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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.


Everyone knows the Lord’s Prayer. The version quoted in the Gospel of Matthew (6: 9-13) is probably the best known 5 verses in all of Judeo-Christian scripture. Yet when Roman Catholic children learn this prayer, they don’t call it the “Lord’s Prayer”; they call it the “Our Father” in recognition of its opening words and its focus on the person and activity of our father, God.

The prayer consists of three main sections…followed by a surprise ending. The first section concerns the identity of God and the nature of our relationship with him; the second section has an eschatological focus while the third section is concerned with every day social relations. We are so familiar with this prayer that we may not always notice these sharp thematic breaks.

Let’s look at each section individually. First, we learn that God is “our father” – not just the father of the cosmos or of Israel (per Deutero-Isaiah) or of Jesus the Christ, but the father of everyone, our father.

The role of father is very different from the role of creator. As creator, God establishes the conditions necessary for our existence; he is the ground of our being. But as our father, God enters into a personal relationship with each of us. Like all fathers, he is concerned to provide for us and protect us (more about this later).

Next we learn that our father is transcendent (“in heaven”)…and therefore eternal: he is not subject to the corruption and death characteristic of immanent reality.

Finally, we acknowledge that God’s name is holy. In the ancient world, a person’s name was not just “her handle”. A name also defined the person’s role in society; in God’s case, it defines his role in the universe (which is God’s ‘society’).

This is why Moses (Exodus 3) was so concerned to learn God’s name. He knew the Israelites would ask and would not follow him until they knew. In the language of philosophy, a name is ‘essential’, not ‘accidental’.

God does not disappoint. He tells Moses that his name is YHWH (“I am who am”). Obviously, this is a name that can apply to one and only one entity. Only one being can be Being itself. Therefore, God’s name is holy (or “hallowed”); it is by definition unique. Therefore, God is by definition unique. Polytheism is an oxymoron.

So now we have been introduced! But apart from loving each of us, what is our father about? “What is daddy’s job?” Now we learn about his kingdom and his plan, not just for us, but for the cosmos.

We all think we understand the next three verses. (1) His kingdom comes; (2) his will is done; (3) things on earth come to be as they are in heaven. Eazy peazy! But is it?

How is the kingdom to come, when is it to come and why isn’t it here already? How does it happen that God’s will comes to be done on earth? Is that the result of the coming of kingdom or a pre-condition for that coming? Or are the two totally unrelated?

What does it mean to say that things on earth are as they are in heaven? How could they be? We’ve already learned that heaven is an eternal realm while we live in a temporal realm. How could things in both realms possibly be the same? How would you even measure ‘sameness’ across realms?

Nicolas of Cusa (d. 1464) proposed a cosmology/theology that could resolve these difficulties. According to Nicholas, the eternal mind of God ‘envisions’ every action or event (and every chain of actions or events) that could possibly occur in the temporal realm (earth).

If something is to occur actually it must pre-exist potentially. Nothing that is, actual or potential, can be outside the mind of God. So Nicholas’ apparently radical idea makes perfect sense.

This also reconciles God’s eternal omniscience with the existential freedom of humans…and of God’s entire created cosmos. Nothing happens in the temporal world that God does not already ‘know’ but God’s knowledge is not causal and it does not restrict in any way the freedom of the created (temporal) realm.

According to this model, the mind of God is an infinite version of IBM’s “Deep Blue”: it envisions every possible chess move in every possible chess game.

So where does God’s kingdom fit into this? God’s kingdom comes, not when every event is ideal in and of itself but when the overall pattern of freely occurring events instantiates and projects God’s values (as found in the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospels, as well as in nature itself).

We say that God is good. In fact, we say that God is “the Good”. What defines the goodness of God? It is the values that constitute his essence (e.g. justice, truth). When we examine the goodness of a human being, we consider both her intentions and her actions. In God’s case, however, his intentions (“words”) are his actions; and because God’s intentions are good by definition, God is incapable of committing a sinful act.

The role of God (‘daddy’s job’), therefore, is to make the connections among freely occurring events so that together they project God’s values. What is it about the world that makes us think this is even possible?

Everything that exists is in some measure “good”, i.e. in some way instantiates God’s values. Evil is the absence or privation of good; it is not a thing in itself. Therefore, no purely evil event can ever actually occur. Put differently, an ‘event’ that systematically and categorically rejects God’s values cannot be an event at all.

How do we know this? We know it because everything that comes to be comes to be as (1) a reaction against some perceived ‘lack’ in the actual world as measured against the yardstick of God’s values and (2) as the pursuit of some ‘good’ as defined by those values.

This fundamental bias toward the ‘good’ allows God to weave freely occurring actual events together into patterns, and then meta-patterns, that ultimately instantiate and project his values. God does not cause events; God links freely occurring events in patterns that ever more perfectly and completely project his values. These patterns constitute the in-breaking of the kingdom into the temporal realm.

Note that God does not knit events together over time. God is eternal so everything is instantaneous with him. For an event to occur is for that event to be knitted into the optimum pattern. In fact, just as the mind of God (above) contains all possible events (above), so also it contains all possible patterns.

For God, the game is already over; he wins! He cannot not win! But neither he, nor we, know how he will win. This is not as radical an idea as you might think. Have you not heard the phrase, “Man proposes, God disposes”? Same idea!

Understood this way, this section of the Lord’s Prayer is not a prayer of petition at all but a continuation of the first section’s theology lesson. It is a description of what already is. Just as God’s name is hallowed, so his Kingdom comes, and ultimately his will is done: in the end there is a one-to-one correspondence between what happens on earth and what happens in heaven.

