July 16, 2005

"While You Were Out"

I'VE LONG HAD A THEORY ABOUT WHY PRAYERS ARE ANSWERED, but answered rarely. I think that God, for all his omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience is pretty much nailed to the present as far as humans go. Yes, I know all the arguments for predestination and preordination but those strike me as a one-way street to Dullsville even for God. If, as God, You let Yourself know (Not that You couldn't if You wanted to.) everything that is going to happen everywhere for all time, what's the entertainment value in that proposition? Somewhere south of absolute zero.

We don't know much about God. In fact, we are probably not yet wired to know much about God. If the Smart Monkey survives itself, evolution (Great and brilliant tool of God that it is) will probably finish the deeper neural nets of our brains at some point in the aeons to come, and we will slowly come to a clue. For the present, we have to run on the insights of the genetic spiritual sports that appear on Earth every so often.

At the present time, most of what we know about God comes from assumptions built on revelations, with a sheaf of incomplete, poorly translated notes from chance meetings for backup. The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate that, to date, our record keeping is spotty and our storage is usually poor. If you think that any future chance meetings or memos are going, in the long run, to be kept any better than the Dead Sea Scrolls, please tell me what's on that six-inch floppy disc at the bottom of the fourth box to the left on the third shelf from the top at the back of my garage.

Nope. The problem is not knowing the will and laws of God. From what we retain, they are pretty simple, straight forward, and seem, for the most part, to be embedded in the cerebral cortex. In addition, there are lots of memos in every language and no shortage of interpreters -- AM/FM/SW; network and cable; 24/7/365, forever and ever, amen, can I get a witness? Even so there have to be thousands of memos that,

although sent, we just didn't get. Indeed, even working with the memos that we did get, you'd have to admit that we are very poor at carrying out the policies they announce. It probably has to do with us not being finished just yet.

We know that God is not finished with us yet in many ways, but the most obvious sign is the fact that, if God were finished with us, we'd have a third set of teeth that would come in around age 45. Why this doesn't happen overnight as a miracle is a question asked by many while waiting for the Novocain to kick in just before the root canal. Many a prayer has been sent up during these moments, but not as many as those that came with root canals before the advent of anesthetic, i.e. "Oh, God!" Indeed, Novocain -- the technology to create and idea of -- is probably a non-interventionist God's answer to such a plethora of prayer.

Since we see, in small ways in our own lives and in larger ways in the realms of the world and history, that prayers are, from time to time, actually answered, and since we are only the dim and unfinished Smart Monkey, we naturally wonder why all prayers are not answered all the time. After all, what would be better for the dim Smart Monkey to have God working for him as an individual all the time? Nothing.

Everyone wants a personal God, ideally right next to your personal barrista of your personal Starbucks in your personal walk-in closet-- "I'll have a double-shot Americano and a 378 year life-span as a blonde teenage cheerleader, please." Hey, you don't ask you don't get.

In fact, whole elements of religion are centered around having you find and keep a personal relationship with God. But just because you have a personal relationship with God (and you should), doesn't mean God has to have a personal relationship with you. He is, after all, God and He's got a whole universe to run. It's a big place and He's just one God and He's busy.

It's true He has staff, but He's running a universe on a pyramid organization table and has, still, some problems with delegation of power. He tried that untold aeons ago and a number of vice-presidents got a bit above themselves and got sent to a branch office. Not fired exactly, but lets just say they were put in charge of Guam. The result was that the CEO still retains the power to make fundamental alterations to the shape of reality and its product line.

For the most part, God lets the Evolution Factory handle reality. The Evolution Factory is one of his better projects. Brilliant really. After all, if You were God and were going to create and run an entire universe, You wouldn't really want to be running around it all the time doing hands-on alterations on everything from quarks to galaxies. Micromanagement is boring and doing a bunch of handwork on the entire universe for all eternity can get old really quick. It's much better just to create a process that will essentially hunt and peck along for order across billions of years and, sooner or later, come up with a life form that can both apprehend You and make a hot-fudge sundae at the same time. So You come up with light, touch it off with a crisp "Let there be...," and take a break for ten billion years or so. Much more relaxing that standing around in the void with a bunch of sub-atomic particles and an infinite supply of Super-Gluons.

And yes, You put free-will into the mix, but not for the benefit of anything that comes along with a will to free, but for Your benefit -- that You be not bored by Creation. After all, if You are God and, looking out on space, feel lonely, what's the point of making a Universe where you know how it will turn out from the Big Bang? It would be like having 500 cable channels which are all showing Pulp Fiction all the time -- pretty much like it is now.

