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God and Time

God and Time

At the core of most religions is the concept that God, or the Transcendent, may be personal or impersonal. God is the creating power without being created. God is timeless and eternal. With the act of Creation, time came to exist. God is not only the first cause outside of time, but also the basis of time. Especially in Christianity, God is regarded as the starting point of being and time, as well as the end of both. Statements from the ancient world on these ideas can be found in Plato’s dialogues (e.g., The State or Timaeus) and in Aristotle’s Physics and Metaphysics. Classical positions are given in the teaching of Saint Augustine, chiefly based on the Platonic and Neoplatonic traditions, and of Saint Thomas Aquinas, based on Aristotelian . Rationalistic perspectives are represented by such thinkers as Giordano Bruno, Baruch de Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. They consid­ered monistic thoughts, as well as pantheistic views, or the question of evil in the world. More recently, and Alfred North Whitehead present again considerations on God and time.

Plato and Aristotle

With his idea (form) of the Good, Plato (428-348 BCE) did not directly mention God. But the uni­versal good, as characterized in The State, has qualities similar to those of God in the Christian tradition: eternal, indivisible, beyond space and time. In the Platonic dialogue Timaeus, God is spoken of as the demiourgos (demiurge), who built the world out of basic material. But this God is neither the Christian God, nor a creator out of nothing. He has only the function of giving order and reason to the qualities of the cosmos.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE), student-scholar of Plato, speaks in the Physics and in the Metaphysics of the (first) Unmoved Mover. This first principle, which gives motion to everything in the cosmos, does not itself move. The first principle is loved by everything, so all things in the cosmos move toward it as an aim (telos) in circles. By this non­moving quality, the Unmoved Mover is beyond time, because moving can be measured only within time. The first principle is always the same; it is the “thinking of thinking” (noesis noeseös), unchangeable like God. Though it is not the Christian God, the first principle is called “God” (theos) by Aristotle.

Augustine and Aquinas

Saint Augustine’s (354-430) thoughts on time are embedded in his interpretation of Genesis as he presented them in book X, and especially in book XI, of his Confessions. According to Augustine, time (tempus) is linked with the Divine Creation (creatio). “Time” has no meaning before the Creation. Time did not exist before God created the universe. However, one could say that time was within God before the Creation. So it makes sense to speak of “time” only when there are pro­cesses of becoming and vanishing. Time gives natural processes both a basis and a framework in which they can progress.

Augustine is very honest when he says that he knows quite well what time is, as long as he is not asked to describe it. But when he is asked what time is, he does not know how to answer this question: “What is ‘time’ then? If nobody asks me, I know it; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I know not” (Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio). Therefore, one can say that time is very difficult to explain, but at first easy to understand. This sounds a bit paradoxical, but Augustine wants to reach a deeper philosophical understanding of time. So, he goes on with his own investigation.

Time is located in the mind (animus): past, present, and future (the three kinds of time) are all represented in mind as dimensions of mind. This also sounds a bit paradoxical, because past, pres­ent, and future are basically at the same time in the mind. Though a human only lives in the pres­ent, both the past and the future can be repre­sented within the human mind. The past is represented in memory. In a further step, Augustine says that time is measured by the soul: “’Tis in thee, O my mind, that I measure my times” (In te, anime meus, tempora mea metior). Therefore, time is an extension of the human mind. Time is a representation in the mind and not an objective physical motion. We can see that Augustine’s con­cept of time is very subjective, because time can be represented and measured only in the subject’s mind. In this case, his position is different from the more objective point of view of the Platonic and Neoplatonic traditions.

Augustine points out that Christian eschatol­ogy, the doctrine of last things, teaches us that a human cannot fulfill time on his or her own. God will fulfill time when God returns in Christ at the end of our time. So, the perfection of everything can be done only by God, and it is nothing that happens in time; it is, in fact, the perfection of time out of time. Therefore, Augustine wrote that, in time and in the world, we can only use things, and God is the only one who can be enjoyed. In the last books of The City of God, especially in book XXII, Augustine shows us that Christian eschatology differs from political eschatology; the latter tries to create an earthly paradise with only political considerations, often linked with political ideologies and violence.

