According to the Psalmist, those who claim to find value in a world without God are sorely deceived:

  • The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Ps. 14)

Now compare this with the fate of the just:

  • The Lord is just and loves just deeds; the upright will see his face (Ps. 11)
  • I am just – let me see your face; when I awake, let me be filled with your presence (Ps. 17)
  • For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light (Ps. 36)
  • May God be gracious to us and bless us; may his face shine upon us. (Ps. 67)
  • Your years last through all generations. Of old you laid the earth’s foundations, the heavens are the work of your hands. They perish but you remain, they wear out like a garment; like clothing you change them and they are changed, but you are the same, your years have no end. May the children of your servants live on; may their descendants live in your presence. (Ps. 102)
  • The dead do not praise the Lord…it is we who bless the Lord, both now and forever. Hallelujah! (Ps. 115)

The Psalms consistently describe eternal life in terms of Presence. We are filled with God’s presence, we live in God’s presence, in his light we see light, we bless the Lord, and most importantly, we see his face and his face shines upon us.

These are all simply different ways of describing our reciprocal relationship with God. When we gaze on God’s face and he on ours, we are co-present to one another; we are no longer ‘ships passing in the night’. Our relationship transcends time and space; and when we enter into a reciprocal relationship with an eternal being, we ourselves necessarily participate in eternity.

  • You are my son; today I have begotten you (Ps. 2)
  • You are my Lord, you are my only good (Ps. 16)
  • Your face, Lord, do I seek! Do not hide your face from me (Ps. 27)

To do evil is to reject such a reciprocal relationship and thereby to condemn oneself to ‘terminal mortality’. At the time we don’t realize what we’ve done. Life seems long and time stretches out ahead of us. But eventually, we see with the Psalmist that our lives are but breath, a wind, without weight and having no place in the world. To the extent that we have lived evil lives, we have simply chosen not to live at all.

Of course, we are not by ourselves capable of entering into a reciprocal relationship with God. We need his grace to do so and that grace is founded on mercy:

  • Remember me according to your mercy, because of your goodness, Lord (Ps.25)
  • Let your face shine on your servant: save me in your mercy (Ps. 31)
  • We are overcome by our sins; only you can pardon them (Ps. 65)

Psalm 150, the final Psalm, closes with what might be considered a complete summation of the Book of Psalms…and of this essay:

  • Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord! Hallelujah!

Breath is the Psalms’ primary metaphor for mortality. Everything that has breath is mortal. But if a mortal turns that breath to praising God, conforming to his values, obeying his law, witnessing to his Kingdom, then God enters into a reciprocal relationship with that mortal, bringing him into his Presence and ensuring him eternal life. This is the great hope of the Psalms!

SAINT DALLAN’S CREED

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Philosophy has traditionally distinguished between the essence of things and the existence of things. ‘Essence’ normally refers to the qualities or values inherent in an ‘actual entity’ while ‘existence’ is usually thought to be value free: it just is.

In his great ontological poem, On Nature, Parmenides, arguably the father of  Western philosophy, spoke of two modes of being: Aletheia (truth) and Doxa (appearance). Aletheia is featureless; Doxa is all about colors, shapes and forms. One (just one) way to read this foundational work is to understand Aletheia as the existence of things and Doxa as their essence.

Later philosophers talked of substances (existence) and accidents (essence). Kant wrote of noumena (substances) and phenomena (qualities). Philosophers from the Idealist and Empiricist schools championed essence at the expense of existence. At one point in his career, Bertrand Russell held that the world consisted only of “universals” (qualities) and that so-called objects and events were merely intersections of those universals.

The rise of Existentialism restored a balance. Most clearly, Heidegger spoke of Wasein (what it is) and Dasein (that it is) and Jean Paul Sartre made use of the essence/existence dichotomy to define God and Man: God is the being whose essence precedes his existence while Man is the being whose existence precedes his essence.

