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by Tim Belben
from Signs of the Times, No. 44 - Jan 2012
One doesn’t hear many sermons on the Tetragrammaton, JHVH. But holding a concept of God in terms of this declaration to Moses is, surely, critically important for the formation of a logical theory of creation, providence, and eternal life?
English translations vary but the AV’s I AM THAT I AM [Exodus 3,14] is a good starting point. The criticism sometimes made, that I AM does not sufficiently convey the promise of a continuing presence to, and support of, the Chosen People, takes us straight into the meaning of infinite existence, in terms of space-time.
I am that I am is a claim that the deity is a being whose existence is his essence (her? their? essence): and it follows that such existence, if essence, is infinite. Infinite existence is not within space-time, it contains it, as in him we live, and move, and have our being [Acts 17,28]. For an infinite being, all times are now, all places are here – anything less is by definition not infinite. This immediacy resolves arguments about evolution, because evolution is as present a theory of creation as a Word of God, say, or intelligent design, or any other cause. The causation in evolution is a long chain of chance only from our point of view, and that God should leave many developments to chance in space-time terms (as Professor Bartholomew argues in ‘God of Chance’) is no less likely than any other cause, and no offence against omnipotence. In his infinite now, we are created. In his infinite presence, his providence provides. In his eternity, we place our hope of eternal life.
It is an easy but fundamental mistake to imagine eternity as endless time. We translate per omnia saecula saeculorum as ‘world without end’ but this is as meaningless as to think of ‘world without beginning’. Our hope, and his promise, is that we should be with him in his eternal life, his unchanging now. A being that is infinite does not take time to move from one place to another and does not need space in which to separate existence here from existence there. This is the pinnacle of actuality to which we aspire, and all existence which falls short of such infinity is by that degree a partial and dependent existence only: as Aquinas expressed it, Potency in Act, life which is still partly only potential.
Our existence in this life is real only to the extent to which we have the potential to grow in God, to become more ‘actual’ as our adoption in Christ bears fruit. When (if?) we are taken into eternal life we will share something of his actuality – his infinite being, his infinite now. In the meantime we must be content with becoming. By the grace of God, we are encouraged and enabled to grow in grace and truth, to become more actual, more real, as we climb to life with and in his eternal and infinite actuality, discarding on the way the things that bind us to this partial existence in space-time, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal [Matt. 6,19]. Thieves? Call them devils if you wish: naming them does not remove our personal responsibility for their depredations.
Many theologians have said that sin and evil are a distancing from God, and that this distancing must be a loss of reality: not a matter of space-time, but a move away from actuality, as in C.S.Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Screwtape claims ...and Nothing is very strong... The all consuming ‘black hole’ of theology? A final loss of being, when nothing but the ghostly fingers of unsatisfied potential, scrabbling at the window of existence, is all that remains of the once-promised eternal life – that would be damnation indeed.
Discarding belief in a simple, progressive time-line is perhaps the hardest adjustment our minds need to make, in order to hold this concept of eternity. Yet modern science has overtaken us. Quantum uncertainty at any point in time is capable of being resolved by a future occurrence, as a wave-packet collapses to particle, and it appears that resolution is not to a consequential state, but to the state which has always existed! [To read an account of an example of this, Google the ‘double slit’ experiment. As with many quantum experiments, it is the observation and measurement of an event which resolves it from quantum potential to demonstrable actual. In other words, human intention (or will) are shown to produce a pre-existent physical result.]
So, by analogy, the Will of the eternal Father enables us to imagine – to hold an image of – an eternity which has the same relation to time as has infinity to space.
Thus may we re-examine our notions of Trinity. We start from the axiom that the greatest gift, the greatest good an infinite and self-existent being may offer is the gift of him or herself. [John 15, 13] The Father, being infinite, gives himself totally, yet without diminishing himself, and so the Son is begotten, the image of the Father. And the Son, equally self-existent and equally loving, is urgent to return the gift – the reciprocation of love which is (by the will of God) the procession of the Spirit.We describe this in the terms we have but there is no movement or elapse of time in this: it is the now of the essence of existence, infinite being.
To think in this way does not mean discarding the poetry of God walking with Adam in the Garden, wrestling with Jacob, guiding his people through the desert. We need to be able to anthropomorphise God, to bring him in imagination down to our level. We need to be able to wonder in amazement at the humiliation of the Incarnation. Humanity is too small and feeble to stand by itself: in our infancy, we cannot walk alone, and need to be able to hold hands with God and to rely on his support in the dark and difficult places. But we also need to be able to do this in the context of His infinity, not to remain forever in the comfort of our blindness.