“So, three things remain: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)
“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 (or ‘necessary’) 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.”
Although the Lord’s Prayer is very short, it nonetheless has a lot of structure. It is divided into 4 couplets or stanzas. The first of these concerns itself with the first of Paul’s last things: faith. The first tenet of Christian faith is that God exists and that he is benevolent, as a father would be benevolent. The first line of the prayer states that clearly.
However, God is not immanent in the phenomenal world, at least not immediately. The ‘phenomenal world’ is the world of time and space and qualities; it is the world we inhabit and the only world we know, at least the only world we know or can know by direct experience. As Stephen Hawking pointed out, experience can only occur in the context of time and entropy (possibly just another name for time). Therefore, we can only have direct knowledge of the phenomenal world.
God is in ‘heaven’, i.e. the noumenal realm. (The noumenal world exists outside of space and time; it is eternal.) The second tenet of Christian faith is that God transcends the phenomenal world.
Finally, God’s name is ‘holy’. It may have already struck you that Scripture is inordinately concerned with names (e.g. Exodus 3). This is because in ancient times, your name was not just your ‘handle’, as it is today; rather, your name defined your relationship with the rest of the world.
God’s name is holy. Therefore, it is unique, as his relationship with the world is unique. God is not just an entity among entities; God is something special. This is the third tenet of Christian faith: “I believe in one God…”
The first stanza is an affirmation of the existence and nature of God; it is an expression of faith.
The second stanza of the Lord’s Prayer concerns the second of Paul’s second so-called ‘theological virtues’: hope. Hope is also rooted in the noumenal world. Only a child is satisfied with hopes of a phenomenal nature (e.g. Santa Claus). As adults, we understand that the phenomenal world is bound to disappoint. True hope must be noumenal hope; we must hope for something lasting, something eternal in fact, and this is something that can only be found in the noumenal realm.
And that is exactly what the Lord’s Prayer gives us:
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Christian hope is hope that the noumenal world, God’s kingdom, will somehow merge with the phenomenal world so that God’s will may be preeminent in both. In that way the noumenal world ‘redeems’ the phenomenal world; the fleeting phenomena of the temporal plane are somehow ‘saved’ in the noumenal realm.
The second stanza is less an affirmation than a prayer. We pray that in some way the noumenal and phenomenal realms may merge so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28b).
Of course, in our modern age, many intellectuals (e.g. empiricists, realists, materialists) and everyday citizens believe that the phenomenal world is all there is. They do not believe that there is a noumenal world underpinning it; and there is nothing anyone can do or say to prove them wrong because we can have no direct experience of the noumenal world. For that reason, we say that the reality of the noumenal realm is a matter of faith and hope.
The first two stanzas of the Lord’s Prayer concern the noumenal world. The third stanza is concerned with ‘love’, the third of Paul’s virtues and the ‘greatest’. Unlike faith and hope, love is rooted in the phenomenal world.
Love concerns relationships between entities (phenomenal). It has an emotional (‘conceptual’) component and a behavioral (‘physical’) component. Unlike faith and hope, all of us have directly experienced love to one extent or another; there is no serious doubt that it exists.
Why does Paul say that love is the ‘greatest’ of the theological virtues? God created the world with the capacity for good. But if it were not for love, that creation would have been still born. Love is what sustains the world. Without love, new entities could not come into being.
God loves the phenomenal world and the entities that make it up. God has created the phenomenal world with the ability to support love between entities. God has placed the capacity for love into the fundamental structure of the phenomenal world. But that is not enough. Entities must of their own free accord allow themselves to love and be loved.
Love begins when entities see past their apparent self-interest and see the world through each other’s eyes. Love matures when two entities are willing to suppress their apparent self-interest in order to meet each other’s needs. Love is consummated when both entities realize that their own self-interest is ultimately best served when the self-interest of others is met. This is the foundation of relationship per se and of community.
So why is love the most important of the theological virtues? First, while we rightly trace the origin of the phenomenal world to the noumenal realm, without love between entities, the phenomenal world could not sustain itself. Love in the phenomenal world is the continuing expression of the noumenal creative act.
Second, without love between entities in the phenomenal realm, the hope that the noumenal and phenomenal worlds might somehow merge (above) would be in vain. Love is the bridge between the phenomenal and the noumenal, the initial realization of the noumenal in the phenomenal.
Consider the Great Commandment, found in several places in both the New and Old Testaments:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22: 34-40)
Our love of God is directed toward the noumenal world. It is a fitting companion of faith and hope. We have faith in the existence and nature of God. We hope that the fleeting entities that constitute the phenomenal realm will somehow be saved in the noumenal realm. And we love God who is the object of our faith and hope. In fact, it is our love of God that seals our faith and hope. Only if they are sincerely held can faith and hope inspire love.