In rare instances the distinction collapses entirely. Anselm of Bec (c. 1077) for example, in his ‘ontological proof’ for the existence of God, defines God as the supreme Good (essence). Then he goes on to reason that existence is ‘better’ than non-existence so for an entity to be supremely good, it must exist. Existence is reduced to a quality among qualities. Starting with essence, Anselm ‘proves’ existence.

A 6th century Irish poet, Saint Dallan, makes a similar argument; but he starts from the opposite perspective: the perspective of existence . He argued that only the existence of God matters since every thing of value (essence) flows from that automatically: “Naught is all else to me save that Thou art.”

Concerning God, Anselm of Bec wrote (Proslogion): “…You are wisdom, you are truth, you are goodness, you are eternity, and you are every true good.” And later, “Therefore, you alone, Lord, are what you are…”

Dallan’s famous poem, written in the form of a prayer, is also a creed! Sometimes called “Be Thou my Vision” (from its first line), other times just called “A Prayer”, it is found in The Poem Book of the Gael, a treasure trove of old Irish verse:

“Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart, Naught is all else to me save that Thou art. Thou my best thought by day and by night, Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

“Be Thou my Wisdom, Thou my true Word; I ever with Thee, Thou with me, Lord. Thou my great Father, I thy dear son; Thou in me dwelling, I with Thee one.

“Be Thou my breastplate, sword for the fight. Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight. Thou my soul’s shelter, Thou my high tower; Rise Thou me heavenward, Power of my power.

“Riches I heed not or man’s empty praise, Thou mine inheritance now and always. Thou, and Thou only, first in my heart, High King of Heaven, my treasure Thou art.

“King of the seven heavens, grant me for dole, Thy love in my heart, Thy light in my soul. Thy light from my soul, Thy love from my heart, King of the seven heavens, may they never depart.

“With the High King of heaven, after victory won, May I reach heaven’s joys, O Bright heaven’s Sun! Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, Be Thou my vision, O Ruler of all.”

Dallan’s ‘existentialism’ challenges dualist and essentialist views head on. Initially at least, essences, qualities do not matter whatsoever to this poet; all that matters is the existence of God. Why?

Dallan variously refers to God as “my Vision…my Wisdom…my dignity”. He does not thank God for the ‘gift’ of Vision or Wisdom or Dignity (as many would). For Dallan, God is Vision, Wisdom and Dignity per se and God is specifically Dallan’s vision, wisdom and dignity.

Anselm: “Therefore, you are the very life by which you live, the wisdom by which you are wise, and the very goodness by which you are good to the good and to the wicked…”

We exist because we participate in God, who is Being. At the same time God, who is Good, participates in us. We derive our existence by participating in God (Being) and we derive our nature (Good) by God’s participation in us.

God is supremely good; I am not! But I have the capacity to be good, to make right choices, and that capacity I derive from God.

This is not just ‘any god’. This is an explicitly Trinitarian God. In my relatedness (Vision), I recapitulate the Son; in my consciousness (Wisdom), I recapitulate the Spirit; and in my identity (Dignity), I recapitulate the Father. Our lives are a direct participation in the life of the Trinity.

For Dallan, God is also “power of my power” and “heart of my own heart”. From God’s Trinitarian life comes my ability to act (“power of my power”) and to be acted upon (“heart of my heart”). Power and heart, action and passion, exhaustively define our interaction with the world: how we influence events and how we are influenced by events. God’s existence is the sole source of our ability to act and to be acted upon.

To act on the world and to be acted upon by the world, we must be of the world and in the world but distinct from the world…just as God is in all things and all things are in God, yet God is distinct from all things. We are after all his image and likeness.

So God’s existence constitutes both the structure (vision, wisdom, dignity) and the process (power, heart) of my existence.

Dallan’s creed also defines our relationship with God: “I ever with Thee, Thou with me, Lord…Thou in me dwelling, I with Thee one…Thou mine inheritance now and always.”

To understand Dallan here, we need to take a step back. We have already spoken of our ability to act on the world (“my power”) and to be acted upon by the world (“my heart”). In grammar, these two modalities are called the “active voice” and the “passive voice”: we act, we are acted upon.

