Is God outside of time, or is God somehow bound to time as we experience time? … Rob takes biblical words dealing with eternity to mean the transcendence of time. This would seem to imply that God transcends time. But if God transcends time, what does it mean to say that God eventually gets what God wants? Is God bound by time or not? And, if not, what does “eventually” mean?
I realize such questions can seem like the old debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, but from my own pinheaded perspective, I find such questions fascinating.
I also suspect they may be important — actually of practical, day-to-day usefulness. Because if time isn’t all there is, then we likely haven’t got a very good perspective for thinking about things like constancy and change, cause and effect, choice, consequence, prevention, preparation, prediction, predestination, foreknowledge, memory, repetition, remorse, growth, death and rebirth. None of those things could possibly appear the same if viewed from outside of time. None of those could possibly appear the same to one not bound, as we are, in time.
If I ran the zoo, the book I would add to orientation for every seminary would be Edwin Abbott’s odd little allegory, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.
It’s an enormously helpful book for those attempting to think about things we’re not quite capable of really comprehending. That makes it as appropriate for seminary as it is for classes in mathematics and physics. Abbott walks us right up to the edge of what we’re able to think about, then points off into the abyss. He helps to explain not just that we are unable to understand what’s going on out there beyond the edge, but why we are unable to understand it.
And that, I think, is a very helpful thing for those beginning their studies in seminary. If one begins studying theology without appreciating that the subject, by definition, includes much that one will be unable to understand, then one will wind up doing it wrong.
“Eternity” is one of those words theologians toss around as though they or the rest of us were capable of really understanding what it means. We understand what they mean to mean when they use that word, but neither what they meant nor what we understood them to mean is even close to being adequate.
“Eternity,” we think, “that’s a very long time.”
But of course that’s precisely what it isn’t. We use “eternal” as a synonym for “for all time,” but those are actually antonyms. Eternity is what you get when you’re out of time — beyond time.
This is something I can’t grasp. I can’t even remember the future, how am I supposed to understand eternity? I’ve spent my entire life in time, moving through time — always in the same direction, at the same rate, without ever being able to stop — and I literally can’t imagine anything else.
What I can try to do, though, is to understand the limits of my ability to understand, and the misunderstandings that are bound to arise if I try to go beyond those limits.
And but so, Flatland. Here’s a bit of a rushed summary that doesn’t nearly do it justice.
Abbott’s hero is a square — an actual square, a two-dimensional, four-sided object who lives on the great plane of Flatland, a two-dimensional world.
One day our hero comes across the strange realm of Lineland, whose inhabitants are one-dimensional dots living out their lives along the line of their little world. To them, our hero doesn’t appear as a square, just as another dot at the point where he intersects Lineland. He tries to explain to them that he is actually two-dimensional, but that just blows their poor little 1-D minds.
I have two dimensions, the square tells the Linelanders, not just East-West, but also North and South. East and West the Linelanders understand perfectly, but North and South? Above and below the line of Lineland? That’s just crazy talk — nonsense.
After giving up on his frustrating conversation with the Linelanders, our hero comes across another strange character. This guy is a circle, but he has this neat trick where he changes size.
The circle explains to our hero that he isn’t actually changing size because he isn’t a circle at all. He’s actually a three-dimensional sphere, and he only appears to be changing size to our hero due to his moving up and down through the plane of Flatland. And now it’s our poor hero’s turn to have his own little 2-D mind blown.
Up and Down? You mean North and South?
No, not North and South — Up and Down.
More crazy talk and nonsense.
But then the Sphere does something that our hero didn’t think to do for the poor little dot-people of Lineland. The Sphere takes our four-sided, 2-D friend up out of Flatland into the third dimension of space.
From up there in Up, our hero can look down and see the whole of Flatland laid out before him. He can see inside his neighbors houses — inside his neighbors themselves. By transcending the 2-D world of Flatland, he is able to see the whole thing at once, in its entirety. It’s fantastic, beyond anything he’d ever imagined. Our hero’s mind is well and truly blown.
