Time and Religion

A Darwin lecture delivered in Cambridge on March 3rd, 2000

Published by Cambridge University Press as chapter 8 of Time, ed. K.Ridderbos, 2002, pp.143-168.

Religion does not take kindly to time. For many people the impulse to religion is generated by a desire to escape from the tyranny of time: we seek a refuge from the changes and chances of this fleeting world, and hope to evade the inevitable mortality of our temporal existence, by moving to a higher plane of reality, where the limitations of temporality are transcended by the eternal verities of absolute existence. And, independently of our motives for seeking God, it would seem to derogate from His perfection to subject the Almighty to the corrosion of time. And so the Greeks, once they began to emancipate themselves from the all-too-human gods of Olympus, started to posit a timeless Absolute, an impassible, unmoved mover, the ground of our being, and perhaps the worthy recipient of our worship, but not an active intervener in our affairs or a person we could communicate with.

The God of the philosophers was clearly very different not only from the Olympian deities but equally from the Yaweh of the Jews. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was thought to have intervened on many occasions in the course of the history of Israel, giving them a helping hand in their escape from Egypt, and a chastening one when they went after false gods. The word of the Lord came to the prophets, often unwelcomely as it did also to David and Ahab when they strayed from the strait and narrow path of righteousness. Jesus constantly addressed God as Abba, Father, and the Christian understanding was based on God's having decisively intervened in sending His son into the world and in having raised Him from the dead, something that a Parmenidean God would never have stooped to do.

See transparency There was an obvious tension. Tertullian recognised it: ``What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?'' he rhetorically asked. But most people preferred not to be very much aware of the tension. Philo sought to accommodate Judaism to Greek philosophy by understanding most of the Old Testament mythologically, much as modern believers reconcile Genesis with geology or cosmology by insisting that the account of creation is not to be taken literally but expresses a deeper, metaphorical truth. Justin Martyr sought to make Christianity philosophically respectable, and his efforts were followed by a concerted endeavour on the part of the Fathers in late antiquity to achieve an intellectually respectable understanding of Christianity. God became more and more respectable, and less and less human. In the contest between Athens and Jerusalem, Athens won.

I want to challenge that result. The God of the philosophers cannot do the work the Christian God is required to do. I shall argue that in spite of great ingenuity on the part of Augustine and Aquinas, we do not have an intelligible account of how a timeless Being can act in history; in particular, how a timeless Being can, like a father, pity His children, hear their prayers, and on occasion respond to their petitions. In this lecture, therefore, I shall first unravel the different considerations which have led thinkers to hold that God must be timeless, then I shall argue that that is to depersonalise Him, and finally I shall try and sketch a more positive---and temporal---view of eternity.

See transparency We suppose God to be timeless for many reasons. Religious experiences seem out of this world, and so, we think, outside time too. Thinking about the God of the philosophers is an exercise in the theological superlative, which all too easily oversteps the bounds of common sense and even intelligibility. And if God is timeless, we can fend off awkward questions---about foreknowledge and free will, and about the beginning and end of the universe--- which otherwise would be difficult to answer. Underlying these considerations are certain mistakes---about the nature of change, about time's similarity with space, and a confusion between instants and intervals. Once these are recognised, we no longer feel impelled to think that God must be timeless.

See transparency Time implies the possibility of change, and Plato was against change. We can sympathize. It is natural, when change rears its ugly head, to want to stop it, not only for the immediate now, but for ever in principle. If reality bes rather than becomes, then we can discount unwelcome changes as mere transitory appearances, and not permanently real. Many truths, for instance those of mathematics and the natural sciences, are either timeless or omnitemporal, holding at all times, as they do also in all places and for all persons. Just as the laws of nature are invariant over time, so the Ultimate Reality must be changeless and free from any temporal variation.

