God and Time IV: Impassibility and the Bible

For my previous posts arguing that God is not temporal: I: Metaphysics, II: Special Relativity, and III: General Relativity.

In the next few posts, we'll examine the Scriptural arguments for this position.  While I don't think it's illegitimate to use arguments from Natural Theology in situations where the Bible is ambiguous, in the Bible we have revelation from God himself.  Since God knows who he is far better than we ourselves know it, we have reason to trust this source the most.

On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the Bible often speaks of God in metaphorical language.  All Theology involves some metaphors, necessarily so given that much of it is speaking about invisible realities which no one has seen.  But unlike academic theology, the Bible generally tends to use more "earthly" or "poetic" metaphors, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures.  For example, the Bible often speaks of God as if he had human bodily parts. Let me digress on this topic for a while, since it illustrates some of the relevant principles when interpreting the Bible.

Begin digression

Now as Christians we know that (apart from the Incarnation), God has no body.  To say God does have a bodily form is a heresy (i.e. a misunderstanding of the faith capable of doing spiritual damage), going by the name of Anthropomorphism.  Now Anthropomorphism is obviously false at a philosophical level—how could the creator of all physical things have had a human shaped body?  We may be in the image of God, but to think that God is in our image is a pagan crudity, as though God were on the same level as the all-too-human immortal creatures described by Homer.

Although Anthropomorphism is philosophically absurd, it can also be seen to be false from a purely scriptural analysis.  That is, there are clues in the text that this kind of metaphor isn't supposed to be taken literally.

For example, several passages say that God delivered Israel from Egypt "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm" (Deut. 5:15) [Click on the link and scroll down to see the cross-references in the right margin].  That this is intended as a metaphor is clear from the fact that the narrative portions of the Torah explain in detail the process of how the Exodus occurred, and none of the mighty miracles that dispersed Israel involved God literally smacking things around, or pointing, with a giant arm.  It is a metaphor for strength and command.  (To say that the ancient Hebrews didn't understand it was a metaphor is absurd.  If they didn't understand metaphors, they wouldn't have been able to consistently come up with good ones!  It's Modern Americans who seem to have trouble understanding metaphors.)

Or, instead of saying that God is omniscient, they might say that "the eyes of the Lord roam throughout the earth" (2 Chronicles 2:9 + cross-references).  If you think this means that the Hebrew prophets thought God was literally shaped like a human being, go to Zechariah 4:10 and you may learn something surprising about just how many eyes God has.  And don't forget his wings! (Psalm 91:4 + cross-references).

Or they might say that God spoke to Moses "face to face, as a man speaks to his friends" (Exodus 33:11), yet this is clearly not meant literally, since later in the same chapter God tells him that "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live" (Exodus 33:20).

(So instead God covers him with his "hand" and he sees his "back".  But if the face is nonliteral, these obviously cannot be literal either.  One of the numerous pastors in my ancestry used to say that this meant that God showed him, not his essence, but what he had done since creation, in which God's glory is reflected as through a darkened mirror.)

While God might occasionally show the likeness of a bodily form in temporary visions of God (known as theophanies), for example in Exodus 24:1-11 or Daniel 7 or Luke 3:21-23, this does not prove that God is actually literally looks like a really old man (or like a dove).  It only means that God chose to represent himself like that temporarily, accommodating himself to our weakness and limited understanding, in order to make a limited point.

In addition to pointing out that these passages make little sense on a literal interpretation, one may also point to broader Scriptural principles.  Most notably, even the earliest Hebrew Scriptures express an absolute abhorrence of idolatry, of any attempt to portray the divine in the image of any created thing:

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully,  so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below.  And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.  But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.  (Deut. 4:15-20)

While Solomon tells us that "The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you.  How much less this temple I have built!"  (1 Kings 8:27).  God cannot have a shape unless there is some kind of space that he can be enclosed inside of, but no such space exists.

In the New Testament, Jesus says that (except for the Son) "no one has ever seen God" (John 1:18).  And St. Paul speaks of "God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see" (1 Tim 6:15-16).  These passages also indicate that the theophanies in the Old Testament cannot be taken as a literal depiction of God's likeness.

End digression

Now, I doubt any of my readers are tempted to think that God literally has a body (unless there are some Mormons lurking!)  So why am I going on and on about this?  Because I think the same situation applies, more or less, to the question of whether God is in Time.

"Open Theist" theologians, who believe God doesn't know the future perfectly, and that his knowledge and relationships change with time, will typically argue like this: the Bible teaches that there exists a personal, relatable God, but then later it was quickly contaminated by Greek philosophical ideas from Platonism, which portrayed God as being some timeless, impassible abstraction, so we need to reject all that and get back to the inspired Scriptures in order to get back to the real conception of God.  In other words, all the Christian theologians got it wrong from the 2nd to the 19th century, and we are only now getting it right.

One problem with this, is that the supposed "corruption" of theology by Platonism had already happened to parts of Judaism before the New Testament was being written, and some biblical texts already show signs of trying to explain Jesus in terms of these Greek ideas.  For example, the concept of λογος (God's word/reason holding the universe together) was borrowed by St. John straight from Platonic and Stoic philosophers, even if he uses it in a new way to talk about the Son's role in the universe even before the Incarnation.  So if we go all Platonism = bad and try to remove it entirely from Christian theology, we'll have to remove some parts of the Bible too!

