Improvising on a theme of atemporality

July 13th, 2019
by Chris

Tom Oord has put up a blog post “Providence as improv, jazz or family” which I really like from a theological standpoint. I’m pretty sold on the “Uncontrolling Love” concept which he introduces in the book of the same name and explores further in “God Can’t”, his recent, less heavy expansion of his ideas. I’ve written extensively about Tom’s ideas previously, including being part of a book group which he ran with Tripp Fuller (my first such post is here). One of the extremely attractive features of Tom’s thinking is that it would seem to solve the problem of evil (God can’t be all of omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent, given the amount of actual evil in the world).

My only concern is this – I’m a mystic, and take my basis from mystical experience (if I didn’t, I’d be in the agnostic or atheist camp), and one of the prevalent characteristics of the mystical experience is a feeling (and it comes with the subjective force of being absolutely true) that there is an atemporal aspect to this experience of God. You see it described as “timeless moment” or “eternal now” for instance.

While I can just about consider that this part of the mystical experience might be mistaken, despite the hugely self-verifying nature of it (I’m there entertaining it as an intellectual exercise, but have no belief that it’s actually the case) I’d far prefer to have a solution in which God was at least in some respect atemporal – and I say “in some respect” with the thought that we might be talking of a transcendent aspect to go with the immanent, time-involved aspect.

Happily, I utterly reject the theological stance that God has to be “simple” – I tend more to the view that God is the most complex entity in existence – so a combination of time-dependence and atemporality isn’t ruled out on the basis of any philosophical theology for me. I will grant that another of the overwhelming insights of the mystical experience is that God is one – the Jewish Shema ( Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai EḼad ; hear, O Israel, the Lord, the Lord is one).

That does tend towards the “simple” pole; obviously immanence and transcendence are completely different things, as are atemporality and temporality. I hold to immanence and transcendence (as a panentheist rather than a pantheist – a pantheist would probably deny the transcendent dimension), though, so I already have a kind of dichotomy there, and it definitely seems to me that temporality goes with immanence, and atemporality perhaps goes similarly with transcendence. We could, perhaps, just be considering two dimensions of the One God there?

I’m not sure how that would cash out in terms of Tom’s Uncontrolling Love concept, though. Tom holds to a concept of “original kenosis”, which preserves divine power while conceiving of it as being withdrawn from acting in the world, in order to allow for free will; I hold to a concept of “original incarnation”, in which divine power is not poured out of the universe in order to leave room for us, but poured into the universe in order to create us (and thus transferred irrevocably to us – and the rest of the universe). Atemporality of any kind would seem to guarantee that God would know the whole of time, including future time (and the mystical experience, so far as it goes, would tend to support that view).

The trouble then is that everything which happens would have had to have been foreknown by God at the point of the original kenosis or original incarnation, and that lands the blame for everything squarely on God again, despite both Tom and myself considering that God is necessarily post-creation unable to act in the world in any unilateral way (and certainly not as the miracle-working breaker of natural laws which conventional Judaism and Christianity have tended to see).

I need to find some way of squaring the mystical revelation of atemporality with an inability to see the future (perhaps because the future does not yet exist to be seen), and at the point of writing, I don’t have that. But it seems to me that there has to be some way of doing it…

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