What doesn’t exist can’t be known

91HvBls+5-L._AC_UL320_SR208,320_You Aquinas experts out there, help me out. I know Aquinas held God to be timeless and to have timeless knowledge of the world’s entire history of becoming. But there’s an interesting passage in the Summa (1.89.7.3) that has me stumped. For those unfamiliar with citing the Summa, that’s Part 1, Question 89 [on the knowledge of the separated soul], Article 7 [on whether local distance impedes the knowledge in the separated soul], and then Aquinas’ reply to Objection 3).

The Objection:

Further, as there is distance of place, so is there distance of time. But distance of time impedes knowledge in the separated soul, for the soul is ignorant of the future. Therefore it seems that distance of place also impedes its knowledge.

Aquinas’ reply

The future, which is distant in time, does not actually exist, and therefore is not knowable in itself, because so far as a thing falls short of being, so far does it fall short of being knowable. But what is locally distant exists actually, and is knowable in itself. Hence we cannot argue from distance of time to distance of place.

Aquinas seems pretty matter-of-fact about the unknowability of non-existent/non-actual entities, and obviously I want to agree with him. Future events and objects are simply not actual, and are thus unknowable. They have no ‘being’. This has obvious consequences for one’s knowledge of the future. We don’t know the future not because there is in fact something to know of which we’re ignorant. We don’t know because there’s nothing there to know. I was surprised to find this passage though. John Sanders mentions it in an article on his site.

My guess is that Aquinas qualifies all this when it comes to God. God is not limited in his knowledge of creation to creation’s own temporal perspectives. It’s only finite knowers who exist at a time who cannot know future actualities because those actualities do not exist at the knower’s time. But God is not a finite knower located at a time. If anything, he’s at all times and so is immediately present to Creation’s entire timeline (as it were). So God doesn’t fall within the scope of Aquinas’ comments.

Yes? No?

You experts out there?

The disappearing open theist

disappear-from-search-enginesOK, look, I embrace the open view of the future. Let me get that out of the way. I embrace it because I think it makes best sense of things existentially, philosophically, and yes, overall biblically speaking. But I gotta tell ya, I don’t think any of the biblical authors were open theists in the sense that they held to the sine qua non of the view today, that is, divine epistemic openness (regarding future contingencies). Let’s abbreviate that as DEO to save me typing.

When I say there’s biblical evidence for the open view, I mean I think there are examples of biblical authors conceiving of the future in open terms, that is, they believed human beings were responsibly free, faced genuine options, weren’t victims of fate, and that their lives, choices and prayers made a genuine difference to the course the world took. And they believed God truly related to them and engaged the world in such terms, all convictions which form the basis upon which modern-day open theists argue for DEO. And yes, I do agree that DEO makes better sense of these convictions, just the way I think the doctrines of the Trinity (later conceived) and of Christ’s two-natures (later conceived) best explain the Bible’s overall narratives.

But the more I ponder things, the idea that the biblical authors, Old or New Testament, actually espoused DEO seems nearly impossible to imagine. In the end I think they were all substantially Arminian (obviously an older term, but let me use it here) on these questions. That is, they believed in pre-recorded open theism, you might say. They affirmed freedom and contingency, the genuine relatedness of God and the world, and the consequential nature of prayer that motivate open theists to adopt their unique view in the first place.

Yes, the biblical texts do sometimes describe God as contemplating an open future. I don’t at all think these are explainable either as God accommodating himself to our ignorance by presenting himself as contemplating an open future or as human authors presenting God in such terms while actually believing otherwise. If biblical authors very occasionally stumbled into a way of thinking about God’s knowledge and engagement of creaturely affairs in terms of DEO (and I can hardly imagine it) it is far from being the established “biblical” view of things. I simply think the biblical authors never reflected philosophically along the lines of the particular questions (compatibilism/incompatibilism) that overwhelm the conversation today.

If cornered on the specific question of DEO, I think Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul or any other biblical figures would’ve said, “Well, of course God knows what’s going to happen.” Perhaps—perhaps—Paul, given some of his arguments and his philosophical training and disposition, might have cared enough about the matter to contemplate the problem.

