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 yet 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.
That 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 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.
Hartshorne 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)
There 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.
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.