My favorite sentence
My favorite sentence of 2009 is this 56-word beauty by John Polkinghorne in his 164-page book Theology in the Context of Science (Yale, 2009), which is based on his October 2008 John Albert Hall lectures at the University of Victoria, British Columbia:
Does our impression of the passage of time correspond to the fact
that we actually livein a universe of unfolding becoming, or is that
feeling simply a trick of human psychological perspective, imposed on us in a
block universe whose true nature is held to correspond to the atemporal reality
of the entire spacetime continuum? (xviii)
What is a “block universe?” I think it is a quantum physics model of a 4-dimentional universe in which the linear passage of time is just an illusion. Time is not an external scale to measure things objectively and lineally so much as a kind of substance bound to space and matter which saturates the universe. I don’t really know. Polkinghorne’s language is kind of stuffy, and if his book ran to several hundred pages I might not have been able to read it. But if you get through the language then the ideas he is writing about are really quite exciting. For example, the statement that
The evolutionary character of the universe is consonant with a
theological understanding that God’s act of creation is a kenotic act of divine
self-limitation, bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed ‘to
make themselves’. (xxii)
introduces us to the radical suggestion that creation is designed in such a way that God willfully limits His own prerogatives and powers as part of the scheme of things. In other words, by design God makes it so that He does not, in fact, know what will happen. It is called Open Theology, and it is a way of describing God’s continual engagement with us in our world, through unfolding historical events. It is a radical suggestion, but it is a means of addressing the Problem of Evil argument that atheists always throw up: if God is omniscient and loving, how can He permit/allow suffering in the world. The answer is that, 1) He does not permit it. Quite the opposite, He prohibits it; and, 2) He doesn’t know what we will do with the freedom we have to decide for ourselves and act. We are responsible for our suffering, not God.
It contradicts the conventional and classical notion of divinity laid out by the likes of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas that God exists in eternity - meaning outside Time - enabling Him to look upon all Time as a whole - past, present and future simultaneously - therefore having knowledge of temporal events past, present, and future - in other words, omniscience. It’s a good argument until you have to wrestle with modern scientific discoveries and propositions like Deep Time and Special Relativity. The nature of Time, and the demonstration that God is willing to engage humanity in the unfolding contingencies are a mechanism allowing Him to be present in an evolving universe. But the mechanism also happens to impose self-limitation on the part of the Creator as a kind of condescending act of love. Predictably, the suggestion tends to rile conservative evangelical Christians more than liberals because any suggestion of a limitation of God’s power is a contradiction of their definition of what divine nature is.
The theological debate on the matter is more sophisticated and diverse than most people suspect. This is exciting stuff, don’t you think? I do, anyway.