Plato had a further, more explicit, argument for the changelessness of God. If God changed from one state to another, then either the change was for the worse, in which case God ended up less good than He would have been if He had not changed, or the change was for the better, in which case God's previous state was less good than it might have been. In either case God would be less than perfect. The perfection of God requires that He be changelessly at the acme of perfection. But this argument assumes that there is a strict linear ordering of states with respect to moral merit, and this is not obviously true. Many changes---my breathing in and my breathing out---are matters of indifference so far as moral merit is concerned, and even where moral virtues are concerned, they are not always either compatible or comparable: I cannot be tactful and understanding and at the same time courageously standing up for the right and the good. It is the same as with aesthetic merit: we hesitate to say that either the Parthenon is more beautiful that Santa Sophia, or else Santa Sophia is more beautiful than the Parthenon, and do not feel impelled to hold that either Bach is better than Beethoven, or vice versa. There does not have to be an single uniform order of over-all merit, and once we recognise this, Plato's argument from perfection falls to the ground.

See transparency More fundamentally, Plato has misconstrued the logic of change. When we talk of change, we need to be able to answer the question `change with respect to what?'. At a Gaudy I come across old Bloggs, and exclaim `Why! you have not changed one bit.' I mean that he has still the same characteristics, is still telling the same funny stories, making the same, rather feeble puns. But, of course, he has changed in other respects: he is fatter, balder, richer than he was when we had adjacent rooms in Garden Court. Indeed, he would not be able to tell those funny stories if his lips did not move and his lungs breathe in and out. It is quite reasonable for Plato and the psalmist to want God to be unchangingly reliable and faithful, but it does not follow that He must therefore be absolutely changeless.

See transparency Theists are easily confused when they come to consider the relationship between God and time. If God exists, He is the ultimate explanation, the ultimate because, the first cause, the creator, the maker of all things. He therefore made time, and so cannot be in time, since He existed before time was. But is time the sort of thing that can be made? If God made the universe, we can ask ``When did He make it?'' and answer ``About 1.5 times 1010BC''. But once we see that time is different from change and things that can change, we can no longer ask ``When did God make time?''. Many philosophers have been reluctant to allow this, because they think it downgrades God to being a mere Demiurge, a glorified Lord Nuffield, who manufactures things within a pre-existing time and space which constrain His activities. But what is being denied is not the ultimacy of God but that the relation of God and time is one of {\it making. God is not the mechanical cause of time, but He is the explanatory because. Time was not made by God but stems from God as being a personal being.

See transparency Theists are similarly confused when they ask themselves `Is God in time?', and feel obliged to answer `No', for fear of making God subject to time. We do not locate God in space, for that would be to circumscribe and limit Him. God is outside space, we are inclined to say; we can well imagine ourselves having a non-spatial experience---perhaps listening to the music of the spheres, perhaps in deep conversations with the saints who have gone before. Boethius puts it well in his De Trinitate: God is not present in any place, but every place is present to God. Hence, it would seem by parity of reasoning, God is outside time too, and when we are with Him, our experience will be timeless too. But time is not that like space. When I first tried to think about the two, I concluded that though space was like time, time was not like space; and I was careful to call my book A Treatise on Time and Space, and not on Space and Time. The spatial analogy is misleading, and does nothing to show that God is timeless. Although God is not located within time, He is not outside it either, since every time is a time when He exists.

God's time has come under attack in the Twentieth Century from a quite different quarter. Einstein and Minkowski seem to have justified Boethius: time is on a par with space. Instead of the absolute distinction, presupposed by common sense and articulated by Newton, we should regard spacetime as the underlying reality, with time and space being merely perspectival effects depending on our point of view. But time is not just a fourth dimension of space. In the Special Theory, which is essentially a theory of electromagnetism, the fundamental manifold is spacetime, not space, and it is not just a four-dimensional analogue of our familiar three-dimensional space, but a (3+1)-dimensional manifold with a Lorentz signature. The difference between timelike and spacelike dimensions and between timelike and spacelike separations is profound, and the light-cone topology of spacetime is quite different from that of a normal Euclidean space, however many dimensions the space may have.