The love of God for a human and the love of a human for God keeps a human, during time, in relationship with God. If one is within the love of God, one can do whatever one wants to do, as it cannot be against the Almighty: “Love, and do what thou wilt.”

God, the Sacred Trinity, is independent of time. God is over, behind, or next to time, because God is the eternal, pure being (esse) and has never been created. God is and always was, is and always will be; God is timeless without any changes. The uni­verse, created by God, is within time. But the cre­ated universe is contingent, it is not a necessary being like God. God, existing out of time, is the only necessary being as a basic ground of contin­gent being in the universe and in our world.

With his early considerations on time in the 4th and 5th centuries, Augustine is the starting point of Christian theories of time. He influenced later thinkers deeply, especially thinkers during the scholastic period, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas (1224/1225-1274). But Augustine also influenced thoughts about “time” beyond Christianity: mod­ern thinkers like Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), with his phenomenology of time; Henri Bergson (1859-1941), in whose thinking the durative aspect of time (duree, duration) is central; and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), with his main work Being and Time (1927), refer directly or indirectly to Augustine’s thoughts about time.

Time (tempus) for Saint Thomas Aquinas, as for Saint Augustine, is a phenomenon that has to do with the Divine Creation (creatio). God creates, as he is the first cause (prima causa). All the beings in the created world are creatures in time. Outside the world and the cosmos, time has no meaning and no use. Time appears together with Creation. All natu­ral developments happen in time. Without time, humans could not recognize developments. Also, human processes, even social and moral processes, need time as a framework. As Saint Thomas pointed out in his early commentary to the sentences of Saint Peter Lombardus, time is also necessary for those processes in the mind, because it serves as a measurement for what we have in the mind.

In his main work, Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas investigated time as an important phenomenon. Here, Aquinas differentiates time (tempus), which was for him well known as one of the 10 Aristotelian categories, from real eter­nity (aeternitas) and from eternal time (aevum). Aevum, “eternal time,” is a kind of “infinite time” for Saint Thomas, as an infinite sum of time, which is not a real eternity. It stands in the middle between time and eternity: “And by this way can be measured eternal time, which is the middle between eternity and time” (Et ideo huiusmodi mensurantur aevo, quod est medium inter aeterni- tatem et tempus). Time can be a continuum, or be separated into parts of time. Time can be imag­ined or real. This distinction is different from Augustine’s view, which taught that all three kinds of time (past, present, and future) are only representations in the mind and therefore dimen­sions of it. But similar to Augustine, Aquinas says that there are three kinds of time: the first time is the beginning, the second time is the following time, and the last time is the end of time (“time has a beginning and an end” (tempus autem habet principium et finem), and “between two instants, there is a middle time” (inter quaelibet duo instan- tia sit tempus medium). But again, in contrast to Augustine, Aquinas admits that, according to Aristotle, time is a kind of motion. Time can be measured as the number of changes (e.g., dark to bright, night to day) or of motions (“movement, whose measurement is time” (motus, cuius men­sura est tempus) and “because time is the number of motions” (quia tempus est numerus motus). Time serves also to represent a metaphysical, not only a physical, development or motion: as angels come to their nature at once, humans come to theirs eventually, because they have to discover the nature of a human as a creature of God.

Also for moral actions, time is an important indicator. Humankind needs sufficient time in order to act morally (Tempus autem est una de circumstantiis quae requiruntur ad actus virtu- tum). Therefore, nobody can be forced to immoral action by reducing his or her time to act or to react properly.

Within time, there are temporal things that are contingent, not necessary. These temporal things, which are all material things, come into existence and vanish after a certain amount of time. They cannot exist eternally in time. However, in his mainly philosophical work De aeternitate mundi (c. 1271), Saint Thomas shows that the universe itself is eternal, because the substance, the “basic material” (materia prima), is not made and is eter­nal. This does not mean that our world in its pres­ent concrete existence is eternal, but the world and the universe are eternal in their “basic mate­rial” (materia prima). With this argument, Saint Thomas wanted to increase the philosophical value of the pagan philosopher Aristotle to Christian theology. According to Aquinas, species are not eternal; they will, like other temporal beings or material things, appear and vanish in time. Without materia prima, the universe would have been a serious vacuum, which is, according to Saint Thomas, impossible.

