Science and Theology 3 – A Matter of Time (RJS)

Last week I began a discussion of a recent book by The Rev. Dr. Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science. This is a rather academic book – but the kind of book that someone who wants to move beyond the culture war issues of young earth, old earth, and evolution should find useful. In this book Dr. Polkinghorne looks at the ways in which the insights from science and the scientific way of thinking may be used to help Christians explore theology in our 21st century context.

The third chapter of this book looks at the questions of space and time – especially the question of time. The relationship of God to time has been a matter of speculation for millenia. St. Augustine pondered this at length in his Confessions. In this chapter Polkinghorne suggests that the nature of time is a metaphysical question – not a scientific question, although the range of possible views is constrained by science.

How scientific discoveries are interpreted in forming a metaphysical world view depends on the metascientific convictions of the interpreter. Consequently, it is a perfectly proper possibility for theological considerations to play their part in decisions relating to the adoption and defense of a particular account of temporality. The context of science does not of itself provide a complete determination of what that view should be. (p. 55)

Within the scientific constraints on the nature of time and our theological ideas about God and creation there are several questions reaching all the way back to Augustine that can be revisited.

Does God exist within time in His creation or is He above or outside time?

Is time unfolding or is it merely another dimension in reality?

These are questions with no firm scientific or theological answer – although a theological view may inform a preference for one possibility over another.

The Nature of Time. Through an understanding of relativity we realize that different observers depending on their motion will experience time differently. If A causes B, A will precede B for all observers, but the time between A and B can vary.  Polkinghorne gives two specific examples where this may be relevant in one’s view of theology. The first example is the so-called Twin-Paradox. If one twin is stationary on Earth and the other travels to Proxima Centauri and back (the nearest star to our solar system – 4.2 light years) at speeds approaching a significant fraction of the speed of light the twins will no longer be the same age when reunited. The moving twin will experience time more slowly. Although the twin experiment has not been done with human beings, this prediction of relativity has been tested extensively using the decay times of unstable particles.

The second example Polkinghorne brings up simultaneity. Two connected events can be perceived differently by different observers.

A spaceship is passing close to an observer on Earth. At the moment of passing, a light flash is emitted from a source at the centre of the ship. An observer travelling with the ship will judge this light to be reflected simultaneously in two mirrors at opposite ends of the ship, since it has the same distance to travel in either direction. The observer on Earth, however, will reach a different conclusion. He will judge it to be reflected in the stern mirror before it is reflected in the bow mirror. (p. 57)

The two observers, depending on their relative motion, will perceive the timing of the reflections differently.

These observations, and others, lead to two different views concerning the nature of time – both consistent with the evidence. The block universe view is that reality is atemporal with four dimensions (three spatial dimensions plus time).  Time, then, is a human experience of passage along paths in space-time. The present moment is fundamentally no different from any other moment. The other view of time is an unfolding universe or unfolding cosmic time where there is a movement of the present moment in a fundamental way. Polkinghorne notes that Einstein favored the block universe point of view, but there is no fundamental reason requiring one over the other.

The block universe view also corresponds to the view of Augustine. His science, of course, did not lead to the idea. Rather his contemplation of the nature of God led him to this view. God is outside of time and has divine knowledge of the entire created space-time world. Polkinghorne suggests then, that classical theology from Augustine to Aquinas and beyond is consistent with the block universe view. This view of time is foreign to human experience, but often times the nature of reality is quite different from what is predicted based on ordinary human experience. 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.

While divine foreknowledge might seem to threaten that freedom … for the God who perceives the whole of history totem simul there is no such foreknowledge, since all events are equally contemporaneous to the  atemporal divine gaze.

The view of unfolding cosmic time is preferred by Dr. Polkinghorne. This leads him to a form of open theology – but not a view that God changes or grows. Nor is it a view that time is a necessity imposed on God and out of his control.

A more orthodox open theology sees, on the contrary, God’s acceptance of ah engagement with time as an act of divine condescension by the Creator who is graciously willing to share in the unfolding history of creation. … It is part of the Creator’s decision to bring into being a temporal world. (p. 62)

He points to four arrows of time that seem to indicate that time is more than simply another dimension in reality: (1) the arrow of cosmic history from the big bang, (2) the arrow of statistical thermodynamics with every increasing entropy (an unfolding to equally occupy all accessible states), (3) an organizational arrow in the emergence of greater complexity – from a cosmic soup to stars to planets to life to humans, and (4) a psychological arrow – from a past we remember to a future we do not know.

In the mechanistic Newtonian view of physics complete knowledge of the present entailed as well complete knowledge of the past and complete ability to predict the future.  In a quantum world there is a fundamental limit to the ability to divide space, or more accurately phase-space (a space including both position and momentum as separate coordinates) into small bits, and an intrinsic probabilistic nature in the occurrence of events. These constraints lead to an element of openness within a constrained total path. The ultimate outcome can be predicted on a large level while individual events are open. God both knows the course of history and relates, interacts, and responds to his creation and his creatures, made in his image.

