The Eternal Now That is Not Now

In his book Creation and the Sovereignty of God, Catholic philosopher Hugh McCann seeks to vigorously defend the traditional understanding of timeless, or atemporal, eternity. If this world of becoming, mutability, and temporal succession has been created from nothing, then the Creator must exist outside the world and therefore outside of time. “Time is not a necessary existent,” he explains. “It is an aspect of the world of change and as much in need of explanation for its being as the world itself. So only if God created time could he justly be called the creator of heaven and earth” (p. 46). Following the author’s usage, I have not put quotation marks around the word “outside,” but it’s important to remember that in this context it does not indicate a spatial relationship between Creator and world. It points us, rather, to the transcendence that belongs to the One who speaks the world into being, not just in the past but at every moment of its continuing existence. The universe as a whole, and every entity within it, depends upon the creative activity of God for its being. God is the painter whose vision comes to reality in color and shape, the writer who tells that one great story that has long burned in his heart. But the analogy should not be pushed too hard. Once created the artistic object acquires independent subsistence. Construing the relation between Creator and cosmos requires a bit more nuance:

But then how should we think of creation, and what does it mean to say that God creates the world outright, or directly? It means, I think, what the Genesis narrative implies: that the existence of creatures belongs to God’s act of creating them, rather than being a consequence of it. One good model for this is the relation between acts of will and their content. Consider, for example, the case of deciding. When I decide to do something—say, to go to Europe next summer—the intention thereby formed does not appear as a consequence of my act of decision making. It is, rather, the content of my decision, so that by the time the decision is over, I already hold the intention to go to Europe. The intention, which can be expressed as, “I shall go to Europe next summer,” is intrinsic to my act of deciding to go there. It belongs to it, in the peculiar way that content always belongs to acts of thinking. What I want to suggest is that the relation between God’s activity as creator and the entities he creates is analogous to this. It is not, of course, the same: the content of mental acts has only mental existence, whereas the things God creates are quite real. Nevertheless, I want to say, creatures belong to God’s act of creation in much the same way. We are not products of God’s creative willing, but the very expression of it.

If something like this is correct, the gap between creation and creature is closed. There is no distance whatever between us and God, hence we need not invent a causative process or nexus to fill the imagined void. Yet we are not made parts of God, or descriptive modifications of him—any more than the content of a thought would be a part of a predicate of a thinker. Rather, the relation is analogous to that between a story and its author or a song and its composer. The world has its existence in God, but God is in no way composed or constituted by the world. A second upshot of this view is that any remaining vestiges of conflict between God’s activity as creator and the operation of secondary causes is wiped away. They are not even the same sort of process. God’s creative activity is not a determining condition of the being of the world, but an endeavor in which he himself serves as the foundation of reality, the source in which we live, and move, and have our being. That, of course, is as it should be, and it is in keeping with the idea that God is completely involved with his creatures, that his providential care extends immediately and comprehensively to all that exists. (pp. 44-45)

I have quoted McCann on divine creation at length, because his understanding of the creatio ex nihilo undergirds everything he says about divine eternity. Banish from your imagination all deistic ghosts. God is not a watchmaker who gets things started and then steps back to watch how things work out. He wills into being every being in their energetic, causative, and temporal states. When God commands “Let their be light,” we should not think of the light as subsequently appearing in serial fashion, like an effect following its cause. The light is the content of the divine fiat. “In the very command itself,” McCann explains, “the appearance of light was achieved” (p. 43). Hence even the notions of God observing or perceiving the world are excluded. God does not observe, he creates; and in this eternal act he knows all he is making. The union between Creator and creature is more intimate than we can conceive.

If God is the ontological source and ground of the universe, and if time signifies a dimension of created reality, then it becomes clear why, for McCann, divine eternity is properly defined as timelessness: to describe God as temporal would be equivalent to saying that he is a creature. It would be a confusion of categories. (Regarding speculation on deity and absolute time, he comes close to suggesting that it’s mythology.) Following biblical usage, atemporalist preachers will continue to speak of God as enjoying an everlasting life—comprehending the past once lived, the present now being lived, and the future that will be lived—and continue to proclaim God’s datable acts in history; but if asked to explain themselves, they will provide the necessary qualifications:

The conception of God as timelessly eternal is altogether different. On this view God is not located in time, and tense and related temporal conceptions have no application to him whatever. Strictly speaking, therefore, it is false to say of God that he ever has existed, that he exists now, or that he ever will exist. At best, such claims are a clumsy way of indicating what we who are within time can always truthfully assert, which is simply that God exists—where the verb, though in the grammatical present, signifies nothing of temporal presentness, but rather a reality that stands completely outside of time, untouched by becoming or transition of any kind. God exists timelessly on this account, and his experience and action, while they may concern the world of change, are themselves unchanging. So it would also be wrong to say God has ever known or will know about your reading this or any other sentence; yet it would be true that he knows, timelessly, that you are reading this sentence—and even, if he is omniscient, that you are reading it now. God knows this in a single, timeless act of awareness that encompasses all of heaven and earth in their complete history. His action as creator is from the same vantage point; indeed, the traditional understanding was that God’s knowing the universe and his creating it constitute one and the same act. Thus, there is no time at which God’s act of creation occurs; rather, time itself is an aspect of the world of change, and that is what God creates. In a single fiat he produces the entire universe, in all of its history, all of it with equal directness, full comprehension, and absolute control. (pp. 47-48)

Strictly speaking, therefore, atemporalist description of the divine life and activity excludes all tenses. This poses a challenge for us, given that our language, designed as it were to speak of the changeable realities of the world, is shaped by tense. In many languages verbs have past, present, and future grammatical forms (though a few languages are grammatically tenseless, thus requiring the speaker to indicate time reference by other means). Tense inevitably sneaks into our discourse about the transcendent Creator. Consider, for example, the influential definition of eternity given by the sixth century philosopher Boethius: “Eternity is the complete possession all at once of illimitable life” (Consolation of Philosophy V.6). As McCann notes, “the phrase ‘all at once’ is inescapably temporal in its meaning and conveys the idea that God’s act of comprehending the world is itself tensed” (p. 52). If interpreted literally, it might suggest that God experiences time as compressed into a single instant. But this would be a mistake. “Timelessness is not equivalent to existing at an instant, for anything that exists at an instant is not timeless but ephemerally temporal” (p. 53). Though McCann does not invoke the methodology of negative theology, perhaps we should think of “timeless eternity” as an apophatic expression pointing to a reality that eludes creaturely comprehension and statement. The same problem arises when the Deity’s apprehension of history is described as an eternal “now,” as we find, for example, in The Catholic Encyclopedia:

We hope that our own life shall be endless; and materialists have accustomed us to the notion of a series stretching backward without limit in time, to the notion of a material universe that never came into being but was always there. The Divine existence is that and much more; excluding all succession, past and future time—indeed all time, which is succession—and to be conceived as an ever-enduring and unchanging “now.” (cf. Augustine, Confessions XI)

Characterizing divine eternity as an eternal now or present is perfectly acceptable, as long as we drain such expressions of their temporal significance and connotation. The metaphysical point is not the “now” but availability:

It is true, of course, that for a timeless and omniscient God to have an immediate cognitive and creative access to the world, all of its history must be present to him. But ‘present’ does not signify tense here; it signifies only immediate availability. God has to have access to all of creation in a single act of creative awareness, so that he can comprehend and direct the changes the world undergoes without having to change on his own part. It may not be obvious how this is possible, but neither is it obvious that it is impossible. (McCann, p. 52)

By this qualification McCann is able to attribute to God the kind of sovereignty that he believes God must have if he is the divine Creator. The disjunctions of past, present, and future do not pose a problem for his providential direction, as the entirety of history is available to him in the eternal act of creation.

McCann states the rule that must govern our reflection: “all tensed assertions about God are false” (p. 57).

(Go to “What Does God Know“)

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21 Responses to The Eternal Now That is Not Now

  1. Harry Davidson says:

    I wonder how McCann would view “telos”, both cosmic and personal? I cannot see where there is provision for absolute divine authority over all.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Harry, a large portion of historic Christianity would agree with you that the free acts of rational agents are, in a sense, exempt from the divine sovereignty. McCann has some interesting thoughts on this question, which I will not get to in this series but perhaps sometime in 2017.

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      • Vragensteller - Inquirer says:

        What do you and those other christians you are talking about, mean with “free acts of rational agents “?

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  2. Vragensteller - Inquirer says:

    You say “God does not observe, he creates; and in this eternal act he knows all he is making. ” but after He created did He not look at it = observe, and told that it was good?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yes, that is what the story says. But philosophical theology does not stop at the narrative level. We “look” through our eyes. What organ does God use to “look”?

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      • This is naturally going out from the fact that God would be having such things as man, but does the Scripture not say God is a Spirit?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I wrote a series of articles three years ago that may help you to better understand my view of things. The first article is titled “The Christian Distinction: God + World ≠ 2.”