But our relationship with God is neither active nor passive; it is perfectly reciprocal: “I ever with Thee, Thou with me, Lord…Thou in me dwelling, I with Thee one.” Consider Eucharist: we incorporate the body of Christ (communion) and by that act we are simultaneously incorporated into Christ’s body.

How can we describe this kind of relationship? It turns out that in many ancient languages (e.g. Greek) verbs had a third voice in addition to the active and passive voices. This voice is usually referred to as the “middle voice”, ostensibly because it falls between active and passive, but in reality it transcends them. The middle voice is the voice of love, the voice of contemplation and the only voice we should use when speaking of our relationship with God.

The middle voice is the voice of Martin Buber when we wrote I Thou including the famous line, “At the foundation is relationship”.

Now we can understand the phrase, “Thou mine inheritance”. Like all aspects of our relationship with God, its meaning is two sided. Do I inherit God or does God inherit me? Both! I inherit God and therefore God dwells in me (“Thou in me dwelling”); God inherits me and therefore I dwell in God (“I with Thee one”). He inherits/I inherit; He dwells/I dwell. It is a perfect middle voice paradigm.

“Thou mine inheritance, now and always.” This inheritance is not something that occurs at the end of my days or even at the end of time itself. It is immediate and continuous, “now and always”. My relationship with God gives an entire other dimension to my being.

I interact with the world on a spatiotemporal basis (power and heart: active and passive) but I interact with God on an eternal basis (inherit and dwell: middle voice). But we also know from scripture (e.g. I Cor. 15: 20 – 28) that the spatiotemporal realm and the eternal realm will ultimately be one…when God is “all in all.”

Just as the spatiotemporal world is a projection of the eternal, so the eternal world is a roll-up of the spatiotemporal: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

But what of the so-called qualities that are so important to mainstream philosophy? “Naught is all else to me, save that Thou art.” I understand that God’s existence constitutes my relation to the world and to God, but doesn’t “naught is all else to me” go a bit too far? “Naught is all else” refers precisely to those things that mainstream philosophy calls ‘qualities’. Don’t we need qualities and doesn’t any cogent ontology need to account for them?

Of course! But as we shall see shortly the existence of qualities is already assumed and guaranteed by the existence of God. We don’t need a separate ontology for ‘essence’; it is entirely entailed in ‘existence’.

According to Thomas Aquinas: “God alone is Good essentially…whatever belongs to others accidentally, belongs to Him essentially…Everything is called good by reason of the likeness of divine goodness belonging to it…Everything seeks its own perfection…(and) all things, by desiring their own perfection, desire God Himself.”

The Good that belongs to God essentially is the source of everything we call a “quality”. In fact, Good is precisely ‘all qualities existing absolutely and in perfect harmony in God’. When these qualities exist in the spatiotemporal realm, they exist relatively (rather than absolutely) and they often appear to be in conflict (rather than harmony).

God is Good essentially and it is the Good that is God that constitutes the raison d’etre  for all other beings. Existence is the process of seeking perfection. The urge to exist is the urge to be Good, to be like God. Perfection is defined and measured by “the likeness of divine goodness” belonging to an entity.

While Anselm subsumes God’s existence under his essence, Dallan subsumes God’s essence under his existence.

God is the structure and the process of our existence: Vision, Wisdom, Identity, Power and Heart. The pursuit of Good, however, seeking our own perfection, originates within each of us. Ontogenesis begins as the desire for Good; the existence of God enables that primal desire to form an actual entity, something that exists in its own right. But existence is the pursuit of Good, not the realization of Good, so God must wear two hats: God is both the pursuit of Good and the full realization of Good. How can that be?

God exists, like us, in relation to the world (Creator & Redeemer). But unlike us, apart from that relation, God simply is: God is Being, the ‘Ground of all Being’. Eternally, God is the full realization of Good. In his relationship with the spatiotemporal world, God joins us in the pursuit of Good.