See transparency Moreover, the Special Theory of Relativity seems to make the distinction between past, present and future relative to frames of reference. In one frame of reference I shall ascribe a future date to some distant event, while in another I shall ascribe a past date. This is a much more serious objection. If God exists, and can know of events happening, and whether one event happened before some other event, then there is some divine criterion of simultaneity, defining some absolute frame of reference, so that not all inertial frames of reference are equally good. That contravenes the Principle of Relativity as commonly expounded, but is not the scientific blasphemy it is often taken to be. We can best see this if we meditate on Newtonian mechanics. Newtonian mechanics was also relativistic. All inertial frames of reference were equally good. No rest frame in space could be identified by mechanical means alone. But this did not mean that none could exist, or that absolute space was a meaningless concept. Newton argued that it was meaningful, and opined that the centre of mass of the solar system might be at rest in it. The fact that it could not be identified by mechanical means did not mean that it could not be identified at all. Here in Newton's Cambridge it is an act of piety to entertain the possibility that his other researches might have been successful, and that the book of Ezekiel, properly understood, gave guidance on the matter. Had Newton been able to plumb the depths of Old Testament hermeneutics to identify those frames of reference that were truly at rest, he would not have hesitated to accept its findings. Nor were physicists obliged to resort to theology. Physics itself gave grounds for identifying an absolute frame of reference. That was the original reason for the Michelson-Morley experiment. Although an absolute frame of reference could not be identified by purely mechanical means, once physics extended beyond mechanics, it became possible that some further considerations might enable us to pick out an absolute frame of reference. The conjunction of Newtonian mechanics with electromagnetism gave rise to the ether, which could plausibly be regarded as being at absolute rest. In the event the ether was not discovered, and Newtonian mechanics was modified to bring it in line with electromagnetic theory. But if the ether had been discovered, it would not have shown Newtonian mechanics to be wrong, but merely vindicated Newton in showing that an absolute frame of reference absolutely at rest, though not required by Newtonian mechanics, was nonetheless consistent with it. So, too, now, if divine omniscience gives rise to hyperplanes of absolute simultaneity, there will be no inconsistency with the Special Theory. The Principle of Relativity will still hold: it will hold within the Special Theory, which is a theory of electromagnetism about electromagnetic phenomena. If we want to deal with the emission of photons in distant places, or the reception of wireless messages, or the distance between atoms in a molecule bound together by electric forces, then the best way to harmonize all our data into a coherent whole is to ascribe to distant events the dates given by the Lorentz transformation. All the equations expressing electromagnetic laws are covariant under that transformation, just as all those expressing the laws of Newtonian mechanics are covariant under the Galilean transformation.

See transparency Many scientists will be unpersuaded. For them it would be a blasphemy to allow science to be contaminated by theology, and if Newton was a theologian, it is something to keep quiet about, the later infirmity of what had been a noble scientific mind. But it is not just the theologians who want to restrict the Principle of Relativity. Many workers in General Relativity posit a cosmic time and a preferred frame of reference, and on any realist construal of quantum mechanics, there is a matter of fact about the time when Schr\"odinger's cat actually dies, and whether it was simultaneous with, before, or after, some distant event, say the absorption of a photon by a sodium atom in Alpha Centauri. If absolute time be anathema, let General Relativity and quantum mechanics be anathematized too.

