This post is inspired by an idea I had a few years ago that recently re-surfaced in my mind.
What distinguishes a praiseworthy act, or an achievement, from any other act? Is it right for the pious to praise their god for his acts, or does his omnipotence make such acts too ordinary for adulation?
Consider the sort of human act that we think is praiseworthy. For example, Lionel Messi’s regular displays on the football pitch:
Why do we admire this sort of thing? I think the primary reason is that Messi is a human, but he is one of the few people in the world, if not the only one, capable of doing such things. In other words, humans generally cannot do what Messi does (i.e. dribble around a La Liga-standard defence with consummate ease), but after a lot of hard work and quick-thinking on the spot, Messi can.
We could substitute any other human achievement. The construction of the Pyramids by the ancient Egyptians, or Beethoven’s composition of his nine symphonies. We are impressed and praise these acts because they are not things that humans do regularly; and they would, if they were not so difficult for a mere human to do.
A fortiori, if one has a handicap then we view their achievements as more praiseworthy. Beethoven wrote the Ninth when he was deaf. Deafness is often a handicap to a musician, and so when we are reminded that his later works were composed when he had limited or no hearing, we are more impressed than we would have been.
If there’s an omnipotent being, then we would expect them to be capable of anything. In fact, they are capable of any logically possible act with no effort required at all. So when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, then as it was the act of an omnipotent being it required no strain, no practice, no effort. It was less impressive than my ability to bend my thumb so it touches my wrist. If Jesus turns water into wine, then we shouldn’t be impressed, because all-powerful beings can do this sort of thing in their sleep.
Take the construction of the Pyramids. Much planning, work and ingenuity went into it. Now imagine God building the Pyramids. We might be impressed at the fact that there’s a God who can will huge pyramids into existence, but once we know there’s a god capable of this, we would cease to be impressed with their achievement. That’s just what omnipotent beings can do.
Now for objections. Is that ‘just what Messi can do’ in the same way? In one sense, yes. We’ve come to expect this from Messi each week. However, it’s still an achievement given that he’s a mere human being. We continue to be impressed and praise him after he consistency churns out these performances at the highest level. Compare that to a (hypothetical) basketball player who is so tall they don’t even have to jump or throw to score. Are we impressed? Not really. They were born such that the usual limitations and usual effort required to score points in basketball just aren’t there. Putting a ball into a net at one’s own height just isn’t a very praiseworthy achievement. Scoring a goal on the volley from a long pass over the shoulder, like this, is:
Another possible objection is that we praise what is better than us, not what is better than its own kind. So a god might not praise another god, but a human would praise a god, since the god is superior to the human. To answer this, consider again the giant basketball player. I am not tall enough to do what he can do, so according to this idea I should be praising him. I think it’s clear why this is mistaken. We might be impressed at the size of the basketball player, just as we might be impressed at omnipotence itself. But given the basketball player’s height we are not then impressed with him dropping balls into the net from above. Given God’s omnipotence, we shouldn’t be impressed when he parts the Red Sea.
Lastly, it might be said that religion isn’t about praising God for his miracles in the same way we praise Beethoven for his musical output – it is about something else. That’s all very well – however I do hear people full of praise and worship for God’s achievements and how impressive they are (like ‘creation’, etc.) and this post is intended to address that idea.
Comments welcome, as always. I’ve probably forgotten something so any objections are appreciated!
Update: I removed the Nazi concert I linked to and replaced it with the classic Bayreuth performance. I just searched for Furtwängler and didn’t intend for the preview image to have swastikas on! Here’s the old link – it’s a great performance regardless.