Here’s the thing. I simply don’t know how to account for the absolute disappearance of DEO from biblical faith on the assumption that it was an intentional, studied, contemplated belief of biblical authors. If as open theist authors have argued, the Old Testament authors, and Jesus, and all the Apostles and the Apostolic church all held to the core open view doctrine of DEO, then the obvious question is ‘What happened?’ because in no time at all the Church and its leading thinkers had no abiding commitment to such a belief, not even the memory of anything like DEO having been the belief of former generations. Irenaeus (disciple of Polycarp who was a disciples of St. John himself) holds to the traditional (Arminian) view and never even hints that St. John taught DEO to Polycarp. Come on. That doesn’t seem remotely suspicious to my open theist friends? True, by Origen’s day the question of prayer’s relevancy in light of divine foreknowledge had become enough of a philosophical-existential issue that Origen wrote a book on it. But he shows zero awareness that anything like DEO was ever believed by any Christian, anywhere, of any generation. There’s just no good explanation for the disappearance of DEO on the assumption that the Apostles and their churches explicitly held such a belief.

disappearing-cycleway2It will be claimed (by Greg Boyd and other key open theist writers) that Hellenism is to blame, that in virtually no time at all pagan Greek philosophy corrupted biblical faith and DEO was among the first beliefs to go. All this damage occurred within St. John’s lifetime  and his supposed belief in DEO never makes it to Irenaeus, not even as an academic interest in what former generations believed. And the effects of Greek philosophy upon Christian belief were so thorough and universal that not a single mention by any Christian thinker of even the memory of previous Christians having held a view on foreknowledge different than the traditional view, appears anywhere on the horizon even though the problem of foreknowledge does appear early (in Origen). This strains credibility.

I’m open to seeing the evidence for the universal disappearance of DEO and its very memory from Christian thought by the opening of the 2nd century under the influence of pagan Greek philosophy, but this better bey good (Greg). My own sense is that DEO does cohere best with the biblical themes of personal freedom, responsibility, the efficacy of petitionary prayer, divine-human synergy, etc., but that it simply was not explicitly held to by any biblical authors, though their texts make perfect sense in light of DEO. They were less than consistent. So what? But—to anticipate a certain reply—wouldn’t the actual beliefs of biblical authors be normative for us today? The short answer, for me anyhow, is ‘No’. I think it’s obvious that their beliefs—as they held them—are not all automatically normative for us simply because those beliefs appear in the text. But that’s another subject.

Just to be clear, and to forestall misunderstandings—I do hold to DEO, and I do believe it makes best sense of things. But I don’t believe any biblical author held to it. That is, I don’t think any biblical author was an ‘open theist’.

Creation at the Improv

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I’m grateful to Brian who in a comment recommended Antonio Lopez’s very interesting “Eternal Happening: God as an Event of Love” (Communio: International Catholic Review 32, Summer 2005). Lopez is a priest and assistant professor of theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. In the article he explores Balthasar’s understanding of God’s “super-time.” I was about to process an initial response to it in the comments section to Brian but decided I’d rather embarrass myself before a slightly larger audience.

Balthasar uses the term “super-time” to denote the living fullness of the divine relations without the “fleeting” loss involved in temporal becoming characteristic of creaturely existence. Those relations, argues Balthasar, obtain in “the perpetual immediacy of this sudden moment without limits of time, without sequence in their reciprocal vision.” It is a single, perfect moment, an ever-newer “happening.” This is “not simply timeless but a present that always was and is always coming.”

All very intriguing, if somewhat ambiguous, but curiously similar in my mind to what I’ve been trying to express via the notion of God’s “specious present,” something which is neither of the two contradictory options typically considered in debates, i.e., divine temporality understood along Process lines which views God’s actuality as a processu opiris (“work in progress”), and actus purus understood as incompatible with all conceivable unrealized potential. Balthasar’s “super-time” is neither of these (as far as I can tell). So if we can conceive of God neither as processu operis nor as actus purus in the “hard” sense, then might the truth be some third option which each of these options reflects in part but not in whole?

For example, Lopez says, “…one could describe…historical occurrences and phenomena as ‘events’…on the other hand, one could rightly claim that Christianity itself is most adequately understood as an event,” and asks, “Can this term also refer to divine love itself?” Then he seems to work out the ‘event’ of God’s triune being as the over-arching ‘moment’ (specious present) in which other created ‘moments’ may come and go but without the latter involving a “confusi[on of divine] ‘happening’ with ‘becoming’.” Lopez goes on to describe Balthasar’s view of God’s ‘eternity’ as “consist[ing] of an immemorial past that is always poured forth in the present, a present that is receptivity and grateful giving in return, and a future that is both eternal confirmation of the gift of love and ever-new response. Divine communion is both from eternity and ‘created afresh’ at every instant.” This is not your standard atemporal Godhead.

