Who touched me?


I love this beautiful work of Ed de Guzman depicting the healing of the woman who suffered 12 years with an issue of blood (LK 8). I’ll get to her as an illustration toward the end  of my thoughts, but I first wish to make a few comments in light of discussions with Malcolm (Comments section) regarding God and time, something about which it seems all any of us can do is speculate. But I appreciate the opportunity that challenging conversation gives me to clarify and grow. Malcolm asks:

You say the reason you prefer the temporal view is because you can ‘posit changing states of knowledge in God’. But that seems to me precisely the problem, isn’t it? That would make God mutable, insofar as I can see, and don’t we both want to avoid that?

In answer to Malcolm, the only problem I see here is attributing to God self-constituting becoming. I don’t see a problem in attributing to God “changing states of mind” that are not self-constituting. I think the objection to this comes from understanding divine simplicity in a way that views everything we say about God as expressive of his ‘self-constituting’ plenitude, whether we’re speaking about the Father’s begetting of the Son or the procession of the Spirit (on the one hand), or the creation of the world and God’s relations to it (on the other), whether we’re speaking about God’s knowledge of himself as fount, as begotten, as proceeding (on the one hand), or his knowledge of the world in its changing actualities (on the other). If divine simplicity means that what God does freely in creating a contingent world is as self-constituting of God as the Father’s begetting the Son, then I can’t espouse divine simplicity.

I don’t think I’m dragging God “into time” when I say the possibility (but not the actuality) of what we call the creation’s experience of “becoming” is a feature of God’s abiding, unchanging specious present. The analogies I shared explain how we ourselves are familiar with extended specious presents that are not in themselves defined or interrupted by tacit awareness of other specious presents that come to be and cease to be. True, for us it’s never the case that any specious present is infinite. All our conscious experiences are subject to temporal becoming, even if we sometimes have “specious presents” that do, without loss or change, contain other specious presents that come and go. But it’s not obviously incoherent to suppose that a specious present can be infinite and eternal and also accommodate tacit specious presents which, we might say, mirror or reflect the eternally actual truth, beauty and goodness of God’s essential, self-constituting present.

I don’t think of God’s eternal “specious present” as an unblinking cosmic stare or the temporal equivalent of a knife’s edge, an atemporal point with no width or content. That kind of timeless instant is an abstraction pure and simple. What I’m trying to imagine is more like a ‘saddle’ than a ‘knife’s edge’. (Language strains!) It has content to it but no history of becoming. It is not a temporal “process,” i.e., not an actuality possessed of some unrealized self-constituting potential which in actualizing it becomes (and so forth). I agree God cannot be thought of as “taking time” to become the triune God of hypostatic/personal fullness. It seems to me that the classical tradition supposes that if this much is true about God, that’s all that can be true about God, i.e., if God is actus purus (in a personally, self-constituting sense) there’s no room left in that plenitude for God to freely, contingently “contract” (like fractals contract their infinitude in a self-same way across finite scales) into real relations with, and changing states of knowledge of, created realities.

If God does not “take time” to become the triune, self-sustaining God, I don’t think it follows that God cannot “make time” for us. Let me give an example that functions as an analogy or illustration. In LK 8 we have the story of the woman who suffered with an issue of blood for more than a decade. She had seen doctors and spent all she had but never improved. As the crowds press around Jesus, she manages to push her way through and touch the hem of his garment and be healed. What she did could hardly be noticed given the crowds. But what does Jesus say? He questions, “Who touched me?” A bit surprised, Peter responds, “You’re being touched by dozens of people pressing in on you. What do you mean?” (Perhaps Peter can stand in for all analytic philosopher-theologians!) Jesus basically answers, “Somebody’s faith touched me. I know it because I felt power leave me.”