See transparency Assimilating time to space was a mistake, but it was not just a mistake. It was supported by further features of our thinking about time. When we think, not about time as it appears in physics and natural processes, but about our way of thinking of it, we notice that we can choose our temporal standpoint. I can choose to think of Cambridge not as it is now, but as it was in my youth, or as it was when Newton or Darwin were in residence, in something like the way that I can see things not only from my own point of view, but from yours, or from that of some historical figure. I can conjugate over tenses, as I do over persons, and can, to a limited extent, free myself from the here and now, as I can, to a very limited extent, from the egocentricity of me and mine. In our philosophical moments, we try to extend our thought to think about the whole of time; and then often lose our grasp on its essential temporality through a confusion between instants and intervals and a misunderstanding of what it is to be present---itself a word that can be used in either a spatial or a temporal sense. We think it es\-sent\-ial to time that there should be a present---if we de-locate events from our temporal sequence, we deny that they ever really happened: `once upon a time' is our way of indicating a fiction. And together with a present there must also be a past and a future to contrast the present with. But a present what? a present instant? or a present interval? Augustine puts forward an argument---I call it the argument of the ever-shrinking present---to throw doubt on the objective existence of time. Although we talk of the present, we find when we think about it that whatever interval we had called the present, it is not really all present but is partly future and partly past. The present year is the year 2000 AD, but January and February are already past and April is yet to come. And similarly with months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds, until we seem forced to the conclusion that there is no time that is truly present, and so no real time at all. But what we have actually shown is that what counts as the present interval depends on context, and contexts vary. There is no absolute present interval, but rather a sequence of nested intervals that converge on an instant, the present instant, much as Cantor constructed a Cauchy sequence of nested intervals, converging to a punctiform limit, in his definition of a real number.

See transparency See transparency Plato relies on the converse notion---that of the ever-expanding present---in his characterization of the philosopher as the spectator of all time. He is supported by our ability to adopt different temporal standpoints, and can think of things as we would have seen them had we been seeing them then, in much the same way as we can project ourselves into other men's minds and see things from their point of view. Here, in a Darwin lecture, it is an exercise of college piety to think about Charles Darwin, and use appropriate tenses to refer to things from some time in his life, and say that when Darwin was on the Beagle, he had already won a good reputation in Cambridge, or that when Darwin was on the Beagle, he was thinking more about birds than girls. So, too, the philosopher can think about the Big Bang and what it would have been like to have been around then, and we can wonder whether or not there will be a Big Crunch, and envisage the universe either being cremated in a final implosion or subsiding without even a whimper into an uneventful heat death. When we survey the whole of time (and the whole of existence), our own life seems to be no longer of great consequence, and we can easily suppose that since all time is present to us, none of it is past or future, and therefore it is not really time, since time is essentially a passage from future potentiality through present actuality to past immutability.

See transparency Both these arguments depend upon a confusion between instants and intervals. Provided we keep that distinction firmly in mind, we shall be able to understand what Plotinus, Augustine and Boethius were driving at, and see that it does not show that God is timeless, though it does help characterize God's experience of time in contrast to ours, and thus give us our idea of eternity. Philosophers are much given to ``egotheism'', and are very ready to take a God's-eye view of the universe: as I survey the whole of reality, the Big Bang and the Big Crunch are within the ambit of my thought, but their being present to my mind, and within the present aeon (note the two different senses of `present'), does not preclude their being, in the one case before the present instant and therefore past, and in the other case after the present instant and therefore future. God's time differs from our time in the reach of the present interval. The time of our mortal life is brief. Most of the past happened long before we were born, most of the future will happen long after we are dead. Not so with God. No past time is beyond His ken, no future time beyond His concern. His present interval embraces all our pasts and all our futures. This is the sense of Augustine's {\narrower \eightrm \noindent Thou precedest all past times by the eminence of thine ever-present eternity, and thou goest beyond all future times (though the mathematician in me wants to niggle and rephrase it in the delta-epsilon notation, and say that for every past date there is an antecedent one within God's ever-present eternity, but I will spare you my nigglomania).

We can see why Plotinus, Augustine and Boethius think that eternity is static. If God's present interval embraces the whole of time, it is in that sense always the same. But it does not follow that God's present instant must be always the same too. In contrasting eternity with time,

See transparency

nostrum nunc, quasi currens, tempus facit et sempiternum: divinum vero nunc, permanens neque movens sese atque consistens, aeternitatem facit. (our present, as it were running, creates time and everlastingness: the divine present, remaining the same and not moving itself, creates eternity.)