How does God relate with the world? All qualities derive from the Good that is God. Whatever exists inherits God and therefore inherits the qualities that are God’s essence. But while all existents inherit God’s qualities, we are unconditionally free to appropriate those qualities in any way we wish. We may even reject them if we choose to do so.

Remember the inheritance you received from Uncle Joe. He left it to you in the hope that you would use it to make something of yourself. Perhaps you did just that. Perhaps you invested it in further education. Perhaps you used it to start a business. Perhaps you saved it and invested wisely. Or perhaps you spent it all in 6 months on frivolous travel, expensive wine and a flashy sports car.

Everything seeks its own perfection, but everything is unconditionally free to seek perfection in its own way…no matter how misguided that way may be.

Qualities constitute the medium of spatiotemporal relationships. We project qualities through action and we introject qualities through passion. The osmotic membrane that connects us with the world permits, actually requires, a reciprocal exchange of qualities. This is what led Bertrand Russell to conclude, incorrectly, that universals (qualities) are the only real entities. Qualities are indeed the currency of spatiotemporal relations, but God is the Central Bank.

Yet spatiotemporal relations constitute only one dimension of my being; I am also in an eternal relationship with God. Therefore, when we transact with the world, we simultaneously and fundamentally transact with God (“mine inheritance”). Remember the Great Commandment:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself..”

So I appropriate God’s qualities (“Thou in me dwelling”) and I know that my particular ways of appropriating those qualities, the way I choose to seek my own perfection, will in turn be appropriated by God (“I with Thee one”). How I treat my neighbor is how I treat God.

So qualities are never per se “naught”. In fact, these qualities are the essence of who God is. But they would be naught…”save that Thou art”. We don’t need essence and existence to account for the phenomena of the world. Existence includes essence; essence (Good) is the logical consequence of existence. Therefore, “naught is all else to me save that Thou art”.

It is said that Marx stood Hegel on his head. In the same way, Saint Dallan has stood the Ontological Argument on its head.

Dallan’s argument runs something like this: I exist. Since I exist, God must exist since God is the definition and structure of my existence. (One can imagine Descartes saying: “Sum ergo Deus est.”) In fact, God is existence.

But existence is the pursuit of Good. Therefore, God is the pursuit of Good. All things pursue Good and all things participate in God. By participating in God, they exist, they seek their own perfection. Therefore God must also be the perfection of all things, the absolute Good fully realized. The qualities that seem to make up the fabric of the world all derive from the Good that is God and from the participation of existents in God.

From Plato (Theory of Forms) onward, mainstream philosophy has struggled to reconcile essence and existence. Numerous extremely clever solutions have been proposed in an effort to account for both without slipping into dualism. But Dallan shows that it is all for naught. There is no dichotomy to resolve. Where God is concerned, existence entails essence.

While Dallan’s creed stands out against 24 centuries of philosophical meandering, it turns out that his idea is not at all original. It traces back to The Book of Exodus. In chapter 3, Moses asks God his “name” (i.e. his essence, his qualities). “God replied to Moses, ‘I am who am.’ Then he added: ‘This is what you will say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.” (Ex. 3: 14) God does not need to enumerate his qualities. Unlike us, he does not need a name to define him, to let us know who he is. He is, period. That is all Moses and the Israelites needed to know; it is all Dallan needed to know and it is all we need to know. Everything else follows logically.

In a survey of Western philosophy, the doctrine that seems to come closest to embodying Dallan’s insight is the Process Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. For Whitehead, all qualities subsist absolutely and in perfect harmony in God (“God’s Primordial Nature”); but God’s project is to bring all existents (“actual entities”) into perfect harmony consistent with those primordial values (“God’s Consequent Nature”)…without of course violating in any way the fundamental ontological autonomy of those existents. The extensive universe is the medium through which that harmonization occurs.

So Dallan’s ‘simple’ Irish poem is much more than a poem and more even than an ordinary prayer; it is indeed a creed! It defines key elements of Christian ontology. Like other creeds, it accounts for creation, incarnation and salvation and it does so using a Trinitarian formula. Alongside the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed and the Athanasian Creed, we might call Dallan’s poem the “People’s Creed”.