Anyway, the God of Classical Theism, according to Christians, is a personal, relatable God.  He just had to take some extraordinary measures, such as the Incarnation of the Son and the Indwelling of the Holy Ghost, in order to be related to us in the way which he wanted.

OK, let's analyze the Scriptures now, starting with the ones which pose the greatest difficulty for my position, namely:

1. God changes his mind

So I agree that there are a bunch of biblical passages in which God talks as if he were temporal and could change.  For example, there are the passages in which God says he "regrets" having done certain things, for example, creating humans (in the account of the Flood) or choosing Eli's family for the High Priesthood, or making Saul king.  That is because they disobeyed him and became wicked.  And God reserves the right to adjust his plan accordingly:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.

 Then the word of the Lord came to me.   He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.  If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.  And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.  (Jeremiah 18:1-10)

Does this mean that God's promises are always tentative, and that everything could be revoked if we all become sufficiently bad?  No.  Why not?  Because about some things, God has promised that he will never change his mind, no matter what we do or how wicked people become!  In addition to his promise to eventually restore the nation of Israel, there are also his covenants with Noah, with David, and also with Levi.  (This last passage presents a bit of a theological problem if taken too literally, since the New Testament is quite clear that sacrifices are no longer called for, in light of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  These promises are ultimately fulfilled in the New Covenant, through our faithful High Priest who cannot die or have his office revoked.)  This seems to be God's modus operendi in the Old Testament: a trial period followed by an everlasting covenant.

A second Scriptural theme is God changing his mind in response to intercession.  In typical examples, God threatens people with some kind of punishment, and then one of his saints or prophets pleads with him—or a priest makes atonement by offering sacrifice—and he relents from what he was planning to do.

The most famous example here is St. Abraham pleading on behalf of the Sodomites; I guess this wasn't exactly successful since in fact there weren't ten righteous men in the city, so God destroyed it after all.  But it's a proof of concept, since if there had been a sufficient number of righteous people, God would certainly have spared the city.  (And don't tell me that Abraham was asking for the impossible since "no one is righteous, not even one".  That's true, but if God can condescend to use our language and grant our requests, he also knows who is righteous by ordinary human standards.)   Also, Lot and his two daughters were rescued, which was presumably part of what Abraham was hoping for.

Another dramatic example is St. Moses' intercession on behalf of his people.  Not once but twice, God tells Moses that he is going to destroy the entire nation of Israel for their sins, and start over with him!  But Moses refuses to accept this plan, he pleads with God for the idolatrous and ungrateful people, even for those who wanted to kill him, and the Lord listened to him.

The Torah contains many other examples of punishments which are remitted in response to intercession.  In one particularly dramatic example, the people rise up against Sts. Moses and Aaron and the Lord tells him to "Get away from this assembly so I can put an end to them at once."  Moses' response?

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with burning coals from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the Lord; the plague has started.” So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped.  (Num 16:46-48)

So what does this mean?  Is God less merciful than Moses was?  No, but he wanted Moses to acquire a Christlike character, in which Moses internalized God's love for his people, and was willing to stand up even to God on their behalf.

Shocking as it seems, God encourages this.  He really does think it is worthwhile to conform his own actions to our limited, human sense of justice.  And it isn't just Moses, it can be you too!  If you have a real relationship with God, seeking his will and his ways, then simply by asking you might be able to stand in the gap to spare those whom God would otherwise punish, and save those who would otherwise be lost.  It is an astonishing privilege which we could never have presumed to expect from the Lord of the Universe!  But everything in the Bible encourages us to view our relationship with God and other people in these terms.  The difference is, Abraham prayed that God would spare the city for the sake of ten righteous people in Sodom, but I am more presumptuous still, and pray that God would save even a tenth of a righteous person, among those he has given me to care about.

Here are some other notable examples of God "changing his mind" in the Old Testament.  (In the Gospels and Acts, the examples of individuals obtaining grace and mercy through interceding before Christ are too numerous to mention.  There are also some striking promises concerning intercessory prayer in the New Testament.)

Thus we conclude that there is a sense in which God is capable of changing his response to human beings, based on what those human beings in fact do.

2. Yet God does not change

But side by side with this, we find passages which indicate that God does not change his mind.  One particularly striking example of this comes in 1 Samuel 15.  In the very same chapter (!) where God says that “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions,” St. Samuel also says that

He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.  (15:29)

which is in turn an allusion to Numbers 23:19 in the Torah, a passage in which king Balak tries to hire the pagan prophet Balaam to curse Israel; but in vain, since God had determined to bless them.

In other words, Saul (or Balak) should not think that God changes his mind in the same way that human beings do.  God's purposes are certain and secure; he cannot be wheedled or manipulated.  His decisions are final, unless he himself, in his eternal counsels, allows men to intercede.  (Here we see, as often happens, that the Bible includes both sides of a paradox, while limited human theologies often attempt to include only one or the other.)

Some more passages about God not changing:

"I, YHWH, do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed." (Malachi 3:6)

Some might suggest that this passages only means that God's purposes do not change, but that other aspects of God may be capable of change.  But the literal meaning of the passage refers specifically to the Lord; the statement about Jacob's descendents are an additional implication.  In other words, God's purposes follow from his nature.  If this is fixed, the purposes are also fixed.  Similarly, in the New Testament St. James informs us that:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.  (James 1:17)

This beautiful passage is noteworthy for its strong denial that even the "shadow" of change can affect God.  There is not even a hint of inconstancy or variation in the divine being, and this is why his gifts are good and perfect.