Boethius is using the first nunc to refer to the present instant, the second to God's present interval. But time, whether ours or God's, whether just a finite period or everlasting time, is constituted by the moving present which divides future potentiality from the past which cannot unhappen. Eternity is not untime, but all time, not timelessness, nor changelessness, but time not subject to the limitations of our mortal existence. Time teaches us our limitations.

See transparency We forget the past and fear the future, and often feel overwhelmed by the pressure of events; we just don't have time to get through the business of the day, and live in a perpetual state of having left undone the things we ought to have done. But no part of the past is so remote as to be absent from the unforgetful memory of God, nor need He face the future with impotent foreboding; nor again is an infinite mind compelled to deal with only one thing at a time, and be unable to cope with the rush of modern life. The contrast is not between our time and God's timelessness, but between our limitation and God's lack of limitation. And that contrast is one that goes far beyond our finite intellectual capacities, to include our moral and personal deficiencies. It is a difference of values, not just a difference of scope.

See transparency We can see the significance of these evaluative issues, if we turn to the further considerations that have inclined thinkers to adopt a timeless understanding of eternity. A timeless understanding of eternity avoids two awkward questions. In the first place it avoids our having to reconcile God's omniscience with human freedom. If God is outside time, He cannot know in advance what we are going to do---He just knows it timelessly. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, could foretell, but His predictions were not infallible, since He might warn us to mend our ways, and on occasion repented of the evil He had planned to visit upon us. But if God knows immutably and infallibly what we are going to do, it seems that we shall have no choice but to do it, and it is hard to blame us for what we were predestined to do. Philosophers may cavil and argue that to foreknow is not to cause, but to ordinary men the conclusion is inescapable: if God is omniscient, He knows what I am going to do; in which case, I shall not be able not to do it, and if it is a bad thing I am going to do, it is God's fault that it is done, since being also omnipotent, He could have prevented me---if necessary by causing me to die. A road accident in Linz, a flu epidemic in Georgia, a mistaken murder by African freedom fighters, some fratricidal strife in Baghdad, and we should have been spared the horrors perpetrated by Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein. A traditional Christian response to the problem of evil has been what Plantinga calls ``The Free-Will Defence''. But the Free-Will Response immediately calls in question the omniscience of God. If it is really up to me whether I go on the rampage or restrain my murderous instincts, listening politely to my pupils or colleagues as they commit fallacy after fallacy, God cannot be certain about what is going to happen at tomorrow's seminar: my restraint may finally break down, and I may dispatch the ill-deserving undergraduate with a carving knife.

See transparency Christian thinkers---Origen, Augustine, Milton---have sought to relieve God of responsibility for our misdeeds by arguing that foreknowing is not the same as causing. That is true. But, as Jonathan Edwards, the first American to publish his thoughts on these matters, pointed out, it does not alter the case. God's foreknowledge may not cause me to sin, but if it cannot be wrong, it cannot be the case that I shall not sin, so it cannot be up to me whether I do sin or not. At the time of decision there is no real possibility of my not sinning, and if my sinning is foregone conclusion, then, though it may be expedient to go through the motions of blaming me, it will not be just to do so. I cannot in all fairness be made to carry the can. God is the residual bearer of responsibility---and anyway if He is omnipotent, He could have spared me from a fate worse than death by causing me to die. Boethius was sensitive to Jonathan Edwards' argument. Human freedom to decide future action precludes divine foreknowledge in the present and past. But to ascribe to God fallible opinions about what was yet to happen would be, so Boethius says, blasphemy. Quod nefas judico. The only way to preserve both divine infallibility and human freedom is to remove God from time altogether, so that His knowledge cannot be foreknowledge, and cannot be ascribed to Him now or at any time in the past, and so cannot be subsequently shown to be mistaken.