Furthermore, humans cannot end time. According to Christian eschatology, it is only God who is able to fulfill time, when Christ returns and separates the good from the evil. So, God is the creator and the dominator of time. “To Him belongs time and the ages” (Eius sunt tempora et aeternitas), as it is written in the Office of the Easter Vigil of the Roman Catholic Church. God is outside of time and he is the timeless, eternal being (esse). God is the creator of everything and has never been created. He is and always was, is and will always be, without any changes. God, the Sacred Trinity, is the origin of time and the basic ground of being. Similar to Augustine, it is not sensible for Aquinas to speak of time before Creation.

Saint Thomas Aquinas deeply influenced Christian doctrine. His considerations on the property of time and other related subjects were philosophically and theologically investigated in many books and treatises. With his thoughts, Saint Thomas stands in the tradition of the philos- ophia perennis, the Everlasting or Permanent Philosophy, which has its starting point in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.

In the early 20th century, neo-Thomism emerged: neo-Thomistic philosophers and theologians kept up Aquinas’s thoughts in a very comprehensive way: the French thinker Jacques Maritain (1882­1973), the Jesuit Erich Przywara (1889-1972), and the German philosophers Max Müller (1906­1994) and Josef Pieper (1904-1997), among others, represent Thomistic thought in our present time.

Bruno, Spinoza, and Leibniz

All three thinkers—Bruno, Spinoza, and Leibniz— have a rationalistic approach to the question of God. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a monk and philosopher who presented a daring cosmol­ogy. Some of his thoughts were adopted by two other philosophers, Spinoza and Leibniz. Bruno and Spinoza are, in general, pantheists and monists. Leibniz is a monotheistic thinker but not a monist; however, he has a rationalistic method in common with Bruno and Spinoza.

Bruno presumed that the world and God are, in the end, both together, because reality has its origin in the eternal imagination. For Bruno, the universe is infinite and there are an infinite num­ber of beings in the cosmos. The universe is infi­nite because God as the creator of the cosmos is almighty and infinite. A finite cosmos would be too sharp a contrast to honor an almighty and infinite God. So, both God and the universe are infinite, but within time. In Bruno’s opinion, there exist an infinite number of eternal worlds. Also, according to Bruno, it is possible to measure time accurately in our world. Before Bruno, most of the thinkers followed Aristotle, who was con­vinced that only in the sphere of the fixed stars could there be a correct measurement of time. Time can be measured by motion; Bruno devel­oped a pendulum system that could measure time accurately by the motion of the pendulum. Furthermore, he was against the Ptolemaic geocen­tric model of the universe. Because of his heretical opinions, Giordano Bruno was condemned to death by the Roman Catholic Church in 1600.

Influenced by Bruno and Descartes (1596-1650), the philosopher Baruch (or Benedict) de Spinoza (1632-1677) was convinced that the substance of nature and of God is the same, as is pointed out in the sentence deus sive natura (“God or Nature”). He is therefore an exponent of and pan­theism. God is natural and living, and cannot be separated from matter. He is within every being. Some presumed that Spinoza was an atheist, because all materialistic things are finite in con­trast to God, who is immaterial and eternal. However, the Spinozistic concept of nature is not only materialistic, but also something much more complex. For Spinoza, nature has a divine quality even though it also has material qualities. God is the necessary, eternal, and infinite substance of nature or the universe. It follows that there is only one substance in the universe (monism), because God and nature are of the same substance. For this reason, God exists necessarily and, further­more, he was forced to create the universe because of this monistic union of God and nature. The main structures of the universe are causality and necessity. Beyond space and time, there is only the real existence of beings in the universe. The world exists as an infinite sequence of natural processes throughout time. God exists as the eternal sub­stance, but within endless time.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716) was a scientist, mathematician, and philosopher. He argued that there is a preestablished harmony in the world that is based on the infinite number of monads that are the nonmaterial elements of reality. The first monad is God, who has created the world as the best of all possible worlds. The evil in the world is thus reduced to a minimum, because God has compared our universe to every other possible universe, and he has decided this world to be the best possible world. The meta­physical, physical, and moral evils that exist have their origin in the imperfect and finite cosmos. God is the eternal reason and necessary being of the finite world. Space and time are not absolute, but relative as parts of the world. God and the universe are not of the same substance. In contrast to Bruno and Spinoza, Leibniz was neither a monist nor a pantheist. Leibniz earned his great reputation posthumously, perhaps most notably in Bertrand Russell’s (1872-1970) writings.

