RJS at Jesus Creed posted on the different views of time and how they relate to theology. This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a very long time – I remember doing a major research essay on the topic as an undergraduate. And so RJS’s post has prompted me to share some of my own thoughts on the topic. By the end of this post, we’ll have explored how the different views of time relate to views of God, human beings, time travel, and even Christmas.
One very popular view of time is often referred to as the “block time” or “block universe” view (I will avoid the latter so as to not confuse this subject with something to do with Minecraft). It regards all of time as existing “somewhen” in a way that would allow one, from a perspective outside of time, to see all of history. This view is obviously that adopted by those who speak of God as “outside of time.” But it is also the view of time that one has to adopt in order to envisage time travel as a possibility. Unless the past exists “somewhen” then the time traveler has no when to go to. (I am having to adapt language a bit to even talk about this topic, but I promise not to use the special tenses from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe).
The passage of time on such a view must be, from some perspective, illusory, as must our decisions and sense that we somehow determine how we will act or think. For all of time to be accessible either by a time traveler or from “outside” by a deity, then each moment must exist, and must exist timelessly. That we experience time as passing is an illusion, like being a character in a filmstrip, which thinks that the movie that is being projected on the screen one frame at a time is “real.”
I completely understand why this view of time is popular. In religion, it allows a straightforward way for God to be all knowing and in control of everything. In sci-fi, it allows for time travel. But the cost is great. It not only eliminates genuine freedom for humans, it makes our sense of personhood illusory as well. And for those who think that Christmas has something to do with incarnation, there is no meaningful sense in which a God outside of time could genuinely become part of this illusion and experience it as we do.
And so I disagree with RJS’s assertion that “The block-universe view is consistent with divine omniscience and with human agency and free choice. There is no “puppet master” and no deterministic path from beginning to end.” This is not a deterministic view of the universe, it is ever more rigid. Outcomes are not merely determined by what went “before” them but there is no genuine before and after, and so outcomes are eternally determined and only appear deceptively to us to be outcomes. Those who reject young-earth creationism’s view of the natural world as involving deception on the part of the Creator may justifiably feel that, theologically speaking, envisaging a God who creates a block universe involves something not altogether different, and feel justified in rejecting this view.
The alternative is to view time as simply succession, and while it may cost us realistic hope of time travel, the advantages seem worth it, even to this fan of Doctor Who.
The view that the universe is unfolding and thus the future is genuinely future does not in and of itself exclude determinism, and indeed anyone who claims to be completely free and unconstrained has not given this topic serious thought. Our biology constrains us. Our culture and upbringing influence us. And this makes us all at least somewhat predictable. If you have the gene that makes cilantro taste like soap to you, then when you go to a restaurant, you won’t order a dish heavy on cilantro, assuming you’ve tasted cilantro before and know what is in the soup.
Current science suggest that there is in reality at least a measure of indeterminacy. If one is inclined to relate such scientific perspectives to a traditional theistic view of God, then this would suggest that the future is genuinely open in some respects. As LOST put it, there are constants, but there are variables, and among the most unpredictable variables on one level are human beings. Our atoms are as predictable or unpredictable as any others in the universe, but somehow the configuration of them allows us to decide to either get up and go for a spontaneous walk, or stay seated and write a spontaneous blog post.
If one wishes to posit a deity who, even if not “outside of time” (because such language is meaningless nonsense if time is not something that persists in a manner that is not merely quasi-spatial but counterintuitively enduring), may foreknow what will occur, it is not impossible to envisage this, assuming that it is possible for information to flow from the future to the past in some manner. But even if that is possible, what one ends up with is a very bored and constrained God who, like Muad’dib in the Dune books, having foreseen the future can do nothing but say what he foresaw he would say. If one posits a deity who not only can foreknow the future but whose foreknowledge is always correct, then that deity would spend all eternity doing what God foresaw that God would do, and would be unable to change anything since that change would either simply be action that God foresaw God doing or would invalidate God’s foreknowledge.
It is perhaps best simply not to try to relate an anthropomorphic view of God to either view of time, and to envisage the ultimate, the transcendent, in other ways.
But whether one wishes to think about these topics theologically or not, hopefully it is clear from this post that science fiction provides a great many opportunities to reflect on and explore the implications of different views of time.