See transparency Such a freedom is purchased at a price. We protect God's infallibility, but deprive ourselves of our protector. God is no longer our comforter, our confidant, or our counsellor, if He is not here to help us when we seek His help, or to hear us when we want to open our hearts to Him, or ask His advice. The God of the philosophers is an Epicurean God, who leaves us alone because He is not interested in us---a better God than the capricious and sometimes malevolent deities of the pagan pantheon, but not a God to give solace to the soul or to support us amidst the manifold temptations of this troublesome life. But then why bother to believe in such a God, if it makes so little difference whether He exists or not? Rather than think of a personal deity that is unconcerned with human affairs, we do better as philosophers to think of an impersonal, because timeless, Ultimate Reality, which might also be the Ultimate explanation of everything, which we might well reverence and admire, but which it would be inappropriate to approach, to argue with, or seek absolution from. Plato used the neuter, to theion, of the Form of the Good, and the Schoolmen, more significantly, since they were professing Christians, coined the term ens realissimum, again in the neuter, when talking of the Being to which Anselm had addressed his Proslogion.

I have drawn a stark contrast between the personal, and perhaps anthropomorphic, God of the Bible and the impersonal Ultimate Being of the philosophers, and in the end I believe that those are the only alternatives open to us. But the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy has hoped to be able to hold both these views in creative tension, and to find a way of embracing both in a higher synthesis. Augustine and Aquinas made use of the distinction between deciding to do something and actually doing it. It was some time ago that I decided to give this lecture but only now that I am actually giving it. Although God's actions take place in time, His decision to do them might have been timeless. But that will not give us what we want. It might account for some major strategic moves in the story of our redemption, but cannot plausibly explain God's timely response to the situations in which men find themselves and the petitions which they sometimes make. Unless we regard men as mere puppets whose actions were determined long before they even came into existence, we have to allow that their free decisions introduce new factors into the reckoning. A temporal God can reckon with them anew: a timeless being might be said to be timelessly minded to perform specified actions at specified times or in specified situations, but can never be more than a distant Deist Deity, remote and uninvolved in the doings and sufferings of particular men.

A God who spake by the prophets or was incarnate in Jesus Christ, is a God not entirely outside time; if such a God did exist, His relations with time would be both simpler and more complicated than has been traditionally supposed. They would be simpler in that the Bible could be understood in a straightforward way without the need for re-interpreting all accounts of God's actions in the world and communications with men. Not only would we have a more intelligible account of God, but we should have a better view of man. Whereas the Preacher of {\it Ecclesiastes in his atheistical despair held that there was nothing new under the sun, we should be able to believe that men could be genuinely creative, and that we had it in us to do something which was our own original contribution to history of the world. However much we had messed things up hitherto, it would be possible to form a new mind metanoia and make a new start. We could leave behind us the things that were past and stretch out towards future aspirations, ta men opiso epilanthanomenos tois de emprosthen epektein\-o\-menos seeing life not as a timeless entity or a meandering circle, but---a point recognised by some of the Eastern Fathers, notably Gregory of Nyssa---as a pilgrimage, a stretching out an epektasis.

But if God is not a timeless being, we have to answer the difficult questions about foreknowledge and fallibility that traditional theologians were keen to avoid. Although the prophets were not always making predictions when they prophesied, they did on occasion predict, and the word of the Lord was vulnerable to subsequent falsification. Pharaoh might have not hardened his heart, and might have let God's people go with best wishes for their future happiness in a new land. The issue is not one of foreknowledge but forethinking: if man is free to make up his mind what he is going to do, then, if God cares at all about what we do, He will form opinions which may be falsified in the event: quod nefas judico. But is it really a blasphemy for a Christian to think that God might be disappointed in His expectations of what a particular person might do? The God of the philosophers is above that sort of thing. He needs to be infallible, or the philosophers will not think much of Him. But the gospel is foolishness to the Greeks. It speaks of a God who is vulnerable, and suffers a much worse fate than merely being wrong in some of His predictions.

