Eternal God

February 19 2014 | by

A RECENT article in the New Scientist magazine began, “Imagine standing outside the universe. Not just outside space, but outside time too. From this perspective, you gaze down upon the universe. At one end you see its beginning: the big bang. At the other, you see... whatever it is that happens there.” From this perspective, there is no time; and this, says the author, fantastic though it may seem, is how physicists today think the universe is.

To a Christian theologian such as St. Bonaventure or St. Thomas, there is nothing fantastic in this idea at all. This is exactly, they would say, how God does see the universe, from outside space and time. In a single gaze He sees the whole sweep of history; indeed, with a single gaze He sees not only this universe, but every possible universe. God is eternal.

As human beings, inextricably bound by space and time, this is almost impossible to imagine. The interesting thing is that modern scientists are beginning to say that, even if we cannot imagine it, this is the way they have to think of it.


Book of Nature


St. Anthony was a modern thinker in his own day. We only have to read what he wrote to see how well-versed he was in the scientific knowledge that was available to him, largely in the works of Aristotle and other classical writers. The fact that he quotes so frequently from these non-Christian authors shows that he did not regard the Bible as the only source of human knowledge. Catholic teaching has always placed Reason alongside Revelation, and said that, when rightly understood, the two cannot contradict one another. The Book of Nature has been written by God, as well as the book of Scripture.

In 1981, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope-Emeritus Benedict, gave a series of Lenten catecheses in his Cathedral of Munich on the theme of Creation. He began by reminding us that we read the Bible with Christ. He is our guide, who “indicates to us in a reliable fashion what an image is and where the real, enduring expression may be found.” Christ frees us from a false slavery to literalism, yet guarantees the solid truth of the Bible as a sure ground to stand on. This is just how St. Anthony understood the Scriptures, distinguishing the imagery of the Bible from the underlying reality it stands for.


No contradiction


The stories the Bible tells (this is particularly true of the Old Testament) convey by analogy truths about Christ and His Church, about the way human beings are meant to live, and about our eternal destiny. These truths are anchored in the literal meaning of the text, but are not limited to it. As St. Anthony puts it, these deeper meanings are like “the blade, the corn and the full ear” that grows from the original seed.

Cardinal Ratzinger told his audience that “creation” and “evolution” are not mutually-exclusive concepts. “These two things respond to two different realities.” The biblical story of the creation of Adam “does not in fact explain how human persons come to be, but rather what they are.” On the other hand, the theory of evolution refers to biological developments without explaining the inner origin or the particular nature of human beings.


Modern & ancient


The modern scientific approach blends well with the ancient insights of St. Augustine, who had so great an influence on St. Anthony, St. Bonaventure and the whole Franciscan school (and in our own day on Pope Benedict). The universe is not, as we experience it, a box into which everything was put in a finished state; it is more like a tree that lives and extends its branches outwards and upwards. But of course, as we saw at the beginning, the whole enterprise was envisaged in its entirety by God, from His eternal perspective.

The mystery of the Divine perspective is that while God sees everything in a single glance, this does not take away the reality of human and angelic freedom within creation. We experience things in time – remembering the past, experiencing the present, and looking forward to the future. Our free moral choices help to determine that future. Some argue, “If God knows what I am going to do, I cannot be free.” Others say, “If I am free, God cannot be all-knowing and all-powerful.” The Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus argued that freedom is at root a matter of not being totally determined by outside forces; the fact that God eternally knows our choices does not force us to make them, nor is God ever simply ‘outside’.


Awe & love


Science deals with what is observable and testable within the created universe. While physicists may now ask what it would be like to have a vantage-point outside time and space, they know that such a perspective can never be open to them. The mathematical theorems they use to describe the behaviour of material objects are, as mathematics, ‘timeless’. But that does not mean that time is, for us, an illusion. As Christians, we believe that, at a certain point in space and time, God Himself entered His creation and took to Himself a human nature, so that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. What that meant for Jesus Himself we can never fully comprehend: we believe it, but we do not understand it.

Indeed, we do not even understand ourselves fully. At the heart of each human being there is a mystery, something known only to the One who created us. We find our true selves not by becoming absorbed in ourselves, but by seeking to encounter the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. Science makes known to us a truly wonderful world, which should fill us with awe towards the Creator; but the Bible makes known a loving Redeemer who Humbled himself for our sake and called us His friends. Love is much greater than knowledge.

As we enter Lent, the season of self-discipline that prepares us to understand the meaning of Christ’s Passion, without which we cannot experience the true joy of the Resurrection, we should try to follow Anthony in his deep knowledge and love of the Bible, taking advantage of the fruits of scholarship, but seeking the further understanding that comes though faith.

Updated on October 06 2016