Similarly, the letter to the Hebrews quotes Psalm 102:25-27 and applies it to Jesus.  Speaking about his eternal divine nature, it says that

“In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will roll them up like a robe;
like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end.”
(Hebrews 1:10-12)

and later, it adds that

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
(Heb 13:8)

Taken together, these passages can reasonably be taken to imply that God is immutable, that is incapable of change.  This implies that he is also impassible (incapable of suffering "passion").  It may be helpful to note that "passion" is one of those words whose meaning has changed subtly with time—it originally meant being acted upon passively by feelings, thus God has no "moods" or impulsive "reactions", so that he isn't carried away by emotions in the same way that we are.

(One time, I heard someone—she was normally the children's pastor, but she was "filling in" that day—preach that since God is personal, we should ask him how his day has been, and find out whether he is in a good or a bad mood before petitioning him for what we need.  I was astonished by the crudity of this conception of the divine nature.)

The traditional theology of "impassibility" has often been questioned, in light of the fact that the Bible also portrays a "living" God who is capable of being both pleased and grieved by what happens in the world.  And, however literally we take the biblical statements about God's changelessness, no Christian has ever denied that God is omniscient—that he knows everything taking place in the world, including contingent facts, even though this is itself a bit difficult to reconcile with his immutability.   (For example, here you can see St. Thomas Aquinas with his hands full trying to explain how God can know everything in the world simply as a side effect of knowing his own unchanging nature.)

I discussed this issue a bit in Does God Need a Brain, in which I argued that God knows things in a different way than we do, a way which does not actually require him to change.   I would say that God is so living and complete that he doesn't need to change in order to respond to everything perfectly.  God's being is so full that it is already a perfectly responsive answer to whatever the thing is.  Whatever exists, exists in relation to God, and God by the very act of creating it is in relation to it, and knows it perfectly.  Without changing, he nevertheless enters into relationship with each thing that exists.

Although he has no emotions in the literal sense, he nevertheless has something which is analogous to our emotions, namely his holy and active benevolent will, which is full of love for us, and therefore vehemently opposed to sin and whatever else is against our being the saints that he calls us to be.

But how then, do we reconcile this idea of God with the first set of Scriptures I mentioned?  When faced with an apparent conflict between different biblical teachings, we have several tools for trying to interpret them.

For example, we can compare to other things we know from good science and philosophy (bearing in mind that these are incomplete).  All truth is God's truth, and he speaks through Creation as well as through the Inspiration of the Scriptures.  Thus, we should not interpret Genesis 1 in a way that is clearly incorrect given the fossil record, and we may take into account things like Relativity when asking about God and Time.

We may also ask and hope that the Holy Spirit will guide us in helping the Scriptures meet our spiritual needs.  As a corollary to this, we should consider how the saints in the past (remember that they were guided by the Holy Spirit just as much as we are) interpreted those passages.  As a Protestant, I don't believe that Christian tradition is infallible, but that doesn't mean it can't be helpful.  Scripture can and must be used to critique tradition whenever it departs from the Gospel truths.  But we also have to remember that a lot of what we call "tradition" is just the record of how people in the past processed the Scriptures.  The Bible didn't just fall straight out of heaven into St. Gutenberg's press.  The saints of old read the same Bible that we do, and they thought that what they read was consistent with asserting that God is impassible.

Thirdly, we should read each passage in the light of the whole Bible, in other words to "let Scripture interpret Scripture".  This is a good and important technique, although it is abused quite often.  One way to abuse it goes like this:  whichever passages seem to agree with your theology, you call these "key verses" and "a central teaching" and "biblical doctrine".  Then, when faced with a verse which seems to disagree with your theology, you call this an "obscure", "problematic", or "difficult" passage which therefore needs to be "put in context".  This means comparing it to the verses you agree with, and noting that those verses are more powerful and important.  Once the difficult passage is reinterpreted in a way which agrees with the "central message" of the Bible, you have successfully neutralized those verses.  This gives you the right to disregard them (in any context other than explaining why they don't mean what they appear to) at which point they cease to play any positive role in constructing your theology.

For example, I have heard Protestant sermons on James 2:24, and read Catholic sermons on Matthew 23:9, in which the pastor very eloquently and persuasively criticized the "wrong" interpretation of the verse—the interpretation that contradicts their own theology—and then totally forgot their obligation to make the verse relevant to the lives and hearts of the congregation.  Once the verse was defanged so that it could no longer be a weapon on the other side, it was useless to them.  This is the sure sign that (contrary to their own protestations) the theology of these individuals was not based on the whole Bible, but only part of it.

(I read somewhere on a Christian blog, but I can't find it anymore, that getting your theology from the Bible is like trying to reassemble a disassembled watch.  Some theologies are better than others—the watch is either ticking or it isn't—but if there are pieces left over when you're done, then you know that your understanding of the original design is incomplete!)

