Well, I thought about doing a bonus blog last week, but it never happened. I could blame my daughter for taking up all my time and attention, but the reality is I just didn’t feel like it. Oh well. Onward! This week’s blog in our series on Augustine examines my favorite “book” of the Confessions, Book XI. Augustine opens Book XI with a question: “O Lord, since you are outside time in eternity, are you unaware of the things that I tell you? Or do you see in time the things that occur in it?” (XI.1). Augustine poses a tough question that is not easily answered. He proceeds to discuss this issue throughout Book XI, and since trying to elaborate on it would fill up pages and pages of a blog, I will seek instead to hone in on a couple of key passages. I invite and recommend all of you to read Confessions in general, and particularly Book XI.
Section 13 of Book XI contains a couple of poignant statements to which I want to devote space here. Augustine notes, “It is not in time that you precede [time]. If this were so, you would not be before all time. It is in eternity, which is supreme over time because it is a never-ending present, that you are at once before all past time and after all future time. For what is now the future, once it comes, will become the past, whereas you are unchanging, your years can never fail. Your years neither go nor come, but our years pass and others come after them” (XI.13).
Trying to grasp just how God’s place in eternity lies outside of time is a heavy concept. The idea that God exists in a “never-ending present” is helpful but also difficult. For example, God is not affected by time, does not grow old, etc. However, does this mean that God is somehow limited? Think of what we know as “present.” It means that we know what is past, and do not know the future (no matter what doomsday prophets will tell you). Does God’s “never-ending present” also mean that God does not know the future. Augustine would certainly disagree with such a conclusion. In the above quotation he notes that God is “before all past time and after all future time.” Does that mean that God is simply outside of time? It would seem to suggest that. But what about Jesus (God in human flesh), who enters into time? He was born and He died. He also rose from the dead. Did Jesus know everything that was to happen? Was Jesus surprised by events in His lifetime, even if He knew His ultimate fate?
As you can see, such a discourse can open up a whole can of worms. Augustine further elaborates on God’s place in eternity: “Your years are one day, yet your day does not come daily but is always today, because your today does not give place to any tomorrow nor does it take the place of any yesterday. Your today is eternity. And this is how the Son, to whom you said, ‘I have begotten you this day,’ was begotten co-eternal with yourself. You made all time; you are before all time; and the ‘time,’ if such we may call it, when there was no time was not time at all” (XI.13).
This is one of my favorite passages of the entire Confessions. I love how succinctly Augustine phrases such a difficult concept. He clearly uses “time” language to show just how God is eternal. Augustine demonstrates how we as humans strain to comprehend God’s existence. Since we think in terms of time, we ought to use time language in order to show just how God is greater than us. We have to think of God in an eternal present, an eternal today. In addition to that, God is the creator of time and is before and after all time. What causes us trouble is the idea of eternity. It is easy to flippantly say, “Oh God is outside of time, so God is not surprised by the future.” Well, what about when someone presses you on the matter. For example, can God truly hear our prayers (especially those that are time-sensitive, like healing or job opportunities) if God is outside of time?
This gets back to Augustine’s opening question, how can human prayer requests bridge the gap between the temporal and the eternal realms? Well I would argue that Jesus’s entering into the temporal realm facilitates that, as does the gifted Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians. Is such an argument helpful though? What about skeptics? Does this help us answer their tough questions about God’s nature and God’s seeming detachment from our world?
I want to bring this blog to a “timely” close before it gets too long-winded. A Bible study I was once a part of took on some of these topics. It was a great experience digging into passages and commentaries and often getting really confused. At the end of it, however, we did come to some conclusions. A question that was posed went something like this: if God is eternal and outside of time, does God know if I will go to the gym two weeks from today? Now, you might think this a rather mundane detail for God to be concerned with, but I assure you it caused a furious debate. The point was if God knows for sure (or even predestines it, which was the purpose of the question), then how does free will work? The conclusion was that we do have free will, God can just see both outcomes of whether or not we decide to go to the gym two Thursdays from now.
And this is one of the problems with calling God’s place in the universe a “never-ending present.” It makes God seem limited or restricted in some way. If we think of God as outside of time, God sees the past, present, and future all at once. God sees all possibilities of actions (and their consequences) at once. This is so much greater and more profound than an eternal present. Time is too small of a construct to contain God.