Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Time and Regret: Why God is Outside Time




One debate in philosophical theology is over whether God is inside or outside of time.  (There are many debates “inside” that one, too, including over the nature of time.  I’ll just sidestep those for now on the grounds that you can’t solve every problem in a blog post.)  I want to present a sketch of an argument for the conclusion that God is outside of time.

Think of your own experience in time.  I think in particular of regret about its passage.  Now you might regret the passage of time because you made a bad decision, you are swept up in the consequences, and you wish you could go back in time and change it.  I suppose we all have that.  But note that if God is in time, that’s not a problem for God because God doesn’t make any regrettable decisions.  (Unless Open Theism is true and God doesn’t know the future.  But let’s pretend Open Theism is not true.  I’m inclined to think that most problems in philosophical theology get worse rather than better with Open Theism . . .)

OK, think for a moment about the past, about a memory that involves something wonderful that you cannot have back.  In my case, I think of my children when they were very young.  Years ago I lived in Kentucky, across the street from a dairy farm.  I would regularly carry my infant son over there to watch the cows.  For me that was a slice of heaven that I can never have back, because I don’t live there anymore and, most notably, because my son is too old to be carried like that.  I regret that.  Those days are gone, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.  When I ponder this I feel trapped, swept along.  I am a prisoner of time.

But if God is in time, isn’t God trapped in exactly the same way?  If God took joy in the childhood of my kids, God can’t get back to it any more than I can.  (Of course, God remembers it better than I do, but even perfect memory of an event is not the same as living it.)  Or think about the glory of the Resurrection:  a good day on God’s calendar, for sure, but also gone, irretrievably gone, sweeping farther into the past with every passing day.  And God, on this score, is just like me.  God has reason for regretting that what is past is gone.  God lacks control over the passage of time just like I do.

If this is a weakness in me – if I have regret in virtue of being trapped in time, a prisoner to it – then I suggest that the same is true of God, if God is in time.  But it would be unbecoming for God to experience regret in virtue of being trapped by anything.  That wouldn’t be appropriate for the greatest possible being!  I suggest, then, that these considerations about regret and the passage of time give us some reason to think that God is in fact outside time, that God is not bound in time but somehow transcends it.
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