God’s duration is without loss

glass2I’ve been reading and listening to reflections on God and time. I get such headaches when I dwell on this question, but four core convictions come to mind as I consider these conversations again.

(1) Creation as irreducible becoming or processu operis (a work in progress). We exist entirely as an act of “becoming,” 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 wish to be. We are a perpetual hourglass that negotiates between the perceived effects of the past and the perceived possibilities of the future.

(2) God’s self-constituting triune perfections and beatitude are actus purus. In our view, God cannot be reduced to the “becoming” described in (1) above, even if the process is qualified by saying it occurs “necessarily.” God’s self-constituting triune act (the Father’s begetting of the Son, the proceeding of the Spirit, the triune fullness and beatitude of this knowing and loving) cannot itself be subject to temporal becoming; it cannot supervene upon a process that prehends ‘past’ data from which God’s ‘present’ is determined in light of some desire to become in the ‘future’ what he is not ‘now’. To borrow Whitehead’s language (but not how he understands it), we suggest that God’s essential triune act is the “epochal immediacy of an occasion’s subjective indivisible unity,” an infinite specious present, an indivisible occasion of plenitude not composed of successive temporal moments upon whose unending process it supervenes (i.e., it has neither past which it remembers nor future changes it anticipates).

(3) God’s free self-expression in creation is contingent and involves duration. If God cannot be reduced to a processu operis, neither can he be reduced to actus purus as a totum simul. If God’s self-constituting, triune fullness is the living immediacy of an infinite ‘specious present’, it is not on that account intolerant of contingent self-expressive modes of willing and knowing. Thus we believe God’s free self-expression in creation (the creating, sustaining, and knowledge of the world in its contingent temporal actualities) involves temporal duration for God. Time flows from God as we “live and move and have our being in God.”

(4) God’s duration is without loss. The phrase is Robert Jenson’s. I don’t include in it all that he does. I employ it only to say that God’s duration as expressed in (3) is without loss (because it’s asymmetrically related) to the triune fullness expressed in (2). God’s self-expressive act in creation, with its duration and change, is purely expressive of his triune identity. God does not constitute himself dialectically within the economy of creation, though his knowledge of and relation to the world involve change and reciprocal relations such as prayer within an open horizon whose precise unfolding even God does not immutably (fore)know. This openness (for free, creaturely becoming in love) just is God’s free, creative self-expression. Free creaturely self-expression (ultimately in unfailing love and union with God) perfectly manifests free divine self-expression because the latter grounds and guarantees the former. But the entire economy of creation, even the Incarnation itself, only expresses or manifests (rather than determines or alters) God’s self-constituting triune fullness.

God always the same

Dali2

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.

_________________________

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)

____________________

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).

Actus Purus: Act 1 Scene 1

time-1
We’ve agreed that CEN (creation ex nihilo) ought to be understood in relationship to divine transcendence. Many open theists affirm CEN without, we suspect, thinking through what CEN implies. One might grant that it entails God’s freedom from creation (on the one hand) and creation’s utter and complete gratuity (on the other) without exploring what must be the case with God if his is this free, or the case with us if we are that contingent. So a good place to begin would be to grant that ‘divine transcendence’ is that about God which constitutes his freedom from creation and creation’s consequent gratuity (and even then we are not sitting inside transcendence taking notes). And this is something open theists can (and ought) to heartily affirm with the Orthodox. Disagreements emerge when we start to describe just what “that about God which…” is.

Fr Aidan did a great job of summarizing a core Orthodox commitment to divine transcendence centered upon God as actus purus (pure act). Last year we observed that this defines the core belief of ‘classical theism’. What’s the fundamental point of actus purus? It is the denial of all potentiality in God, all movement within God from ‘possibly this’ to ‘actually this’. Such “movement” is believed by the Orthodox to be equivalent to saying “God becomes God” which cannot be possible if it’s true (per CEN) that the fullness of God’s life/existence is utterly free from the world and God is self-existent. It is the world in its finitude which is essentially defined as temporal becoming, as the movement from ‘what it is not but could be possibly be’ to ‘actually being what it can possibly be’. If God is the ground of all contingent temporal becoming, it would seem to follow that this ground cannot “become” in any temporal sense. On the contrary, God is always-already all God can possibly be.

If ‘classical theism’ advances a view of divine transcendence as actus purus, ‘Process theism’, we’ve also noted, can be described as processu operis (a “work in progress” for those addicted to Latin phrases). What other alternative is there, right? Here God is “temporal becoming” par excellence, the One whose existence and perfections are constituted in and as the ever changing process of God’s ongoing relationship with the universe.

The vision and burden of this site is to challenge this either/or and to suggest (to the Orthodox on the one hand) that the unchanging perfections of God’s being/existence, those perfections which constitute Gods’ freedom from creation and creation’s utter gratuity (which are what CEN is essentially about and what actus purus aims to protect) are absolutely to be maintained but that these perfections need not be viewed as threatened by temporal experience per se, and (to open theists on the other hand) that these traditional perfections do not threaten or undermine the sense which open theists view God as engaged in the temporal processes and relations which define creation.

The question then becomes just what are those divine perfections which constitute God’s transcendence of the world? Well, there’s no apprehending the transcendent directly by the transcended. That goes without saying (pun intended). But created being can reflect upon itself (as bearing the divine image, as divine artistry, as divine playfulness [perLila’ in Hinduism] in terms of ‘divine vestigia’ within the created order) and therein perceive the ‘character’ or ‘image’ of those transcendent realities. It is certainly the legacy of the classical reflection upon these that they entail actus purus and thus preclude all possibility of temporal experience in God, for temporal experience is defined as “becoming” which is a movement from ‘unrealized potency’ to ‘realized actuality’, while the Process reflection has, as we noted, led to quite opposite conclusions. Our reflections land us in the middle. So it’s our challenge to identify those ‘transcendental’ perfections (of beauty, goodness, will, etc.) as the ground of all creaturely becoming and argue that they can subsist necessarily, fully and unchangingly in God without categorically precluding the possibility of all temporal experience; i.e., actus purus is false, but what it essentially seeks to protect is not false.

(Picture here.)