Jun 1, 2023
“This tiny prayer…is a cyber-wonks dream. The density of the information content is out of this world, quite literally!”
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!
Everyone knows the Lord’s Prayer. The version quoted in the Gospel of Matthew (6: 9-13) are probably the best-known verses in all of Judeo-Christian scripture. In Issue #4 of Aletheia Today Magazine, we examined the prayer from the perspective of Pauline theology: read St. Paul's The Lord's Prayer and Faith, Hope, Love.
Yet when Roman Catholic children first learn this prayer, they don’t call it the “Lord’s Prayer”; they call it the “Our Father” in recognition of the prayer’s personal tone and pastoral focus. Attention is drawn to the compassion of a father rather than to the majesty of a Lord.
This tiny prayer (about 55 words in most English translations) is a cyber-wonks dream. The density of the information content is out of this world, quite literally!
The Our Father consists of three stanzas of three verses each, followed by a surprise ending!
The first stanza concerns the identity of God and the nature of our relationship with him; the second stanza has an eschatological focus, while the third stanza is concerned with every day social relations. We are all so familiar with this prayer that we may not always notice these sharp thematic breaks.
In the first stanza, we learn that God is “our father” – not just the father of the cosmos or of Israel or of Jesus Christ, but the father of everyone, our father – not merely “the maker of heaven and earth”!
The role of father is very different from the role of creator. As creator, God establishes the conditions necessary for existence per se, including our own existence; he is the ground of our being. But as father, God enters into a personal relationship with each of us.
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, spatiotemporal 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 his ‘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”). There’s no doubt about it, God is Mensa material. Notice how skillfully he positions himself for the lay-up while taking care to block out his opponents. Brilliant!
God’s ‘name’ defines him as unique. Obviously, one and only one entity can answer to the name YHWH. Only one being can be Being itself. Some philosophers have gone so far as to assert that Ex. 3:14 is self-evidently true and therefore ‘proves’ the existence of God. We’ll leave that one alone!
But God’s name is certainly ‘holy’ (or hallowed”): it is by definition unique and that makes polytheism an oxymoron. Yes, God is ‘Roger Penrose smart’.
The second stanza of the prayer is eschatological. While the first stanza reveals the ‘primordial’ state of things, this stanza presents the ‘ultimate’ state of things: his kingdom comes, his will is done, and the boundary between heaven and earth disappears.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Rev. 22:13) The Our Father sums up the entire Book of Revelation in just 3 lines. The first stanza of the Our Father identifies God’s as the Alpha Dog while the second stanza confirms that he will be ‘the last man (sic) standing.'
But these stanzas provide no hint of how we are to get from Alpha to Omega. Rightly so! The first two stanzas are visions, not a parenting guide, not a political platform. We still need GPS, and fortunately, the third stanza provides just that!
This third stanza is concerned primarily with daily life, the spatiotemporal realm. The unique ‘magic’ of Christianity is its ability to turn Being inside out, revealing alternately, Gestalt-like, its immanent aspect and its transcendent aspect.
We have already been introduced to the Alpha and the Omega; here is where we learn the rest of the alphabet, i.e., everything in-between.
As ‘father,' God has a care to provide for and protect his ‘children,' and it is very specific: feed me, forgive me, protect me! What child has not uttered these same petitions at one time or another to his own father? And what loving father has not granted these petitions, when appropriate, 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 stanza, we learn that our primordial relationship with God and God’s eschatological vision for the universe are relevant, not only to the transcendent realm, but also to the immanent. Now we learn something key: we are co-creators with God, co-creators of both temporal and eternal reality: “on earth as it is in heaven."
We ask God to give us ‘our daily bread’; but here we can step up too. In the spatiotemporal realm we can function as God’s agents by giving ‘bread’ to those in need. Likewise, when we “forgive those who trespass against us," we also do the work of God (mercy).
Finally, “Lead us not into temptation” refers to the level of care God has for each of us and that we in turn must have for one another. We all have a duty to protect others. Each of us is a ‘keeper’ of our ‘siblings’ and by siblings we mean all our neighbors as defined by Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Does it take a village to raise a child? Heck no, it takes a cosmos!
Now for the finale! Earlier I promised you a ‘surprise ending’ (remember how The Sixth Sense ended?). Well, here it is:
“But deliver us from evil. Amen!”
Really? That’s your surprise ending? We already knew that! (Ok, but did we understand it?)
At first glance, this petition seems redundant; and in a way it is. After all, didn’t we already pray for that when we asked God to provide for us and protect us? But something even deeper is at work here.
While neither Jesus nor the Evangelists knew the Second Law of Thermodynamics, they were all keen observers of the natural world. They knew that ‘all things must pass,' and they were familiar with texts like Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity.” They understood the universality of mortality.
Today we understand ‘change’ as ‘entropy’ and we know that every ‘change’ works to increase the overall entropy of the universe. (Entropy is the measure of disorder.)
Consider the cosmos: “In the beginning…the earth was without form or shape (maximal disorder)…Then God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…God then separated the light from the darkness (order)…Then God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters to separate one body of water from the other’ (order)…the water under the sky was gathered into its basin and dry land appeared (order)…God created mankind in his image…male and female he created them (order).” (Genesis 1)
Whether you prefer the model of creation known as ‘Genesis’ or the model known as ‘Big Bang,' it is clear that ordering per se is synonymous with the creative act. Big Bang or Fiat Lux, take your choice.
Then, call it Original Sin or Thermodynamics, the entropic process begins. 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 bad. Of course, this is not in the first instance intentional, or subjective, evil; it is purely objective evil.
Entropy is ‘evil’ because it erases being, which is intrinsically good. But that is the reality of our temporal world. We relish the marvelous things we experience as entropy unravels creation; but we dread the inevitable consequence: nothingness.
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!
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.
The finale of the Our Father asks God to deliver us from evil. It is the climax of the greatest verses ever written. What then can it mean? We are asking God to free us from the otherwise inevitable ravages of entropy. We, like the Psalmist (e.g., Psalm 23), are asking God not to let our existence be erased. We are simply asking for eternal life, that’s all!
It is appropriate that this portion of the prayer be phrased as a petition. After all, eternal life is the ultimate gift, the only 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 (and not by Amazon).
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 deliverance every day in the Sacrament of Eucharist.
In the ontology of the Our Father, everything that happens in the temporal realm is real; and to the extent that anything temporal can be harmonized with God’s values, everything is preserved eternally. The terrible pall of certain and impending mortality evaporates.
“The Lord is my shepherd (father); there is nothing I lack (daily bread) …He guides me along right paths (lead us not into temptation) for the sake of his (holy) 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).” Amen.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.