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“While You Were Out”

The Spark Gap

I’ve long had a theory about why prayers are answered but such answers are rare. 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 everything that was going to happen everywhere for all time (Not that You couldn’t if You wanted to.), what’s the entertainment value in that proposition? Slim to none, if you ask me.

We don’t know much about God. Indeed, there are many among us who make it a point to know even less — until they are proud, damned proud!, to know nothing at all. Once they achieve this brainfade, they encourage the rest of us to follow suit in a paroxysm of self-willed ignorance. Today there are fresh new scriptures attesting to this revelation. Today there are traveling preachers of this gospel. There are even congregations, support groups, jewelry, and t-shirts. It’s a religion. Of sorts. It’s religion in which you collectively as individuals agree to worship Zero, the god of Purposeless Matter hovering in the dark, and they can’t wait to carry the Gospel of Nothing to others. Seems like a waste of life to me.

We are not yet wired to know much about God. We’re just “The Smart Monkey.” If the Smart Monkey survives itself, evolution (The great and brilliant tool of God that evolution is.) will probably finish the deeper neural nets of our brains at some point in the eons to come, and we will slowly come to descry the faintest shadow of a clue about God; about all that is; about the fundamental nature of the Miracle. For the present, most of us remain in shadow, looking at the noema from without; running on the insights of the genetic spiritual sports that appear on Earth so rarely that their lives are remembered forever.

At the present time, most of what we know about God comes from assumptions built on revelations. These are backed up with a sheaf of incomplete, poorly translated notes from chance encounters. These are known collectively as the Talmud and the Gospel.

The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate that, to date, our record-keeping is spotty and our storage methods 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. They are pretty simple, straightforward, and seem, for the most part, to be embedded in the cerebral cortex of most Smart Monkeys before birth. 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 from God 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 idea to create it and technology to make it — 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 in Death Valley wants ice water. Everyone wants a personal God, ideally right next to your personal barista 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 the delegation of power. He tried that untold eons ago and a number of vice-presidents got a bit above themselves and got sent to a branch office. Not fired exactly — let’s 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 in no time. 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 everything off with a crisp “Let there be…,” and take a break for ten billion years or so. Much more relaxing than hanging around in the void with nothing but 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 that 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 of getting eternally bored in quantum reality, it’s much smarter to whip up some matter, let it bake, expand, set, toss in a few — very few — places safe for organic matter, mix in some DNA, and then 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. This is why God likes to spend afternoons with soap operas and has let Lost slump in the ratings.

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 straightforward ones we were looking for because we are a very stupid 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, find a war, dig a hole, and sit in it under an artillery barrage for an hour or two. 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. And marvel at what smart monkeys we must be.

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, “God, I’m all right with whatever You want to do.”

You see, my theory about why prayers are answered only rarely concerns God’s workload. 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 weekends. 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’s 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-billionth time. Better still, You don’t have to phone in from somewhere out near the galactic core of Andromeda with some lame excuse.

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. Then, for all we know, a weekend in Vegas in 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 even 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. (Yes, God prefers Apple — especially after some of the smartest, richest monkeys in the world came out with Vista.)

This (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. Just a tad 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 your staff to file the rest for (possible) future reference. As an efficient executive, God has to be a clean-desk Supreme 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.

[HT: The Doctor Is In — for reminding me — and who has much more to say.] First published, July, 2005

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • CW May 22, 2021, 2:45 PM

    The one time over the course of many years that something has frightened me enough to motivate me to honestly “go to God in prayer,” that prayer was, against the odds, answered. Take that for what it’s worth.

  • gwbnyc May 22, 2021, 5:06 PM

    they’re pre-answered, or more to the point, always in answer. if one can stay the f**k out of his own way he’ll walk into it.

  • John May 22, 2021, 7:33 PM

    God always answers our prayers! It is just not according to our wishes and desires but according to what we need and according to His Holy, Loving, and Divine Will. Someone once said:
    “You can’t always get what you want,
    but you’ll find that you get what you need”

  • Curtis May 23, 2021, 3:34 AM

    Most, if not all, of the specific outcomes that I’ve prayed for over the course of my 71+ years have been answered negatively. In all cases that I review in hindsight, no was the best answer for my situation. Yes would have been disastrous for me and for that I offer prayers of gratitude.

  • Mike Seyle May 23, 2021, 4:30 AM

    I had my miracle, and a miracle it was. I thought it was a clap of thunder on a windless, sunny spring day when I was sitting on the back porch of the old farmhouse on what was left of the homestead. But it was a healthy, 80-year-old live oak dropping two enormous limbs on the barn, but it held onto the limb over the washhouse. The tree had no rot. It was green and strong, and had stood through hurricanes and drought. But that it chose that moment, when the air was warm and still, to level the barn, saved my life. I suppose we all have doubts. I did and I still do, but you get your miracle, and it at least gives you hope. Deeper than hope maybe; it gives you longing. Pursuit. Desire.

  • Nori May 23, 2021, 7:43 AM

    It’s the prayers of gratitude that seems to calm the soul. Maybe the mental effort to focus on what’s gone right,day by day,and that gee,I’m still here to witness it.
    If the Good Lord needs advice (or a wish list) I’d ask that we Smart Monkeys absorb more of the wisdom in our youth that was staring us in the face,unbeknownst to us. Who has’nt thought “If I knew then what I know now…”
    Then again,that’s probably part of the evolution process. It’s a beautiful thing.

  • John Venlet May 23, 2021, 8:07 AM

    In regards to prayers being heard, let’s not forget what Christians are told in Romans 8:26 –

    In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.

  • Vanderleun May 23, 2021, 9:50 AM

    Seyle says, “Deeper than hope maybe; it gives you longing.”

    Now that is a powerful thought.

  • Rob De Witt May 23, 2021, 6:32 PM

    Praying for something has always seemed venal to me, and profoundly to miss the point.

    Forty years ago in my latter 30’s I came up against the profound reality that I was just out of ideas. It seemed pretty obvious that I’d never see my daughter again; all the stuff in my past was overwhelming and unlikely to change. I had gifts of talent and brains and just couldn’t make anything of them.

    My prayer then became, always, “I accept. Show me a way, any way, and I’ll take it.”

  • Deckard May 23, 2021, 6:32 PM

    On God and the Evolution Factory, I’d read a quote a long time ago where a theologian commented along the lines of ‘I prefer my miracles at the wholesale level, vice retail’

  • oldvet50 May 24, 2021, 4:17 AM

    The older I get (now 71) the more I understand the Bible by just witnessing the events unfolding in this world. When I was young, I couldn’t begin to understand the prophecies, but as technology increases, it all seems to be coming together. The mark of the beast now seems plausible, the admonition of building your house on sand (silicon chip), and now the future annihilation of Damascus seems closer than ever, and on and on… There will never be absolute proof in this world that God exists because that would eliminate the need for faith. People complain that if there was a god, how could he allow the terrible things that are happening to occur. They don’t realize this earthly existence is only a ‘proving ground’, the best is yet to come for those that believe by faith.

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