If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, why do we pray to him to intercede in our lives? A human father is finite and fallible — he may not know that his child needs help; he may be unable to give it; or, conceivably, he may not care enough to make the effort. But an omnipotent, omniscient, infinitely good god is incapable of these failings. We’re already certain that he’s aware of our problems, that he cares about us infinitely, and that he’s able to help us if he chooses. So why do we pray?
“That the believer desires divine assistance in various situations is perfectly understandable,” writes Roberts Wesleyan College philosopher David Basinger. “But that a believer would feel the need to request such assistance from a being who is more knowledgeable, concerned and powerful than he or she is not.”
(David Basinger, “Why Petition an Omnipotent, Omniscient, Wholly Good God?”, Religious Studies, March 1983.)
n. a prayer or devout wish
An 1898 item in the New York Times notes that William Gladstone once attended a Presbyterian service in Scotland where the minister said, “We pray Thee, Lord, of Thy goodness, to bless the Prime Minister of this great nation, who is now worshipping under this roof in the third pew from the pulpit.” And a Presbyterian minister opening an outdoor event reportedly prayed, “In consequence of the rain, O Lord, and by reason of the regretted absence of the Princess of Lochnagar, caused, doubtless, by the stormy weather, I do not purpose to address Thee at any length.”
Before a battle in the Irish rebellion of 1641, John Leslie, bishop of Clogher, prayed, “O God, for our unworthiness we are not fit to claim Thy help: but if we are bad our enemies are worse, and if Thou seest not meet to help us, we pray Thee help them not, but stand Thou neuter this day, and leave it to the arm of flesh.”
(During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, “We, on our side, are praying to Him to give us victory, because we believe we are right; but those on the other side pray to Him, look for victory, believing they are right. What must He think of us?”)
In his 1863 history of France, Victor Duruy tells of a soldier named La Hire who sought absolution from a priest during the siege of Montargis in 1427. The priest asked him to confess first, and he said, “I have not time, for I must fall upon the English. But I have done all that a man of war is wont to do.” The chaplain gave him absolution such as it was, and La Hire fell on his knees by the roadside and said, “God, I pray thee that to-day thou wilt do for La Hire that which thou wouldst have La Hire do for thee, if he were God and thou were La Hire.”
Others think the notion of a timeless God, with its perceptual metaphor of God passively perceiving each and every moment of time in a single, unchanging, comprehensive vision, fails to give God the freedom to act in creation, in particular, in the future. Suppose a student receives acceptances from three different universities and is trying to decide which to attend. She prays to God: ‘Lord, at which of the three universities will I have the best overall collegiate experience?’ On the timelessness view, God sees only the choice our petitioner actually makes, not the alternative futures that would have transpired had she chosen to go elsewhere. So how can God answer this prayer?
— W. Jay Wood, God, 2011
“Whatever a man prays for, he prays for a miracle. Every prayer reduces to this: ‘Great God, grant that twice two be not four.'” — Turgenev
See Asking Back.
Given his necessary perfections, if there is a best world for God to create then it appears he would have no choice other than to create it. For, as Leibniz tells us, ‘to do less good than one could is to be lacking in wisdom or in goodness.’ Since it is strictly impossible for God to be lacking in wisdom or goodness, his inability to do otherwise than create the best possible world is no limitation on his power. But if God could not do otherwise than create the best world, he created the world out of necessity, and not freely. And, if that is so, it may be argued that we have no reason to be thankful to God for creating us, since, being parts of the best possible world, God was simply unable to do anything other than create us. … [Leibniz's reasoning] cannot avoid the conclusion that God is not sufficiently free in creating, and is therefore not a fit subject of gratitude or moral praise for creating the best.
— William L. Rowe, Can God be Free?, 2006
An epitaph in the Pine Forest cemetery in Wilmington, N.C., reads:
BORN SEPT. 24, 1894
DIED MAY 18, 1904
THIS WAS THE ONLY DOG WE EVER KNEW
THAT ATTENDED CHURCH EVERY SUNDAY
Actually, dogs commonly attended services in former times. Indeed, until the 19th century, they could be so numerous that churches employed “dog whippers” to remove unruly dogs during services. The Great Church of St. Bavo in Haarlem, the Netherlands, contains a carving of the hondenslager at work (above).
The 18th-century zoologist Carl Linnaeus used to attend mass with his dog Pompe. Linnaeus always left after an hour, regardless of whether the sermon was finished. It’s said that when he was sick Pompe would arrive at the service alone, stay for the customary hour, and depart.