Without understanding talk of ‘past’, ‘present’, and ‘future’ to the triune fullness in terms of “becoming,” it nevertheless yields an understanding of Balthasar’s notiong of divine infinity as involving surprise and wonderment (to which I reacted with surprise and wonderment): “There is no absolute love if it does not exceed the ‘wildest expectations’, and there is no true plenitude if it ‘contains itself’, that is to say, if it does not exceed itself in giving itself over without any limitation, only to receive itself back over-abundantly in an excess of love.”

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hqdefaultPermit me a slight detour. If one attempts to boil such talk down analytically into a mathematical proposition, one’s bound to be disappointed, which is why I find poetic, musical analogies more persuasive, like that of ‘improvisation’. (Fernando Sor’s “Variations on a theme of Mozart” comes to mind.) Poetic language and aesthetic sensibilities can sometimes take us farther than strict analysis can. I don’t know how else to say it. God-talk is like music notation. Even when correct, it’s still an long way from the experience of music. Something of aesthetic encounters can never be reduced to notation. I remember the amazing Andres Segovia (playing the above Sor variation on Mozart) rebuking a student in a master’s class for playing too obedient to the time signature. Keeping so strictly to the prescribed rhythm, Segovia said, was “contrary to aesthetics.” One such instance of this can be seen here (at minute 5:00 onward) where he says “The nuance in the rhythm is the result of the delicate lack of respect that we have for the rhythm.” A kind of musical apophaticism. Music as experience, as aesthetics, must in a real sense say “not this” to its own language. And “in this lack of respect,” Segovia says, “you can define the good artist from the bad artist.”

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Perhaps most interesting to me was a line about how Balthasar understood omniscience not as synonymous with “having been exhausted.” I see room here for construing God’s grounding of creation’s possibilities (on the one hand) and his knowing their free (actual) becoming (on the other) in ‘open view’ terms. That is, creation’s possibilities are ‘exhaustively known’ in God as their ground. That much is self-knowledge. But God truly ‘comes to know’ the actual coming to be (of some possibilities and not of other possibilities) of the world’s events, a divine knowing which is as open as we say the world is and which manifests rather than contradicts the surprise and wonderment of God’s eternal specious moment (viewed, as Balthasar repeatedly says, not as a nunc stans). God’s eternity (the absolute, kenotic, self-surrender of the persons to each other in perpetual, over-abundant astonishment) could only manifest in created time in a truly “open” manner which is known to God in its created openness and not as the unfolding in time of a blueprint “having been exhausted” in eternity, but—and I need to say this carefully—

…just as Balthasar says the divine persons give themselves to each other without reservation or expectation of response (such ‘expectation’ could only be that portion of one’s self withheld from the other), so God gives himself (as divine logoi) without reservation to the free determination of created others—viz., God gives himself to be improvised upon. And there’s really no way the trajectories which the world actually ends up taking (this route as opposed to that route) can be eternally known even if the scope of all possible trajectories derives from and is known to God. That actual trajectory is the creature’s discrimination among possibilities, something over and above the possibilities themselves.

You might say that in the open view, God ‘over-knows’ rather than ‘under-knows’ the future. I suggest (boldly, yes) that the ‘open view’ is the best way to work out an understanding of divine triune fullness that creates freely and endows creatures with a measure of ‘improvisational’ say-so in its return to God.

God’s infinite “specious present”

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This is one of those freely speculating posts where I just think out loud. I know some think that’s pretty much all I do anyhow. If that’s you, then this won’t be any different. Why I’ve chosen Bernini’s (the greatest sculptor of all time) Blessed Ludovica Albertoni is something I’ll let the post explain (or not). (Hint: it has something to do with the immediacy and ecstasy of fulfilled desire relative to temporal becoming.) Bernini dedicated this work to a wealthy Roman widow who devoted herself to the poor and who (like his The Ecstasy of St. Teresa that pursues the same theme) testified to having unusual spiritual ecstasies. Both works are a kind of perichoretic embodiment of the rapturous experience of mystical union with God. This is no doubt a strange introduction to thoughts about God and time, but let’s see where it takes us.