I don't want to do this to the passages which assert that God "repents" and "changes his mind".  I think that they teach important spiritual truths about God, truths which we could not have obtained otherwise.  We need to leave room for paradox in our biblical understanding of God.  Unless we blasphemously claim to understand God as well as he understands himself, this is inevitable.

Nevertheless, I also think that we have excellent scriptural reasons to think that the passages about God repenting are anthropomorphisms, that they cannot be taken literally.  But this will require discussing two other biblical attributes of God, his foreknowledge and his eternity.

Posted in Theology | 11 Comments

Physics culture and theistic cosmology models

A reader asks this question, testing the boundaries between physics culture and religious belief:

How hostile do you think a learning institution would be to someone in their Physics department looking at the Horizon problem via the Universe being an Ex Nihilo creation of God, where matter was purposefully set in place and then a God-caused spacetime expansion? (As opposed to the thought experiment of assuming a singularity and a "Theistic or Non-Theistic Big-Bang" requiring another speculation (inflation) to explain one of the shortcomings of the theory.)
Dean C


Most physicists aren't actually militant atheists, but all of us (whatever our views on religion) have been exposed to numerous "crackpots" who think that they have found major flaws in conventional physics and have a completely new and revolutionary way of doing things.  I discussed this pathology here and here. At least 99.99% of time, outsiders making such grandiose claims are totally wrong (or "not even wrong", because their ideas aren't precise enough to be testable), and so we filter out pretty automatically anything which pattern-matches onto typical crackpot-seeming claims and behaviors.

But this is not to say that simply criticizing inflation, all by itself, would get you lumped into the "crackpot" category.  Even among respectable mainstream physicists, inflation isn't completely uncontroversial.  While most of us believe it is true, this hasn't been established with total certainty.

A lot of the original arguments for inflation (e.g. the flatness and horizon problems) are a little bit philosophical in nature, and it's understandable if you don't find them completely convincing.  But it's not just generic arguments like that.  Inflation also makes some very specific predictions about the state of the universe after inflation ends, and these predictions seem to match very closely to what we actually observe (as the graph in that article shows).  There are respectable researchers (such as Neil Turok and Paul Steinhardt) who have philosophical objections to inflation (not based on religion) and are working on alternatives which may predict the same features in the microwave background.  But they are able to do that only because they fully understand the mathematics of inflation and the observational tests that it passes.

If somebody said something like "For philosophical reasons I am skeptical of inflation, and therefore I am interested in exploring alternatives to inflation such as X, Y," and if this person understood the mathematics of inflation (so they weren't just criticizing something they didn't know well enough), and if X and Y were mathematically-precise models with equations (such that even somebody who didn't believe in God could manipulate the equations and work out the predictions of the model), and if there was some hope that in the future, that model could be confirmed by empirical observations, then if all of these conditions are met, I think at most places this would be regarded as acceptable though eccentric.  Even if the "philosophical reasons" included some religious considerations.

It would be even better if this person had the ability to "suspend their disbelief" by sometimes having useful conversations with other people that presupposed the truth of inflation, without bringing up their reasons for skepticism every single time.  (Because that would make them a more useful colleague, and its scientifically it's an important skill to be able to work out the consequences of hypotheses even if you aren't convinced by them yet, as a way of keeping a open mind and understanding the relationship between ideas.)   Such a person would be capable of interfacing with other scientists who don't share his conviction.

(Which is not to say you could actually obtain a research job simply by working on X, Y, since there also need to be a sufficiently large number of other people who think work on X, Y is valuable enough to pay somebody money to do it.  In practice, people who work on long-shot alternatives to standard physics also need to work on more conventional topics, in addition, to be viable.  There are limited resources and funding in science, and not everyone can be supported.  But not getting a job is quite different from being excommunicated as a heretic!)

On the other hand, if X and Y can't be understood without reference to a Creator, and have phrases like "and then God miraculously caused this to happen" in them, or if the model doesn't lead to any mathematically precise predictions that could in principle be tested by future experiments, then this would not be anything like Science as it is traditionally practiced, and it would be dismissed off-hand by almost all scientists as a scientific theory.

And rightly so, because it would, at the very least, involve an enormous paradigm shift in what it even means to practice the scientific method, and justifying such a change would require overwhelmingly convincing evidence.  Of course, as a Christian I believe that miracles have happened in history, and that the universe was created by God. But in the field of Cosmology as practiced in Physics departments, the job is to mathematically model the universe using a set of natural processes described by equations.

It's hard to see how "matter was purposefully set in place and then a God-caused spacetime expansion" could, all by itself, be a mathematically predictive theory.  Because if the matter was just spontaneously created, there are almost an infinite number of configurations it could have appeared in.  Without some physical process or principles to limit it, it could have been anything!  And a "God-caused spacetime expansion" must either be described by a set of specific equations like that of Einstein's (in which case, an atheist could also use those same equations, while denying the existence of God) or else it means we (not having access to God's "hidden counsels") simply can't predict exactly how the size of the early universe changed with time.  But then how do you get any quantitative predictions for what you see when you point your telescope into the sky?

But if all you mean is that, in the ordinary course of doing science, scientists should not a priori rule out mathematically well-defined hypotheses (such as the fine-tuning of the constants of nature in a way that happens to permit life, or a net nonzero number of baryons coming out of an initial singularity), simply because those hypotheses seem "unnatural" in the absence of an intelligent creator, then I agree with this.  Nor, obviously, should a theist rule out the possibility that God might have created our universe using inflation (I don't see why not).  Such scientific hypotheses should stand or fall on their own individual merits, as the case may be.  It's okay (and indeed essential) to be guided by our own individual sense of parsimony, but we shouldn't be so biased that we rule out sensible models which explain the facts better.

