The Classical View of God as Spaceless and Timeless

In accordance with these views, and in a paradigmatic statement of the classical tradition, Thomas Aquinas' view of God, outlined in Summa Theologiae, ia, questions 2—11, is that God is wholly simple, perfect, good, limitless, omnipresent, changeless, and timeless. The crucial concept is that of divine simplicity. God is not composed of parts in any way. So, God's goodness is identical with God's power and identical with God's existence and identical "with whatever else is similarly said of him" (question 3, article 3). Properties that seem to us to be diverse are, in God, united in an indivisible way. God cannot even logically be broken into parts. So, God must be timeless since time has parts (before and after). God is, therefore, changeless since there can be no change without time.

There are great conceptual difficulties with this description of God. It has been argued that the idea of a being, all of whose properties are identical with each other, does not make sense. But philosophers like Aquinas are arguing that God is not a substance with many properties anyway. God is beyond all the categories of thought we have and so should not be thought of as a "thing" that may or may not have various attributes. God is, as Aquinas puts it, "esse suum subsistens," the pure actuality of being, existent by its own power.

This makes God strictly incomprehensible, in that we cannot imagine what such a being is like. Yet we can form a vague idea of a being that is the source of all finite and separable beings, though in itself it is unitary and purely actual, without any division or potentiality, an "unl imited ocean of being."

We could only speak of such a God in remote analogies and symbols, and we must always confess that, as Aquinas says, "we cannot know what God is, but only what he is not" (ia, question 3, introduction).

It may seem that such a God is indistinguishable from nothing, and it is indeed important to recognize that the God of classical religion is not a thing or finite in any way. The Divine, in this worldview, is as far from being a "person without a body" as one could imagine. Eastern Orthodox theologians tend to distinguish the divine ousia, the essential nature of God as it is in itself, from the divine energeia, the ways in which God manifests the Divine in the finite world. Then we could say that God is an ineffable plenitude and perfection of being that can make itself known to finite persons, perhaps in many finite names and forms.

The manifestations or disclosures of the Divine would then point toward, though would never fully encapsulate, their underlying source. Such a God would blind our intellect by excess of light rather than dissipate into empty nothingness. As Dionysius put it, God negates anything we can think but in the direction of greater perfection, not of mere denial. God is good but greater than anything we can think of as good. God is wise but not in any sense we can conceive. It would be misleading just to say that God is not good or wise. Rather, God is not less than good (perfect) but is so much more that we cannot imagine what such goodness is like.

Whether or not this is all thought to make sense, the doctrine of divine ineffability is central to the great classical traditions. Without paying attention to it, classical religion cannot be understood. One reason for the anthropomorphism that is so pronounced a feature of some contemporary religion is that the classical tradition has been forgotten or rejected, so that people cannot see that the concepts and images of faith are symbols of the Divine, and not pictures of it, whether visual or verbal.

However, sometimes the classical tradition has been viewed, even by its knowledgeable adherents, in what may be thought to be an unduly restrictive way. Because God is not changing or temporal in the way that we conceive such things, it has sometimes been concluded that God is not changing or temporal at all—even though we might have thought that God would be changing and temporal in a higher manner. I will return to the question of what this might mean. But, historically, it is the case that change and time have often been excluded altogether from the Divine Being.

One reason for this is the argument, from the ancient Greek philosophers, that, if anything changes, it must get either better or worse. But if God is perfect, God cannot get any better, and it is unthinkable that God could get any worse. Therefore, any perfect being must be completely changeless. And if there is no change, there is no point in having any time either.

In addition, time was thought to be of negative value, something it would be better to be without. In the first place, the past no longer exists. It has passed away and may well be forgotten. Indeed, if an infinite time has elapsed, there would be an infinite amount of information to remember, and maybe even a Divine Mind could not contain a literally infinite number of bits of information. In the second place, the future does not yet exist. So, anything might happen, and there may be some nasty surprises lying ahead. At any rate, there would seem to be a huge number of future events that could not be known even by an omniscient being since they do not exist. And that seems very unsatisfactory. In the third place, the present only exists for a fleeting moment, and then it is gone. That also seems very unsatisfactory since, if you are just beginning to enjoy the present moment, it disappears as soon as you try to concentrate on it.

All in all, the nonexistence of the past and the future and the transience of the present render time a most unsatisfactory form of conscious experience. How much more perfect it would be if the entirety of time— past, present and future—could be contemplated as a whole. It would all exist, as Boethius put it, in one "unending life existing as a complete whole all at once" (1969, 5, 6). And that is just how the classical view of God envisions the Divine.

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