In Trinity & Process (a work we’ve discussed a great deal), Greg Boyd constructively critiques Process theism (PT). Much of his criticism parallels criticisms that Fr Tom Hopko made in his doctoral dissertation on PT. More interestingly, Greg’s conclusions at points end up articulating Orthodox insights without having any real knowledge of or appreciation for Orthodoxy as such. That said, one critique of PT that Greg engages is PT’s thoroughly dipolar doctrine of God with respect to divine temporal becoming. I’d like to think aloud on this aspect of Greg’s thought and make a suggestion that takes Greg’s thought in a direction that he perhaps didn’t intend.

Dipolar theism is a complicated philosophical project which has since Whitehead diverged into a variety of conflicting views. I wish only to pick up on Greg’s treatment of God and time through his use of the concept of the “specious present.” By “specious” I don’t mean “misleading” or “false” in appearance. The term “specious present” was coined in the late 19th century by E. Robert Kelly (known under the pseudonym E. R. Clay) and popularized by William James. It roughly describes the time duration wherein one’s perceptions are considered to be in the present, one’s “intuited duration” (Pringle-Pattison, 1913). It’s a concept that I think helps us imagine God as temporally immutable and open to the temporal world. By temporally immutable I mean experience having neither beginning, end, nor succession, an extended interval without becoming. Can such an experience nevertheless be open to contingent relations with the changing world?

The life and experience of finite creatures who derive their existence from God is one of irreducible “becoming.” We know that much. Our experience is temporal in the sense that it is always mediated within the given restrictions of material existence. In particular:

…we possess our life as “becoming,” as an ever-moving process in which we determine ourselves in the present by relating our perceived past (the data of past experience; i.e., memory) to perceived possibilities at which we aim ourselves in the hope of becoming what we are not (i.e., more than we are). We just are this ever-moving act of becoming, a perpetual negotiation between the perceived effects of the past and the perceived possibilities of the future.

Let me say unequivocally here that I don’t see how God can be reduced to such “becoming” even if the process is qualified by saying it occurs “necessarily.” Giving such “becoming” the status of necessity doesn’t make this concept of God fundamentally unlike that of Zeus or other members of the Greek pantheon.

clock_silhouette_by_ginnyhahaThat said, by “specious present” I am not talking about a totum simul, which is how Bill Craig takes it in his criticism of the idea. And I don’t particularly have in mind Robert Jenson’s curious description of Jesus as God’s “specious present,” but I agree with Jenson’s pursuit of a divine temporality of which he says, “God’s duration is without loss.” I say yes to this. And so I’m asking if it’s possible to conceive of an infinite “specious present,” an experience not divisible into or reducible to more fundamental experiences, having neither beginning, end, nor succession; i.e., an “experience” which is not an experience of “becoming.” Can we conceive of God’s eternity, his essential, triune plenitude, as such a “specious present” but which is not intolerant of or incompatible with the possibility of relations with the finite “specious presents” of created entities that occur within it?

An infinite “specious present” not a moment of “becoming” would encompass rather than preclude specious presents of finite duration and accommodate real relations with the world. All creation’s possibilities would be tacitly enfolded within its fullness. All our “specious presents” would have the movement of their temporal becoming—their past, present, and future as they contingently and freely unfold—within the embrace of God’s single, indivisible “specious present.” And the world’s finite becoming would freely self-determine itself within the all-encompassing fullness of God’s accomplished beatitude. Time would “flow from” God as God is present to and within the world. This would (I think) roughly parallel the sense in which Bulgakov suggested that God “posits himself outside himself.”

God’s eternity, we’re suggesting, is an infinite “specious present”—a “moment” (just to go with the analogy for now) analogous to our “moments” of experience but which, unlike our “specious presents,” does not exist as ‘memory informing a present resolve to become what one is not in light of future possibilities’. We’re thinking of a “moment” of experience as such, a simple act not composed of beginning, end, and succession (i.e., it does not “become”) because it does not possess itself as ‘memory informing a present resolve in light of future possibilities’. God’s specious present does not “take time” to “become” in this way, but it does not negate created ‘becoming’ or relations to created entities. It is becoming’s possibility and so compatible with it without being an instance of it. As such God’s specious present is the infinite ground of every created specious present of finite duration (i.e., experiences of finite perspective and surpassable beauty which have beginning, end, and succession—i.e. they ‘become’).