(Incidentally, if inflation did happen, then the hypothesis that the universe just "started off" with more matter than antimatter can't work.  Even if there were more baryons than antibaryons coming out of the initial singularity, the universe expanded so rapidly during inflation that the initial baryons would have been diluted to homeopathic proportions.  For this reason, physicists generally prefer models of baryogenesis, in which the baryons are created by some specific physical process some time after inflation ends.)

Posted in Scientific Method | 16 Comments

God's will

How is it possible that God is in control of all things and their will is always done, assuming that we are free?


First, why are we free in the first place?  Because God wants us to be free, and he always gets what he wants!  (Unless he wants something else more which conflicts with it; then he gets that instead.)

Some theologians distinguish between God's permissive will and his perfect will.  If God wants you to freely choose to love him.  Since he wants you to be free, that means his permissive will involves creating a world in which you are allowed to love other things instead of him, and even to become enslaved by these things and lose your freedom for a time.  So our Father permits people to love e.g. pornography and greed, but his perfect will is that we should turn to him and become pure and holy through his Son Jesus Christ.  God "wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4)

So there is one sense in which God's will is always done—nothing happens unless he permits it to happen, according to his wisdom in accomplishing his ultimate goals.  But that does not mean he is equally pleased by everything that happens.  "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? says the Lord YHWH.  Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their wicked ways and live?" (Ez 18).

Hence we need to pray every day that "your will be done", because our Father has freely chosen (it is his absolute, iron will) that some graces will be given only when we ask for them, and cooperate with the lavish grace which has already been given, before we even knew to ask.

In the end times, after Jesus comes back, God's kingdom will come and so his perfect will is going to extend throughout the entire universe, just as it is now in heaven.  But even then, there will be some rebels who refuse to give up their hatred and pride, who will end up being excluded from the Lord's perfect will, because he permits them to be the kind of person they want to be, instead of the kind of person he wants them to be (Rev 22:15).  So God will not, in fact, get every single thing he wants.

Yet he is clever enough to work everything which happens towards the final blessedness of those who love him, according to his plan from before time began.  "For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom. 8:29).

Posted in Theology | 12 Comments

Keeping the faith in college

In the comments section to the previous post, a reader St. Andy asks this question:

To anyone who wants to answer.  This site has quite literally been a Godsend to me.  I've always loved science but until about 5 years ago, I assumed you had put your brain on a shelf to be a christian.  No big bang, no creation, etc.  Since then I've come to understand the bible in a much deeper way.  Believe it or not, it was Obi Wan Kenobi who made it click when he told Luke "you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend on your point of view".  I thought, knowing what we know now, how could I explain to a civilization who thinks the earth is flat and a few hundred miles diameter, how everything came to be.  Would I talk about relativity, red shift, inflation theory, DNA, genes, etc, and spend hundreds of volumes explaining the science, or give something they can understand, like genesis.  It's obvious really.  God wanted us to progress in science at our own pace, but wanted us to know that everything had a beginning and He made it all.  No, Noah didn't have a penguin, a kangaroo, or a western diamond back rattlesnake on the ark.  But it's still true that HIS whole world flooded and he had 2 of every animal in the world that he knew.  I now look at science as learning about God, and He becomes more incredible to me every day!

Anyway, my kids are in 6th and 7th grades in a gifted school and in Florida, we have a prepaid college program and they both have 4 years tuition paid for.  How do I avoid sending them to the Dawkins and Krauses in academia.  I'm not saying it needs to be a christian school, but I'd like to avoid the atheist agendas if possible.  I'm accused online of believing in an old man in the sky, flying spaghetti monsters, Santa Claus, etc, and I don't know what I could expect a college student to withstand.  Any suggestions on how to identify these institutions, or suggestions on how to prepare my kids for the "smart people don't believe in silly things like God" mentality?

St. Scott Church already provided an encouraging reply.  My response follows:

First of all, you're already doing a good job being a parent who is interested in science and open to truth in every area!  That will serve your kids well.

Not to panic you, but it's true that a LOT of kids who were raised in the Church fall away when they go off to secular colleges.  (Though many of these people come back to the Church later in life, when they settle down and have kids of their own.)  But I don't think this is usually because they get argued (or more likely mocked) out of it by people like Krauss or Dawkins.  In person, most atheists aren't all that evangelical about it, actually.  Atheists who argue about it on the internet aren't a typical sample!

Anyway, I think freshman college students are more likely to stop going to Church, and slowly drift away.  Or they'll get drunk and have sex with somebody at a party, and then feel like they can't really call themselves a Christian anymore.  Which is sad, because it indicates that they never really understood that salvation is by God's mercy, and not based on them being a good person who never makes serious mistakes!

A lot of Christian parents think they are raising their children with Christian values, but they're only really teaching them to be a "good kid", and then when they become an adult, it isn't real to them anymore.  It's biblical and proper for children to be obedient and responsible, but this is not the same thing as having a personal relationship with Christ.  Obviously you can't do this for them.  You can only show by example what it looks like.

