Monday, January 31, 2011

Augustine on time

Trying to take seriously Paul's injunction to "redeem the time" (Ephesians 5:15-16), it's my practice to leave a book in the car that I can take with me to read when waiting at the doctors/dentists or whenever I have to hang around for a bit. I suppose I could get stuck into a well thumbed issue of Hello Magazine, or read a leaflet on the health benefits of tea or study some information the best way to floss your teeth, but I don't think that reading the standard waiting room fodder would be the best way to redeem time. Anyway, not to further waste your time by rambling on about personal trivia I'll get down to the matter in hand.

But wait a minute, I haven't yet told you what I'm currently using as my "waiting room book". It's The Confessions of Augustine. What better use of otherwise wasted time than to read this classic work of Christian autobiography/theology? Last Thursday I had to take a family member to see the physiotherapist. While they were being pulled around and prodded, I sat in the waiting room with Augustine. I was able to get going on Book XI, where the theologian discusses time.

The remarkable thing with his deliberations as to the nature of time is that Augustine is reflecting on the subject in conversation with God. The Confessions are his confession to God, a spiritual autobiography in the form of a prayer, and his thoughts on time are no exception. He meditations are punctuated by prayer, "O Lord my God, hear my prayer and let thy mercy attend my longing.", "Let me hear and understand how in the beginning thou madest heaven and earth.", "I am seeking the truth, O Father; I am not affirming it. O my God, direct and rule me." Reasoning corum deo, or before the face of God, Augustine was not afraid to confess his ignorance. Indeed, he has great difficulty in understanding what time is,
What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know. Yet I say with confidence that I know that if nothing passed away, there would be no past time; and if nothing were still coming, there would be no future time; and if there were nothing at all, there would be no present time. (Chapter XV:17)
He ponders the question that is till raised today, "What was God doing before the creation of the world?"
How, then, shall I respond to him who asks, “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” I do not answer, as a certain one is reported to have done facetiously (shrugging off the force of the question). “He was preparing hell,” he said, “for those who pry too deep.” It is one thing to see the answer; it is another to laugh at the questioner--and for myself I do not answer these things thus. More willingly would I have answered, “I do not know what I do not know,” than cause one who asked a deep question to be ridiculed--and by such tactics gain praise for a worthless answer.
Rather, I say that thou, our God, art the Creator of every creature. And if in the term “heaven and earth” every creature is included, I make bold to say further: “Before God made heaven and earth, he did not make anything at all. For if he did, what did he make unless it were a creature?” I do indeed wish that I knew all that I desire to know to my profit as surely as I know that no creature was made before any creature was made. (Chapter XII:14)
In other words God did not create the world in time in the sense that silent eons went by before he made the world. Rather, the creation of the universe involved the creation of time itself.
Since, therefore, thou art the Creator of all times, if there was any time before thou madest heaven and earth, why is it said that thou wast abstaining from working? For thou madest that very time itself, and periods could not pass by before thou madest the whole temporal procession. But if there was no time before heaven and earth, how, then, can it be asked, “What wast thou doing then?” For there was no “then” when there was no time. (Chapter XIII:15).
Augustine's thought that the creation of matter also involved the creation of time anticipates modern scientific theories. Einstein's theory of relativity links space and time together to form a unified spacetime. Accordingly, time itself began with the 'big bang'. As Paul Davies acknowledges,
Augustine was already there in the fifth century. His considered answer to what God was doing before creating the universe was that 'the world was made with time and not in time'. Augustine's God was a being who transcends time, a being located outside time altogether, and responsible for creating time and space as well as matter. Thus Augustine skilfully avoided the problem of why the creation happened at that moment rather than some other, earlier, moment. There were no earlier moments... If the universe originated 'in time', then it cannot have been caused by any physical process that has finite probability, because if it did the the event would already have happened, an infinite time ago. On the other had, if the universe was made 'with time' then this problem goes away. (The Goldilocks Enigma, Paul Davies, Penguin, p. 80-81)
God is an eternal being. From everlasting to everlasting he is God (Psalm 90:2). Time involves an extension of moments, but God is not subject to the passing of time. He simply is. We should not envisage him waiting for ages before implementing his plan to create the universe. Such a time-based category does not apply to a God whose being and knowledge are infinite and eternal. Herman Bavinck comments,
Consequently-strictly speaking-one cannot speak of foreknowledge in the case of God: with him there are no "distinctions of time". He calls the things that are not as if they were and sees what is not as if it already existed. [Citing Augustine] "For what is foreknowledge if not knowledge of future events? But can anything be future to God who surpasses all times? For if God's knowledge includes the very things themselves, they are not future to him, but present; and for this reason we should no longer speak of God's foreknowledge but simply of God's knowledge." [Citing Gregory the Great] "Whatever is past and future to us is immediately present in his sight." (Reformed Dogmatics Volume Two: God and Creation, Herman Bavinck, Baker Academic, p.196-197).
So, to ask "What was God doing before the creation?" is nonsensical. There was no before before the creation, only God in the infinite fullness of his communicative being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is the eternal One and the everlasting Three. He made us and not we ourselves. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1) involved the creation of time as well as space and matter. Our God has placed us in this world of time, Psalm 39:4-5. In Christ God himself entered spacetime when the Son of God became man to redeem us from sin and death (Galatians 4:4-5). He calls us to redeem the time, to use every precious moment of our lives for the glory of his eternal name.


Pr Mark Henderson said...

I once read most of Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua while waiting (HOURS) in a public hospital emergency room. I'm not sure if that counts as redeeming my time either, but at least Newman's prose is much better than his theology.

Ben said...

Some time before I was converted, I heard of University Christian Union meeting at which someone was billed to speak on The Christian and Time. Time had both fascinated and troubled me since early childhood, and I went along eagerly expecting to learn about the nature of time from a Biblical standpoint.

Instead, a UCCF travelling secretary was giving a talk on how one should spend time: get up early, read the Bible, don't watch to much TV, don't read any pornography, etc. In my unregenerate state I dismissed it all as pietistic and shallow; it was a long time before I went to another CU meeting. What if that speaker had been reading Augustine ...?

btw, it should be implementing.

Ben said...

Oops, 'too much'. Serves me right for being a pedant, and why is there no edit button?

Exiled Preacher said...

Pedant are we, Ben? I never would have guessed. I'm afraid that your typo cannot be corrected. It will remain as proof that not even pedants are perfect. Just too bad (that's too with two oo's).

Leslie Wolf said...

Shouldn't that be two 'o's? Two 'oo's would be 'tooo'. Sorry, couldn't resist.

Guy Davies said...

That would be toooo much.