Time As Pure Relation and the Power of our Freedom

People very often debate whether or not God is “in” time. Now, there are always only three possible reponses to a question. You can answer yes. You can answer no. Or you can say that the question is meaningless. I want to maintain that asking whether or not God is “in” time is ultimately a meaningless question.

The biggest offender in the question itself is the word “in.” When I think of something being “in” another thing, I imagine one thing being contained or subsumed inSIDE something else. My bed is IN my room, for instance, because “my room” is a space composed of material objects, and my bed is inSIDE the parameters established by those objects.

I suspect that many people unknowingly smuggle into their own thinking some similar MATERIAL idea when considering God’s mode of existence. I think this because I frequently hear people say that God “created” time. They may also argue that time either “came into” being itself or that “it” has always existed. Such phrases suggest – again by use of the spatial imagination – that time is a THING, almost a sort of frictionless liquid, that we all move “through.” The thought suggests that people move through time like a bird flies through the air or a fish swims through the water. Time is some sort of substance that imposes limitations and therefore has a certain determining power over material bodies. It is a pressing kind of force that “moves” or directs us to certain ends and prevents us from attaining others.

I think this idea of time is wrong. Here is why. If time is in fact a “thing,” it must have some properties or be describable in some way. How, though, should such a thing be described? Even though it may be PICTURED as air or water or some moving liquid, it cannot of course BE such a thing. For then it would be a liquid or a gas and be itself subject to time. Any “thing” made of matter has some property that allows you to say what it is: a rock is hard, a cheetah is fast, a flame it hot and so on. But time thought of as a THING simply vanishes when you try to describe what it as a thing IS.

It seems to me much more accurate to say that time is a measure of the RELATION among things, rather than that it is a thing itself. Time is the measure of, say, the movement of the cheetah as it “goes from” walking to sprinting after the gazelle. You could of course say that the cheetah moves “through” time as it runs after its prey but only in a very loose way. It is not really physically going through any solid body. Rather, its body itself is moving from being in one particular relation to the gazelle to being in another.

Here is how this relates to God. If time is the measure of the relation among things, and if God is really related to us as free beings, then God himself cannot exist in a changeless way. He must exist dynamically. By constantly relating to our free movement and choices he must HIMSELF be interactive and changing in his responses to us. Needless to say this thought has huge implications for theology. If it is true then absolutely everything cannot be “pre-destined.” At least, our free choices cannot be (though God could of course predestine other things.) God also is not “outside” of time or “timeless” in such a way that makes him totally changeless; and further, he could not have “foreknowledge” of free choices that have not yet come into being, for such relationships among things do not yet exist. There is nothing, then, for God to KNOW about them. Strictly speaking, future relations among free creatures are not yet REAL, and so are indistinguishable from nothing.

The question then is not whether or not God is “in” time, but rather whether or not he relates to what he has made. And if he DOES relate to what he has made, then this totally changes how we imagine his own mode of existence. Since he is not existing in some timeless, frozen dimension inaccessible to our own mode of existence, he becomes more intimate, more personal, and more REAL.

As frightening as it is, then, we evidently have enough power to “affect” or “act” on God himself. Lest there is any danger in supposing we have more power than God himself, I must quickly add that this power – our real and true freedom – only exists because God has FIRST opened himself up, so to speak, to be so conditioned by and related to us. Without him first giving us existence, we could never be free, could never act, and could never relate. But he has given such existence and freedom to us. He has given us a small “space” in which we can move, respond and exert our being.

There is only one thing in this universe which we have absolute power over. That is how we relate – how we use our power of freedom – towards God, towards others, and towards that hard, brute physical monster we call “the world” or “nature” or “life.” That should give us great comfort, but also great humility. For the very power we have towards our own liberation can also lead to our own demise.

May we use our time here on this plane well.

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