Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Time for a change? Time & eternity II

My new-found Scandinavian friend Patrik has responded at length to my first post on time and eternity, which in turn was a response to some of his earlier posts (he's already done a good job of cataloging the history).

My own grip on patristics being somewhat slim, I nonetheless realise that the idea that God is somehow outside of time has a long and noble history reaching back into the first few centuries of the church. Yet I just don't buy it. Let me fly a kite and see what happens. Happy for it to be shot down...

Can God change? A fascinating question. The early fathers argued that change either means God's getting worse (and so is no longer perfect), or better (and so wasn't perfect before). However, I guess I find problematic the notion of perfection that lies behind the Greek fear of transience. I'm not sure that mathematical perfection is the most fruitful model for conceptualising divine perfections. And there's the key: perfections. God's perfections remain open-ended and so capable of growth and multiplication. For instance, although he was Father (and Son, and Spirit) without the world, he is now Creator, a new perfection. In a similar manner, the Incarnation brings about a new state of affairs for divine identity. There is more that can be said of him now. Not because he was deficient prior to the Incarnation, nor because he was already incarnate and we just didn't know it yet. But his perfections have been multiplied.

Does this threaten divine faithfulness? No, in fact, I sometimes wonder whether temporality is a condition of faithfulness. If God is outside time, then does his ability to stay true to himself constitute a virtue? Do we praise a triangle for its faithfulness - always, no matter what, having three sides?

Paul Ricoeur makes a very useful distinction between ipse and idem identity. Both are Latin words translated 'same', but with a slightly different spin. Am I the same person I was yesterday? Yes, and no. No, many of my atoms have changed, millions of cells have died, I have different memories, a slightly different outlook on life, a little less hair, a little more weight, a little more wisdom (I hope). But yes, it's still me - I'm still the same character in the story of my life. The former kind of identity (mathematically exactly totally the same) is idem identity - the same what-ness (unchanging substance). In this sense, I am not the same as yesterday. But the second, ipse identity, is the same who-ness. Self-same versus same self. I believe that God's faithfulness, his constancy, consists of ispe, rather than idem identity.

7 comments:

Patrik said...

I'm not sure what it means that perfection is multiplied. Your reasoning seems to make God dependent on what we can say about him. Now this is n idea one can work with, but it is a very radical one... It would make God a function of our language. That would be something that one would need to think a bit about.

Ok, I agree in a way that God changes because of creation and incarnation, but these are changes only from our perspective, i.e. the perspective of time. I would say that God is creating and incarnating in his essence, and this is not a change in him, it is just something that in time takes place in a certain moment, but this is just because we can only observe history from one point in time at the moment. As Looney commented, Jesus forgiving sins before the resurrection suggests that this is not the case for God.

Ricoeur's distinction is interesting. Now apply that to the resurrestion of the body. :)

byron said...

Yes, precisely. There has to be both continuity and discontinuity in the resurrection. It is no mere resuscitation of a corpse into the world of death, but the transformation of a body powered by psyche into one powered by God's Spirit (1 Cor 15), over which death no longer has dominion.

I didn't mean to imply that God is dependent upon our ability to speak about him (that would be a very limited divinity indeed!), far less to what we can imagine him to be. Thanks for clarifying that.

I agree too that as Father, he is creative/generative considered outside his creating of the universe, since the Son is 'eternally begotten of the Father' and the Spirit likewise proceeding. But I think that being Creator is nonetheless a novelty for God. Perhaps clearer is the Incarnation: the assumption of humanity into deity, the taking of flesh by divine Logos is more than simply a revelation of what God has always been. It is something new for God.

My hesistations about thinking God is entirely outside time are that such a conception: (a) seems quite close to the god of Parmenides, and (b) seems to drives quite a wedge between the immanent and economic trinities. We have to wonder whether we really know God at all.

Patrik said...

Ahh, yes, but see, we don't! I think this is really the most important part of theology: about God we cannot say anything. Negative theology isn't just and aspect of theology, it is the heart of it.

Even the word God is a kind of negation, since it originally meant small objects of wood or stone we hope will give us good harvest and many kids, or something like that. The Ot talk of God as Elohim could really be summed up "Well, God is a bitlike a god, but not really..."

byron said...

Perhaps here then is most profoundly where we differ. I believe that negative theology is a necessary and legimate mode of theology (in order to prevent idolatry), but I also think that purely negative theology can itself be a failure of obedience. If God was in Jesus, if Jesus is the one who has come from the Father, is full of grace and truth, and who exegetes the Father to us (John 1), then we are called beyond reverent silence (or a constant discussion of how to best avoid saying anything positive, which can amount to much the same thing) into the risky dangerous business of theology. Not to do so, however, seems a yet greater risk...

[Thought: Perhaps negative theology needs a new post of its own.]

Patrik said...

I think negative theology needs to be in every post! But, ok, I think I'll write something on it tonight.

Patrik said...

Ok, enjoy!

byron said...

Thanks, Patrik, I've replied over on your post.