“The angels are first among creatures,” writes Paul Griffiths—“first, that is, in time, and first, also, in intimacy with the LORD. When the created order comes into being by the LORD’s fiat, the light that exists before the lights given by the heavenly bodies is angelic light, participant intimately in the light that belongs to the Trinity” (Decreation, p. 132). Like all other creatures, they are spatio-temporal beings, locatable within the beautiful and good cosmos God has made, made from out of nothing cum tempore, with time, unfallen time, what Griffiths calls systolic time, time perfectly attuned to the eternity and beatitude of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “The unfallen angels are enfolded into the systole with intellectual and affective perfection” (p. 146).
Of this unfallen time we may say very little, as the only time we know is the time that was damaged by the fall. Griffiths describes this fallen time as metronomic. Metronomic time is chronological, ordered, computable, calculated according to creaturely movements of various kinds. We speak of years, days, minutes, seconds, micro-seconds. “Metronomic time, therefore, is measurable duration. It is cosmic, regular, repeating, providing duration that is what it is independently of how it seems to creatures such as ourselves” (p. 91). It all seems neutral and normal enough, perhaps even proper. “Spatio-temporal presence to himself is what the LORD intends for creatures,” states Griffiths, “and the spatio-temporal relations we bear to one another are therefore also features of us that are loved” (p. 91). Yet in the monotonous beat of the metronome, we also hear the decay and dissolution that characterizes the cosmos—“the metronomic countdown to death” (p. 91). Death makes the measurement of time possible:
This characterization of metronomic time depends upon the view that death is an artifact of the fall. Not all Christians have thought this, but most have: it is almost a universal feature of Christian discourse, and it is a position I endorse. It means, among other things, that the motions and the time of creatures in Eden did not mark a path toward death; they began to do that only after the banishing of Eve and Adam from the garden. The temporal course of unfallen, creaturely life, though still properly temporal, was therefore not measurable in the same way that devastated creaturely life is, and that is because the essential feature of temporal measurability, of the act of timing, is that one thing with motion-duration is held up against another, and that both are end-stopped, which is to say that they constitute a period in the sense that the motion-duration of each comes to an end. If one motion is endless and the other is not, then timing the duration of the endless one by means of the end-stopped one is impossible: imagining [sic] measuring the duration of the life of a tree that never dies by a clock. The reverse is equally problematic: you cannot time (measure the duration of) a period by means of an endless duration. And if both the measurer and the measured are endless, matters are even worse. In either case, metronomic time, the time whose law is measure is impossible. In an Edenic world in which there is only creaturely motion without end because there is no death, there is nothing end-stopped to use as a measure or to be measured. There are no periods, and especially not the final period that is death. Death and the metronome are therefore inseparable: the absence of the former in Eden entails the absence of the latter. (pp. 92-93)
We measure our lives with coffee spoons, the poet says, and the measuring is intolerable, escape impossible. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Times flies, but except for rare moments of ecstasy it never does. Tempus non fugit. “The metronome’s omnipresence and unavoidability, its literal unendurability—the fact, that is, that we cannot live long with it, cannot put up with it, cannot survive it—is, exactly, time’s devastation” (p. 92).
Macbeth memorably soliloquizes:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
In contrast, the unfallen angels know time as systolic, folded into the Trinitarian life of the Creator: “The angels see what they see of the LORD, and love what they see, according to a repetitive rhythm of in- and out-breathing, returning in that rhythm the gift of being and of vision and of love granted them by the Trinity” (p. 145). Unfallen spirits, therefore, do not experience the monotonous, unendurable tick-tock leading to nothingness and death. Theirs is an endless (not linear but perhaps helical or eliptical) existence of praise and bliss, coupled with certitude of their future in God. “The time of the unfallen angels is that of the systole: they have no subjective sense of time’s metronomic passage, and, still more important, there is no such passage for them” (p. 133). They have nothing to wait for, for they already possess the fullness of their beatitude. They are everything they will be. There are no clocks in heaven; they are not needed. Nor do they move toward anything, for they already live in the systole. Yet a question arises: Do not the angels look forward to the cosmos renewed, when God will be all-in-all? This would not be the tick-tock of the metronome but a duration pregnant with eschatological anticipation. Perhaps this duration cannot be measured; perhaps the angels do not desire to measure it. When enraptured by uncreated glory, what is time?
Yet for some of the celestial beings, systolic time became metronomic. At the instant of creation, some (few? many?) deliberately separated themselves from the divine love and began to seek an existence independent of their Creator. In that act of self-alienation, they became demons:
Once existent, located in the systolic time that is the temporality of the cosmos unfallen, the angels delight in the vision of the LORD. Or most of them do. Some, however, immediately upon being created, do not. They, Satan being chief among their number and the representative figure of them all, avert their intellects from the LORD’s light, turning their gaze toward the only thing there is, which is darkness, turning their gaze toward the only other thing there is, which is darkness, the absence of being which is the void mentioned in the first verse of the book of Genesis. As they do this, they fall, interlacing their light with darkness, losing intimacy, though never completely, with the LORD, and beginning to seek, vainly of course, for a mode of existence independent of the LORD’s. They become, that is to say, demons: a Christian demonology is part of angelology because all demons are fallen angels. Demons, in their legions, are, then, discarnate beings impelled toward nothing, doing much damage as they use their remaining power to seek it. (p. 132)
We cannot fathom this radical turning from God. Unlike human beings, angels are not faced between choices between greater and lesser goods. Theirs is a choice between the Creator as the supreme Good and sheer nothingness, which is not anything at all—yet it is this nihil the demons seek, in futility and delusion. How might we understand their search? Perhaps, suggests Griffiths, we might compare it to our own attempts to comprehend a mathematical problem beyond our competence. We understand a part of it, which is simultaneously an admission of incomprehension. We continue to struggle, but the problem remains impenetrable. We cannot see the solution; we cannot break through the wall. Our frustration mounts. As we focus our attention, ever more intently, on the obscurities, the parts we cannot grasp expand in our visual field, until the only thing that we see is what we cannot see. There is only the darkness and our abiding failure. And so the demonic vision: “They know that they now know only in part, and that is an element proper to their torment” (p. 144). But do they also know that they cannot find their good outside the Good? Do they know there is nothing in nothingness? How can they not know?