What do you think?

What is your metaphysical view of time? What shapes or controls this view?

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  • Paul W

    I’ve wondered if time is a dimension of God. “For in him we live and move about and exist.” (Acts 17:28)

  • Polkinghorne notes that Einstein favored the block universe point of view, but there is no fundamental reason requiring one over the other.

    Although you have to jump through a fair number of hoops to deal with the relativity of simultaneity in an ‘unfolding universe’ model…

  • Susan N.

    Mind-blowing to ponder, these mysteries…

    Can I choose both (block universe and unfolding cosmic) views of time, or some blend of the two?

    As Creator of time and space, wouldn’t God be outside or above the creation in some sense?

    Through Jesus, God stepped into the story, physically, to participate in redeeming/restoring the creation.

    In the Holy Spirit, we know that the triune God is with us, always; in fact, *within* us and everywhere.

    RJS, I have lately been re-imagining the eternal realm (attempting to lose the caricatures of heaven and hell that I grew up hearing). That eternity is a dimension of time and space which we can’t see or perceive in an imperfect state has occurred to me. What form will we take in such a time-space dimension?

    The ideas put forth in this post cause me to reflect on many things: The “fullness of time”, “kairos” vs. chronos time, mountaintop spiritual experiences of revelation and closeness with God–seeing from His view, C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy!! Even the more recent series, ‘LOST.’

    And, finally, my mother (who passed away in 2006 at the age of 63) journaled a prayer about time that is a bittersweet testament of her life and faith: “Time–O Lord, how swiftly it seems to fly. Thank You for reminding me that there is time enough for what You have planned for my life. Amen.”

  • RJS


    The relativity of simultaneity, which is discussed in the book and in the post ever so slightly, doesn’t violate causality and a consistent before and after. In an unfolding view one only needs a distinct direction, not equal perceived time passage.

  • As I understand them, some theologians and philosophers have argued that God possess “middle knowledge”, which allows him to know all possible outcomes. God then used that middle knowledge to determine the best possible universe and created that universe. Again as I understand them, this is contrasted with an open theistic view because God knows exactly what will happen because in essence he already knows all the cause and effect relationships. Would Polkinghorne consider that a permissible view under the unfolding cosmic time view or would it be prohibited because of the probabalistic nature of the world at the quantum level?

  • John W Frye

    Reflections: A Trinity of Divine Persons in the *perichoretic* understanding requires time as part of their relational being because movement is involved, i.e., the interpenetration of love, joy, unity, i.e., the dance. This is more appealing than view of a motionless, unfeeling God with an “atemporal divine gaze.” God is dynamic, not static. Time exists within eternal deity. The four arrows of Dr. Polkinghorne illustrate this IMO. That God would condescend to experience time apart from deity in the incarnation /humiliation of Jesus Christ is astounding.

  • John W Frye

    Caveat: my comment #6 does not intend to say that Jesus the Christ was not fully God in human form, but that he chose to defer access (the kenosis) to his essential deity while fully human.

  • phil_style

    Phil, I would probably subscribe to a “middle knowledge” type theology.

    Humans have some of this too. The more we learn (the smarter we get) the more able we are to understand the possible and probable outcomes associated with actions. This is why knowledge IS moral responsibility. The more you know about the possible implications of actions, the more morally responsible you become. And this, in turn makes decision making all the more difficult, because there is not such thing as an action without consequences under which at least one other being’s freedoms to act will be impinged upon.

    This is why Genesis talks about knowledge and moral culpability as two sides of the same coin – the knowledge of good and evil. The more knowledge you have, the more moral responsibility you have – i.e. only with knowledge of consequences are you able to condemn yourself because ignorance is a moral excuse (albeit not a legal one).

  • RJS –

    In an unfolding view one only needs a distinct direction, not equal perceived time passage.

    I never said you couldn’t reconcile an ‘unfolding view’ with the ‘relativity of simultaneity’. (BTW, philosophers call the ‘unfolding view’ the ‘A-series’ conception of time and the ‘block universe’ the ‘B-series’ conception.) Until we can test spacetime in extreme situations like around a rotating black hole, we can’t really prove one or the other.

    However, the block universe sure seems a more natural fit for Relativity than the unfolding one. The different orderings of events are due to taking differently-angled ‘slices’ through the ‘block universe’.

  • RJS

    Phil (#5)

    Polkinghorne doesn’t think much of the middle knowledge option, but I don’t remember the thrust of his argument against this. (And, of course, we need not agree with him.)

  • Maim

    Is God inside or outside time? Or is He deeply intimate with Creation and “in all things,” something like a panentheistic view?

    I find this blog post relevant to the discussion, as it talks about God’s relation to Creation. God is neither fully excluded from Creation nor is He Creation itself (not that I’m accusing anyone of pantheism or something crazy), but He is in all things. I AM that I AM. He’s everywhere. How would this play into the discussion on God and time?

  • Brian S.

