Time and Religion

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

First draft: criticisms gratefully received

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 the passage 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.

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. 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.

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.

Many men have had some experiences in which they have transcended the petty limitations of this, our mortal life, and found themselves contemplating the immensity of the eternal. It seems natural to characterize such experiences negatively, and contrast spiritual experiences with the temporal experiences of our ordinary lives. But it does not follow that the difference is in their not being temporal. When we have returned to the plain, we remember actions done or witnessed, words said or heard, which are inherently temporal. It is the pettiness, not the temporality, of our ordinary humdrum lives that is being denied.

Not only in rare moments of exaltation, but at other times of deep cogitation we extend our thought to think about the whole of time; and then often lose our grasp on its essential temporality, sometimes by assimilating it to space, but more immediately through a confusion between instants and intervals and a misunderstanding of what it is to be present. We think it essential 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 hence also a past and a future to contrast the present with. But a present what? a present instant? or a present interval? Augustine puts forward the argument of the ever- shrining present to throw doubt on the objective existence of time.. 1 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 is 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.

Plato relies on the converse notion---that of the ever- expanding present---in his characterization of the philosopher as the spectator of all time. 2 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. We 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 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.

But that argument depends upon a confusion between instants and intervals. It is the converse of Augustine's ever- shrinking present, and equally fails to show that it excludes a genuine future or a genuine past. 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, 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.

Theists are easily confused when they come to consider the relationship between God and time. `Is God in time?' they ask, 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. 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. Moreover 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.

Relativity with respect to frames of reference constitutes a 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.

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”dinger'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.

Philosophers have had other reasons for being against time. 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.

it, 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 that is not obviously true. Certainly with regard to 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. Moral virtues, too, often seem non-comparable: I cannot be tactful and understanding and at the same time courageously standing up for the right and the good.

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. Not only may some changes be changes to states that are non- comparable with one another, but many changes are of no moral significance: the alterations in my lungs as I give this lecture are neither for the better nor for the worse from a moral point of view. We live in a non-Stoic universe, where many stations are morally indifferent.

We naturally speculate about origins. 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. 3 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 X 1010 BC''. 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 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.

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 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. 4

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. 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 on to 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. 5 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 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'. 6 When we think about time from an impersonal or omnipersonal 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.7 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 after the last day, if the universe does come to an end, we are exposed to the question that embarrassed Augustine, `What was God doing before He created the world?'. 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.

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.'. But theologians, understandably, have felt uncomfortable with my sort of slapstick humour, and would rather that the question could not be asked than that it had to be answered with a jest. Augustine was evidently not wanting to take the question seriously, and for him and for many theologians since it was a merit of timelessness that it avoids awkward questions. Not only does it block the question of what God was doing before He created the universe, but---much more importantly- --it evades the deep problem of foreknowledge and free will. A timeless God can know---which omniscience requires--- without foreknowing---which raises awkward questions about man's freedom, and God's responsibility for our wicked deeds. 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---and thus avoided the evil. A road accident in Linz, a flu epidemic in Georgia, a mistaken murder by African freedom fighters, some fratricidal strife in Bagdad, and we should have been spared the horrors perpetrated by Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin and Sadam Hussein. A traditional Christian8 response to the problem of evil has been what Plantinga calls ``The Free-Will Response''. But the Free-Will Response immediately calls in question not only the omnipotence, but 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.

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. It is logically true that p or not-p, either there will be a sea battle tomorrow or there will not be a sea battle tomorrow, but this logical truth is a timeless one, and does not in any way now necessitate there being or there not being a sea battle tomorrow. I can, if I want, make myself gloomy by meditating on the truism that there is a day on which I shall die, and it must be either a Sunday or a Monday or a Tuesday, or a Wednesday, or a Thursday, or a Friday, or a Saturday: but this logical truth does not justify fatalism, so the ascription of timeless knowledge to God should not be seen as in any way compromising human freedom or the real contingency of future contingents.

Such a freedom is purchased at a price. We protect our privacy 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 u 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.

The choice is stark, and I do not want to make out that it must go in favour of the Judaeo-Christian concept of God. It could be that God is a God of the philosophers, or---more likely---that the Ultimate Reality is more timeless and impersonal still---the matter of the Nineteenth Century materialists, or some Theory of Everything expressed by quantum-cosmological formula. Those are real possibilities, and it may well be that a majority of those in Cambridge today incline to one or the other of them. Certainly many both here and elsewhere accept some of the implications, and hold that at some fundamental level time is unreal and free will an illusion. Discussion of these issues would take more time than we have available this evening. All I am saying now is that though Christianity may not be true, Christians should be true to it, and if they believe in a personal God, think through the implications, and accept the consequences. The same holds good for Jews and Moslems. A God who spake by the prophets or revealed himself to Mahomet is a God not entirely outside time; and a God who is not himself responsible for all the ills men inflict on one another is a God whose power is limited and foresight uncertain. We may say that the limitation is voluntary and the lack of foreknowledge no derogation of omniscience, since with some future propositions there is as yet no fact of the matter to be foreknown, but the Deity being described is a much more vulnerable one than the Omniscient, Omnipotent, Impassible God of the philosophers, in no way a God conjured up by an exercise of metaphysical speculation, but one that men might reasonably want to exist.

