On the Eternal Now – A Problem for God’s Knowledge

“If God sometimes speaks as though the Impassible could suffer passion and eternal fullness could be in want, and in want of those beings on whom it bestows all from their bare existence upwards, this can mean only, if it means anything intelligible by us, that God of mere miracle has made Himself able so to hunger and created in Himself that which we can satisfy.” CSL The Problem of Pain

To safeguard the notion of divine permission we must also have a solid notion of human freedom; but to maintain providence and god’s timelessness we must have a notion of God’s knowledge not being caused by the creation itself. Divine permission and human freedom should be safeguarded because without them, everything becomes God’s direction intentional will – including sin and the damnation of people. And timelessness should be safeguarded (it seems to me) because it’s the only way of keeping God truly transcendent in relation to the creation. If he is reduced to one more being who is in time, it seems we must go looking for another First Principle, another Unifying Source, another Original Maker of all that is.

But in trying to hold together both human freedom and divine timelessness we run into the following puzzle: when we think of God’s knowledge, it seems, on the one hand, that if we are free to do either A or B, then God must wait on us to do either A or B in order to know what we will do. But if God must wait, that puts him in time. On the other hand, if God does not have to wait, and if knows what we will do simply because his knowledge determines that we do it beforehand, that destroys human freedom. So we are left with a dilemma: God either first creates free beings, waits to see what they will do, then has his knowledge thereby determined; or he creates beings which have their actions imposed on them from his own initial will or idea concerning how they will freely behave in the first place. The first option upholds human freedom at the expense of God’s timelessness; the second upholds timelessness at the expense of freedom.

The traditional solution to this puzzle has been to say that God exists in an “Eternal Now.” That is, all of reality exists for God in a single, thick moment. He does not do one thing “before” or “after” another (which would reduce him to a temporal process). Rather, he simply does his acts all at once, eternally or always. Yet for the Eternal Now view there has always been a problem here regarding God’s knowledge. Traditionally it has been said that God knows free actions simply by “seeing” them outside of time. That is, since God is above the timeline everything in it is “there” for him. So, with respect to free choices, rather than knowing them by determinately causing them, he knows them simply by observing what he sees.

The problem with this view, however, is this.

Even if it is granted that God exists in a higher dimension capable of containing the entire flow of time “at once,” and even if it is granted that this is how God knows what creatures freely do, it would not explain the idea of Divine Permission. This is because the theory, at least as it is presented above, leaves no room for God’s causal interaction with what he knows. Here is why. If God sees all moments of past, present and future in an Eternal Now, this means that whatever he sees is already fixed and “there” for him to see. If, as the classic analogy goes, God is in the Watchtower of Eternity beholding all things below him, then those “all things” must already be below him. He must already be beholding a completed picture of reality. But now here comes the question – just how did that reality get there?

If you say that God first put it there, you are simply back to the original question: when God put it there, did he know what free choices would be made there or not. You cannot say that, granting the completed picture of reality that God sees from the Watchtower, God then uses his knowledge to tinker with the picture. For i) that would destroy the picture (which is all of past, present and future to begin with); and ii) put God back in time. On the other hand neither can you say that the Completed Picture has simply just been there as “given” forever, for then you have a reality that exists alongside of God which he did not make. This, obviously, is highly problematic as well. On the Christian view the universe is not something that is uncreated. The claim is that the whole space-time manifold has itself been brought into being and is being held in existence at every point by God’s own causal powers.

In other words, the Eternal Now view, while it may show how God can know all things, does not explain how he could do anything with the knowledge he gains. He knows things too late to make a difference. The moment he sees things, all of history is already there. Therefore if he were to reach back into the time line and alter this or that event in response to what he knows, he would destroy the entirety of the picture to begin with.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? It seems to me maybe so. The first step out is to reconstruct a more accurate image of God’s relation to the world. God is not simply timelessly “looking at” as something over and against himself as a lover of art beholds a pre-existing painting. Rather, while God does in fact “see” his creation, he also makes it and causes within it the form and beauty that it has. As Lewis loved to say, the Christian view of reality is much more complex than God simply passively “seeing” what takes place in the universe. He sees it, yes, but what he sees is a product of his own making; and thus he sees what he makes.

God therefore exists not only outside of time but also at every point of time itself. This second clause if often fatally overlooked, and therefore bears repeating. God’s mode of existence is not only one which transcends time, but is also one which takes up every moment of time altogether. God’s timelessness, then, whatever else it means, should not be taken in a sense which excludes connection and interaction with temporal events.

It seems to me much more appropriate then to say that God “gains” knowledge of the free choices of creatures by working in and through the very created free beings themselves. God is not standing across from us, as we stand across from one another, and having his knowledge determined by light waves that hit his retina as matter moves through the air. Rather, God’s very actions themselves – and therefore his knowledge of his actions – are what they are by working through free creatures. The artist knows his painting as he paints it because he works with a particular paintbrush and knows what he is doing with it. In the same way I think we should think of God knowing our actions – which are free – by knowing his own action through us. 

But doesn’t this mean that God’s knowledge is itself determined by our free response, for wouldn’t his knowledge be different if we had done – or now choose to do – different things? In fact isn’t God’s very experience and knowledge itself whatever it is precisely because of our free choices?

To these questions I would have to reply that yes, it seems impossible to deny that God’s knowledge and feelings are what they are precisely because of what we do. How could anyone who believed that God became a man in Christ – who suffered and cried and groaned and laughed – possibly believe that God’s being was not effected by the creation?

But also, doesn’t this view mean that God is in time? For he must be acting and knowing as he acts in time itself. And again, I would say that any mode of God’s timelessness which excludes his also being in time must be false, since if he were only simply timeless, that fact could not explain his real give and take with the world.

The real question is this. Why cannot God will to make himself thus vulnerable, thus able to be determined and effected by free beings? Remember, in doing this God need not be reduced to one more temporal cause in a long domino chain of causes. That would require us to think of God and ourselves existing on the same plane and have us as really distinct from and other than Him. But we do not so exist independently of God like we do of other things, of other people and bits of matter separated by space. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” God can still be the First Cause; it’s just that his first free action is to so make himself vulnerable and able to relate to creatures. If therefore we can impact God, it is only because God has first willed to allow himself to be so impacted. But, assuming he does will this – why can’t his mode of existence be one in which he is also acted on, in the sense of him acting in and through free beings? Is is not possible for an omnipotent being, of his own choosing, to so make himself such that his own thoughts and desires are what they are precisely due to the free actions of beings other than himself?



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