“Heaven goes by favor,” wrote Mark Twain. “If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
In Western religion we seek to attain immortality; in Eastern religion we seek to escape it.
“The secret of religious enlightenment, revealed to the Buddha as he sat beneath the Bo tree, is the suppression of desire, a systematic elimination of all our attachments to the world,” writes Gordon Graham in his Eight Theories of Ethics. “In such turning away comes moksha or release and eventually, for it may take more than one life to achieve it, entry to Nirvana — a term which captures both the idea of nothingness and of heaven. The Buddhist ideal, then, finds supreme value in personal extinction. (Whether this amounts to total extinction is a further matter.) In so doing it wholly discounts subjective values because it is these, after all, that keep us chained to the unending cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
“It is of great interest to note that, while Western minds are accustomed to think of religious faith as entailing the belief and hope that we will be saved from eternal death and live for ever, the belief of Eastern religions is that, other things being equal, we do live for ever and it is from this dreadful fate that we must look to spirituality to save us.”
By reducing each chapter of the Bible to a single line and presenting these lines in rhyming quatrains, the Juvenile Bible of 1804 condenses the Old and New Testaments into 69 memorizable pages. By learning a simple system, one can then cite any chapter of the Bible from memory. Here are the first three stanzas of Genesis:
1 All things created, Moses writes,
2 And Paradise displays;
3 Tells Adam’s fall, which ruin’d all:
4 Cain righteous Abel slays.
5 Before the flood man’s life was long:
6 Noah the ark doth frame:
7 The world is drown’d, eight favour found,
8 Out of the ark they came.
9 Cov’nant of rain-bow; Noah drunk,
10 His offspring is increast;
11 They Babel rear, confounded are.
12 Abram is call’d and blest.
To aid in memorization, the stanzas begin with successive letters of the alphabet, so a stanza that starts with A always marks the first chapter of a book, B the 5th, C the 9th, and so on. Once we’ve memorized the stanzas above, we can always name the chapter in Genesis in which the Tower of Babel is described: It’s the third line of the stanza beginning with C, so it’s chapter 11. Conversely, if we’re asked to name the subject of any given chapter, we can produce the answer using the same system.
“This novel and curious arrangement will, it is presumed, gratify the taste of young readers, and not only give them a relish for the Sacred Volume, but even assist their memories when duly acquainted with it,” writes the anonymous author. To his credit, he adds, “No portion of it should ever be allotted as a Task; the Author of this Work being well convinced, it is owing to the modern and impious mode of Education, compelling Children to learn Collects, chapters in the Bible, Hymns, &c. as occasional Exercises, and frequently by way of Punishment that the Word of God is not heard and read with that satisfaction it always should be.”
In April 2005, when the Vatican began to seek a successor to John Paul II, technology author Rogers Cadenhead registered the domain names ClementXV.com, InnocentXIV.com, LeoXIV.com, BenedictXVI.com, PaulVII.com, and PiusXIII.com, hoping that the new pope would take one of these names.
“Someone else already has JohnPaulIII.com and JohnXXIV.com,” he wrote on his blog, “but otherwise I put a chip down on every name of the past three centuries.”
When Joseph Ratzinger chose the name Benedict XVI, “I felt like my horse had come in first at the Kentucky races,” he told CNN. As owner of the new pope’s domain, he made a few requests, including:
- Three days, two nights at the Vatican hotel.
- “One of those hats.”
- Complete absolution, no questions asked, for the third week of March 1987.
“Whatever decision I make will be guided by the desire not to make 1.5 billion people mad at me … including my grandmother,” he told the Washington Post. As I write this, the domain appears to be unused — perhaps they’re still negotiating.
A Swedish minister having assembled the chiefs of the Susquehanna Indians, made a sermon to them, acquainting them with the principal historical facts on which our religion is founded — such as the fall of our first parents by eating an apple, the coming of Christ to repair the mischief, his miracles and suffering, etc. When he had finished an Indian orator stood up to thank him.
‘What you have told us,’ says he, ‘is all very good. It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all into cider. We are much obliged by your kindness in coming so far to tell us those things which you have heard from your mothers. In return, I will tell you some of those we have heard from ours.
‘In the beginning, our fathers had only the flesh of animals to subsist on, and if their hunting was unsuccessful they were starving. Two of our young hunters, having killed a deer, made a fire in the woods to boil some parts of it. When they were about to satisfy their hunger, they beheld a beautiful young woman descend from the clouds and seat herself on that hill which you see yonder among the Blue Mountains.