So a lot of parents get into a panic and think they have to send their kids to a Christian college or else they'll stop being Christian.  But that might just be postponing the time when the person has to choose to follow God themselves, without people telling them what to do!  (For all I know, your kids are already like that, and you don't need to worry about it.)

There's nothing wrong with going to a Christian school, if that's what your kids end up wanting to do, but what's even better is if your children could be the kind of people who are secure in their faith and who have lots of nonreligious friends that they lead towards Christ.  Actually that goes for right now as well.

Anyway, I agree with St. Scott that the exposure method is best.  They'll eventually hear it anyway, so talk to them about it now (in limited quantities and in an age appropriate way, of course).  Talk to them about why you believe what you believe, and why other people believe differently.  Show them one of these online comments, and see if you can get them to explain to you why it's a misunderstanding of what we believe.  Teach them the skill of separating out the good from the bad (for example, it often happens that a writer says some nifty things about science but throws in a jibe at religion, so you can ask whether the one thing really follows from the other).

But of course, also give them a lot of good Christian books, for example by Sts. C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, N.T. Wright, Dorothy Sayers, A.W. Tozer, E. Stanley Jones, Augustine, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, or, if they like historical fiction, Elizabeth Goudge.  Of course there are many more authors to choose from; it depends on their particular interests.  (Encouraging them to study the Bible goes without saying, of course.  But you could see if your church denomination has a Bible quizzing program or something like that for teenagers.)

Just having encouragement from a parent who is interested in science and open to truth is already a lot!  Teach them to ask questions and don't be afraid of saying "I don't know" instead of giving pat answers.  It's better to teach your kids that you can trust in Christ even when you have a lot of questions, then to give them a long list of answers and make it seem like faith depends on getting every one of them right.

The way a lot of Christians are raised, if they start doubting whether e.g. the Noah story was 100% literal in all of its details, they feel like they may as well be disbelieving in the Resurrection of Jesus!  But one of these two events is at the core of our faith, and the other is at the periphery.

Which college your kids go to should obviously depend on their own choices and interests, and it's a long time before this decision has to be made.  If they are truly seeking God's will, the Holy Spirit may guide them in a direction which neither they nor you expect.

In general, Ivy Leagues and other elite universities tend to have the academic environment which is most hostile to Christian faith.  I would not recommend places like Harvard, Yale, or U. Chicago as places to study theology, for instance.  But they might be fine for the sciences.  In my experience, secular science departments are more accepting of religious people than the humanities departments, actually.  Maybe not in Biology, because of all the conflicts involving Evolution.

A lot of secular schools have strong Christian social groups such as InterVarsity or Cru which can provide support for Christian students.  Really, it depends a lot on the school.  And there will always be some churches in the area where people are willing to pick students up from the college dorms, if one inquires sufficiently.

There are many fine Christian colleges out there, though some are Christian-in-name only, or so fundamentalist as to be embarrassing.  As good examples, I have family members who attended Seattle Pacific and Westmont, which are excellent liberal arts colleges, seriously Christian but not fundamentalist.  But they're over on the West Coast.  I'm not familiar with the situation near Florida, but a good high school counselor would know.  Very few Christian schools are also highly ranked research universities (although there are a few, like Notre Dame or Baylor).  Although this matters more for graduate education than college.

I went to St. John's College, which I would say is a rare example of a school where most students aren't religious, yet theological books (including the Bible) are on the curriculum and taken seriously.  This is a really weird college, not for most people (and rather expensive without financial aid) but for a few people, it's one of the best things that ever happened to them.

There are no wrong choices here.  What matters is where God is leading them as individuals.

It's a little tricky to give advice here, because some parents are over-protective, and some are under-protective, and the advice that is right for one, is wrong for the other.  If you're worrying about college when they're in 7th grade, you probably belong more to the first category. :-)  I'd advise you to relax and trust God, who knows better than any of us do what each of us need.

Posted in Education | 13 Comments

God and Time III: General Relativity

Imagine if somebody said that only one height exists at once—whichever elevation you happen to be in at the moment, only things at that elevation really existThe moles in the ground are can be asserted to be "below", but that just means that they used to exist when you were in your basement.  And the birds in the trees are "above" you, but that just means that they will exist after you indulge your habit of climbing to the attic.

(Unlike the case of time, I can go either up or down, but who cares?  Time may flow like a river, but space flies like a bumblebee, wobbling around in random directions.)

This is clearly uncommonly silly, and there are several retorts one might make to it.  If the ground beneath us doesn't exist, then what on earth is holding us up and supporting us?

Also, there is no such thing as a perfectly flat human being.  Your brain occupies several different planes of elevation at once, and there is no good reason to think that any horizontal slice of your brain would be capable of thinking, independently of all the other slices.

Another possible retort would be to critique the language, and say that there is really no meaning to it.  If I say that the birds will exist after I go into the attic, I am implicitly and illegitimately assuming that my attic exists, and that I can therefore go up to it.  But if I really took my philosophy completely seriously, I would have to believe that the attic doesn't exist either.  To say that up exists upwards is a circular definition, which can hardly console us if things that are up do not exist in the first place.