See transparency Augustine invoked the timelessness of God to sidestep the question of how God occupied His time before He created the world. We naturally speculate about origins. Even if time was not itself a thing made by God when He created the universe, it might only have come into existence then. Empiricists from Aristotle onwards have maintained that time involves change, and that where there is no change there is no time either. This has enabled them to sidestep awkward questions about the beginning---what it was like in the beginning? what happened before the Big Bang? what was God doing before He created the world?---by saying that `before the Big Bang' is a meaningless phrase. But `before the Big Bang' is not a meaningless phrase: we can understand it quite well. For time does not imply change, but only the possibility of change---a point which although evidently true, I found hard to prove to my satisfaction in the face of the verificationist ethos of our age. I did devise a rather thin, logic-chopping proof, using tense logic, but Sydney Schumacher produced a much better one, in which we are faced with a choice between having horrendously complicated laws of nature or allowing the existence of a temporal vacuum, that is to say an interval during which nothing whatsoever happened.

Time is not the measure of motion, but motion is characteristically used as the measure of interpersonal time. If we are to establish a way of measuring duration we all can use, we need to be able to recognise intervals we can deem to be isochronous (of equal duration). We need processes subject to strong symmetry conditions, so that we can apply them to different durations on different occasions. Periodic processes are particularly suitable, and since, by some good fortune, there seems to be a natural rhythm in the universe, whereby all periodic processes keep in step, a large number of different clocks are available. We naturally project this requirement of measurability onto time itself, and think of it as homogeneous, and hence causally inert. But that is only the way we like to think about time, not the way it has to be in itself. If we do think of time as homogeneous and causally inert, we are vulnerable to Leibniz' challenge to Dr Clarke, of Caius College, to explain why God made the world when He did, and not a year earlier. Since, ex hypothesi, there are no antecedent circumstances to distinguish the two scenarios, there can, granted the translational symmetry of time, be no reason whatsoever why God should have chosen to create at the one time rather than the other. But to Leibniz' question we can return the Anti-Asinine Answer that when faced with perfect symmetry it is rational to break it arbitrarily in order to get one's teeth into something definite rather than remain suspended in hungry indecision. God could have chosen to set off the Big Bang when He did for no other reason than that He wanted to create sometime, and must at some time decide to get going. This is not something strange and mysterious. When I used to give the moral philosophy lectures in Oxford, I had to cover weakness of the will. My undergraduate audience were completely understanding when I directed their thoughts to being in bed and needing to get up, and how the knowledge that one ought to get up now failed to activate their limbs, but how eventually, for no particular reason they finally did decide to get up. From the outside we cannot explain why one time rather than another, but from the inside we well appreciate the force of the answer `I just decided to'. When we think about time from an impersonal point of view, we think of it as homogeneous, all times being alike: but when we think of it from a first-personal point of view, we naturally differentiate between dates, the present being of pre-eminent concern, and different from the future, which in turn is different from the past. New Testament scholars sometimes distinguish kairos from chronos. Linguistically the distinction is open to attack, but conceptually the distinction is one that needs to be made (and here in Cambridge was formulated long ago by F.M. Cornford in his Microcosmographia Academica, and articulates the thought that the time could be ripe for God to create the world without there being any chronological measure to measure out the years, or any reason chronologically speaking, why that date should be chosen in preference to any other.

Leibniz' challenge can be met. But if it is meaningful to ask questions about time before the Big Bang or, supposing the universe does come to an end, after the last day, we are exposed to the questions that embarrassed Augustine, `What was God doing before He created the world?' and `What will he do after the Day of Judgement?'. Some thinkers in the ancient world worried, in a very modern fashion, that He might be being idle. We can picture the Higher Education Funding Council sending a form to God for Him to fill in, to prove that He ought not to be made redundant because He really is pulling His weight. The Future Projects column looks quite good---a lot of co-authorships with people like Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, even Royalty like David and Solomon, and the citations index is going to look very good indeed, but the Work Actually Completed and the Current Activities columns are blank, and there is no chance of even a two-star rating.

