Oct 2, 2009

God, time, and us...

(*Copy of the Metaphysics paper sent to, and approved by Dr. Sanford, FUS)

Metaphysics deal with the first causes. In this essay I am assuming the existence of God. Other writers have dealt with this issue and I need to take that for granted in order to move on. We are bound by Doctrine to know God exists by reason, without the assistance of revelation. What then, can we know about God by reason alone? The chain of thought I am about to propose has been discussed at length from a scriptural perspective.
[1] Can we apply metaphysical principles to our understanding of God?
More specifically, how does our understanding of this world effect how we understand the five classical attributes of God?[2]
In my former protestant theology it was acceptable to reject the classical attributes of God. In the logic of sola scripture, these attributes were considered “Greek philosophy” and not biblical.[3] They would reject these attributes in order to reconcile what they knew of God with the biblical witness and reason. My argument is that a rejection of these attributes is unnecessary and even harmful. This issue is not about the nature of God, but rather our misunderstanding of time, and that damages how we perceive the attributes of God. My desire then is to take the good from an open theism philosophy, and reconcile it with Catholic philosophical teaching.[4]
The good from open theism is a redefinition of time.[5] Using this as our foundation can create a lens from which issues of soteriology and theodicy are answered. A new understanding of time allows a better understanding of how God relates with his creation. This issue is more than high theology, or metaphysics for the sake of study. I believe it can create a worldview that has a pragmatic purpose.
In this essay I will deal with four points. These points will intermingle, but I want to get a solid understanding of these things; a new understanding of Time, how this effects Divine Immutability, how this effects Divine Foreknowledge, and the effect of this on our free will.
As I said in my introduction, this issue is about our understanding of Time, not about God. It effects how we understand God, but I am not debating attributes of God. What I am arguing against is the idea that Time is a dimension, a “river” that we are in and God is out of.[6] This is the prevalent Catholic idea of time that I have come into contact with. From this the definition of time turns into an abstract physics. Discussing this extra dimension. We see this in movies with the idea of Time Travel. We read this in credible catholic theology books.[7] This idea that time is a dimension that we alone are in, and God is outside of it. That time will no longer exist in heaven. I have heard statements such as “God experiences all of time at once.” “The past and the future exist as one moment to God.” I think this logic is harmful to how we understand the world we live in and the God that relates to us.
I want to challenge that the linear reality of time as we experience it is nothing more than a sequence of action. We see this sequence of action in everything in our material world. There is no past, or future, or even present in the sense of a dimension. There is only the progression of sequence and our mental ability to reflect on past movements and anticipate future movements.[8] That is the only form of dimension time has. If we get rid of the idea of Time as a dimension then we no longer need to understand God as outside of that dimension. We no longer need to hold to the radical ideas of the future.
Time is to a large degree something we invent in order to act more effective as a culture. We see the change in the things around us, and use it to our advantage to move as one, but time and sequence is more than just a material thing. Our ability to think and to communicate is linear. Relationships are linear. It is entirely plausible to imagine a world without clocks, without physical things growing and dying, but still having an awareness of time because of the linear aspect of our thinking processes. If Descartes is right and we are thinking things, then linear sequence will always exist with us.[9] How would we be we if we did not think in sequence, even in heaven? How do we relate with each other and with God if not in sequence? There must be an aspect of linear progression that exists beyond our material world.
What then is the future? If Time is a matter of sequence, and the only dimensional aspect of time exists in our own consciousness, we cannot say the future exists as a dimension. The thing I find most harmful in the common view of time is the idea that the future is determined. If God is outside of time, and looking at this dimension of time all at once, then the future, past, and present exist as a determined now. Equal in there exhaustiveness. This directly conflicts with our understanding of free will and determination. It is also radically different then how we perceive time.
We understand that we cannot change the past. We also understand that we are not free in determining things we cannot change. Nobody blames someone today because they do not go into the past and change an event. It would make no sense for me to blame my mother for not going back to August 1942 and fighting the Nazi solders. We understand the past as something done and unchangeable. We have no freedom to change these determined events.
Now, another aspect of truth that needs to be considered here is that we cannot change God’s knowledge. If God is all knowing, then there is nothing that exists that he does not know. If according to classic views on time, God perfectly knows the future in the same determined sense that he understands the past, then we are no freer to change the future then we are to change the past. We lose our free will. If God possesses perfect determined knowledge of all future events then I am no freer to tie my shoes 20 years from now, as I am free to stop the Nazi solders 40 years before my birth. The reality of the situation is a determined now, Unalterable fact known by the Omniscient mind. I am no more free to determine how I live my life, as I am to change the past.
If I assume that I do self-determine actions of my future, it would logically be understood that what I did could not be known as determined by God as an unalterable fact 20 years before I did it. If I genuinely have an aspect of cause in my actions, then those actions would not be caused until I caused them.
To summarize this important arguing point, for my future to be free it must consist of real possibilities rather than exhausted certainties.[10] I am only truly free to do “this” or “that” if it is a genuine possibility that I could in fact do “this” or “that”. But if God perfectly knows the future as exhausted determinations, then the entire course of life, every action, thought, word, is stored as “certainty” in God’s perfect mind. We would lose any power to do different then what His mind knew I would do before I was born. If this was the case, we would not genuinely be free.