One specious present may contain other specious presents. To unpack this a bit, here’s Greg Boyd in TP:

Self-identity [for Hartshorne], therefore, whether at a human or sub-atomic level, is abstract, partial and relative. It is, in contrast, the present moment of becoming which is concrete, complete, and absolute, as we have seen. There can, for Hartshorne, therefore be no concrete self-identity which preserves over time. The only concrete reality is in the “specious present,” the present momentary experience of becoming. For human beings, for example, the concrete self becomes anew “every tenth of a second or so.” This alone constitutes truly concrete reality. Everything else concerning human self-identity is an abstract feature of this.

This means, clearly, that one’s self-now is not the same as the self of one’s childhood, or even one’s self an instant ago. To be sure, the self-now must relate to (prehend) the self-past. But it must also prehend other past occasions. And it is, strictly speaking, no more concretely identical with the past self than it is with any other past occasion.

a9818396559c4039e0998b5ce79f128aHartshorne defines finite, temporal “becoming” as the prehension of immediately past data via creative synthesis. One’s “identity” supervenes upon and is derived from this process. But, to disagree, this sort of becoming could not describe God’s essential-necessary actuality. God’s identity could not supervene upon a process that prehends ‘past’ data from which his actual ‘present’ is determined in light of some desire to become in the ‘future’ what he is not now. That’s very important (for Dwayne and me) to say.

To borrow Whitehead’s language (but not how he understands it, since he rejects creatio ex nihilo): God’s essential triune act would be the “epochal immediacy of an occasion’s subjective indivisible unity.” Our suggestion is that God be understood as an infinite such occasion. Moving on with Greg in TP:

Beyond the already discussed difficulties with this understanding of the dipolarity of God, one must wonder what is intrinsically contradictory about saying that a being can be actual in different respects? Why cannot one aspect of the divine actuality be necessary and eternal, and another aspect of God’s actuality contingent? It seems that, in at least one sense, even Process thought must admit that this is possible in terms of its own categories.

According to Process thought, any given “society of actual occasions” can be made up of entities whose “living immediacy” and “specious present” varies from one another considerably. A “specious present,” according to Hartshorne, can vary about as far as the imagination can stretch: from less than one millionth of a second to more than a century is one suggestion Hartshorne toys with.

Now it seems that there is no a priori reason why a “specious moment” may not be eternal, though the society which it “dominates over” includes occasions whose “specious present” is finite. Just as the mind, the dominate occasion of the human person, consists of “specious presents” whose durations vary from those occasions which it rules over, so too we might conceive of God’s essential self as an eternal specious present which encompasses other “specious presents” of finite duration within itself. (emphasis mine)

…So far as I can see, then, there are no grounds for supposing a priori that the “specious present” of an experiencing actuality could not be both definite and actual, while being, at the same time, endless in its duration.

After some discussion, Greg continues:

The only remaining question, then, is whether or not one subject could be both infinitely and finitely, both necessarily and contingently, actual at the same time. Here again I see no reason to deny this. One subject can, in Process terms, be constituted by numerous occasions of varying duration of subjective immediacy, as we have said. But then what in principle is there from disallowing the possibility of a subject who is necessarily constituted by an everlasting…experience, on the one hand, and yet who has finite contingent experiences on the other?

We can render this point clearer by appealing to the analogy of human experiences. We have, it seems, the ability (however limited) to be aware of different things in relatively different modes of consciousness at the same time. If, for example, I go to the art museum and become absorbed in (say) Munck’s painting “The Scream,” I do not completely block out the noise around me; I am not completely oblivious to the people around me. If a person next to me faints, I will no doubt notice it and turn to help him or her. But clearly my awareness of my surroundings is relatively tacit in relation to my awareness of the painting.

I thus pick up, in a relatively tacit manner, the moment by moment changes in my environment, but my dominant sense of time is measured not by these changes, but by my experience of the work of art. What constitutes my consciousness-now are many experiences had at differing levels of distinctness, but all are now conditioned by the dominant experience of Munck’s painting.

My “specious present,” then, is in one respect very long—hence my “ordinary” sense of time is distorted in such experiences. Yet the fact that I am at least tacitly conscious of the bustle around me shows that I also have, at the same time, occasions whose “specious present” is much shorter. Every sensed alteration in my environment is, in Hartshorne’s view, a new “specious present” for some actual occasion(s) I am composed of.