(A brief grammatical interlude: this interpretation of the second section is consistent with the first. When we say, “Hallowed be thy name,” we are not asking that God’s name be made holy; we are affirming that it is holy, eternally. Likewise, now we are affirming that God’s kingdom is come and his will is done.)

Now we are ready to move on to the third section of the prayer which is concerned solely with the temporal realm. Recall earlier that we said that as “father” God has a care to provide for and protect his “children”. Here that is spelled out.

Our prayer is specific and material: provide for me (feed me), forgive me, protect me (lead us not into temptation, i.e. do not expose us to risk)! What child has not uttered these same petitions at one time or another to his own father? What loving father has not granted these petitions (when appropriate and to the best of his ability)? “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matthew 7: 9-10)

In this section of the prayer we learn that our relationship with God and his eschatological vision for the universe are relevant, not only to transcendent reality, but also to immanent reality.

We also learn something else. We are co-creators with God of both temporal and eternal reality. When we “forgive those who trespass against us”, we do the work of God; and the work we do in God’s name is marked in heaven: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained”. (John 20: 23)

We benefit from our relationship with God and from his eschatological promises; we are grateful for his care and protection. But like all children, our involvement is essentially passive.

No more! Now we are active participants in God’s great project.  When we forgive others (or by extension feed them or protect them), we shorten the trajectory to ‘kingdom come’. We activate in real time those connections and those patterns that God will use to instantiate and project his values.

Now for the finale! Earlier I promised you a “surprise ending” (remember the Bruce Willis movie, The Sixth Sense). Well, here it is:

But deliver us from evil!

“Really? That’s your surprise ending? We knew it all along!” (But did we understand it?)

At first glance, this ‘petition’ actually seems repetitive; and in a way it is. After all, didn’t we already pray for that when we asked God to protect us, etc.? But something much deeper is at work here.

While neither Jesus (fully human) nor the Evangelists knew the Second Law of Thermodynamics, they were keen observers of the natural world. They were also familiar with texts like Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity…What is crooked cannot be made straight, and you cannot count what is not there…” They understood the universality of mortality.

Today we understand ‘change’ as ‘entropy’ and we know that every natural process works to increase the overall entropy of the universe. Entropy is a measure of disorder. When a human organism is alive, it exhibits a great deal of ‘order’; when it dies, for the most part that order dissipates and entropy is massively increased.

Likewise the cosmos: “In the beginning…the earth was without form or shape (disorder)…Then God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…God then separated the light from the darkness (ordering)…Then God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate one body of water from the other’ (ordering)…the water under the sky was gathered into its basin and dry land appeared (ordering)…God created mankind in his image…male and female he created them (ordering).” (Genesis 1: 1 – 27)

Whether you are using the model of creation known as Genesis or the model of creation known as Big Bang, it is clear that order per se is the primary result of the creative act.

Then, call it Original Sin or Thermodynamics, entropic process begins. As entropy increases, order decreases. At some time in the far distant future, the universe will reach or approach a state of maximal entropy; all order will be lost and, effectively at least, the universe will cease to exist. “You cannot count what is not there.” (Ecclesiastes 1: 15b)

Order then is denotatively synonymous with Being and therefore also with Good. Then where does that leave evil? If order is good, then entropy (disorder) must be ‘evil’. Of course, this is not in the first instance intentional or subjective evil; it is purely objective evil. Entropy is ‘evil’ only because it erases being, which is intrinsically good. But that is part of the reality of our temporal world.

At the level of organisms (like us), the ultimate expression of entropy is mortality, death. According to Stephen Hawking, no friend of theology, entropy is just another word for time (and vice-a-versa). Time is the true “destroyer of worlds” (Bhagavad Gita). From the perspective of a purely temporal world, death not only terminates our existence…it erases it! To borrow a concept from Camus and the Existentialists, any effort to deny this is simply ‘bad faith’.

The only intellectually honest emotion then is despair. Unless…reality also has a transcendent (eternal) aspect (or dimension)! The opposite of faith is not doubt, which is unavoidable, but despair. It is said that despair (not doubt) is the ultimate ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’; and it is only sins against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven.

The finale of the Our Father asks God to deliver us from evil. What does that mean? We are asking God to free us from the ‘inevitable’ ravages of entropy. We are asking God not to let our existence be ‘erased’. We are asking for eternal life.

On another level, we are asking God to fold the temporal realm (us…see section 3 of the prayer) into the eternal realm, i.e. to eliminate the reality of mortality. “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” (John Donne)

It is appropriate that this portion of the prayer be phrased as a petition. After all, eternal life is the ultimate gift, the ‘pearl of great price’, the difference between being and nothingness (sorry, Sartre). But spoiler alert: we don’t need to pace the floor on Christmas eve worrying that Santa won’t bring us what we asked for…because it’s already purchased and delivered.

The incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus has delivered us from evil, once and for all. And if we wish, we can re-experience that everyday in the Sacrament of Eucharist. When we receive the body and blood of Christ at Mass, the transcendent reality (eternity) enters our bodies and we enter eternity (the glorified body of Christ).

The topology of the Sacraments is different from that of every day experience; all action is reciprocal.

In the ontology of the Our Father, everything that happens in the temporal realm is real; and to the extent that it is consistent with God’s values, everything is preserved eternally. The terrible pall of certain and impending mortality evaporates.

In fact, one way to read the Lord’s Prayer is as a gloss on the famous Psalm 23:

“The Lord is my shepherd  (father); there is nothing I lack (bread)…He guides me along right paths (lead us not into temptation) for the sake of his name. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (the temporal world), I will fear no evil, for you are with me (deliver us from evil)…I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (on earth as it is in heaven).”