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Telling Time: The Apologetic of the Present, Part 1

By Corey Latta

The time has passed when time doesn’t count.

— Paul Valéry, “La Crise de l’esprit” (1919)

Humans live in time . . . therefore . . . attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to . . . the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity . . . in it alone freedom and actuality are offered.

— C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942)

Throughout philosophy’s history, notions of eternity have developed alongside and in response to developments in theology of God’s nature. Significant texts like Augustine’s Confessions Book XI and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy spurred philosophical conversation about the nature of and differences between eternity (atemporality) and everlastingness (sempiternity). Now’s not the time to examine all of the nuances of eternity and timed reality, and even a cursory look at the paradigms of epoch and eternal duration will have to wait. For now, I want only to make that small case that an existential function of man’s temporality is to draw him to God’s eternality. And because Augustine, Boethius, and I are eternalists, I will proceed from that position.     Among the implications of God’s timelessness is His transcendent experience of tenselessness. Simply put, God, whose whole life exists beyond chronology, sequentiality, and temporal duration, experiences the past, present, and future in an eternal present, an “always present,” as Eliot poetically put in Four Quartets. To say it another way, God presently exists at all punctiliar moments. And all punctiliar moments exist presently in the transcendent God before He in them, to say it yet another way. This is no new view.

In Book XI of his Confessions, considering God’s relation to time’s reality, Augustine wrote of God’s causal agency in all timed things, stating that since God cannot precede created time (that would imply sequence—an utterly anthropomorphic idea), He must dwell outside of it. The age, then, in which God dwells, the “sublimity of an eternity” Augustine calls it, is “always in the present.” Augustine enjoyed good company in his eternally privileging the present. Early sixth century philosopher Boethius, who parsed eternity as the “complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life,” argued that God’s atemporal existence occupied one “simultaneous present.” God couldn’t know beforehand or afterward, for example, because future and past were always present for God.

Lewis also championed an always present view of God on several occasions. In a superb example of Lewis’s eternalism from Miracles, Lewis says:

It is probable that Nature is not really in Time and almost certain that God is not. Time is probably (like perspective) the mode of our perception. There is therefore in reality no question of God’s at one point in time (the moment of creation) adapting the material history of this universe in advance to free acts which you or I are to perform at a later point in Time. To Him all the physical events and all the human acts are present in an eternal Now. The liberation of finite wills and the creation of the whole material history of the universe (related to the acts of those wills in all the necessary complexity) is to Him a single operation. In this sense God did not create the universe long ago but creates it at this minute—at every minute.

Here, Lewis paints free will and the moment of creation in the color of divine simultaneity. To God, man’s continual expression of freedom and a definite moment in time, like creation, gather synchronously. God exists outside of time, transcendently beyond its sequential nature and effects. In a letter to a fan named Gilbert Perleberg, who is contending with Lewis’s view of time, Lewis states his idea of God’s eternality in a similar way,

This is v. [very] odd. All the arguments you advance as objections to my theory of eternity seem to me to show that you are in exact agreement with me. A doctrine that God ‘was’ more creative ‘at the beginning’ than ‘now’ is absolutely excluded by my view–‘was’ and ‘at the beginning’ being meaningless when applied to the Timeless Being. As I say in Screwtape the total creation meets us at every moment.[1] The distinction between miracle and natural even is not between what God once did and what He now does: it is always NOW with Him.

Temporalist critics of a timeless God accuse the eternalist position of presenting a virtually unknowable Deity. An eternal God is virtually unknowable, if He exists outside of time, man’s only known perception. If, indeed, God is transcendently beyond time, then how can we know him in our temporal trapping?

T. S. Eliot poeticized the theological tension between an eternal God and temporal man with “through time time is conquered.” Alluding to the incarnation, Eliot hit upon the nexus of God’s eternality and man’s temporality. God enters any temporal moment, and therefore into the stream of duration, with full ontological maintenance of His eternality. In entering time, God doesn’t change anymore than a man does when he enters a river. Time, though, changes. The “always present” nature of God’s existence opens up the temporal present, animating time with spiritual reality and allowing chronologically natured man to know the eternal God. The Incarnation demonstrated this break in the temporal more profoundly than any other historical event. The incarnational, tensed rhetoric of the “lamb slain before the foundation of the world [time]” reflects God’s taking on a tensed existence not only that man might live beyond time but also that he might live in time and in communion with eternity. If God is eternal, yet an occupant of time, then every singular moment within the continual flow of past, present, and future partakes in an eternal reality.

Indeed, God’s ever-occupying the present redefines humanity’s tensed existence. God, in full expression of His eternal nature, enters into all moments causatively and with consequence for those bound to dwell in time. Therein lies the apologetic of time. Against God’s eternality we must redefine our experience of past, present, and future. While time, and man’s experience within and of it, operates in tandem with God’s operative will, it also works against it. God exists perfectly within His own eternality. Eternal life is perfected in His nature. He occupies atemporal existence in perfection of non-decay. Humanity, though, suffers the effects of time until eventual death. By its very nature time endures in antithesis to eternality. Augustine knew this, saying of man’s experience with time that “we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends toward non-existence.” Time’s finitude is the existential progression of fatal rot ending in death, and temporal man moves through that progression in steady entropy. Whereas God remains in whole existence, man breaths his way into non-existence. The life God enjoys in atemporal existence stands above decaying man as a great tower into which man longs to seek refuge.

(part 2)

[1] From Screwtape, letter 15: “The Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them” (61).

Photo: “Dawn of  Eternity” by Waiting for the Word. CC license. 

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