The War Prayer

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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.”

In the Wings

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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.

Know-It-All

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)

Divine Mystery

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?

Brass Tacks

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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.'”

The Grate Beyond

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An anonymous proof that heaven is hotter than hell, from Applied Optics, August 1972:

The temperature of Heaven can be rather accurately computed from available data. Our authority is the Bible: Isaiah 30:26 reads, Moreover the light of the Moon shall be as the light of the Sun and the light of the Sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days. Thus Heaven receives from the Moon as much radiation as the Earth does from the Sun and in addition seven times seven (forty-nine) times as much as the Earth does from the Sun, or fifty times in all. The light we receive from the Moon is a ten-thousandth of the light we receive from the Sun, so we can ignore that. With these data we can compute the temperature of Heaven: The radiation falling on Heaven will heat it to the point where the heat lost by radiation is just equal to the heat received by radiation. In other words, Heaven loses fifty times as much heat as the Earth by radiation. Using the Stefan-Boltzmann fourth-power law for radiation

grate beyond power law

where E is the absolute temperature of the Earth — 300K. This gives H as 798K absolute (525°C).

The exact temperature of Hell cannot be computed but it must be less than 444.6°C, the temperature at which brimstone or sulfur changes from a liquid to a gas. Revelations 21:8: But the fearful and unbelieving … shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone. A lake of molten brimstone means that its temperature must be below the boiling point, which is 444.6°C. (Above that point it would be a vapor, not a lake.)

We have then, temperature of Heaven, 525°C. Temperature of Hell, less than 445°C. Therefore, Heaven is hotter than Hell.

Asking Back

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On the morning after a battle, Mary prays that her husband has not been killed. Is this a coherent plea? It would seem that the matter has already been decided: Her husband is either alive or dead. If he is dead, then in order to grant Mary’s prayer God would have to change the past retroactively.

“If one does not think of [such a] case, the idea of doing something in order that something else should previously have happened may seem sheer raving insanity,” writes Michael Dummett. “But suppose I hear on the radio that a ship has gone down in the Atlantic two hours previously, and that there were few survivors: my son was on that ship, and I at once utter a prayer that he should have been among the survivors, that he should not have drowned; this is the most natural thing in the world.”

Perhaps God can grant Mary’s prayer without changing the past: Perhaps, using divine foreknowledge, he interceded at the time of the battle knowing that she would later pray for this. “One of the things taken into account in deciding [the outcome], and therefore one of the things that really causes it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering,” writes C.S. Lewis.

But this entails an oddity of its own — such favors, it seems, are available only to those who are in some doubt about a past event. God will intercede today for a prayer tomorrow — but only an uncertain person would make such a prayer. “I may pray that the announcer has made a mistake in not including my son’s name on the list of survivors,” Dummett writes, “but once I am convinced that no mistake has been made, I will not go on praying for him to have survived. I should regard this kind of prayer as something to which it was possible to have recourse only when an ordinary doubt about what had happened could be entertained.”

(Michael Dummett, “Bringing about the Past,” Philosophical Review, July 1964.)