LORD’S PRAYER

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Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.

The Lord’s Prayer is usually understood as a prayer of petition. And why not? Two of the three couplets are devoted almost entirely to things we ask for from God. But in reality, the prayer only adopts the form of a ‘prayer of petition’. A deeper reading reveals something else altogether: a creed, an ethics, and a covenant.

Let’s begin by considering the four so-called petitions:

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Speaking metaphorically as well as practically, we are asking God to support our physical existence. But does that really make sense?

God is Being, the ground from which every existent springs and on which every existent rests. Without God, no-thing! When we ask God for our daily bread (to sustain us), we simply ask God not to stop being God. But God cannot stop being God. Being is what God is; Being is what God does: “I am who am.”

Being is God, essentially; the terms are denotatively synonymous. So we do not have to ask God to support our existence. That is what God does and what he does is who he is.

In an earlier essay in this collection, Atheism, we discussed the fact that God is not an existent who incidentally adopts certain behaviors. Existents depend entirely on the Being of God. But in God, Being is not passive. Being is what God does and Being is what lets existents exist: “Let there be light.”

“Forgive us our trespasses.” The second so-called petition asks God to forgive our misdeeds. But once again, we are simply asking God to be God. Forgiveness (Mercy) is how God relates to the world. By forgiving us, God redeems us; and by redeeming us, God incorporates our deeds, trespasses and all. It is what he does in the world and what he does is who he is.

God is simple, God is one. Therefore, all things must exist in God in perfect harmony. That can only occur if all conflicts are transmuted into contrasts. We do not ask God to forget (just the opposite), but to forgive. For better or worse, our trespasses endure eternally. But in God, the dissonance of ‘sin’ becomes the harmony of ‘heaven’.

“Lead us not into temptation.” In Ecclesiastes, another essay in this collection, we saw that “all things are vanity…a chase after wind”. Pleasures, accomplishments, wealth, meritorious deeds, even wisdom…all vanity. Those are the temptations of the world. According to the Gospel of Luke these are the very same vanities Satan used to tempt Jesus in the desert. In Eastern spiritual traditions, these temptations, these vanities are often referred to as ‘attachments’.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to lead us…but not into attachment. Lead us where then? The alternative to attachment is freedom; and freedom is the ability to be whoever or whatever we choose to be…without risking being itself.

We have that ability, we are free, only because of God. Because God is the eternal ground of all being, our being is never at risk. We are free to grow…and even make mistakes. So once again, we are simply asking God to be God, the universal alternative to the vanities of the world.

The first three petitions correspond exactly to who God is, to what he does. God sustains, God redeems, God draws all things to himself…and that’s it. He doesn’t move mountains…or make pizza. I hypothesize that if you deleted even one of these three so-called petitions, or added another, we would not recognize the result as God.

So what then of the final petition, “Deliver us from evil”? While this petition appears distinct from the other three, it is essentially their summation. For what is evil? The absence of Good (Augustine), the absence of Being (Aquinas)! God is Good and God is Being, both essentially. Therefore, Being, Good and God are all denotatively synonymous.

Mortality (death), dissonance (conflict) and vanity (attachment) all reflect a certain lack of Good and entail a certain lack of Being; therefore they constitute evil. But evil cannot coexist with Good (Being). A quantum of evil, unredeemed, unravels the whole scheme of ‘creation’. Therefore, everything God does is to “deliver us from evil”. Looked at from the other side, the three acts (sustain, forgive, lead) that constitute delivering from evil also constitue granting eternal life. To deliver from evil is to grant eternal life.

This is the theme of the Requiem Mass: the evils of the world have been overcome (the sins of the decendent have been forgiven) and eternal life has been granted.

So the so-called petitions are not really petitions at all. God cannot but grant them; they are aspects of his essential nature. He cannot not be God. This point is best stated in Paul’s second letter to Timothy which quotes an ancient Christian creed that includes the following:

“Even if we are unfaithful, he (God) remains faithful. for he cannot deny himself.”