I will touch on the importance of free will to this issue soon, but I first want to discuss the implications of the apparent contradiction with what God knows. I affirm fully that God has perfect knowledge.[11] This is dogmatic; this is what we understand about God. I am by no means challenging this. What I want to propose is that the future exists as partially open and partially determined. It exists as possibilities. The reason that I can make this claim is that there is no reason to see the future as determined. Only when we make the assertion that time is a dimension and God is outside of that dimension, and God sees all of time at once, do we need to make this assumption that time is exhaustively settled. The future, being understood as the unfolding of our decisions in the present now, would have no reason to be determined. God perfectly knows all the future possible decisions that his creation can make. He knows the possibilities exhaustively, but those possibilities do not become exhausted actualities until we actually cause them. God cannot be surprised. There is nothing he does not know. This is the greatest gift God has given us in a perfectly free will. When I say that God does not know the determined actions of his creation, I am not denying an aspect of God’s knowledge. I am denying the existence of those actions. If I said right now that God could not see the monkey sitting on my lap, am I denying an aspect of God’s knowledge, or is there no monkey on my lap? God knows the future exhaustively, but the future is not exhaustively determined. As Boyd would say, it is not a matter of denying God’s exhaustive divine foreknowledge; it is denying exhaustively definite foreknowledge. The future is simple not exhaustively defined. The future exists as partially open, and partially determined. God is able to perfectly understand these choices and work his will with this.[12]
Here I would like to discuss the issue of self-determination and why this is so important, but I think I need to address the issue of immutability first.
If we are to accept the idea of Time as a dimension, as a thing, and everything changes in that thing, then it is only natural to keep an unchanging God out of that thing. The whole purpose of developing an idea of God outside of time is the fact that sequence of action is change. Here I have two things to contribute. The first will be how this model of time I am purposing will take away the need for keeping God outside of time. The second will be to define perfection in a way that allows for God to experience change.
In the model of time I am proposing there is no dimensional aspect for God to be in or out. There is no “river of time” for God to get wet. So, by default, I could not say, “God is outside of time” because there is nothing to be outside of. The issue comes back to the idea of Divine Immutability. God cannot change. He is perfect and according to Platonic logic, perfection cannot change.[13] My question is if we think of immutability as a weakness or strength? It should be an amazing thing, but most work I have read treats it as a weak spot. “God cannot experience anything because it would cause change.” That system of thought makes me think of Immutability as a kid on quarantine, afraid to catch an illness, not someone that an illness could not touch. By saying “God cannot experience change” we would have to throw away any idea of a time model based on potentials becoming absolutes. We could not have sequence of any kind in the material world, or immaterial. We would run into issues about moments when God did relate or act in sequence. Something does not seem right and I do not think it is this time model. Rather, I think it is in how we see perfection.
As a perfect being, that is full potential, God should be able to experience chance without being effected. Only an imperfect being that can move and grow can be affected. We are imperfect beings that are constantly growing and changing. Not just physically, but also in our sanctification. This is a weakness of ours. God, being perfect, should be able to experience change without any possibility of being changed. He should be able to walk around in our illness and never catch a cold. In lecture 38, it was sited that God does not change in being, but he can still experience and relate to his creation.[14] This was a joy for me to hear. I have never heard this argument of change before other than in my own thoughts. The classic idea of God needing to avoid change in order to remain immutable did not make rational sense to me understanding immutability as a strength, and God as relational.
To clarify further, perfection would mean the point that a being is at its full potential and can no longer be subject to outside influences changing its being. It is not saying that the being needs to avoid change because it would cause change. It is claiming that the being can be exposed to any kind of change without itself changing. The only being would be God.
What this does for us is understand God as relational without violating our concept of His perfection. The Christian God is relational, not stoic. We understand Time as the measure of change and succession, but a perfect being can experience succession in other things without a succession in His being.
I think much of our misunderstanding of this issue comes back to Augustine. I have spent much of my young catholic life reading Augustine. He was a serious influence in my conversion, but I think he was over-dependant on Plato’s understanding of perfection. My understanding is that Plato felt any change meant something was not perfect. A being could not be exposed to change and not himself change. The reason for Plato that perfection cannot change is obvious. You either move for the better or the worse. To change means you are different then you were prior. My argument would say that God is perfect, and in who he is he cannot change, but I would say that he can experience, because he is relational. We change from experience. We grow to better or worse, but we are not perfect. He is. I think perfection should be a strength not a weakness. Perfection should be being able to experience a changing world and not change from it. Perfection is not something that is harmed by a changing world. Plato did not have a proper philosophy of God, he was pagan, he did not have the revelation that we have. He had what he called “the good” and that was God to him, a creator-source-metaphysical start point. But he did not have the Christian complexity in the character of God. I think Augustine holds too close to Plato’s idea of change/perfection and that is what harms much of his time model.
At the beginning of this paper I claimed that this philosophy is more than just another way to understand God, but also that it had soteriological implications to it. The key driving force in this discussion for me has been to keep a central understanding of our free will preserved. I believe that in the other forms of this discussion the nature and ability of the free will has been called into question. Calvin developed his method to the degree that we have no free will. The issue is this, if the future is determined then something other than us is determining it, since we do not have access to the future. Our free will cannot be freely making the future choice if it is determined before our will determines it.[15] From this we have a couple options. The first is that God is determining the future and we are simply working off scripts. This is similar to Calvin’s theology, but this is irreconcilable with a Catholic understanding of the importance of free will. Another option that I have heard from some Catholics is that “God does not see the future events, but he perfectly knows them in an exhausted sense because he perfectly knows us.”[16] My problem here is that if the sum total of our experiences + outside factors would create a determined outcome then we still have no free will. We are bound to an equation; we are not just predictable but determined. I think that this should scream at our basic understanding of God, but also our basic understanding of life. We know we are free in our actions, we know we are responsible for what we do and in being responsible we need to be free. God limits the use of his own power by giving free will to those creatures made in His image.[17] Without free will we cannot genuinely make the choice to love God. That is the essence question in the whole universe.[18] Because of his power and his perfection he can give us the free will and the possibility of possibility and be secure in his ultimate power. In this there is risk, but that risk is the possibility of us rejecting God. There is never a legit threat to his power. The risk is necessary, as only with the legit possibility of rejection can our decision to love God be free.

