Fr Aidan asks an important question on this post and I don’t want my attempt at an answer to stay buried in the comments section, even if my attempt ends up embarrassing me. But I’d be interested in what others think, so here we are. Fr Aidan asks:
Why the “ouch” regarding the claim that God transcends time (is “outside” of time)? Is this any different than saying that God transcends space (is “outside” space)? This “outside” allows him to be radically present and active “inside.”
As much as a scientific perspective on space is way beyond my pay grade, I still love thinking about this issue. I’ll try my hand at an answer because I do think God transcends space and time, though I think immanence requires our saying a bit more about God than some understandings of transcendence will want to commit to. So let me stumble around a bit and try to say what I understand God’s transcending space to mean.
To say you and I are at different locations in the universe is to say you and I are distinct and finite frames of reference within the universe. You have a perspective on the world that’s limited and relative to your location (your ‘frame of reference’). All finite frames of reference are defined relative to other frames of reference (i.e., they’re finite perspectives on other frames of reference within the world). Nothing controversial so far.
Everybody (who is sane) knows that when they look at the night sky they’re seeing light that has taken a very long time to reach their eyes. Light leaves some distant dying star and takes, say, 100 million light years to reach us. In our universe, information can travel no faster than the speed of light (never mind quantum entanglement). We finally know about that star’s death 100 million years after it occurs. Point is, our experience of the world is just our very limited first person perspective on the world, a perspective that depends upon the finite speed of light to bring the world into reach and so constitute our experience of it.
None of this could be true of God. God is everywhere fully present. He’s not a finite frame of reference within the world. There is no distance between God and any event in the universe or any finite frame of reference. All God is is fully and indivisibly present in/to/with every finite frame of reference in the universe. So God’s perspective on the world (his knowledge of the world) would include all other finite perspectives. He’d have a perspective on my perspective — see things from my point of view so to speak. But he’d also take in the whole. His would be the one all-inclusive perspective that defines absolute simultaneity. When light from a distant star leaves the star, God fully present here with us doesn’t have to wait 100 million years to know what happened. God is sustaining the star’s death and he’s present in sustaining its journey between its source and our eyes.
So God would certainly transcend space in this sense while being fully present in/with us. He’s not a finite frame of reference within it, but his all-inclusive perspective on the universe would include all other finite perspectives. Where our past, present and future are determined by a finite dependence upon the world’s capacity to share itself with us, God would not be so constrained. If his knowledge of the world in fact has a past, present and future to it, it’s not because God depends (like us) upon anything in the world to share itself with him. God doesn’t wait for light to speed it’s delivery of the world to him. Rather, the temporal nature of God’s knowledge of the world flows from what he imparts to the world; time flows from God. And then in addition, and most importantly, nothing about God’s sustaining any of this, or his presence in/with/to it, would ‘define’ God in the sense of constituting his eternally abiding identity and beatitude as Father, Son and Spirit.
As amazing as it is to imagine having an all-inclusive perspective on the universe (i.e., not depending upon the speed of light for the transfer of information, being the unmediated presence that grounds and sustains of all finite perspectives; basically having the entire universe within your undivided mind), I do find it conceivable. No obvious contradictions jump out at me.
What about time? Well, we know no two finite frames of reference share the same “now.” (Thus Einstein’s denial of absolute simultaneity.) But this applies to finite frames of reference only. It wouldn’t apply to an infinite mind not limited to any finite frame of reference (as Lorentz observed). Since God is indivisible and fully present at every finite location, God’s perspective would constitute an absolute simultaneity for the world or creation’s ‘present’.
But though God is everywhere fully present and not limited to any finite frame of reference, and though this means there is no space between God and anything in the world, that doesn’t mean everything God is doing in sustaining the cosmos he’s doing at all finite locations within creation. There’s no space between God sustaining Alpha Centauri and God sustaining me, but that doesn’t mean God is sustaining Alpha Centauri in me or at my location. Alpha Centauri and I don’t occupy the same space (or perspective) within the world. There is a distinction between the two because God makes the distinction. And that, I think, means the distinction obtains in God. Even if God transcends space in the sense of being fully present throughout and not reducible to any finite frame of reference, that doesn’t mean God identifies every space with every other space or that whatever God is doing ‘here’ God is also doing ‘there’. On the contrary, finite perspectives (which are all creation is) only exist at all because God sustains and knows the difference between them.
What is relevant here for Fr Aidan’s question perhaps is the fact that God’s transcendence of space wouldn’t imply there being no absolute or objective distinction between past, present and future. It would mean no two finite frames of reference share the same past, present or future. But it wouldn’t mean there would be no past, present or future to a transcendent, all-inclusive perspective on the physical universe. On the contrary, I think God’s transcendent perspective on the world’s finite perspectives would have its own past, present, and future. It just wouldn’t be identifiable with the past, present, and future of any particular, finite perspective. Nor, more importantly, would it be identifiable with that self-constituting perspective God has upon Godself which is his triune beatitude. But to the extent that God (and not some mediating agency) sustains the world’s temporal becoming and has an all-inclusive perspective on its becoming, God would be temporal; i.e., there exist past realities God knows he is ‘no longer sustaining’, present realities God knows he ‘is’ sustaining, and future possibilities God knows he might/might not actually sustain.
Point is, the actuality of created entities is one and the same with the actuality of God’s sustaining them. You can’t make the latter eternal without making the former eternal (I don’t think). I hold the former not to be eternal, and that is why I advocate for a qualified sense of God’s being temporal. To not do so would, I think, mean holding it to be the case that every temporal event within what we describe as the world’s timeline or history eternally abides in its actuality in God’s unchanging perspective or act of knowing, a kind of “unblinking cosmic stare.” This would mean God doesn’t make (i.e., doesn’t know) the (presentist) distinction between
• possible-but-not-actual Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon,
• actual Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, or
• formerly-but-no-longer-actual Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon
I’m not sure what advocates of divine timelessness would hold about the distinction between these in God. Perhaps all three are distinctly present in God. But that sure looks like the ‘block view’ of the universe to me. It would then be the case for that:
• The Sun eternally has never existed (because there are slices of the block universe we call “times at which” wherein the Sun isn’t located),
• The Sun eternally exists in every stage of its formation and expiration (because there are slices of the block at which the stages of the Sun’s formation and decline are located),
• The Sun is eternally expired (because there are slices of the block at which it “no longer exists”).
All these would be equally, eternally ‘actual’ to God. Even if it derives its being from God, it does so eternally. That’s what I’m hearing in the claim that God’s perspective on and sustaining/conserving of the cosmos doesn’t have a past, present, and future. And it’s here that the “Tilt” lights go on in my head—unlike anything relative to God’s transcendence of space.
[All I’ve said presumes a view of time known as ‘presentism’ (or the A-series of time). If presentism is fundamentally false and the block view is correct, then we can say good-bye to the open view of the future (and with it other valuable things the Orthodox wish to maintain, like free will, but that’s another conversation).]