While the Lord’s Prayer certainly has the form of a prayer of petition, the form of prayer most familiar to most people, its real content is quite different. 

First, it is a creed. When a person of faith prays the so-called petitions, it reminds the “petitioner” that God will support, forgive, lead and deliver each and every one of us. It is a way of restating what belief in God really means. It is not belief in a once and future creator, a distant demiurge, a cosmic force. To believe in God is to believe that everything that is is part of a universal process: the bringing forth and nurturing of existents, the reconciliation of conflicts among those existents, the gradual drawing of those existents toward God and ultimately, the realization of eternal life.

Second, it is an ethics. The Lord’s Prayer imposes four very ambitious ethical imperatives…but it imposes them on God: give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our trespasses, lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil.

Of course, it is ludicrous for man to create ethical standards for God. But realizing that God cannot do other than exemplify those standards gives us tremendous insight into the nature of Good itself, which is the ultimate aim of any Ethics. Specifically, since God is Good, essentially, then the things God does define what’s Good.

On the other hand, the Lord’s Prayer only imposes one ethical imperative on us: forgive those who trespass against us. And it’s a good thing too, for we cannot bring forth and sustain new existents, we cannot lead existents to God; and we certainly cannot grant eternal life. All we can do is forgive. And what is that? Forgiving is the ultimate, perhaps the only, true ‘non-act’; it is essentially a withdrawal of ourselves from the plane of action (“wu-wei” in the Taoist tradition).

Anaximander, perhaps the first great Greek philosopher, in his sole surviving fragment tells us that things come to be when they “give each other reck”. To forgive is to give reck, to let be. Not to judge, not to condemn, not to punish, not to reform…just to let live.

When we act, when we judge, condemn, punish, reform others, we set ourselves up as gods (idolatry). We attempt (vainly, of course) to take God’s place. In doing so, we interfere with the eternal process of reconciliation that is the world. The Lord’s Prayer does not impose on us a list of commandments; it does not even give us a list of behaviors to avoid. It simply calls on us to stop playing God, to get out of God’s way and let him do his thing. That is our one and only ethical imperative!

And so finally, the Lord’s Prayer is covenant. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Let God be God and let man be man.

Armed with this understanding, we can now turn back to the first couplet.

As we saw above, God is metaphorically “our father” in the sense that he is the origin and the sustenance of our existence.

The phrase “who art in heaven” has misled many to believe that heaven is a “place” that somehow “contains” God (an absurd image!). In fact, God is heaven. In his master work, Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead speaks of the world being ‘objectified’ in God’s ‘function as the Kingdom of Heaven’. Through God’s eternal processs of reconciliation, each and everyone of us is a citizen of that kingdom; the Lord’s Prayer simply assures us that as citizens of that kingdom we will be face to face with God.

“Hallowed be thy name.” God’s name is totally unique (holy). It is unlike any other name. Typically, names tell us something about the thing they name. Our personal names frequently tell who are parents are, who else was in our family, even who we look like. The names of objects often tell us something about their appearance, how they were made or how they’re used.

Not so with God. God is not an existent so he has no common name, only “I am who am”.

“Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” The entire prayer, indeed all of Judeo-Christian scripture, is sumed up in this one line.

Literally, the Greek reads, “Let your kingdom come, let your will be done, as in heaven, also on earth.”

The Kingdom of God, Heaven, is coming and we embrace it. Of course, the coming is not an historical event; it is an ontological event. The things of this spatio-temporal world are transmuted, outside the domain of spacetime, until they are totally reconciled with one another and therefore with God’s nature. Once reconciled these events reflect and ultimately constitute the will of God.

We incorrectly imagine that the will of God somehow precedes that which it wills. That would be true on our ontological level, the level of existents, but it is not true for God. First of all, God is outside of time. Words like “preceed” and “succeed” are meaningless when speaking of God. But second, God wills Good, period. The world evolves by its own lights, not under God’s thumb. What God does is redeem the things of the world and reconcile them into a harmonious unity, heaven. Redeemed and reconciled, they become God’s will.