Whatever else He may be, God is not that dull a programmer especially when He is the Audience. Instead, it's much smarter to whip up some matter, let it bake, expand, and set, toss out a few -- very few -- places for organic matter, mix in some DNA, and let her rip. Result, as far as we know, six billion channels on Earth alone, each with its story where the ending is always in doubt. It happens that way when you get that many Smart Monkeys "working on mysteries without any clues," and it is invariably entertaining. Which is why God likes to spend afternoons with soap operas and has let The West Wing slump in the ratings. God's got no special brief for Republicans, but He hates to see Democrats pontificate. If He liked that sort of thing, The West Wing would sweep the Emmys, and He'd have sent a couple hundred-thousand spare Democrats to Ohio last year instead of allowing Ted Kennedy to keep consuming oxygen along with alcohol.

Still, because of the predilection of DNA-based free will, God will have a lot of the Smart Monkeys wondering about His motives. Krishnamurti was once asked, "If God is all good, why is there evil in the world?" To which he responded, after reflecting for a moment, "To thicken the plot." Now, I'll be the first to say that, while correct, this doesn't really satisfy when it comes to such issues as childhood leukemia. But I'll also note that God did leave one small backdoor into his universal code, prayer.

For a certain type of extremely stupid smart and educated person, prayer is something to be sneered at their entire life right up to the moment when they see the intergalactic candle snuffer descending on their head or the head of those they love. At this point, it is the rare wiseguy who does not spontaneously discover his or her capacity for prayer. Indeed, it strikes me that it is often the agnostic or the atheist who become the most voluble bargainer with God under unfortunate circumstances. Lord knows, I was.

It is only recently that I've come, in my dotage, to see that prayer -- even unheard or unanswered -- can be a powerful intellectual force in one's life. And by this I mean prayer in its most personally humiliating and elevating form: down on the knees and speaking out loud. Daily. Very abasing and very uplifting at one and the same time.

For most of the time, answers come there none. But that's the way of prayer. If prayer were the vending machine of God, we'd spend all our time on our knees between meals and lovemaking and let basic maintenance of roofs and refrigeration go to Hell. Nope, prayer as a constant begets random answers, and not always the straight-forward ones we were looking for, because we are a very simple Smart Monkey.

Indeed, it has occurred to me, in my very dim monkey brain, that prayer can work even if God Himself does not exist. Yes, He's just that clever. Prayer seems to be a need hard-wired into our limited cortex. If you doubt this, please go out and sit under an artillery barrage for an hour or two and then come back to continue this discussion.

As I was saying, prayer -- with or without God -- makes us stronger and our desires and abilities more focussed just by happening. As a result, things you pray for tend to happen to you more often than things you don't pray for simply because your abilities are more concentrated on the outcome. Pretty clever wiring for a God who does not exist.

You may, of course, because you have free will, mark it down to a random effect of DNA fresh from the uber-automated Evolution Factory. And you can explain it all, over and over again, to the other members of your religion. That doesn't mean your memo is going all the way to the Top. After all, what makes you think God wants to read your plaintive little magazine articles in the portentously titled "National Geographic" or "Scientific American?" He not only wrote the blueprints and whipped up the algorithm for the Evolution Factory, He did Charles Darwin in a nanosecond's afterthought just because He felt we weren't getting onto it fast enough. Before Darwin we had clues, but we didn't yet have a prayer. Now we've got fish with feet on the backs of our cars so others can tell our way-new religion from the old.

Prayer's important to God because it is His way of staying current with the various problems besetting free-will in smart monkeys. After all, He may be a bit detached with love from this part of His creation, but He knows we have, well, "issues" with life and all that, and He'd like to know. Prayer is, in a sense, God's suggestion box; which is why many think that not all prayers are answered and why some, like the Tibetans, think that if you repeat a prayer often enough it gets noticed and answered. This irritating approach to prayer probably cost them their nation even though it hasn't shut them up. In general, it is probably not a good idea, but who am I to criticize? I'll leave that to the Dalai Lama who seems to be carrying on just fine.

For me prayer is done best the old-fashion way: on knees, a hearty "How are you today, God, and thank you for the miracle of creation and for letting me witness one more day of it, and, oh, while we're at it...." and then I slip one in quick and move on to, "Thanks again for being God, Have a good one." And off it goes.

But what comes back? Precious little but I'm not complaining. I'm not complaining at all. Let me repeat that in case He wasn't listening, "I'm all right with whatever You want to do."