That same love, initially directed toward the noumenal realm, also operates in the phenomenal realm. The love that we direct toward God in the noumenal realm is the same love that we exchange with other entities in the phenomenal realm.
Further, love only occurs in the phenomenal realm when you love another entity ‘as yourself’. You accept the other as your ontological equal in every way. You place the welfare of the other on the same level of importance as your own. You even see yourself in the other. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
Even more surprising, the Great Commandment tells us that loving our neighbors as ourselves is the same thing as loving God with all our heart. Love of neighbor in the phenomenal realm is love of God in the noumenal realm. Our love of neighbors as ourselves is a foretaste of the ‘kingdom come’, the merging of the noumenal and phenomenal realms. When we love our neighbors as ourselves, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
That is why the Great Commandment is one commandment, not two! One commandment, two expressions – a noumenal expression and a phenomenal expression; but to quote Bob Marley, it’s “one love”.
The Lord’s Prayer presents faith and hope in a clear and succinct manner; it says just exactly what we would expect it would say, only it says it much better than we could have said it. The exposition of love, on the other hand, is unexpected and rather arcane.
Give us this day our daily (or necessary) bread.
We are not expecting God to feed us directly. What we are affirming is that God created a world capable of meeting the physical needs of all its creatures. (That it does not do so is a function of sin: greed, cruelty, apathy, etc.) God created the universe to be free but with a fundamental structural bias toward good. That is a manifestation of God’s noumenal love for the world and the ‘creatures’ (actual entities) that constitute it.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
We are accustomed to asking God for forgiveness; but the Lord’s Prayer tells a different story. Forgiveness takes place, at least initially, in the phenomenal realm. We are called upon to forgive those who trespass against us and when we do, that is when we are forgiven.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. (Prayer of St. Francis)
In essence, we forgive ourselves by forgiving others and when we forgive ourselves, God forgives us. Forgiveness in the phenomenal realm translates into forgiveness in the noumenal world.
Forgiveness is one of the many ‘middle voice’ concepts underlying Christianity. With forgiveness there is no subject or object. The one who forgives is the one who is forgiven. Forgiveness is recursive and it is a manifestation of love in the phenomenal realm.
Once forgiveness has taken place in phenomenal world, only then can it take place in the noumenal world.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained. (John 20: 23)
And lead us not into temptation
This is probably the most difficult line in the entire prayer. It suggests that God could, if he chose, induce us to sin; but, of course, that is radically impossible. God is all good; he is incapable of evil.
God created this world to be free; if we yield to sinful temptation, we yield of our own free will. We are not pushed into it by God or anyone else.
So how are we to understand this verse? We could understand it in the context of the first verse of this stanza (‘daily bread’). We are thanking God for creating a world where temptations are not so powerful that we are unable to resist them.
Or we could understand it in the context of the final line of the prayer:
But deliver us from evil
This verse is really the key to whole prayer. To understand it, we need to make a quick detour by way of St. Augustine.
God is good. God is denotatively (not connotatively) synonymous with Good. God is also being. God is also denotatively (not connotatively) synonymous with Being. Therefore, Good is denotatively (not connotatively) synonymous with Being. This is a long-winded way of saying that everything in the world God created, everything that has being, is good, and everything that is good, to the extent the extent that it good, has being.
So why don’t we experience the world this way? Because given the freedom to make their own choices, the world and the entities in it don’t always choose ‘good’. Temptation is the lure to choose something other than the good and when entities choose something other than the good, they surrender a bit of their being. They are a little less.
So, sin is the foretaste of death; it is the gradual annihilation of being in the phenomenal world. Evil, then, is simply a privation of Good and therefore a privation of Being.
Therefore, the idea of a totally evil being is an oxymoron. Such a being, by definition, could not exist, because only things that are at least to some extent ‘good’ can ‘be’. Even the worst of us must have a streak of good somewhere, however well concealed it may be.
Nevertheless, while there is no perfectly evil being, there is a perfectly evil process on the loose in the world. We know it on the personal level as ‘death’ and on the cosmic level as ‘entropy’.
We all know that the one and only sure thing in our lives (besides taxes) is our personal death. Likewise, the inexorably increasing value of entropy in our universe guarantees that that all order in that universe will eventually be wiped out and when that happens the universe will cease to exist. We will revert to the way the world was before God said “Let there be light”:
“And the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.” (Genesis 1: 2)
In other words, pure disorder, chaos, the equivalent of non-being.
Absent a noumenal dimension to reality, nothing remains of us when we die. It is as if everything we experienced, everything we felt, everything we thought, everything we learned, everything we accomplished was erased in an instant.
People are fond of saying, “Well, at least he had a good life.” No, he didn’t. He had no life at all. It is as if he had never existed.