Side bar: Because they misunderstand the nature of God’s will, many believe that God approves or even causes the tragedies that befall us in our lives. They assume these tragedies are part of some master plan beyond our grasp. But nothing could be farther from the truth. God abhors these tragedies precisely because they reflect a lack of Good, a lack of Being. Sadly, we have only the world to blame for our troubles. But what God does do is to transmute the conflicts that tragedies represent into contrasts so that they come to contribute in their own way to the up-building of the Kingdom. He does not will them, he redeems them, and redeemed, they come to be his will.

But now to the really radical part of this verse: “on earth as it is in heaven.” The reconciliation of events that constitutes the will of God is not an historical event, it is an ontological event. It doesn’t happen in the future, at the end to time or in some ethereal realm. It happens right here, right now on earth. “On earth as it is in heaven.”

Here we have an early version of the doctrine of physical (bodily) ressurection. Just as events on Earth are immanent in Heaven, so is the reconciliation of Heaven immanent on Earth. Alfred North Whitehead called this later phenomenon “God’s superject”, the projection of his eternal peace back into our world. Heaven and earth are not two radically estranged realms of being; rather they are complementary ways of understanding and experiencing one realm.

Like the rest of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven,” is not a petition. It is merely a statement of fact. The Kingdom is real, God’s will is real, what happens on Earth is real and what subsists eternally in Heaven is real.

In fact, these four realities are denotatively synonymous. This verse tells us the same thing in four different ways; but in doing so it makes its message clear in a way that no one statement could have. It is the hidden climax of the prayer that is our creed, our ethic, and our covenant!

COLOSSIANS

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There are three fundamental doctrines that characterize the world view generally known as Christianity: Creation, Incarnation and Salvation. They are respectively represented by three famous passages from scripture:

    • In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Gen. 1:1)
    • For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. (John 3:16)
    • Then comes the end, when he (Christ) delivers the kingdom to God the Father…that God may be all in all. (1
      Cor. 15: 24 – 28)

Superficially and out of context, these important lines suggest a very ordinary linear world view (first creation, then incarnation, finally salvation) and this is the way many of us learned Christian doctrine in Sunday school. But this is not the way early Christians understood their faith; nor is it how they viewed the world.

The letter to the Colossians, traditionally attributed to St. Paul, contains a very early Christian creed. Even before it was immortalized in this text, this creedal affirmation was recited during Christian liturgies, probably as a hymn:

“He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together…he is the beginning (foundation), the first-born from the dead that in all things he himself might be preeminent…For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things for him…” (Col. 1: 15-20)

It is hard to imagine that once upon a time people found deep spiritual inspiration in such an arcane and apparently impenetrable formulation. But find it they did because their sensibilities was attuned to the non-linearity that this creed celebrates. This creed, in fact, articulates a thoroughly non-linear, non-orientable world view.

In Colossians, Christ is presented as the image of God, the first-born of creation. Christ stands “before” all things, at the very threshold of the creative process.

(Here it is important to understand “before” not as a temporal reference but as a structural reference: Christ is the root of all things at all times; he is the universal substructure, the logos. There is no linear time in this cosmology and therefore a temporal interpretation of words like “before” and “beginning” would be inconsistent with the overall context of the passage. As in the Gospel of John (1:1), Christ is to be understood as the wellspring of the creative process, not as its precursor.)

In Colossians, Christ is (1) the substructure of the creative process: all things were created through him; (2) the locus of the creative process: all things were created in him; (3) the objective of the creative process: all things were created for him; and (4) the triumph of the creative process: in him all things hold together and through him all things are reconciled.

Without this final qualification, the universe could be a vast multiplicity of solitary events, a sea of ships passing in the night. There is absolutely no inherent reason why creative acts, even with Christ as their common substructure, locus and aim, should necessarily interact with one another, i.e. exhibit togetherness. In fact, it is counter intuitive that they would; in such a model one event does not require another for its origin, its content or its aim so any interaction between entities would be gratuitous and perhaps superfluous.