Let’s keep going, he says to the Sphere. Let’s go farther or further or whichever is the right word for it. If there is a third dimension, there must be a fourth, and a fifth and on and on. Further up and further in! Let’s keep going.
Four dimensions? the Sphere says. That’s crazy talk. Nonsense.
And so it always seems.
Everything we say when we talk about eternity tends to reflect this basic existential inability to grasp what it is we’re trying to talk about. Here I am moving through time at a single speed in a single direction, unable not to do so. Trying to describe eternity to me is about as hopeful a proposition as trying to describe North to a Linelander, or Up to a Flatlander.
And yet we carry on doing theology and saying things like “God is eternal,” glibly unconcerned with our inability to understand even one of those three words in a way that does any of them justice. We carry on speaking of eternity as though it meant only a very long time (“if a sparrow … sharpened its beak …”) and as though that endlessness were the most confusing or most interesting or most important aspect of the difference between time and eternity. No beginning — that’s much trickier. Beyond linear sequence — that’s downright bewildering. I couldn’t grasp that if I lived for 1,000 more years. Living for 1,000 more linear, sequential years would likely only further cement my inability to grasp that.
St. Augustine was better than most of us at thinking about this sort of thing — or at thinking about how we’re not well-equipped to think about this sort of thing. Centuries ago he wrote a fantastic, brain-bending riff about the hazards of trying to apply the logic of cause-then-effect to the category of eternity, the misleading dangers of using time-bound terms to describe that which is beyond time. Yet Augustine, a human living in time just like the rest of us, then turned around and wrote with misplaced certainty of his belief in “predestination” and “foreknowledge” — using just exactly those time-bound words with all that they entail of likely irrelevance outside the narrow bounds of our little world here in Timeland.
One of the things I like most about Abbott’s “Romance of Many Dimensions” is the way he portrays anger as the consistent response to people confronted with the mind-blowing possibility of a world beyond their ken — whether it’s the dots of Lineland being confronted by the impossible thought of North and South, or the shapes of Flatland confronted by the impossible suggestion of Up and Down, or the previously affable Sphere losing his patience over the suggestion that they keep going past the third dimension to the fourth and fifth and beyond.
That anger, a product of fear and stubbornness and simple incomprehension, is precisely how we tend to respond to being confronted by the idea that reality is, in some ways, just too big for us to easily understand. In understanding that anger, Abbott forgives it, and in forgiving it, he helps us to get past it. And that, too, is a big part of why, if I were in charge, every student entering seminary would be required to read his book during orientation.
The alternative to that anger is humility. Here we are, finite, mortal creatures bound in time trying to speak with certainty about things that transcend our ability to grasp. Some of us are quite clever by the standards of finite, mortal, time-bound cleverness, but still reality is bigger than we are. We want to understand — and that’s good. But sometimes that desire to understand causes us to pretend that things transcending our understanding are actually quite simple — that they are just as finite and limited as we are ourselves.
All of which brings me back to Tony’s questions and my own attempts to answer them from the limited perspective of my own little 4-D Timelander brain.
“Is God outside of time, or is God somehow bound to time as we experience time?”
God is present in this universe — present with us — and this universe is a thing in time. But God is also present beyond/above/outside (we haven’t got a good word for this) this universe. God is bound by love for this universe, and it is bound in time. God is bound by love for us, and we are bound in time. But apart from love, I wouldn’t want to suggest that anything can or does bind God.
Is God bound by time? No. God is bound only by love, which is to say that God is bound only by God.
It might help to simply replace the word “time” in Tony’s questions with the word “space.”
Is God outside of [space], or is God somehow bound to [space] as we experience [space]? … Rob … would seem to imply that God transcends [space]. … Is God bound by [space] or not?
I don’t know or understand enough about physics to say whether that’s an analogy or just an equivalent statement. From what I think I understand, it makes no sense to say that God is “omnipresent” and then to pretend that an omnipresent being is stuck, just like us, at a fixed point in time, moving inexorably in a single direction.
If we believe that God is omnipresent — present in all presents — then we ought to acknowledge that God’s perspective differs from our own in exponentially greater ways than the Sphere’s perspective transcended that of Abbott’s square hero.