Teilhard de Chardin and Whitehead

The French Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and phi­losopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1951) attempted to reconcile Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic position, with the results of his scientific research into evolution. God is the alpha and the omega point of the evolving universe, so God is outside of time and its dynamic framework. For Teilhard, the omega point is the last stage of the evolving noosphere, at the end of human time. From this point of view, God is not only a spectator of the evolution of the universe, but also its aim and goal. Teilhard, who was present at the discovery of Peking man in 1923-1927, gave these arguments in his controversial major work, The Phenomenon of Man, which was denied publication by the Roman Holy Office during Teilhard’s lifetime. Later, Pope John XXIII rehabilitated him, and his work became an influential contribution to the church’s position on evolution.

With his dynamic philosophy presented in his book Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929), the mathematician and later philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) defended theism and represented the starting point for process theology; for Whitehead, the whole universe is in fluent change. Therefore, God as the creator of the universe is also in a fluent process and is not able to predict each process in the universe precisely. God is also understood within the framework of time, and God makes possible the change, growth, and flux of reality. Whitehead’s argument defends the­ism, but God is not almighty. Therefore, Whitehead’s position is different from the Judaic and Christian positions. Nevertheless, theologians such as Charles Hartshorne, John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin followed Whitehead and contributed to process theology.

The positions of Teilhard and Whitehead make it clear that, in the 20th century, the distance between God as the timeless being and the uni­verse as a creation within time became less and less, because the Creator and the cosmos are con­stantly interrelated in an ongoing process of eter­nal creativity.

Hans Otto Seitschek

See also Aristotle; Aquinas, Saint Thomas; Augustine of

Hippo, Saint; Bruno, Giordano; Christianity; Eschatology; Husserl, Edmund; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von; Newton, Isaac; Plato; Spinoza, Baruch de; Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre; Time, Sacred; Whitehead, Alfred North

Further Readings

Barnes, J. (Ed.). (1995). The Cambridge companion to

Aristotle. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. DeWeese, G. J. (2004). God and the nature of time.

Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Ganssle, G. E., & Woodruff, D. L. (Eds.). (2001). God and time: Essays on the divine nature. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Garrett, D. (Ed.). (1995). The Cambridge companion to Spinoza. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Gatti, H. (Ed.). (2003). Giordano Bruno: Philosopher of the Renaissance. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Jolley, N. (Ed.). (1994). The Cambridge companion to Leibniz. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kenny, A. J. P. (2002). Aquinas on being. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Kraut, R. (Ed.). (1992). The Cambridge companion to Plato. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mercier, A. (1996). God, world and time. New York: Verlag Peter Lang.

Padgett, A. G. (1992). God, eternity and the nature of time. New York: St. Martin’s.

Poe, H. L., & Mattson, J. S. (Eds.). (2005). What God knows: Time, eternity, and divine knowledge. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Stump, E., & Kretzmann, N. (Eds.). (2001). The Cambridge companion to Augustine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1959). The phenomenon of man (B. Wall, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.

Whitehead, A. N. (1979). Process and reality: An essay in cosmology. New York: The Free Press.

Wissink, J. B. M. (Ed.). (1990). The eternity of the world in the thought of Thomas Aquinas and his contemporaries. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic.

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