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          • Iain Lovejoy says:

            I read your earlier series on this controversy on the nature of God, and found it fascinating, thanks.
            I have a sort of observation, though, about the debate. There seem to be two views of God coming out:
            1. An unknowable, immutable source of being located outside the universe, being its ultimate origin and creator; and
            2. A spiritual being which interacts with us on a personal level, which can be thought of as knowing things, thinking thimgs, speaking to us, making decisions, chamging his mind etc.
            Furthermore, while both sides argue that theirs is the “real” or theologically correct God, they both reject as “pantheistic” God as:
            3. An all-pervasive spirit acting with and through and intimately connected to and unifying creation.
            I am a lousy theologian, so I may be barking up the wrong tree here, but does bringing the Trinity in at this point help any? Isn’t there a sense of arguing over whether God is “really” like Father, Son (or Spirit) instead of accepting him as all three? Any thoughts?

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  3. Pingback: 2nd question: What or where is the beginning – Questiontime – Vragenuurtje

  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    FYI: Lydia McGrew defends divine timelessness in “Before the Mountains Were Brought Forth.” Alan Rhoda has responded to McGrew in a three-part series, aptly titled “Lydia McGrew on Divine Timelessness.”

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  5. In your article “Do you believe in God or god?” you say it so clearly: “God is not to be found out among the stars or in any place. He is, after all, invisible, incorporeal, immaterial, spiritual. He is the maker of space and time. He is a supernatural being. He can be neither apprehended by our senses nor measured by our scientific instruments. ” that is what you would think all believers in God should know, though the majority of Christians do not want to accept that.

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    • Though at the end you finish with a strange phrase: “God is not a god.”
      We still have many gods today and of these gods we can say they are not The God. But The God is always also a god, a high person or high being, when He is the Most High Being,. Compare it with a square. A square is a rectangle and is also a trapezium but a rectangle is not a square nor is a trapezium a square.

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  6. Robert Fortuin says:

    Maar God is niet een gedeelte van, en daarom niet zoals, wat hij heeft gemaakt. Dat is ook een trationeel Christlijke leering. God maakt alles van niets. Misschien is mijn artikel over Gregorie van Nyssa wel interresant: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2016/07/11/division-of-being-in-st-gregory-of-nyssas-contra-eunomium/

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  7. Mike H says:

    Really interesting posts. It seems that we push up against the limits of language.

    So did God “make” time and being it’s creator must therefore be transcendent of it? I do think God made (makes) all things when there was (is) no-thing (although the idea of nothing is itself inconceivable to me). But I don’t think “time” is one more thing within creation – one more thing that can be added to an inventoried list of created “things” that make up the universe. Time, after all, is relative. I understand what is meant by the phrase, but does anything really “exist within time”?

    It seems to me that “time” is more of a descriptor and not a thing itself – it’s a function of space, which is just to say that one thing is not another thing. Time is not a thing, but descriptive – a feature, not a bug – of how things that are separate from one another interact in a sequence of events. God creates such that one thing is not another thing, and the play of this creation is time. To create at all is for there to be time.

    A rock doesn’t perceive time, but I do. I recognize that there is a “me” and there is a “not me”. So time is perceived as and because of our separateness from and interaction with other things. And I often think that time is more acutely perceived the more separate we perceive ourselves to be. Though it is for us, perhaps it is not so for God – so fractured, disjointed, separate, chaotic – Christ descends into it. Perhaps that is part of the hope of ‘eternal’ life for humanity – Christ filling all things in a way that there is no separation.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michael, take a look at the Alan Rhoda postings that I cited above and see if his arguments address anything you have written here. And then get back to us and tell us what you think.

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      • Mike H says:

        Thanks for the reference. A cursory glance, this is a large part of what I was trying to say:

        –Time, I would add, is not a “thing”. God doesn’t create time. Nor does He create things “in” time. Rather, He creates things that are capable of changing. Time is nothing over and above the fact that things change. In particular, it is not a container that God or anything could literally be “in” or be constrained by.

        I also think, though, that time is a just a function of one thing not being another thing. That may be wrapped up in that term “change” up to a point, but I think there is a distinction that I’ll have to consider in more depth.

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I don’t know who among our readers has a passion for the question of divine eternity, but if you do, then you will want to read Ryan Mullins’s dissertation “In Search of a Timeless God.”

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    • Jonathan says:

      While I’m not at a point in my life where I can read anyone’s dissertation, I can occasionally make it to the movie theater, which I recently did in order to see Arrival. I recommend it to all and sundry. The film has basically three big ideas: one about language, one about moral reasoning, and one about time. Personally, I was totally with Arrival in its full-blown take-down of consequentialist moral reasoning. I was totally not with it in the idea of language on offer. The speculation about time was handled better. Of course all three of these ideas are bound up with each other. I thought it was a focused, beautiful film that also happens to be relevant, tangentially, to the topic of this discussion. Not as precision-tooled as a dissertation, it’s true, but on the other hand there’s Amy Adams.

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