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It is God "that breathes fire into the equations of the universe."
The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 27th May 2018 at 3.00 PM
Next month, on Friday 15 June, a Service of Thanksgiving will take place here at Westminster Abbey for the life and work of the world renowned cosmologist, Professor Stephen Hawking.
He’s been described as one of the brightest stars in the firmament of science, and whose insights have profoundly shaped modern cosmology.
He famously said ‘the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe’, and ‘all things are possible until proven otherwise’.
Today is Trinity Sunday, one of the few feasts in the Christian calendar that celebrate a doctrine rather than an event. Today is an opportune moment to explore how we make sense of God in time.
Is God essentially timeless? Must he be in time? Or can God choose between being timeless and in time?
Like many, I believe that God just isn’t in time. He stands outside of time, looking down on it, so that he sees all of it at once. But there are others who say that if God really sees us as we are, then he must see us in time.
As he looks down on us right now he must see us in this very moment. So is God temporal, existing in time as we all do? or is God outside of time, eternal, and living a radically different kind of existence?
In the past few decades, the nature of God's eternality has sparked intense discussion and debate. Logically speaking, these are really the only two options, since they are logically contradictory.
Although various people have attempted to offer a third way between these two positions, none have succeeded because there’s not really a third way between these two diametrically opposed positions.
To my mind we can never constrain God by the passage of time, for as God he must see all moments simultaneously and with equal clarity. The words of the psalmist come to mind:
‘For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday: seeing that is past as a watch in the night’. (Psalm 90.4).
But for us, every day is 24 hours. We can’t speed up the passage of time and we can’t slow it down.
Even travelling close to the speed of light wouldn’t change how we experienced the passage of time, only how we perceived it in relation to others.
God, however, is free from the limitations that we face in experiencing time. He’s stands ‘outside’ time and is not limited as we are. To God, all of creation’s existence is somehow ‘present’.
As C.S. Lewis put it: ‘If you picture time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn.
We come to the parts of the line one by one: we have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave B behind. God, from above or outside or all around, contains the whole line, and sees it all.
In a similar way, we’re all creatures of ‘time’, and for the most part we’re preoccupied with that theme. We wear watches so that we can keep account of time.
We ask about the criminal: how much time did he get? And we often muse: how much ‘time’ do I have left? We even pray that at the appointed time we may find eternal life.
But when we think about God, the term ‘eternal’ can never just mean a long, long time. It must mean that God is outside of time altogether.
To start with, the Church does not have an official teaching on the nature of time, but what the Church teaches about God does have implications for the nature of time. The Church teaches that God is eternal.
In everyday speech, when we talk about the eternal we mean an unlimited amount of time. However, when applied to God, the term ‘eternal’ means something else: in other words, being outside of time altogether.
This means that God’s life really has no end and that he possesses all of that life all at once. He doesn’t experience it moment-by-moment, the way we do.
In other words, God’s life isn’t spread out over time the way ours is, rather he exists in what theologians refer to as an ‘eternal now’, outside of time, a now where time does not pass from moment to moment.
From this way of thinking its quite natural to say there’s no change in God. There’s no progression from moment to moment in the eternal now, and so no change occurs in God.
As Christians, we have a deep sense of comfort knowing that God, though timeless and eternal, is in time and is with us right now through Christ and his Holy Spirit;
He’s not spiritually out of reach, but here amongst us right now. And because he’s in this moment, he can respond to our needs and prayers.
We also believe that God is with us through the Church, and that history continues to be touched by his presence.
Last Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost reminded us that through the Holy Spirit God guides the Church through both triumph and tragedy, using even our human failings to bring good and allow the call of God to be heard in the world.
No matter how dark things may be, we can have an optimistic view of history and an optimistic view of humanity and an optimistic view of the way the world is moving.
For this reason, we don’t experience time as something to be escaped or shunned. Time is the vehicle through which God gathers us all together.
Time is therefore a great and wonderful gift; even when we experience the harder side of life, it remains the one path toward union with God, which must be the goal of all human life.
And yet, even though time is sacred because God's here with us in the world - we don’t tend to think of every moment as sacred. When we re-enact the sacred events of Jesus' life, we renew our spirits by moving consciously into sacred time.
In his book A Brief History of Time (which incidentally sold more than ten million copies, and appeared in the Sunday Times bestseller list longer than any other book) Professor Hawking asks the question: what is it that breathes fire into the equations of the universe?
For us, as people of faith, the answer must be God.
For with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day’. (2 Peter 3:8).