Or again, when listening to a symphony, one is aware of the minute moment by moment tonal changes of the many different instruments, and yet it is the over-all musical piece, not the individual contributions, which is enjoyed. One could not enjoy the wholeness of the piece without, in some sense, attending to each of the individual instruments, and indeed to each tonal change that was made every fraction of a second or so. But the “mode of consciousness” is quite different with respect to the individual changes than it is with respect to our appreciation of the whole.

Thus experience, including the experience of consciousness, can be multifarious and multidimensional. Indeed, at a human level it always is. Hartshorne, of course, argues that it is only the “lowest” dimension of consciousness the minute alterations in our experience, which are “truly concrete.” Our experience of wholes, whether they be of art, music, or the world around us, is “abstract.” But this supposition we have already shown to be the result of an arbitrary reductionistic presupposition. Once the definition of “concrete” and “abstract” are recognized are being perspectivally contingent, the actuality (concreteness) of our phenomenological experiences, as well as (from a different perspective) the actuality of the minute alterations which, in one sense, comprise these experiences, can be admitted. To say that our normal sense of consciousness is multifarious is thus to say that our dominant perspective always encompasses relatively tacit perspectives.

Prima facie, then, no obvious absurdity is committed in maintaining that God can be, in one sense, necessarily actually infinite while further maintaining that God can also be, at the same time but in another sense, contingently actually infinite. This is, from another angle, simply to say that God can have a necessary eternal perspective on Godself which may include a perspective which encompasses non-divine perspectives. God is eternally and necessarily defined by this one’s eternal experience of Godself, and this experience may encompass, and find expression in, the interaction of non-divine creatures.

When we say that God might be actually eternal and actually contingent, therefore, we do not mean to suggest that God is essentially defined by both an eternal and contingent actuality. God is essentially defined only by this One’s necessary actuality. Thus we have not in the preceding said simply that “God’s essence is God’s existence,” but rather, “God’s essence is God’s essential existence.” For if there can be contingency in God, then God’s existence can encompass more than what this One essentially and necessarily is. God can be “more than necessary.” (emphasis mine)

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www-St-Takla-org--Moses-Prophet-05-Burning-Bush-CopticThere is much to question in Greg’s project when it comes to how theological language functions, and I don’t mean to endorse every point he makes. But I don’t think our differences undermine the helpfulness of his main thought here. We believe it’s possible to conceive of God’s essential-necessary triune fullness as the living immediacy of a ‘specious present’, an experienced plenitude which is not an instance of temporal becoming (i.e., it has neither past nor future). But neither is it the negation of such becoming. On the contrary, it is free and able to open itself to ‘specious presents’ of finite duration which aim at contingently expressing (not constituting) the beatitude of God’s abiding present.

An immutable temporal interval that does not “become” (i.e., has no past or future or the kind of present which negotiates the two)? I think so, yes. It’s the temporal equivalent of a ‘burning bush’. I call it a ‘temporal’ interval because I believe it has living-loving content and that leads me to default analogically to ‘temporal’ (as opposed to ‘atemporal’). I’d rather say ‘temporal’ and then qualify it (i.e., it isn’t an instance of temporal becoming). That is—it’s a bush. And it’s on fire without being consumed. Doesn’t make sense, but there it is. At the same time it’s is not the experience of a “becoming” subject (viz., a subject in temporal pursuit of personal realization). We have to say this also, because it’s fire that does not need the bush for fuel. It’s an off-the-map sort of experience.

The controversial claim we make here is that God’s infinite specious present would not preclude real relations with finite creatures and changing states of knowledge with respect to the world. Created realities do indeed come to be and pass out of being. These are possibilities immutably contained in God. However, which particular possibilities come to be the actual world (and, for my Orthodox friends, the relevant point here is that not all possibilities pre-contained in God come to be) is not something immutably pre-contained in God. God would know the ‘actually contingent’ contingently, i.e., in its contingent actuality, without suffering any negation of the living immediacy of his immutable specious present. That is to say, the world “lives and moves and has its being” in God. It is then not the case that God lives and moves and has his being in the world (viz., PT).