‘They said to each other, “It is a spirit that perhaps has smelt our broiling venison and wishes to eat of it; let us offer some to her.” They presented her with the tongue; she was pleased with the taste of it and said: “Your kindness shall be rewarded; come to this place after thirteen moons, and you will find something that will be of great benefit in nourishing you and your children to the latest generations.” They did so, and to their surprise found plants they had never seen before, but which from that ancient time have been constantly cultivated among us to our great advantage. Where her right hand had touched the ground they found maize; where her left had touched it they found kidney-beans; and where her backside had sat on it they found tobacco.’
The good missionary, disgusted with this idle tale, said: ‘What I delivered to you were sacred truths; but what you tell me is mere fable, fiction, and falsehood.’
The Indian, offended, replied: ‘My brother, it seems your friends have not done you justice in your education; they have not well instructed you in the rules of common civility. You saw that we, who understand and practise those rules, believed all your stories; why do you refuse to believe ours?’
— Benjamin Franklin, “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America,” 1784
adj. resembling a ladder
Above the facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a ladder that has remained in place since the 19th century. At that time an edict was passed holding that the church’s doors and window ledges are “common ground” for the various Christian orders; as a result, no church can move anything near the window — including the ladder. It’s visible in the engraving below, which was made in 1834.
Apropos of Eskimo, I once heard a missionary describe the extraordinary difficulty he had found in translating the Bible into Eskimo. It was useless to talk of corn or wine to a people who did not know even what they meant, so he had to use equivalents within their powers of comprehension. Thus in the Eskimo version of the Scriptures the miracle of Cana of Galilee is described as turning the water into blubber; the 8th verse of the 5th chapter of the First Epistle of St. Peter ran: ‘Your adversary the devil, as a roaring Polar bear walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.’ In the same way ‘A land flowing with milk and honey’ became ‘A land flowing with whale’s blubber,’ and throughout the New Testament the words ‘Lamb of God’ had to be translated ‘little Seal of God,’ as the nearest possible equivalent. The missionary added that his converts had the lowest opinion of Jonah for not having utilised his exceptional opportunities by killing and eating the whale.
— Lord Frederic Hamiliton, The Days Before Yesterday, 1920
In the 14th century, an unnamed Kabbalistic scholar declared that the universe contains 301,655,722 angels.
In 1939, English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington calculated that it contains 15,747,724, 136,275,002,577,605,653,961,181,555,468,044,717,914,527,116,709,366,231,425,076,
“Some like to understand what they believe in,” wrote Stanislaw Lec. “Others like to believe in what they understand.”
On a voyage to England in 1757, Ben Franklin narrowly escaped shipwreck.
Afterward, he wrote to his wife, “The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received.
“Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house.”
If all moral obligations originate from God’s commands, then so must our moral obligation to obey these commands. He commands us to obey his commands. But what is the moral reason to obey that command? An earlier command? What is the reason to obey that?
Do we have a moral obligation to follow God’s commands because we love him? This implies that we ought to love him. Why? Because he commands it? That’s a circle. Because he’s good? That seems to mean only that he follows his own commands — or else that goodness is a standard independent of God.
Miscellaneous Notes and Queries published a surprising find in November 1897: “a letter written by Our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, found under a great stone sixty-five years after his crucifixion.” The stone, “both round and large” and engraved Blessed is he that shall turn me over, had been found “eighteen miles from Iconium, near a village called Mesopotamia.” “There came a little child, about six or seven years old, and turned it over without help, to the admiration of all the people that stood by, and under this stone was found a letter written by Jesus Christ … signed by the Angel Gabriel, ninety-eight years after our Saviour’s birth”:
Whosoever worketh on the Sabbath Day, shall be Cursed; I Command you to go to Church, and keep the Lord’s Day holy, without doing any Manner of Work. You shall not idly mispend your Time in bedecking yourselves with superfluities of costly Apparel, and vain Dresses, for I have ordained it a Day of Rest. I will have that day kept holy, that your Sins may be forgiven you; you shall not break my Commandments, but observe and keep them, written with my own Hand, write them in your Hearts, and steadfastly observe, this was written with my own Hand, spoken by my own Mouth. You shall not only go to Church yourselves, but also your Man-Servants and your Maid-Servants, and observe my words and learn my Commandments; you shall finish your Labour every Saturday in the Afternoon by six of the Clock, at which Hour the Preparation for the Sabbath begins. I advise you to fast five Fridays in every Year, beginning with Good-Friday, and to continue the four Fridays immediately following, in Remembrance of the five bloody Wounds I received for all Mankind; you shall diligently and peaceably labour in your respective Vocations wherein it hath pleased God to call you. You shall love one another with brotherly Love, and cause them that are not baptized to come to Church and hear the holy Sacrament, viz. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and be made Members thereof; in so doing I shall give you long Life and many blessings, and your Land shall replenish and bring forth Abundance; I will bring you many Blessings, and comfort you in the greatest Temptations, and surely he that doth to the contrary, shall be cursed and unprofitable. I will also send Hardness of Heart upon them, till I have destroyed them, but especially upon hardened and impenitent Unbelievers; he that hath given to the Poor, he shall not be unprofitable. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath-Day, for the seventh Day I have taken to rest myself.