See transparency We need not pursue this line of enquiry further. The very arrogance of the questions, as I have phrased them, tells us all we need to know of the questioner and his culture, evidently unmindful of the psalmist's injunction `Be still then, and know that I am God.'. It projects on God our own limited resources. We are easily bored, and suppose that God might be likewise. Our concern becomes more personal when we move from thinking about God, before He had our world to worry about, to thinking about ourselves if we are fated to enjoy---or endure---unending existence in an after-life. The young Kipling, it is said, told his brother that if he was good, he would go to heaven and play a harp sitting on a cloud; ``And if I am not?'' enquired his younger brother; ``The alternative is even worse.'' More modern fantasies run heaven and hell together. Lord Bruce-Gardyne, writing in the Spectator about his own impending death, told of a fisherman who found himself with a fishing rod by the crystal stream, itself filled with an abundance of fishable fish. But eventually even fishing palled, and he asked an attendant if he could do something else. ``No, Sir. Fishing is your line.'' ``But this is intolerable; I might as well be in hell.'' ``Where did you think you were, Sir?'' Time is a severe test of value. Very little of what we do survives the test of time. Most of our life is frittered away on trivial pursuits that only fail to be recognised as such because they are transitory, and are over and done with before we discover their vacuity. But if we had all eternity to occupy, the emptiness of our endeavours could not be evaded by passing on to other enterprises equally empty. In this life we can divert our thoughts from our true situation, and by many divertissements seek to kill time until finally time kills us: but when we have all the time in the world, many things we prize now because life is short will no longer have any rarity value, and will cease to be precious in our long-distance eyes. When everything that is possible has become actual in the fullness of time and there is nothing new under the sun, we fear that we shall find, like the Preacher, that all is vanity, and the whole of existence a vanity of vanities, as we eat out our hearts by the quiet waters of futility. I cannot answer that charge or assuage that fear. My values are as circumscribed as yours, and I have no warrant to affirm that they will not be eroded by time. But it is not clear that all values must be eroded, or that some Second Law of Spiritual Dynamics necessitates a gradual run-down into eternal tedium. It could be so, but it does not have to be so. And indeed we have some grounds for hope. The view of the universe that associates continual degrading with the passage of time is a closed view, and there are reasons for holding that any closed view is conceptually inadequate. Theism, which claims that the fundamental reality is a personal being and the fundamental explanation a personal explanation is often accused of being anthropomorphic. But though men have feet of clay, they also have infinite aspirations, aspirations they are not altogether unable to realise. There is an infinite diversity about humanity which might give grounds for infinite occupation and enjoyment. And if God is, as the Christians aver, a God with a human face, it could be that infinite existence was something to enjoy rather than endure.

That is a hope. It is only a hope. We cannot be sure. All I have attempted to show is that, contrary to much theological teaching, religion does not need to make out that God is timeless, or that time is in some fundamental sense unreal. A vulnerable God can be temporal, exposed to the future ill will of autonomous agents. If God has created us free, then only in some eschatological Kingdom of Ends will He not be hurt by our imperfect choice. Perhaps that is too remote a possibility for us to look for. We can only look forward a little way, limited by death. Our search for the ultimate truth or the end of existence is necessarily a search without certitude, and within the compass of what we know the atheist can only hope, and the Christian pray, that death when it comes will come no longer as an enemy, but not yet as a friend.

Further Reading

I have found these two books invaluable:
Richard Sorabji, Time, Creation and The Continuum, Duckworth, London, 1983.
Christopher Kirwan, Augustine, Routledge, London, 1989, pbk 1991, chapters 7, 8 and 9.
My own views about Foreknowledge and Vulnerability are worked out in The Future, Blackwell, Oxford, 1989.
My views on time generally are worked out in A Treatise on Time and Space, Methuen, London, 1973, especially \S\S55 and 56.

Copyright Cambridge University Press, 2002 Return to home page

Return to bibliography