Does this make God just another finite subject of “becoming,” one who possesses his identity and full beatitude in the realizing of possibilities given him under the constraints of past experience negotiating his way toward some unfulfilled desire? I don’t see that it does. If God were to know the changing contingencies of the actual world with a knowledge that changes as well, this “as well” needn’t be understood as introducing “loss” into God’s special present. God’s duration is without loss (Jenson).Surely we are not confined to an occasionalism in which God’s sustaining of the world reduces the world to divine will, nor to an opposite occasionalism which views God as reduced to the world’s becoming (viz., Process theism) simply for holding that God’s knowledge of the changing world changes.

Prayer

Always fulfilled, always at rest,
You never wait to be your best;
And yet you can take time to be,
To stoop in partnership with me.
You know me within my own time,
And yet remain wholly sublime.
Give me a heart to give myself
In poverty to your great wealth.

God always the same

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Aidan Nichols, O.P. has the wonderful ability to condense the complex works of brilliant thinkers into simpler terms that make those works accessible to non-experts like me. Besides his primer on Bulgakov from which I quote below, Nichols has similar introductions on von Balthasar, Aquinas, Pope Benedict (to name a few) as well as primers on the Catholic Church, the Byzantine Church, Anglicanism, and other helpful guides. Thank God for original, pioneering thinkers who stretch tradition in new ways, but thank God also for gifted people who can re-present that thinking in more accessible terms for the rest of us.

In light of conversations about God and time we’ve been enjoying, I wanted to share a passage from Nichols’ primer on Bulgakov. Bulgakov (1871-1944) was a brilliant Orthodox priest-scholar whose career began in Russia and, after a short stint in Prague, ended in Paris. Anathematized by some Orthodox and tolerated by others, Bulgakov continues to be a controversial figure within Orthodox circles. Some offer high praise of aspects of his work. David Bentley Hart, for example, praises the Christoloy of The Lamb of God as “the most remarkable and impressive work of Christology produced in the twentieth century.” I think of Bulgakov as an example of the kind of synthesis Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) recommended when he wrote:

Orthodox theology must keep its patristic foundation, but it must also go ‘beyond’ the Fathers if it is to respond to a new situation created by centuries of philosophical development. And in this new synthesis or reconstruction, the Western philosophical tradition…rather than the Hellenic, must supply theology with its conceptual framework. An attempt is thus made to ‘transpose’ theology into a new ‘key’….

Among Bulgakov’s more controversial speculations are his thoughts on God and time. Consider this Nichols passage (from his primer):

Eternity and time
Time is not of course eternity. In one sense, it is opposed to eternity, and this is how we commonly think of it. But in another sense time is put in place by eternity, has eternity as its foundation and its final cause, the goal to which it is moving. And in this second sense, time only has coherence because it reflects eternity. Bulgakov compares it to a mosaic, where individual moments are like so many individual pieces of coloured glass that, taken together, nonetheless make up a whole. It becomes easier to grasp this this is we realize that what we are talking about is creaturely wisdom—which is in time—on the one hand, and divine Wisdom—which is eternal—on the other. Time is full of eternity, and tends to approach eternity while never becoming eternity, precisely because these two wisdoms are one. They have one content.

Of the two, however, only divine Wisdom exists in God. Shall we say, then, that for God time has no reality, that he is not engaged with temporal realities as such? Is it true to say that for God only eternity exists? Bulgakov answers with a resounding ‘No’.

The entire Christian religion presupposes for its truth-value the reality of time not only for the world but also for God, and the one conditions the other.

To treat God’s relations with the temporal as merely a human way of speaking would be to “shake the entire content of our faith.” It would mean transforming the biblical God, the “Creator, all-might, living, merciful, saving,” into the “immobile Absolute of Hinduism in which all concrete being is snuffed out and the whole world becomes illusion.” It would make nonsense of the Incarnation where earthly events happen to One who was God. But what about the way that Scripture and the doctrinal tradition speak of God’s immutability, his unchangingness? Bulgakov replies by drawing a distinction which we also find in such modern Western Catholic theologians as the German Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-1984). He [Bulgakov, not Rahner] distinguishes between God as he who is changeless in himself, in eternity, and he who can be involved in change in another, in time. He writes:

In himself, God is eternal by virtue of the divine everlastingness, the plenitude of his life, by virtue of immutability, and total happiness. In himself, God is eternal by virtue of the divine everlastingness of his tri-personhood which is the eternal act of love of the Three in their reciprocal relations.