[1] If you would like this material I can provide it. Specifically there are 95 verses that are discussed in this debate.
[2] Immutability, Impassibility, Omnipotence, Omniscience, Omnipresence
[3] An accusation made by Dr. Boyd on numerous occasions.
[4] I fully believe I have the potential to bump into heresy here. That is not my intention, my plea is that you would correct me and allow me to work thru this to an understanding.
[5] Some of these arguments are things I learned from Dr. Greg Boyd. I have modified them, if I use a direct quote, I will site it. A summery of Boyd’s view from his introduction to a response to Bruce Ware says I believe that God is the sovereign Creator and Lord, leading history toward his desired end, yet granting freedom to his creatures as he wills. He knows and can reveal all that he has determined about the future, thus declaring “the end from the beginning”. I believe that God is perfectly wise and knows all reality exactly as it is. The issue concerning the “openness of the future” is not about the infallibility or fallibility of God’s foreknowledge, but rather about the nature of the future which God infallibly foreknows. Is it exclusively foreknown and predetermined by God, or does God determine some aspects of the future and sovereignly allow other aspects to remain open?”
[6] The idea of a “river” would be Newton’s idea.
[7] I have seen it a lot in Peter Kreeft’s writing.
[8] A point argued on pg. 163 in Fr. Clarke’s “One and the Many”.
[9] Perhaps it would be helpful for me to use two terms here. 1.) To define the action in which material things grow-die-change, and 2.) To express the linear/sequential aspect of thought and communication? It is plausible to have the second thing without the change of the first thing. As I will argue further in this essay, God experiences the second without the effect of the first. The second thing would always exist. The first thing would only begin to exist when God created. The action of creation even demands that God acts in sequence.
[10] I do affirm that God can and does guarantee whatever he wants about the future, because he is all-powerful, but I also affirm that God created us designed to love, and only free love is real love, and in being free we need to be able to decide matters for ourselves. God sets whatever he wants to set, and we work within the framework. In this I need to affirm that sometimes the particular thing God wants does not always happen, but we know this from scripture where God wants all to be saved, but some go to hell. This is why there is still prophecy. God works within our free wills and the possibilities.
[11] In lecture 38, Dr. Sanford starts to say what can be assumed as “God does perfectly know the future.” This being a dogma cannot be denied. So the issue comes back to what exists to know. What is the future?
[12] In the scriptural defense of this there are plenty of examples where we see this happen.
[13] I want to again note that I am not trying to attach or deny the attributes of God, but rather to clarify them. If I am in the wrong here, please correct me.
[14] Lecture 38, 25min mark approx
[15] My understanding of self-determination is that the determinateness of the acts, which a will self-determines, cannot exist before the will gives these acts determinateness. Hence the determinateness of such acts is not there to be known by God or anyone else as anything other than possibilities prior to the will’s act of self-determination.
[16] The write was a fan of Anselm and he would often cite him for his logical influence.
[17] I believe this is a similar view to that held by Arminians in this debate.
[18] Lecture 38 your said “God creates because of his desire to love.”

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