But if none of these "philosophical" arguments are persuasive, I can always crack out the "Argument from Geophysics".  Our most advanced scientific theories suggest that the world is in fact round.  It turns out that up and down are relative concepts, you see.  In Australia, they fall in a different direction than we do.  What they call down is different from what we call down.  The actual laws of physics are rotationally symmetric.  There is a symmetry which mixes up the up-down axis with the right-left axis and the forwards-backwards axis.  We can call "down" the direction which points to the Earth, but the earth is a contingent object which might not have existed.  Out in space, there is no reason to adopt a geocentric coordinate system.

And certainly, if we start doing theology, it would be presumptuous to think that the God who created the whole universe, all the stars and galaxies, is confined to existing at some particular elevation.  Whatever limitations we may ascribe to created beings, we should not ascribe them to the unlimited Creator, who made them all out of nothing.

(Some ideas, e.g. the idea that God is a really old man with a long white beard who lives in the sky, really do become ridiculous when you consider the size and proportions of the Universe as discovered by modern Science.  But garden variety Internet Atheists are always trying to manufacture this feeling artificially, in situations where it's a non sequitur.  If you can't tell the difference between Classical Theism and belief in a sky-fairy or an invisible garage dragon, that shows your intellectual limitations, not mine.)

This analogy summarizes the previous posts in this series, only I was talking about Time instead of Height:

God and Time I: Metaphysics
God and Time II: Special Relativity

It turns out that there is also a "rotational symmetry" so to speak (called a Lorentz boost) which mixes Space and Time.  It works a little bit differently from a regular rotation, since it involves rotating along hyperbolas instead of circles.  Mathematically, it's just a matter of throwing in a minus sign.  A result of this is that there is a lightcone which is unaffected by the symmetry transformation.  Some pairs of points are timelike separated (one point can affect the other) and others are spacelike separated (neither can affect the other), but there is no such thing any more as simultaneity.  From the perspective of somebody who is stationary, time goes slower for somebody who is moving; this is called "time dilation".

But in General Relativity, things get more wild, since space and time can themselves be affected by the behavior of matter.  Thus the distances and durations become a function of where and when you are.  Time runs slightly slower near the earth than it does in outer space.  (Believe it or not, this is why things fall down.  An object in free-fall always takes the path which maximizes the amount of time to get from point A to point B.  This is a compromise between SR and GR time dilation effects.)

In Special Relativity, space and time are a unity, but they have a fixed geometry.  The distances and the times are the same regardless of what matter does.  They are unaffected, and therefore they might possibly (by a Materialist, not by a Classical Theist) be taken to be a fundamental, necessary, and immutable feature of reality, which limits other entities but is not itself affected by them.

In General Relativity, by contrast, the spacetime metric g_{ab} not only affects matter, it is in turn affected by matter.  This implies that the causal structure  (which tells you which points can affect which other points by signals) is itself causally affected by stuff.  So we learn that the particular geometry of spacetime is a contingent, mutable feature of reality.

From a philosophical point of view, the Absolute Spacetime of Newton (or Special Relativity) was never very satisfying.  Even if it is Absolute, an empty Spacetime can hardly itself be the source of all that is real.  Thus there must also be some other principles besides those of space and time, threatening an unparsimonius proliferation of fixed principles.  It has seemingly arbitrary features, and yet if it is really immutable and necessary it is difficult to explain it in terms of other things, other than just God's will.  Many philosophers such as St. Leibnitz and Mach rejected absolute spacetime, and tried to reduce it to the status of merely relative data relating various material objects.  Newton and his followers, on the other hand, tried to identify Space and Time with the necessary attributes of God, his Immensity and Eternity, but this doesn't work very well theologically.

Einstein was influenced by Mach in the creation of GR, but it doesn't really meet Mach's original aspirations since spacetime is still a reality independent of matter in his theory.  Mach would have said that spacetime has no independent reality; that it is just a way of keeping track of the relationships between material objects.  (He thought that the water would run to the sides of a rotating bucket only because the bucket was rotating compared to the distant stars).  But in GR, it is possible to have a geometry apart from any matter, e.g. empty Minkowski space, or a spacetime with gravitational waves.

There is indeed a sense in which the curved spacetime of GR is relational—there is no absolute fixed coordinate system to measure everything else by.  Thus it is only meaningful to  measure the locations and times and velocities of objects relative to other objects, indeed unlike SR we must even specify a specific path through spacetime between the two objects, in order to meaningfully compare them.  But, even though GR is relational, the spacetime metric g_{ab} is itself one of the entities which may be used to construct relational observables.

Thus I would say that Spacetime in GR is neither absolute in the Newtonian sense (more fundamental than matter), nor relative in the Leibnitz/Machian sense (less fundamental than matter), but rather has the same status as matter.  It is real in the same concrete, tangible way that a rock or a tree is real.  It is one of several different fields in Nature, all with equal status, all capable of affecting and being affected.

As some physicist I can't track down right now (Carlo Rovelli?) once said, if an intense gravity wave passed by and destroyed your house, you would think of it as being just as real as any other kind of matter.

Now, if Spacetime (and therefore Time) is real in the same sense that a rock or a tree are real, that meas that it is also a contingent, created being.  Time is just one of the many things that God has created.  But the Creator, blessed be he, is not dependent on rocks or trees for his existence.  He is not measured or parcelled out by units of space, therefore he is also not measured by time.  Time is just something he created, which need not have existed.  Before they were created, and afterwards, he exists just the same as he ever was.  He is the Absolute, the Fundamental Reality which everything else depends on, but which does not itself depend on anything.  God's divine attributes (his necessity, eternity, and unity) imply that he cannot change with time, nor can he consist of distinct parts at each time.  He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End!

