Thursday, February 10, 2011

St. Augustine's Magical Exploding Head Trick

Reading Augustine makes my head nearly explode. Consider the following from Augustine:
Nor dost thou precede any given period of time by another period of time.  Else thou wouldst not precede all periods of time.  In the eminence of thy ever present eternity, thou precedest all times past, and extendest beyond all future times, for they are still to come--and when they have come they will be past.  But "Thou are always Selfsame and thy years shall have no end" (Ps. 102:27).  Thy years neither go nor come; but ours both go and come in order that all separate moments may come to pass.  All thy years stand together as one, since they are abiding.  Nor do thy years past exclude the years to come because thy years do not pass away.  All the years of ours shall be with thee, when all of them shall have ceased to be.  Thy years are but a day, and thy day is not recurrent, but always today.  Thy "today" is eternity. (Augustine, Confessions, 11.13.16)
This passage has always fascinated me.  Ever since I first read this passage in my senior year at Baylor, I was taken by the beauty of the passage, as well as the way that it takes my brain to the brink, leads me up to the point where I can almost grasp what he is saying and the implications of it.  It is like having a word on the tip of your tongue, but never quite getting it out.  Every time I think I understand this passage, it is like I try to grab it and it flits away like a phantom.

I think this is because in truth, humans cannot understand what it means to be outside of time.  If Augustine is correct, then human existence, by its very nature, is so conditioned by time that we cannot even comprehend what it might mean for God to live outside of time, to be truly unconditioned by time, to not experience the world as a succession of moments, one after another, only having access to one moment at a time.

The closest analogy I can think of is that of a line.  In the western view, history is a line.  Humans are moving on a line through time. They have access only to the present.  They can see the past, but only as one removed.  They can anticipate the future, but with no certainty.  Human sight is limited by time.  Yet, if the line is time itself, and God is outside time, then that truly is remarkable.  God stands above and outside of that line.  and it is not as if God just hovers above the line, moving forward in time as humans do.  No, God sees the whole line, beginning, middle and end, and he sees them all NOW.  I think this is what Augustine means when he says there is an "ever present eternity," and "thy years are but a day, and thy day is not recurrent, but always today."  According to Augustine, God views history, the creation and consummation of the world, and he views them all as present.  He does not experience them in succession as we do.  God has equal access to all moments of history ever present before him.

Now, I do not know if Augustine is correct in his view of God as being eternal.  Once again, since I cannot quite grasp this concept, I do not even quite know what the implications of it might be.  Anyone else have any thoughts on this matter?

1 comment:

  1. Andrea SifuentesMay 9, 2011 at 1:43 AM

    I agree with you, while reading it I was able to understand what he was talking about and it sounded as if Augustine was talking in circles. While reading it I thought of it as playing with Hot Wheels and having every piece of tracks to go along with it. In this sense I was playing God. I was controlling the past, present, and future of what the car did all in "today." He describes God as being an outside figure who sees into our lives and what goes on without really interfering but at the same time controlling.