Likewise, at ‘the end of time’, the universe itself will vanish and everything that ever happened in that universe will be erased. No trace will remain. Time and space themselves will disappear. Once again, it will be as though the universe had never existed. So, if death doesn’t get you, entropy certainly will; either way it will be as if you never were, as if nothing ever was.
The phenomenal realm, then, is not just a temporal realm, it is a temporary realm. Once it did not exist, once again it will not exist. That is not what ‘being’ is. Being, by definition, is imperishable. You can’t both ‘be’ and ‘not be’; even Hamlet understood that. You either are or you are not, period.
In the phenomenal realm, things become and things decay; that is the nature of phenomena. But that is not what being is. Being is unchanged, regardless of the various ‘accidents’ that express it from time to time. Being (Parmenides) is what is unchangeable about entities that are in the process of continuous change (Heraclitus).
So, what is the evil from which we pray that God will deliver us? It is death, it is entropy. Now, we know that even saints die and we don’t imagine that God will somehow reverse the process of entropy, so what does this mean?
God delivers us from evil by virtue of his noumenal nature. Everything that exists exists both in the phenomenal realm and in the noumenal realm. Our phenomenal selves will vanish as indeed will the whole phenomenal realm. Our noumenal selves, on the other hand, are eternal and can never perish. We ‘hope’ (see above) that our experiences in the phenomenal realm will be eternally preserved in the noumenal world. We hope that ‘we’ will be so preserved.
An ancient Irish poem (6th to 8th century), traditionally attributed to St. Dallan, includes the line:
Naught is all else to me save that thou art!
Indeed, that is the most succinct expression of Christian ontology I know. If God does not exist, if there is not a noumenal realm, then all is for naught and nothing in the phenomenal world has any value whatsoever.
On the other hand, if God does exist (as above), if there is a noumenal realm, then everything is saved and every temporal event is eternal. It is an all or nothing proposition; there is no middle ground.
So, where does this leave us? Do we have any rational reason to believe that the noumenal world (God) is real; does our hope have any foundation? Maybe.
First, it is very hard to imagine that nothing in our phenomenal world has any value whatsoever. Every human culture in every time period has had concepts like beauty and truth and justice. Of course, we may disagree about what is beautiful, true or just, but few among us would seriously maintain that all possible entities and all possible events have the same zero value.
Value, if it exists in the phenomenal world, must come from the noumenal world. Even radical sceptics agree on that point.
Nietzsche: “…there exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…But nothing exists apart from the whole!”
Wittgenstein: “No statement of facts can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value…all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level.”
Nietzsche and Wittgenstein describe a phenomenal realm that is ‘flat’; there is no ontological hierarchy. All entities from the most sublime to the most ridiculous have the same ontological status.
The noumenal realm, if it exists, gives the world another dimension. The noumenal can view the phenomenal from a standpoint outside the phenomenal realm and execute judgment on it according to the values that form the essence of the noumenal realm.
So, the first hint of the reality of the noumenal world is the reality of value in the phenomenal world. Either the noumenal realm is real or all events in the phenomenal world have zero value.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t deny the reality of the noumenal world and still meaningfully be a connoisseur of fine art or an avid symphony goer; you can’t deny the reality of the noumenal world and still crusade for justice.
But what about ‘truth’? This is perhaps the most interesting of all. Scientists, many of whom, in the past at least, have denied the reality of the noumenal realm, are fierce in their pursuit of truth. Yet, without a noumenal realm to confer value on phenomena, there is no ‘truth’ and therefore the work of science is meaningless.
Finally, there are relationships in the phenomenal world that don’t seem to be the product of that world. I am thinking of mathematics and maybe logic. Even when the phenomenal world passes away, it seems that these relationships must still hold. Likewise, it seems that they must hold in any possible universe. Therefore, they must have their roots in the noumenal realm.
Second, it is difficult to imagine anyone actually living in a zero value world. There would be no rational basis for choosing one behavior over another. Actions could not spring from motives or be directed toward goals. Actions would necessarily be random and disconnected. Human behavior would resemble the universe as it was before ‘God’s’ creative act (see above).
Many 20th century intellectuals, from A.J. Ayer (The Meaning of Life) to Albert Camus (The Stranger), have denied the reality of the noumenal world and accepted the necessary consequence of that denial: zero value. However, values seep back into their work in all sorts of ways. Neither can resist the urge to sketch out a code of personal conduct; neither can resist the urge to suggest that some ways of living are ‘better’ than others. But without the noumenal realm there can be no ‘better’.
None of this amounts to proof of the existence of the noumenal realm. By definition that would be impossible since we can have no direct experience of anything noumenal. Ultimately, it is still a leap of faith, as it was for Abraham, as it was for Kierkegaard, etc…
Yet we may savor the words of Deuteronomy (30: 15-20):
I set before you life and death; therefore choose life!