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 notion of God observing or perceiving the world is 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).
(30 November 2016)