It’s unfortunate that the Saviour had hidden his letter under a stone, as he was particularly eager that it be shared among the faithful:
He that hath a Copy of this Letter written with my own Hand, and spoken with my own Mouth, and keepeth it, without publishing it to others shall not prosper, but he that publisheth it to others, shall be blessed of me, and tho’ his Sins be in Number as the Stars in the Sky, and he believe in this shall be pardoned, and if he believe not this Writing and my Commandments, I will send my Plagues upon him, and consume both him and his Children and his Cattle; and whosoever shall have a Copy of this Letter written with my own Hand, and keep it in their Houses, nothing shall hurt them, neither Pestilence, Lightning nor Thunder shall do them any Hurt: and if a Woman be with Child and in Labour, and a Copy of this Letter be about her, and she firmly put her Trust in me, she shall safely be delivered of her Birth. You shall have no News of me, but by the Holy Spirit, till the Day of Judgment. All Goodness and Prosperity shall be in the House where a Copy of this Letter shall be found.
The editors note that the letter had originally been printed in London, and was later reprinted and sold in Boston “by I. Thomas, near the Mill-Bridge.” They offered it “as a curiosity,” noting that “it bears on its face a fraud.”
- To frustrate eavesdroppers, Herbert Hoover and his wife used to converse in Chinese.
- Asteroids 30439, 30440, 30441, and 30444 are named Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp.
- COMMITTEES = COST ME TIME
- 15618 = 1 + 56 – 1 × 8
- How is it that time passes but space doesn’t?
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives no pronunciation for YHWH.
In 1959, psychologist Milton Rokeach assembled three mentally ill patients each of whom believed he was Jesus Christ:
Leon: “People can use the same Bible but some of them will worship Jesus Christ instead of worshiping God through Jesus Christ.”
Clyde: “We worship both.”
Leon: “I don’t worship you. I worship God Almighty through you, and through him, and him.”
Clyde: “You oughta worship me, I’ll tell you that!”
Leon: “I will not worship you! You’re a creature! You better live your own life and wake up to the facts.”
Clyde: “I’m living my life. You don’t wake up! You can’t wake up!”
Joseph: “No two men are Jesus Christs.”
Leon: “You hear mechanical voices.”
Clyde: “You don’t get it right. I don’t care what you call it. I hear natural voices. I hear to heaven. I hear all over.”
Joseph: “I’m going back to England.”
Leon: “Sir, if the good Lord wills only.”
Joseph: “Good Lord! I’m the good Lord!”
Leon: “That’s your belief, sir.”
Rokeach intended the study as an inquiry into the nature of identity: If there is only one son of God, how would these men react on encountering one another? He found that they explained the disagreement by calling one another crazy, duped, or disingenuous, but that the conflict was less damaging psychologically than might have been supposed. In his 1964 account of the experiment, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, Rokeach writes, “We have learned that even when a summit of three is composed of paranoid men, deadlocked over the ultimate in human contradiction, they prefer to seek ways to live with one another in peace rather than destroy one another.”
In describing a large water basin, 2 Chronicles 4:2 reads, “Also he made a molten sea of ten cubits from brim to brim, round in compass, and five cubits the height thereof; and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.” A similar verse appears at 1 Kings 7:23.
Critics point out that this implies that π is 3, and in 1983 about 100 professors and students at Emporia State University in Kansas founded an Institute of Pi Research to lobby (wryly) for adopting this new value in place of the awkward 3.14159 …
“To think that God in his infinite wisdom would create something as messy as this is a monstrous thought,” medieval historian Samuel Dicks told the Kansas City Times. “I think we deserve to be taken as seriously as the creationists.”
“If the Bible is right in biology, it’s right in math,” added economic historian Loren Pennington.
But writing in the Mathematical Gazette in 1985, M.D. Stern of Manchester Polytechnic noted (also wryly) that the word translated as line above is transliterated qwh but read qw. Further, the ancient Greeks and Jews used letters to denote numbers, with the letters q, w, and h taking the numerical values 100, 6, and 5.
“Thus the word translated line in its written form has numerical value 111 whereas as read the value is 106. If we take the ratio of these numbers as a correcting factor for the apparent value of π as 3 and calculate 3 × (111/106), we obtain 3.141509 to 7 significant figures. This differs from the true value of π by less than 10-4 which is remarkable. In view of this, it might be suggested that this peculiar spelling is of more significance than a cursory reading might have suggested.”
In 1905 Mark Twain wrote a story in which a pastor leads a prayer asking God’s support for recruits about to march away to war. A white-robed stranger enters, takes the pastor’s place, and explains that he has come from heaven. God has heard the prayer, but wants them to understand its full import. Their wish, cast in other words, is this:
Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —
For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!
We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.
Twain’s daughter Jean urged him not to publish the story, fearing that it would be seen as sacrilege.
“Still, you are going to publish it, are you not?” asked a friend.
“No,” Twain said after some reflection. “I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead.”
When did Shakespeare’s plays come into existence? We tend to think they appeared when he conceived them.
But if God is omniscient, then he has perfect knowledge of the future. Before the creation, he knew that Shakespeare would compose the plays, and he knew the full text of each one.
“A consequence of the view that God knows everything about the future is that all compositions existed before creation,” writes philosopher Richard R. La Croix.
In this sense, “the coming into existence of any composition is an event which occurs prior to the events that cause it to occur” — and, in each case, an effect precedes its cause.
In order for a god to be all-knowing, he must know even the fact of his own omniscience. But can he do this? He may know the totality of facts constituting the world; call this Y. But in order to know that he has mastered Y, he must also know that “There are no facts unknown to me” — and this is beyond Y.
It seems impossible that a god (or anyone) could ever be sure that nothing exists beyond his ken. “It makes no sense to imagine [a god] arriving at this limit, peering beyond it (at what?), and satisfying himself no further facts exist,” writes philosopher Roland Puccetti. But without this certainty he cannot be sure of his own omniscience, and so does not know everything.
A theist might argue that his god has created all the facts in existence. But an omniscient god would have to be sure of even this — that he is the sole creator, and that there are no facts unknown to him. And how could he come to this knowledge?
(Roland Puccetti, “Is Omniscience Possible?”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 1963)
A poem on transubstantiation by Luis de León, quoted by Robert Southey in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal:
If this we see be bread, how can it last,
So constantly consum’d, yet always here?
If this be God, then how can it appear
Bread to the eye, and seem bread to the taste?
If bread, why is it worshipp’d by the baker?
If God, can such a space a God comprise?
If bread, how is it, it confounds the wise?
If God, how is it that we eat our Maker?
If bread, what good can such a morsel do?
If God, how is it we divide it so?
If bread, such saving virtue could it give?
If God, how can I see and touch it thus?
If bread, how could it come from heav’n to us?
If God, how can I look at it and live?
Where in the Bible are we told in one verse not to do a thing and in the next to do it?
‘Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.’ Prov. xxvi. 4.
‘Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.’ Prov. xxvi. 5.
— Samuel Grant Oliphant, Queer Questions and Ready Replies, 1887
An omnipotent god can create a being whose acts are known only to itself.
An omniscient god cannot do this.
It would appear, then, that no god can be both omnipotent and omniscient.
(From Richard R. La Croix.)
Published in 1961, the New English Bible was an attempt to translate the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts of the Bible into modern English. Dwight MacDonald found this was “like finding a parking lot where a great church once stood.” As an illustration, he recast the Sermon on the Mount using only phrases that appear in the NEB:
When he realized how things stood, Jesus held a meeting to look into the matter. It was no hole-in-the-corner business. He went up the hill and began. ‘And now, not to take up too much of your time, I crave indulgence for a brief statement of our case. How blest are they that know they are poor. You are light for all the world. If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. I also might make bold to say that you cannot serve God and money. Do not feed your pearls to pigs, and be ready for action, with belts fastened and lamps alight. Thanks for giving me a hearing.’ He then went to lunch with some distinguished persons.
“True, they did preserve ‘Jesus wept,'” MacDonald wrote. “But I’m sure there was strong support for ‘Jesus burst into tears.'”