But through Christ, things do hold together and bccause they hold together they eventually come to be reconciled (with one another) for him. This holding together is not a passive process of grouping; it is an interactive process of relating. The world is more like an organism than a mathematician’s set. Things merely grouped together do not necessarily hold together, nor do they mutually modify one another; things in our world do.

Interactivity, relationship, is the glue that holds things together and interactivity bewteen two entities can only occur when those entities, though irreconcilably distinct, nevertheless enjoy elements in common. Without elements in common, entities would lead solitary, solpcistic lives. With elements in common, entities have the potential to engage in a process of mutual modification, harmonization, which can lead to mutual reconciliation. Ultimate reconciliation, in which the lion lies down with the lamb, is the state we know of as “Peace”. And that is Salvation, the reconciliation of all things through, in and for Christ.

And now at last we are ready to talk directly of Incarnation, the active, immanent participation of Christ in the creative process. Nowhere in the Colossians’ creed is there explicit reference to Incarnation…because Incarnation is the subject matter of the text itself. The whole hymn is about Incarnation.

It is because of Incarnation that all things share a common element and so undergo a process of mutual reconciliation and so ultimately hold together. It is Incarnation that introduces that common element: Christ.

According to the doctrine of Incarnation, Christ, the first-born of creation and of the dead, the locus, the aim and the triumph of the creative process, also enters the creative process directly as one of its quantum elements: a single historical event. Yet in Christ, “all fullness was pleased to dwell.”

The topology of reality is turned inside out. The whole (fullness) has become one of its own parts. But that part, which is also the whole, because it is the whole, is itself composed of all other parts. Every entity that ever was or ever will be exists in that special part, which is the whole! All things hold together in that special part, the whole. Therefore, that special part, which is the whole, has something in common with each and every other part, every entity in Universe. Every entity has itself in common with the “quantum whole” (Christ). This topology is what establishes the necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of relation in Universe.

And so begins the process of reconciliation. Every entity is now engaged in a process of mutual modification with the Christ entity. Through this process of mutual modification, the Christ entity becomes an element in the constitution of every other entity. So everything is in Christ…and now Christ is in everything. In fact, Christ (the Omega) is preeminent in all things.

But this is not a mere static reality; it is a dynamic process. Indeed, it is the origin and prototype of all dynamics. It is the origin of the incurably restless advance of the cosmos.

Just as every entity shares something in common (i.e. itself) with at least one other entity (i.e. the Christ entity), every entity also has something in common (i.e. the Christ entity) with every other entity. And now comes the good part: every entity engaged in a process of mutual modification with the Chirst entity is therefore potentially in a direct relationship with every other entity.

No entity can fail to be in relationship with the Christ entity because then that entity would not be part of the whole and therefore would not exist. Therefore every entity shares a common element with every other entity. Therefore, through the agency of Incarnation, every entity is potentially in relationship with every other entity. Because of the Incarnation, there is solidarity.

Without Incarnation, Creation is trivial and Salvation (reconciliation) impossible.

The model of Christian theology found in Colossians undermines naïve, linear theological notions: past (creation), present (incarnation) and future (salvation). Colossians superimposes all three moments! Likewise, the Christian model undermines naïve notions of logical hierarchy (whole/part, set/subset) by simultaneously affirming and inverting those relationships.

In discussing the structure of reality, we necessarily use ordinary language and ordinary lanaguage (at least today, in our culture) is steeped in notions of temporal succession and logical hierarchy. It is important to realize that when we speak of reality using temporal or hierarchical terms, we are speaking allegorically. Incarnation firmly and finally (sic) eliminates the possibility that temporality or hierarchy could be substructural.

As we struggle back and forth between ultimate cosmological concepts and ordinary language, it is helpful to return, over and over, to the creed of Colossians, which somehow manages to capture the fundamental nature of our world with minimal reliance on temporal or hierarchical terminology.