What time is it?

the_illusion_of_time

Down in the comments section of creatio ex nihilo we’re having a wonderful and challenging conversation about God and time. At least once a year (pun intended) I jump into the deep of this particular pool, try to swim impressively, then quickly dog-paddle to the side ladder where I can climb out. But since in this conversation I found myself referring back to things we’ve said here in the past (or, if you’re the Orthodox God, things we’re saying eternally), so I thought it would be helpful to provide links and a couple of lines from those past posts in the hopes of shedding light on my view and journey:

From a reply of mine to Fr Aidan:

In fact, it’s because we affirm God’s freedom from the world that we think God should be conceived of as ‘actually’ free from creation and not merely ‘formally’ (‘abstractly’) free from the world.

It’s our conviction that the divine actuality (as the plenitude of being, as unimprovable aesthetic satisfaction, as the utterly complete and imperturbable divine relations) is free from creation and this encourages us to conclude God is ‘actually’ free from creation, not just free on paper (‘formally’ free, as it were). But in the classical view of God as actus purus, God is never ‘actually’ free from his determination to create (viz., God’s actuality is never not defined by God’s determination to create). On the contrary, God actually just is his determination to create and that determination defines him essentially, eternally, etc. (as McCabe shows — there is no God apart from the God who creates), which to us denies that God is free from creation. We think a qualified view of divine temporality can better affirm both the essential divine freedom and triune fullness and creation’s absolute gratuity without historicizing that transcendent fullness by assuming God becomes God in all the objectionable ways process theology (on the one hand) and Jenson and McCormack (on the other) advocate.

From It’s that time again:

If God were temporal (in some, very qualified sense—not speculating right now), what might that not mean? Well, God would certainly be unlike created-temporal beings in that God wouldn’t suffer the ravages of time as we do. God would not age or forget. In addition, we’ve argued here that God cannot suffer ‘existential loss’ in the sense of pining for the good of some ‘past’ experience or, for that matter, with respect to some future good. Why not? Because “every good and perfect gift comes from God.” Whatever past goods there may be to God (on the assumption the creation’s past is past in some sense for God as well), God remains the goodness they were, and whatever good is to be redeemed for the created bearer of such goodness, God is always already the source and fullness of it. Hence, there can be no loss of experienced goodness for him whose necessary life is the fullness of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In short, the passage of time (assuming for the moment some such passage for God) could mean nothing to the existential fullness or beatitude of God’s being. Here I don’t mind Boethius’ phrase: “Eternity is the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life” by which all I would mean is a fullness of life which is not a temporal achievement. That is, I wouldn’t historicize the fullness of God’s triune being as if that fullness is ‘temporally derived’. That just seems to follow from necessary existence.

I also don’t see how God could relate to time (as we must) as an ontological presupposition for his existence. Indeed, I don’t see how in the case of necessary existence there can be any ontological presuppositions at all. God’s existence doesn’t require time as we do. God is the presupposition for all else. So I’m happy to say God transcends time in this sense.

From Taking time for space or making space for time?:

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 that each of the following would be equally true for God:

• The Sun has never existed (because there are slices of the block universe we call “times at which” wherein the Sun isn’t located),
• The Sun 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 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.

From The future becoming the present:

What would ‘past’ and ‘future’ be for someone whose ‘present’ experience was existentially satisfied in every self-constituting way (that is, in every way important to and definitive for personal identity and existential fulfillment)? The ‘past’ couldn’t be remembered with any sense of regret, longing, or pinning for what was or what might have been. It would cast no shadow upon the present, nor could it suggest any correction or alternative to it. Whatever the past would be to the present, however one’s ‘memory’ might figure into the satisfaction of the present, it would not define the present by means of contrasting it to unfulfilled desire or counterfactual reasoning (what ‘might have’ been but is not). (Rom 8.18 comes to mind.)

Likewise the future could not interpose itself into the satisfaction of the present by casting upon its bliss any expectation or desire for a satisfaction not present. The future (so far as it might be conceived in the present) would be entirely the product of present bliss, a realm of possibilities that express (but do not constitute an improvement upon) the present. The future would become the present, as opposed to the present becoming the future.

I think of God’s relationship to ‘time’ along such lines. Where time constitutes a kind of metaphysical presupposition for our existence (we’re temporal in a prerequisite sort of way), God (being necessary) could not sustain that kind of relationship to time. There are no metaphysical presuppositions to uncreated being. That goes without saying. In that sense time flows from God.

Prayer: Help me keep the crucial things crucial, the important things important, the relatively interesting things relatively interesting, and the unimportant things unimportant.

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6 comments on “What time is it?

  1. The best argument I’ve found against the notion of a timeless God can be seen by examining God’s knowledge. Eternalists claim that God knows everything in a timeless “now” void of sequence. (Since sequence implies time, God cannot experience sequence.) They will also say that God knows all of time simply because he “sees” it.
    Now what God “sees” is outside of himself: that is, the creation is in some sense separate from and not identical to God’s inner being. It therefore must be “there” over and against him. The question, however, is “how did it get there?”

    The concept of “sight” implies that God’s knowledge itself is determined by what he sees. And all free will theists, I believe, must hold that the free creation itself determines God’s knowledge of said free creation and not vice versa. For again, if the reverse were true then freedom is an illusion – i.e. if something like the divine ideas of each free creature pre-exist in God’s mind then they determine the action of each creature before the creatures exist.

    So according to eternalism you have this inconsistency: a timeless God being unchangeably determined in his knowledge by the free universe. The reason this is inconsistent is because the CHRISTIAN believes that God CREATED everything outside himself. But according to eternalists God never “goes from” having not created the universe to having created it. He simply timelessly both creates the universe and is determined in his being by what it freely does.