That is certainly a plain statement. But there is another side to the question which also requires stating. Bulgakov says:

God is also the Creator, creating life outside himself and himself living there outside himself. The reality of this world is determined by God. The reality of this world is determined by God. The reality of the time of this world is also valid therefore for God, since it is his own work, and, taken as a whole, his own ‘placing’ of himself. Going out of himself in the kenosis of the creation of the world, the love of God puts time in position even for God himself. It brings it about that God also lives in history and shares in this sense in the world’s becoming, for the sake of the world.

…Bulgakov emphasizes that in no way does the Creator’s relation with time in the creation lessen or limit his eternity. Temporality—the time dimension—is on a different ontological level from eternity, so the two are not in any kind of conflict. Time has its roots in eternity, is nourished by eternity, and penetrated by it.

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I’m no Bulgakov expert, but some who know him well agree that his position on the qualified sense in which God experiences and knows the temporal world is not merely a restatement or re-presentation of traditional Orthodox views. That is, Bulgakov makes novel and controversial claims about God and time. Personally, I think there is room here for the sort of qualified sense in which I think we can say God ‘temporally’ knows and experiences the world. And though I want to spend more time in Bulgakov before resolving on a firm opinion, I suspect I could agree to what Bulgakov is here describing. For example, I recently speculated with a friend:

There is neither ‘past’ nor ‘future’ to the Father’s begetting of the Son and the Spirit’s proceeding. It cannot “take time” for God to be the triune, self-existent, 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. With respect to God’s self-existent trine reality and beatitude, I don’t see how there can be beginning, end, or succession in God.

And I earlier suggested:

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 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 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. (emphasis mine)

Or again, more explicitly:

What would ‘past’ and ‘future’ be for [God] whose very existence is satisfied in every self-constituting way? The ‘past’ couldn’t be remembered with any sense of regret, longing, or pinning for what was or what might have been. The past would cast no shadow upon the present by suggesting a correction or alternative to it that would increase God…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. (my emphasis)

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daliThis all agrees, it seems to me, with Bulgakov’s concern that time not “lessen or limit his eternity.” God’s “eternity,” as Bulgakov describes it, is God’s self-constituting fullness. That fullness has neither beginning, end, nor succession. I not only have no problem (as one who advocates the ‘open view’) affirming this, I view it as essential. My problem is with thinking this precludes there being succession in God’s knowledge and experience of that which does not constitute God in this essential way, that all the world’s temporal realities are, in their actuality, eternally-immutably known by God. I think Bulgakov saw this problem as well and attempted to stretch our thinking in this regard. I could be wrong, but I don’t know how else to take his statements in this regard in The Bride of the Lamb.

Denys Turner suggests that our understanding of God can’t be reduced to the scope of the contradiction held out to us in the either/or of conventional ‘temporal’ vs ‘atemporal’ options. Both terms (David Bradshaw suggests) should reveal God, say something truthful about God, without either negating the other. An analogy of this, as I recently shared, is Moses’ encounter with God in the Burning Bush. We have established understanding of both ‘fire’ and ‘bush’. We know what they are and what the do. We know that fire depends upon what it consumes for fuel. We know that bushes are consumed by fire. But we have no concept of ‘fire’ or ‘bush’ or the possibilities of their meeting that explains bushes on fire without being consumed. And yet there before us is the burning bush.

Now, some Orthodox urge such transcendence upon me as a reason to hold that God cannot change in his knowledge of and relationship to the changing world. They might take the ‘burning bush’ to be the analogical equivalent to God eternally-immutably knowing the world’s actualities in their temporal, free, self-determined becoming. As far as I can tell, this is indistinguishable from the sort of negating ‘timelessness’ one gets with the either/or option thinking. But why should transcendence not as obviously incline us to suppose God may change in his knowledge of and relationship to the world without compromising his essential, immutable beatitude and triune identity? That is, we are not only to suppose God is not reduced to the world; we also suppose that the world is not reduced to God; nor that God’s knowledge of and intimacy to the world undermines the world’s becoming. It seems to me that to think that any change in God’s knowledge of the changing world would turn God into a temporal, finite ‘being among beings’ is perhaps to forget that God is transcendent; i.e., perhaps transcendence can embrace such change without undermining God’s ‘eternity’ (as triune fullness of beatitude).