You see, my theory about why prayers are answered but rarely concerns God's work load. As noted above, He's one God who is running a very big universe. Perhaps He's got the whole thing franchised and He's running thousands of universes in a host of different dimensions, all with local variations to the main menu. We don't know. We can't know. But if you grant even one universe to this one God, you've got to admit this would be a very busy Supreme Being. Even being omnipotent and omnipresent and omniscient, You'd still have an In-Box beyond the human mind's capacity for bogglement.

So what do You do? You do what Big Executives everywhere do. You show up for work early and leave late. Every so often you come in on week-ends. You always take a ton of work home. Believe me when I say your arms to short to lift God's attache case. Even then the occasional all-nighter is not out of the question if you're doing a complicated project like, say, a platypus.

As God, it is good you don't have a wife because she'd make your home life a, dare I say it?, living hell. There are, after all, some advantages to having a Son by a mortal woman, not that She's any less holy for that, but at least She isn't waiting at home with the dinner growing cold for the multi-billioneth time. Better still, You don't have to check in from somewhere out near the galactic core of Andromeda.

But given even the most hard working, attentive and desk-bound CEO God we monkeys can imagine, even God has got to, sooner or later, take a break. A little stroll down the corridor to check in with the staff -- management by walking around so to speak. A brief visit to the God's room for a little wash-up and wet-comb. A small working lunch with The Boys. For all we know, a weekend in Vegas in, we hope, the high-roller suite with very attentive room service. After all, when You are God you can set your own schedule.

So, for whatever reason, God is sometimes away from his desk. But does that stop the prayers? Not a bit. They keep coming in at the same pounding rate that they always do from every corner of the cosmos. After all, prayers are postage paid so you don't every have to look around for a stamp. You just make it, hit "Send," and, Bingo, off it goes with that little swooshing sound that comes with Macintosh Mail.

This, however, (and that Bruce Almighty movie notwithstanding) does not mean that God does email. (See that Bruce Almighty movie for why.) Nope, as I noted above, God has staff to handle the incoming correspondence for Him. Don't think that this makes it easier for Him, but just a bit more organized.

The final upshot is that, even if God just steps away from his desk for a quick trip to heaven's free beverage machine, when He gets back he's confronted with at least 4,675,839 prayers presented as pink "While You Were Out Slips."

I submit that even the most omnipotent God cannot deal with incoming requests at this rate. The result? Pick some at random to answer, and tell you staff to file the rest for (possible) future reference. As an efficient executive, God has to be a clean-desk being.

To me this is the most obvious reason that some prayers are answered while most are not. It's simply a question of time and resources, even for God.

Does it really happen this way? God knows.

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

Posted by Vanderleun at July 16, 2005 7:20 AM | TrackBack
Save to del.icio.us


"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

It's refreshing to read a commentary on prayer without an agenda.

Posted by: John Ballard at July 16, 2005 11:02 AM

By God, I think you're on to something.

Midway through your article, I closed my eyes and said a little prayer of thanks and, as always, ended with "thy will be done."

Posted by: Moneyrunner at July 16, 2005 12:35 PM

Welcome back, Mr. Van der Luen.

Wonderful piece here. You are bang on (little pun, o.k.?) with the artillery example, too. I've never been under a barrage, but I did end up under the muzzles of a howitzer battery one moonless overcast night in the Mojave. No blizzard of steel, thank goodness, but the flash/boom/concussion repeated from across a hundred meter front twelve or eighteen times was enough to scatter my patrol across several hundred meters of desert and fill more than a few sets of boxers.

I know that God answers prayer. He's answered a few of mine, and the "thy will be done" part is actually an elementary component of living well once you understand what it really means.

I don't submit. What should I submit to? I live for my higher power. Not enough of the "multiply" sometimes, but the "go forth" thing - that's a snap.

I agree: I think an omnipotent being with a predeliction for soaps would be bored stupid by a bunch of Not So Smart Monkeys trying to hasten their Eternal Reward by ignoring the Life part of eternity. Life is the one slice of eternity where everything you do can be new and interesting. I can't imagine the afterlife as having much in the way of challenge - immortality takes away that kick the living face every day the sun comes up.

That's not to say that eternal existence won't have it's own set of challenges and rewards. We're just not wired to comprehend what form they may take.

So Carp that Diem. Doubt that there is a Master of All Creation? Cool. One might have to have an extreme an experience as the barrage thing, like you said. I just look at the desert stars on a moonless night. Or start calculating Pi with my PC, and using higher and higher accuracies to perform calcs.

Pi is a ratio; it can never a perfect value. NEVER. But it works well enough for us to use it as a tool to better understand the world around us, and well enough for us to impose ephemeral change on some parts of it from time to time.

