I cannot wait for Time In Eternity by Robert Russell to arrive in the mail. It’s a physicist’s connection of science and Christian teaching dealing with the really big stuff. What is Eternity? What is time? How do they connect? When it comes, I may find that it is over my head. Or it may prove everything I am going to say here to be wrong. The former is likely. The latter – I don’t think so.
Eternity is the very heart of my faith. It’s where I place my faith. It’s the basket where I keep my existential eggs. And it’s why my faith may or may not be true, but it is just nowhere near as dumb as secular cynics insist on thinking it is.
On the one hand Eternity is beyond the grasp of the mind. We cannot conceive of it. It is too big for us to comprehend and it is therefore ultimately mysterious. On the other hand, it is the sort of thing philosophers call “a necessary truth.” We cannot deny it. Eternity cannot be comprehended but it is impossible not to imagine. Finitude cannot be imagined. For example, we once thought the universe was infinite in space. But now scientists say it is elliptical. There is an edge to the universe. Ok, if there is a border to the universe, what is on the other side? We cannot imagine a border with only one side. Once we thought the universe had existed for all eternity. Now we know, to the extent we can know anything, it actually began at a certain point. Ok, what was before that? It may have been very slow moving. But what was there before the moment when the universe exploded into being? We cannot imagine reality that is not set in the context of Eternity.
Russell’s physics may tell us more about Eternity and more importantly about the connection between Eternity and time by which I mean the temporal realm in which we live our lives and history progresses, or regresses, whatever it is doing. But I don’t need physics to persuade me that Eternity is the context of the temporal realm. I cannot imagine otherwise. If we were to diagram Reality, it would be two concentric circles – a huge one on the outside and a small one in the center. The small circle would represent the temporal realm. The large one would represent Eternity, though of course its circumference would be a fictional line just to help us see. It really has no outer border. One thing leaps out about that diagram. Eternity exists outside time, but it also is inside time. The big circle includes the small one. So Eternity is both immanent (in all things) and transcendent (extending infinitely beyond all things). I bet you see where this is heading.
So where does God fit in this picture? We might hypothetically posit the existence of a being outside time living in the eternal realm. That is a fairly wild speculation. It is what many atheists mean by “God.” But such a being would be like a random shard, a second free-floating circle inside the larger circle. It frankly says nothing coherent and would not be what classical ancient orthodox Christianity means by “God.”
If we understand God to be eternal at all, then God cannot be in any respect, temporal or spacial, smaller than Eternity. Eternity on the other hand, by definition, cannot be limited either temporally or spatially. God cannot fit inside Eternity. Eternity cannot fit inside God. So what is the connection between God and Eternity? They would be co-terminus if either of them were “terminus” at all but they are not. Here’s the thing: being eternal cannot be an attribute of God along with other attributes that God might or might not possess. Eternity has to be God’s very essence.
That leads inexorably to this fundamental point: “God” is not a word we use to posit the existence of a being that might or might not exist. “God” is a word we use to say things about Eternity, which is impossible not to imagine. Granted we could say Eternity without using the word “God.” Then we would be saying Eternity is eternal, nothing more – not very interesting, indeed what Wittgenstein called a tautology. That may be all we can truly prove by reason. But to describe Eternity with the word “God” is to invite imaginative, intuitive statements about the foundational nature of reality. It is to invite us into a conversation that we cannot readily have without the word “God.” (I did not make this up. It’s pure Karl Rahner.) To call Eternity “God” is to express our awe and reverence, perhaps devotion. To call Eternity “God” is to open the possibility of hope that, while the temporal realm is decidedly an unsatisfactory mix of blessings and curses, Eternity may be beneficent and therefore a source of hope that the losses of this life may be redeemed, that wrongs may be set right, and that love may in that realm conquer all after all.
What then do we say about God, and therefore about Eternity, and therefore about “the way things are deep down and forever?” The answer would be the entire field of theology. But here’s a handy way to start. “I Am” is the name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Gospel of John, there are eight “I Am” statements. The number is not an accident. There are seven days in a week. The eighth day is the ancient symbol of eternity. That’s why baptismal fonts have eight sides, to signify birth into Eternal Life. Read casually, the “I Am” statements sound as if Jesus is just talking about himself. But when one remembers “I Am” is the name of God and that the number eight signifies Eternity, then every “I Am” statement in John becomes a truth claim about the nature of Eternity. They are metaphorical but evocative. “I Am the good shepherd.” “I Am the Way (Tao), the Truth (Dharma) and the Life (Qi).” Big stuff. Not something we can grasp, but something we can ponder.
Theology attempts to bring the I Am closer to our ability to comprehend. It is Being (Aquinas), Suchness (Eckhart), the Ground of Being (Tillich), the Wholly Other (Barth), the Whence and the Whither (Rahner). But in the end (not an end to the subject which has no end but an end to our capacity which we reach all too soon) in the end, it is the mystery signified by the enigmatic name of God, I Am, elucidated by metaphors such as vine and light of the world.
Is it absurd to stand in awe of Eternity, which makes the night sky over the ocean seem small? Is it unsophisticated to ask whether an Eternity that generates and holds in being this temporal realm may not be creative and if so to ask the impetus of this creativity? Is it naïve to hope that temporality is so unsatisfactory precisely because it is temporal, and that our hearts are unsatisfied because they long for Eternity having been born of Eternity and made for Eternity, as Augustine (an intellectual giant compared to today’s critics of belief) claimed long centuries ago?
Religion is inherently a project of babbling about the mystery; so we cannot be dogmatic. We cannot claim we are right and all who disagree with us are wrong. That would be not only foolish, it would be irreverent because we would be pretending to know God better than we do, pretending God is small enough to be known so completely. We may not be right in what we say about Eternity. But it is wiser to ask the questions and humbly to posit answers than to dismiss the very meaning and purpose of our existence with a shrug.