Jesus-heals-the-bleeding-woman-157251Interesting. Jesus felt healing power leave him. My question is this: Was there less healing power available on account of power “leaving” Jesus? Was the healing virtue present in Christ partially depleted or used up on account of having “left” him? Is that divine relation some scarce commodity that gets used up as our needs spend it in acquiring the healing we seek? Obviously not. What then? Power really left, but it also really didn’t make a difference. It left in one sense, and didn’t leave in another. There’s a real relation, a real going out of divine power to heal, but no determination of measurable loss in return. The relation can be known ‘in its going out’ without being known ‘as a going out’ (i.e., as a lessening of itself). We might liken all of creation, and God’s changing knowledge of and within it, as ‘interest’ paid out into and as creation on an immeasurable ‘principal’. Creation enjoys the interest but never spends the principle, and there is real expenditure even if no loss of principle.

Analogously, I’m (doing a very poor job at) suggesting that God can experience the world as tacit contractions of his plenitude—in his ‘going out’ in sustaining us—without the relation in turn depleting/lessening him. But if the simplicity of God’s plenitude is taken to mean that any ‘going out’ (temporal or otherwise) constitutes a depletion or loss, is not this view as guilty of viewing divine plenitude in ‘competitive’ terms as is typically thought to be the case in reverse? If God has a changing thought in knowing the changing world, divine plenitude is thus “depleted” like a finite commodity? To answer ‘yes’ seems to assume a competitive view of God’s presence and activity in the world.

Let me wind things down. Malcolm asks how it can be that God comes to know created realities contingently without it being the case that this potential to know is, like all contingent possibilities, grounded in some antecedent actuality. For on my view only God’s specious present can be the required actuality. So how can God also be open to contingent experiences and states of knowing? How can what is necessarily actual be the ground for its own unrealized potential? That seems obviously self-contradictory.

The short answer, I think, is that it is self-contradictory if we’re talking about an openness to self-constituting potential. I don’t think there can be any unrealized self-constituting potential in God. But neither do I think all change is self-constituting. As I suggested above, if one views divine simplicity as a totalizing proposition that means everything we say about God must express what is ‘self-constituting’ of God, then I agree there can be no unrealized potential in God—no changing states of knowing, acting, or sustaining the world.

It’s not a question of supposing such immutability to be in competition with the world. It functions on another level altogether. I don’t suppose for a tiny temporal instant that David Hart would agree with my appropriation of him on this point, but he made an interesting comment last summer at Notre Dame in arguing on moral grounds for the absolute incompatibility of divine benevolence and eternal conscious torment. I can only hope others see the similarity. Hart writes:

The golden thread of analogy can stretch across as vast an apophatic abyss as the modal disjunction between infinite and finite or the ontological disproportion between absolute and contingent can open before us; but it cannot span a total antithesis. When we use words like “good,” “just,” “love” to name God, not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures, but instead as if they bear transparently opposite meanings, then we are saying nothing.


In the same Notre Dame piece, Hart says, “It must be possible to speak of God without mistaking him for a being among beings.” And if this applies to moral categories, and by extension generally existential ones, what of temporal categories? Are these neatly separable? I don’t know. But I get the sense that in supposing God to be absolutely atemporal/timeless (in the sense of precluding all conceivable potential to act or know freely in relationship to contingent creatures in ways not essentially self-constituting of God) we use words such as “know,” “act,” and “create” of God “not as if they are mysteriously greater in meaning than when predicated of creatures,” but instead “as if they bear transparently opposite meanings” and end up saying nothing.

I don’t see the obvious reduction of God’s infinite plenitude to mere finite becoming in supposing an unrealized possibility to create to be a necessary feature of God’s unchanging perfection. That is, God’s triune perfections are—necessarily—more than necessary. The divine disposition by which God constitutes himself in triune fullness is itself a disposition for self-constituting and freely self-expressive modes of being, his freedom to do other than constitute himself in triune bliss. In this sense, to act and to know contingently in relationship to the world are a free and contingent exercise of the disposition to be God in ways that express the divine identities without determining them. As Hart said on another occasion, and I freely appropriate his words knowing he intended them in some other way I don’t understand, “God even transcends his own transcendence.”

Prayer: Created by you I am all desire. Called by you I am all response. Received by you I am all at home.