    Well the idea of movement in regaurds to the inner life of the Trinity is a complicated matter really. Since if we use Aquinas’ model this movement takes place within God, so it can’t be actual movement in the literal sense. You also have to consider that movement [or distance] is just a way we can measure time by muliplying it to the speed, and since time seems to be illusionary [the past and future don’t seem to have a tangible existence outside our minds and speculation] it might not be an appropiate way to talk about God.

  • God both does and does not “exist within time”. In other words, that’s fine as a manner of speaking, but the nature of “time” is what we should get after here. “Time” is an artificial convention that we use as a system of measuring *movement*. Thus, it makes as much sense to say God condescends to engage within heft, within acceleration or within density. An “inch” does not truly exist. Neither does “distance”. And neither does “time”.

    But. God moves. God acts. God instigates. God changes not, but he is somehow dynamic. Therefore, practically speaking, therefore, God is most certainly “within time”. But the Timeless God seems to be favored by those who also prefer a (mostly) immobile God.

    On that point, your last paragraph hints well at the real issues being wrangled with. Kudos.

  • I’m working my way through William Lane Craig’s “Time & Eternity” which gives an excellent book-length treatment on this question.

  • PaulE

    Suppose there are three astronauts in space: Alice, Bob, and Eve. Alice and Bob travel away from Eve in opposite directions at the same speed until they are each a light-minute away from Eve. After arriving at their new location, they both quickly collapse a group of ten qubits from their superposition, count the number now in a positive state, wait that many seconds and then turn on a light aimed at the other person. When does God know who turned on their light first?

  • RJS

    This is your way of suggesting that I should stop asking silly questions?

  • PaulE

    Sorry, that was not my intention at all! These are really hard and, in my opinion, profound questions. I meant my question to provide a way of exploring the ideas, since it was meant to capture relativity and quantum in a single scenario.

  • PaulE

    As I’ve thought through my question, what I think it demonstrates – though, I am not certain of this – is that God cannot be thought of as simply another perceiver.

    He exists “presently” with Alice, Bob, and Eve. If so, then in one frame of reference, say Alice’s, God wouldn’t know who turned on their light first for nearly two minutes. But if God perceives the world unfolding from Eve’s frame of reference, he would know after roughly a minute who turned theirs on first. But our common intuition of omniscience (which may or may not be right) also tells us that God would know instantly who turned on their light first, since he is present at both frames and wouldn’t need to wait for information to travel.

    It doesn’t seem like all of these could be true – that God knows instantly, only after one minute, and only after two minutes. So to me God must be outside of time as a perceiver.

  • TJJ

    Does anybody really know what time it is?

    Or what time is? Besides God, I think not. But I do thinkGod is above, beyond, outside of time, in the timeless now of eternity.

  • DRT

    This has been the top post that I have thought most about without responding. I am pretty much in the same space I was this morning.

    My thought is that time is irrelevant without an observer. The reason we experience time is that we have a window of constancy that interprets the world. Think about what you experience. You don’t experience now, you experience now plus or minus a couple of second (or 7) as being your vision of what is happening now.

    If all you perceived was the instantaneous experience of the moment, the world would be quite different.

    Now god, yes god, what can he experience simultaneously?

  • JLH

    I believe that time was created by God when the physical universe was created. Before the world was created, then -there was no time. And when the physical universe ceases to exist, there again will be no time.

  • JLH

    One reference that I like:
    Foundations of Physics, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1992
    The Problem of the Imperfection of a
    World, Itself Created by a Perfect God
    Andre Mercier

    … “God cannot as creator dwell within the world. He must be without, and the only relationship thinkable of between Him and the world or time requires that, being the creator of World and Time, He should not Himself be endowed with existence, which is being in time.”…

    …”Therefore the only possible creation of the world consists in God, the
    perfect Being, separating World and Time from himself (, which implies
    the imperfection of the world and its continued creation, since otherwise
    the world as perfect would have to coincide eternally with God the perfect

  • RJS

    Paul E (#17),

    Thanks. I agree that these are rather profound questions, or can be. Time seems to be a simple concept – but it is not as simple as it seems.

  • Thanks for posting on this, and sorry for taking so long to get my own thoughts written down. I have shared some thoughts over on my “neighboring” blog Exploring Our Matrix, and for those who know it, there will be no surprise that I add sci-fi into the discussion alongside theology and science. 🙂

    I disagree that a block universe can allow for genuine human freedom, and would welcome your comments on the post, whether over on my blog or here.

    Thanks again for posting on this important and interesting topic!

  • Well done – very good to see the fundamental discussion. I have been thinking on this ever since I wrote on time and space in Milton’s Paradise Lost as an undergraduate 50 years ago. A few weeks ago I quipped about a recent new book, Our Enigmatic Universe: When we’ve learned time travel, and know as we are known, and are as grave as gravity, maybe we’ll be like the self-emptying God we have glimpsed in the death of Jesus (Philippians 2:7) and known through the Spirit (Romans 8:13). I have since read the book – light but well-informed, enjoyable.