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 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 the 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,9 seeing life not as a meandering circle, but as a pilgrimage, a stretching out (epektasis).10

But if God is not a timeless being, we have to answer the difficult questions that traditional theologians were keen to avoid: questions about foreknowledge and fallibility, omnipotence and vulnerability, eternity and everlasting life.

Some thinkers try to save God's omniscience in the face of human freedom by denying a truth-value to future contingent statements. If there is no truth in either of the assertions that there is going to be a sea battle tomorrow or that there is going to be no sea battle tomorrow, then the fact that God does not know which of these is true is no derogation of His Omniscience. Omniscience does not mean that God knows everything: He does not know, for example, that two and two makes five. God does not know false propositions. He only knows all that there is to know, that is all true propositions; and if, as seems eminently reasonable, no truth-value can be attached to propositions about future events which are not yet present in their causes, then it is quite natural that an omniscient Deity does no know them. But that does not completely meet Boethius; point. It is no blasphemy to deny to God knowledge of what cannot be known, but it still runs counter to current ideas about God to suppose that He can opine wrongly about future events. God may not have know for sure what Ahab was going to do, but He did have views. 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.11

Eternity is more difficult. Although the Greek words (aidios and aion) naturally mean everlasting, there was a long tradition, from Philo onwards, of distinguishing eternity from everlastingness, or sempiternity as it was sometimes called. Even if eternity is not simple timelessness, it is to be understood in contrast to temporality as we experience it. Time teaches us our limitations. We forget the past and fear the future. Most of the past happened long before we were born, most of the future will happen long after we are dead. The time of our mortal life is brief, and often pressured. 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. Not so with God. No past time is beyond His ken, no future time beyond His concern; nor is an infinite mind compelled to deal with only one thing at a time. Eternity is not timelessness but time not subject to the limitations of our mortal existence.

We can understand the classical definitions of eternity if we keep in mind the crucial distinction between instant and interval and that when we talk of change and changelessness we need to specify with respect to what feature change is, or is not, going on. Thus when Boethius says nostrum nunc, quasi currens, tempus facit et sempiternum, divino vero nunc, permanens neque movens sese atque consistens, aeternitatem facit, the first nunc refers to the present instant, the second to God's present interval: time, whether just a finite period or everlasting time, is constituted by the moving present which divides future potentiality from the past which cannot unhappen; but eternity is constituted by God's present interval, which embraces the whole of time, and in that sense is always the same. The mathematician in me wants to niggle when Augustine says
Thou precedest all past times by the eminence of thine ever-present eternity,
rephrasing 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.

Augustine invok (s of God to sidestep the question of how God occupied His time before He created the world. That question, I suggested, was one we need not be embarrassed by; 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 Him before He had our world to worry about to thinking about ourselves if, as we are assured by many religious people, 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.

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, 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 agnostic 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.

1. Augustine, Confessions XI.
2. Plato: Republic VI 486a4-10.
3. Augustine, Confessions XI, xiii.
4. S.Shoemaker, `Time without Change', Journal of Philosophy, 66, 1969, pp.363-381; see further W.H.Newton-Smith, The Structure of Time, London, 1980, pp.20-23.
5. Leibniz' Third Paper to Dr Clarke, \S6, in H.G.Alexander, ed., The Leibnitz-Clarke Correspondence, Manchester UP, 1956, pp.26-27; see also Leibniz' Fifth Paper to Dr Clarke, \S\S55-58, pp.75-77; and Augustine, City of God, 11.4.2.
6. See Dr Clarke's Third Reply, \S5, in H.G.Alexander, ed., The Leibnitz-Clarke Correspondence, Manchester UP, 1956, p.32.
7. A.R.Richardson, Theological Word Book of the Bible, 1950.
8. And pre-Christian---see Plato, Republic X, 617e4- 5.
9. Phillipians 3:13.
10. Gregory of Nyssa had a strong sense of the Christian pilgrimage being a journeying and not just a state of having arrived. He was fond of quoting Phillipians 3:13, "leaving behind the things that are behind, let us press on to what is before"---a text often quoted also by Augustine-- -Confessions 9.10---and formulated his doctrine of epecstasis, stretching-out-ness, which carries an ineliminable sense of temporal passage.
11. It always surprises me that the 39 Articles speaks of God being without passions in Article 1 and as having suffered in Article 2 without any sense of inconsistency.
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