    The only way I see to maintain that God has unchangeably existed alongside the universe and been determined by it in this way is to a) posit a metaphysical dualism between God and the universe; or b) posit a Spinozian pantheism in which God and the universe are really equivalent.

    For as soon as you posit a true DIFFERENCE in God and creation you must give an EXPLANATION of that difference. Unless you’re a dualist or pantheist you must say which reality is primary or more fundamental, which is necessary and which contingent, which is initial and which is derivative, etc.

    But if ONE reality is primary, then there exists particular characteristics about that reality which DO NOT DEPEND ON the secondary reality. That is the whole reason why IT is necessary and the OTHER is contingent. Thus God’s knowledge of himself, his relation as Trinity, and his attributes would be what they are regardless of if the universe existed or not. That is, whether or not God decided to create, he would still know himself, be triune, be perfect goodness, etc. For again, if the first reality is essentially dependent on the second, then it is not really primary and it cannot really exist independently of it.

    We have, then, a two-fold relation: God as he exists “in himself” and God as he exists “in relation to creation as creator.” Now it seems to me the only way to uphold this relation is to remove God from a changeless, timeless realm. Because otherwise this distinction collapses, as I say, into dualism or pantheism. For if God CREATES, he must first (logically) exist in his own being and THEN have a relation to what he makes. So long as God is personal and FREELY creates, then it seems to me we must posit some sort of account of what is ESSENTIAL to his being, and what is ACCIDENTAL (such as his relation to creation.) And this account of God plainly implies SEQUENTIAL action in God’s being in which he “goes from” existing in himself in perfection to existing “now” alongside creation. And this destroys the idea of him being timeless. At least as far as I can see.

    In short my argument is this: if determinism is false, if pantheism is false, and if dualism is false… and if creation is free, if God has created, and if he is the ultimate, primary ontological reality, then God cannot be timeless.

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    • Tom says:

      Malcolm,

      I basically agree, though I think open theists as a rule rush in too quickly slashing their way through anything older than the Reformation that smells ‘classical’. Leonidas’ criticism of the Athenians’ fighting style (in the movie 300!) seems appropriate. Never mind if you haven’t seen the movie.

      I wanna be very careful not to reduce God to being a mere “being among beings,” an unimaginably big disembodied human being who is just another temporal thinker, feeler, decider who happens to be omnipresent. It does seem to me that this is the understanding of a lot of open theists (as Protestant evangelicals, not simply because they’re open theists).

      Let me give you an example. I wrote and shared this with a few friends yesterday to see how it played out. No problem from Dwayne (he and I are one soul on this stuff). But my sense is that open theists don’t think slowly, carefully and intentionally through the logic of God’s self-sufficient triune being or the doctrine of CEN which most seem to hold to (but which doesn’t define open theism per se, if it ever did). I’d be interested in your thoughts on it. Here’s the thought:

      There is neither ‘past’ nor ‘future’ to the Father’s begetting of the Son and the Spirit’s proceeding. It doesn’t “take time” for God to be infinite, triune God. And without such a past and future, there can be no corresponding ‘present’ if by present we mean the metaphysical sibling of the sort of past and future just ruled out, an instant where the past as ‘what was’ and the future as ‘what might be’ meet and dialectically constitute God’s being as ever-becoming.

      I think nearly all open theists who are temporalits when it comes to God sans creation and who affirm CEN (and with CEN affirm God’s self-defining perfections) still understand those perfections in terms of temporal becoming; they just suppose God temporally repeats himself, moment after moment.

      Tom

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    • apophaticallyspeaking says:

      Malcolm,

      Your reasoning would stand if we can validly apply anthropophatic realities to the divine being, which has been emphatically denied by the church fathers over the centuries. So talk about “seeing”, and spatial terms such as “there” vs. “here” or “outside” vs”in” does not have purchase in relation to the divine being.

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      • Thanks for the comment. I am of course familiar and in a way sympathetic with the “apophatic way.” My only concern with is that if we adopt it we may lose our ability to talk about meaningfully about God at all. If everything we say and think about God is false (“not thus”) just WHAT ultimately is the object of our thought? Doesn’t “God” cease to be a meaningful term if we cannot intelligibly predicate anything about him? If I were to describe a person but immediately qualify that by saying that this particular person has no qualities similar to “people” in general, isn’t me using the word “person” to begin with quite meaningless?

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      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        Malcolm,

        Apophatic theology is not primarily a way of negation, the refusal of cataphatic affirmation, but rather denotes that God always remains infinitely beyond our cataphatic circumscriptions. It is, in short, the recognition that God is not a being among beings.

        The apophatic does not then make theology meaningless as it does not posit an absolute dissimilarity but rather an infinite analogical interval of correspondence between the divine and the cosmos, an interval which is marked by similarity and dissimilarity. So we cataphatically affirm creation is permeated by and shines forth the divine presence, but apophatically affirm that divine presence is not limited by creation. He is always and infinitely the supra, the more than our words or creation can describe, reflect, contain.

        So, we are never in danger to lose our ability to talk meaningfully about God – hence my moniker which I chose many years ago for this very reason. I believe here the East has much to offer the West, but it is a common heritage to all Christians. It does put the onus on us moderns to learn the phronema of the fathers, and not merely pay lip service, to immerse ourselves in their praxis if we are to recognize that our common Christian faith was handed down to us from them.

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  2. Tom Torbeyns says:

    Interesting excerpts 🙂

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