But I digress, since I was planning to discuss the Scriptures in the next post.  This one is supposed to be about how GR makes it even harder to say that God is in Time.  I've already talked about the contingency of the spacetime geometry.  Now let's talk about the arbitrariness of selecting what you mean by a single moment of time.

In SR, there is still a preferred notion of "simultaneity" if you pick a particular reference frame.  I drew a picture of that in the previous post:

Here Sue and Martha don't agree on whether p or q came first.  But maybe Sue is objectively right and Martha objectively wrong?  Somebody could still argue that there is a special inertial frame of reference with respect to which God happens to exist.  In other words, God has no position, and yet he has a velocity?  He is not an idol, a piece of wood or stone carved into an anthropomorphic form.  Why should he be limited in this way.

But in GR, spacetime is curved, and there are no inertial coordinate systems defined on the whole spacetime.  You can divide Spacetime into Space and Time in any way you like, using wiggly surfaces (although one might want to restrict to surfaces which are everywhere spacelike).  For example, the relationship between 2 coordinate systems could look like this:


In GR is not always any particular connection between a given coordinate system and a given observer, so I have not drawn Sue and Martha in this picture, but I have still drawn the spacelike separated points p and q which are in an ambiguous time relation.  (Since spacetime is 4 dimensional, the time slices I've drawn actually represent 3 dimensional surfaces.)

Of course, nothing stops you from choosing a funky coordinate system in Newtonian mechanics or SR either.  For example, it is often convenient to choose a rotating frame of reference to follow a rotating body such as the Earth.  Or a coordinate system which tracks an accelerating observer.  (Many pop descriptions of GR give the false impression that you need GR to describe accelerating coordinate systems; this is obviously false since objects can accelerate even in Newtonian mechanics, and nobody can prevent you to choosing coordinates however you like no matter what the correct theory of physics is.)

The difference in GR is that none of the coordinate choices are particularly nice or special.  It looks from the picture above like the gray coordinate system is nicer than the apricot one, but that's just because your computer screen is flat.  On a typical curved spacetime, all time slices are bent in one place or another.  Thus, instead of having a 3 parameter family of "nice" time slices, we have an infinite dimensional family.  (The details depend on which particular curved spacetime we have.)

Do we really want to say that God's experience of time depends on making an arbitrary choice about how to respond to the gravitational field of each and every star?  An choice which, from the perspective of physics, is a completely meaningless choice of coordinate system?  God's perspective on the universe should not be more provincial and limited than the perspective of a mere physicist such as myself.  The Glory of Israel does not change, so why does he need a time coordinate?

Now it is true that on some specially nice spacetimes, there is a naturally nice choice of time coordinate.  For example in an FRW expanding universe, there is a "cosmic time" coordinate which tracks the overall size (the "redshift factor") of the universe.  Some philosophers, such as St. William Lane Craig, have suggested that God's "time" might simply be this "cosmic time".

But this is a misunderstanding of the physics of our universe.  The FRW metric is a just an approximation to reality.  It describes a universe which is completely uniform (the same in everywhere) and isotropic (the same in every direction).  This is a very good approximation on large distance scales (billions of light years), but on shorter distance scales (e.g. the solar system, or the milky way, or your living room) you may have noticed that matter is not distributed uniformly.  It comes in clumps, and each of these clumps has a gravitational field which distorts the spacetime metric, making the FRW metric no longer correct.  On a lumpy spacetime, the notion of "cosmic time" is not well-defined.

With sufficient effort, one might be able to define a different time coordinate which is well defined.  Perhaps the maximum proper time since the Big Bang, or something.  But reformulating GR in a way that makes special reference to such quantities spoils the beauty of Einstein's theory.  It is ugly.  As for a blind and lame theory like that, I hate it in my soul.  Why should our physical theory describing gravitation get uglier when we describe how it relates to God?

The closest thing I know about to an elegant reformulation of GR with a special time coordinate is called "shape dynamics".  (I say know about, since I don't understand it).  Apparently this is equivalent to GR in a coordinate system where you pick your time slices to be CMC ("constant mean curvature") slices.  I won't explain that right now, except to say that the soap films in your bubble bath are also CMC surfaces.  But given a GR spacetime metric, there might be many possible choices of CMC slicings, or none.  So the equivalence to GR is not complete.

It is of course always possible that a new theory of physics (such as Hořava gravity) might reimpose something like absolute time.  But I wouldn't count on it.

I think this is a good illustration of the point I made in Models and Metaphysics:

But it seems to me that the correct view is in the middle, that Physics has some bearing on Metaphysics but it doesn't fully determine it.

There are always going to be ways to force physics into being compatible with an A-theory metaphysics of time, but it doesn't look elegant or pretty.  The B-theory seems to fit much more naturally.  Physics can't usually rule out metaphysical ideas, but it can make them look a lot clunkier.

But in this case, physics isn't telling us anything we couldn't have learned from good philosophical theology.  Or from scriptural exegesis—which will be the subject of my next post in this series.

Posted in Physics, Theology | 30 Comments