There's also kittens, the moment I first held each of my daughters, and the feel of salt on my face after a day's work... all sorts of things I can wonder at.

Thanks for reminding me, sir. Drop me a line next time you are heading to Moab.

Posted by: TmjUtah at July 16, 2005 2:47 PM

What a great response and comment. I shall most certainly alert you the next time I'm going to Moab.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at July 16, 2005 4:03 PM

Mr. Van der Leun:

Very good post, thank you for it.

On freewill and seeing the future, I like C.S. Lewis's idea: God sees human history like a mural, or the Bayeaux tapestry. It's all there at once for him, he sees it all simultaneously, and he's doing everything he does in this universe at the same time. We're the ones who see it as one thing after another.

And it's good to have you back, sir.

Posted by: Stephen M. St. Onge at July 16, 2005 6:33 PM

I had this problem. After a sudden change in attitude a friend told me to pick my own conception of God, as I understood Him. I thought that it's impossible to understand God, even though I knew that's not what was being asked of me. Then a friend said he turned his will and life over to the care of God as he doesn't understand Him. That broke the mental logjam for me.

Sometime later another friend read the Summa Theologica and said Thomas Aquinas wrote the same thing, God is beyond our understanding. Yet when I pray daily and repeat something I heard some monks say during their prayers, The God Who is, Who was and always shall be, I have a sense of understanding.

Anyhow, through the years, I found He can't be manipulated, no is an answer and I'm alive and at peace by His Grace.

Posted by: Dennis at July 16, 2005 7:46 PM

Wow...if this is an example of what you produce after a break, by all means take breaks. This is exceptional even by your normally exceptional standards.

God bless

Posted by: Phillip at July 16, 2005 8:05 PM

Gerard, did you ever study process theology? I wrote a very basic outline here, and the Center for Process is an excellent resource.

Good essay - the efficacy (or not) of prayer is an important and vexing topic for many of us. Myself, I tend no longer to pray for outcomes but for conformity to Christ, come what may.

Posted by: Donald Sensing at July 16, 2005 8:20 PM

God's not no special brief for Republicans, but He hates to see Democrats pontificate. It He liked that sort of thing ...

If you can fix those typos you'll have achieved semi-perfection.

Posted by: stickler at July 16, 2005 9:34 PM

Good catch. Thank you very much. Copy editing always appreciated.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at July 16, 2005 10:56 PM

Welcome back, Gerard. One of my favorite authors, Neal A. Maxwell, had interesting things to say about the various "omni's." If you're so inclined, feel free to visit the ol' blog.

I suppose the quotes I cite would be considered commentary with an agenda (Mormon, to be precise); hence my invitation rather than simply proselyting on your blog.

Missed ya, man. Glad you're back.

Posted by: ccwbass at July 17, 2005 12:51 AM

". . . thank you for the miracle of creation and for letting me witness one more day of it, . . . "

Kind of like the Blue Angels on a cosmic scale. In their daily preflight briefings, each pilot prefaces his first remarks to the commanding officer with "Glad to be here, Boss!" in recognition of the extraordinary privilege they've been given.

Outstanding essay. Wecome back.

Posted by: JCR at July 17, 2005 11:36 AM

God hears all our prayers.

It's just that sometimes the answer is "No".

Thanks for the essay, and thank everyone for not smoking.

Posted by: David at July 17, 2005 7:07 PM

After a lapse of a few weeks...okay perhaps a month or a little longer, this morning I got down on my knees once again and thanked God for my life and another day. Asked for a bit of spiritual "go juice" and walked into this a few hours later. Prayer answered. Thank you my friend.

Posted by: Brad at July 18, 2005 8:01 AM

What subtle humor, and gentle sarcasm.

Even Baha'is can laugh here, and THEY believe that "God Loves Laughter"

Posted by: Carridine at July 19, 2005 6:33 PM

Reading your very profound post here reminded me of my not-so-serious post a few years ago along the same lines.

Love your stuff, Mr. Van Der Leun. Thanks much.

Posted by: Cap'n Yoaz at July 20, 2005 8:48 AM

If we're going for the typos better change
"whip up some batter, let is bake, expand, and set"

Posted by: Deborah at July 20, 2005 9:15 AM

Got it. Thanks.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at July 20, 2005 9:55 AM

Proverbs 1:7

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.

Van Der Leun you write well, you're very imaginative too.

Posted by: roj at November 1, 2005 10:11 AM
Post a comment:

"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated to combat spam and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Remember personal info?