The question remains: “How is it possible that creatures gifted with a capacity for unmediated vision of the Trinity should choose to turn their gaze away from it?” (p. 134). I see how it is that sin must be possible for rational creatures, both with respect to their freedom and to their origin ex nihilo. Griffiths suggests, however, that we should eschew explanation: “Seeking a causal explanation of sin’s possibility (and of its actuality when it happens) tends unavoidably toward elevating the sin, as both capacity and act, to the level of a something to be explained instead of a lack for which no causal explanation is possible” (p. 135). There is no understanding nothingness. The angelic quest to find their good in the nihil must always be judged an absurdity. Even so, the question remains: Whence this angelic madness? The responsibility cannot lie with God, who creates only good; hence we cannot posit an original inclination to evil. All creatures are created with a primal desire for God … yet Lucifer fell.
Lucifer fell and became a demon. Lucifer fell and with him the cosmos was devastated. Griffiths locates the ruination of God’s good creation in the failure of those angels who, at the moment of their creation, averted their gaze from the LORD. Think of “a host of heavy iron objects, magnetized toward a lodestone, orbiting it and forming beautiful and symmetrical patterns because of that attraction; when some among them cease to be attracted by the lodestone for whatever reason, they fall to earth, spiraling down in chaos, damaging whatever gets in their way” (pp. 132-133). Or perhaps consider fireworks, designed to fly high into the air, dazzling all with their beauty and colors. Yet the defective bottle rockets barely leave the ground and “whizz about laying waste to everything around them” (p. 133). “The malice and destructiveness of the demons is an epiphenomenon,” comments Griffiths, “but an unavoidable one, of their willed aversion of themselves from the LORD, for intellectual intimacy with whom they were made” (p. 133).
The destructive consequence to the cosmos of the aboriginal angelic sin is real: with the fall of Satan and his retinue, there came “the tick-tock of the metronome, which is nothing other than the systole ravaged, moved entropically toward nothing” (p. 133). In turning from the eternity that is God toward the nothingness, the demons become aware of the linear passage of time. The metronome becomes reality; and the demons, like all creatures who come after them, are its thralls.
Just as there is no course or passage of time prior to creation, but, rather, creation is brought into being cum tempore, as temporal, with time, so there is no metronomic or clock-measurable time prior to the fall, but, rather, the fall occurs cum metronomia (if, this, barbaric, Latin may be permitted), as metronomic, with the metronome. The fall of the angels, then, is at least in part a fall into metronomy. (pp. 133-134)
Like the rowers in a Roman galley, they who inhabit time devastated can only hear the drum-beats of the hortator.
Griffith’s Augustinian speculations lead him to an important conclusion: the fallen cosmos, with all of its suffering and death, is a tragic fruit of the angelic fall:
Taking the angelic fall serious means taking seriously the thought that the created order is damaged, fallen, devastated, as soon as it is brought into being. All those creatures brought into being metronomically after the angels come into an already devastated world. This is as true of the human creation as of the rest. The angelic fall provides the context and the frame for everything that is to follow. In the case of the human creation, and the experimental project of Eden (for Augustine does tend to present it as experimental), the picture is of an enclosure, exempt from death and suffering and from the metronome, into which humans are put, together with other creatures, to see whether they will replicate the angelic fall. As Genesis already suggests, the worm—the serpent—is already in the bud, and the human couple fall as the angels already have, responding to the serpent’s temptation by believing what it says and doing what it has done, replicating in the flesh what the angels have already done in intellectus and in their discarnate bodies. And then the story goes on in the familiar way, with demons and angels constantly interacting with one another and with the mass of fallen humans, a chaos of darkness and violence and death healed, eventually, by the people of Israel and the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity.
This reading of the Genesis narrative—and it is important to emphasize that Augustine consistently represents his version of the angelic fall as exegesis of Scripture, and especially of the opening chapters of Genesis—has a number of advantages for contemporary Christians. One is that it has no difficulty with the presence of nonhuman animals long prior, in the metronomic order of timespace, to the creation of human ones—this is, of course, already the plain-sense reading of Genesis, deepened by an Augustinian frame. A second is that it has a ready explanation for the massive presence of death among nonhuman animals prior to the human fall, as well as of chaos and entropy in the inanimate created order. (p. 134 [emphasis mine]); cf. J.R.R. Tolkiens’s creation myth)
We may not be able to explain how the fall of the angels had such a massive and devastating impact upon cosmic time, but Paul Griffith’s doctrinal proposal opens exciting avenues for further Christian reflection.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock