Earlier this year, I addressed a reader question about time and how God relates to it. Talking about time can be tricky, because our subjective experience of the passing of time is so fundamental that it’s difficult to get any distance for a new perspective. We just know that time advances continuously from the past into the future at 1 second per second, and everything exists and happens in the liminal present between the two. So it’s only natural to imagine God must have some kind of similar experience, at the very least by virtue of having been incarnated. At the same time, our understanding of time from physics suggests that time itself is part of creation. Thus we want to say that the Creator exists outside (?) or maybe before (?) or at least independent of time. These two ideas appear difficult to reconcile.
Recently, I read an intriguing proposal addressing precisely this tension in describing God as both engaged with and separate from his creation. This paper describes a possible model of spacetime, derived from general relativity, which might actually allow for both relationships between God and creation to coexist. While the science at the core is fairly esoteric, involving wormholes and geometries beyond our normal experience, the paper itself is fairly readable without physics expertise and focuses on the implications for theology. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t really know how to think about dimensionless time or “omniclusters” and I can’t vouch for whether general relatively actually permits these solutions — I’ll leave that to the experts. And in fairness, the author himself brought this paper to my attention. Still, I thought it was a worthwhile update to our conversation on time and I’ve enjoyed thinking through its ideas.
What really excites me about this work is the interplay between the science and the theology. As I mentioned, just talking about time is hard. The mathematics of general relativity are currently one of our best tools for that challenge; we can express ideas more precisely and explore scenarios and implications with a rigor that English isn’t equipped for. Why not use those tools to express how we think God might relate to time? And if that leads us to explore general relativity in directions that we wouldn’t otherwise, all the better. There is a risk of aligning one’s theology too closely to a particular scientific model that could be falsified in the future by new discoveries. But with the appropriate understanding that we are exploring what is possible rather than stating definitively what is, I think this kind of relationship between science and theology can bear much fruit.
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.
Ethan Ortega says
Fascinating! I remember as a child trying to conceive the notion of eternity and that God had always been before creation and how that notion of timelessness was so bizarre (still is). In all the discussion of this topic, I have still held to the idea, in faith, that there is some sort of duality happening that allows God to exist independent of time and yet still interact with us here within it.
Andy Walsh says
I’m glad you found this edifying. I agree, timelessness is so hard to conceive of. And maybe our desire to ascribe some manner of timeliness to God is nothing more than an attempt to reduce him to something that’s easier for us to understand. Still, I think there’s merit to exploring models that allow us to say more clearly “This is what I think God is like” and that enable us to figure out which descriptions are actually possible or impossible.