Credo: Before all Worlds

For most of my life I’ve been trying to make sense of the Nicene Creed. I started at age seven, when (thanks be to God) I became a choirboy, and was forced by the high discipline commonly expected of boys in those halcyon days to sit like a statue and listen to the sermon, or at least pretend to listen, but anyway to sit stock still. Sitting still all the way through a 20 minute sermon is hard enough for grownups, but for a seven year old boy it is sheer torture. Yet somehow we all managed to learn how to do it (it was that or an enraged dressing down from our dear old choirmaster, God rest him), and I have been grateful for the lesson ever since.

Anyway, I found the sermons impossible to track. This is still generally the case. I thought when I was a boy that the problem was in me – that I was just too young and uneducated to understand all that grown up talk, and that when I grew up I’d be able to follow the sermons. It didn’t happen. I am now pretty sure that the problem is not in me.

But, to return again to the point: because I couldn’t follow the sermon, I would spend that time thinking about the Nicene Creed, and trying to make sense of it. I’m still working on that project. I’ve figured out a few things, though, and perhaps it makes sense to share them. In the first place, I’m likely to be schooled in my errors by commenters, and that will be salutary for my spiritual health, if only by knocking me down a peg or two.

In the second, I have found that my difficulties with the Creed engendered difficulties with my faith. So much so, that often in my youth I found my faith and my reason operating on wholly different and antagonistic tracks, the latter churning along analytically (and skeptically) in my cortex, the former making itself evident in my physiological responses to the numinosity undeniably effulgent in the music I sang, and in the liturgies I helped enact. I could not gainsay the Holy, for I experienced it in quite concrete fashion – indeed, in quite spooky, ravishing fashion – several times each week. It is awfully odd, oddly awful, always hair-raising and somewhat terrific, to hear almost completely pure Platonic Forms issuing from one’s mouth (such sublimity in music is the high privilege granted to boy sopranos). And singing for hours and hours about God, for God, and to God cannot but form a boy toward God. But my analysis could not penetrate far enough to provide me with a way to say the Holy, by which I mean the Sanctus, without gainsaying it at least a bit. I said the Sanctus, and that in good faith; but always with a bit of mental reservation, and not in perfect, unrestrained faith. For that I longed, as I longed also for understanding. I wanted my faith, and my understanding, to be as close to pure and perfect as the music I sang.

Christian faith is crucial to that rightly ordered society whose restoration is a palmary concern of the Orthosphere. As confusion about the Creed is an impediment to faith, so then is it an impediment to justice. And most people these days are pretty confused about the Creed. Indeed, it is entirely scandalous to moderns, from beginning to end. Almost every word of it can be somehow a stumbling block. Stravinsky is reported to have remarked, after he finished composing the Credo of his Mass, “It is much to believe.” In other words, “I don’t believe much of it.” His attitude is not uncommon even among devout and erudite Christians.

For a while now, I’ve been able to say the Credo, and a fortiori therefore the Sanctus, without the least bit of mental reservation, and indeed with joy. The reason? Mostly, I’ve learned what the Creed is actually saying, what it means. That has made me a better Christian, and also therefore a better and more efficacious Traditionalist. But I keep learning more about what the Creed means, and growing in faith. It gets better and better, more and more joyful. I doubt these days, not that the Faith is true, but that there is a limit to its truth, or to the understanding and enjoyment thereof. Increase of joy without limit: what a thought, no?

I am forbidden to hide under a bushel basket, and my presence here at the Orthosphere seems to me entirely an expression of gratuitous grace in my life – as with those pure Platonic tones of my boyhood, I myself have, really, nothing to do with it. My bushel basket has been kicked aside, I find. I am therefore obliged. So I shall keep on with my life’s Magnificat, and post from time to time on some of the things I have learned, that have turned stumbling blocks into cornerstones.  

This is such a post.

In the Credo, we say of Christ that he is begotten of the Father before all worlds. What do we mean by “before all worlds”? We mean, “in eternity.” OK, but what does “eternity” mean? 

 I used to think of eternity as a realm without beginning or end, that was somehow outside time, and in which therefore nothing happens, properly speaking. Theologians and philosophers often speak of it that way, and it is natural for us, given the way that we spatial creatures envision things, to think of eternity as a domain, a space, that is separate from the space of this world. In that space there is no movement, no passage from one state of affairs to another, no flow, but rather only stillness. In eternity, as the Buddhists say, there is nirvana – literally, no wind, no motion that might displace so as to cause a breeze (“nir” being obviously cognate with “non” and “no,” and “vana” with “vent” and “wind”), thus no change. Notice that a realm of utter stillness would be also, ipso facto, a realm of utter simplicity. In eternity, there could be only one actual being – let’s just go ahead and call him God, as men have always done – for beings are distinguished from each other by their causal relations (also known as spatial and temporal relations), and where nothing happens, nothing stands in need of any cause; so that in eternity there could be no way that one being could stand in some causal relation to another, and thus no way that beings could be different, or therefore disparate, from each other.

But what is especially important about causal relations, as opposed, say, to logical relations? In a realm of no motion, would not “2 + 2 = 4” nevertheless differ from “3 + 3 = 6”? Yes; but while these propositions would differ logically, they would not differ ontologically. After all, propositions are not themselves beings, but rather phenomena entertained by minds; they are, that is, features or characteristics of beings. Furthermore, all necessarily true propositions entail all other necessarily true propositions, so that the whole system of metaphysical truths – the propositions that hold true in every conceivable state of affairs – is effectually a single great multifoliate idea. This is just a different way of saying that no necessary truth may contradict any other, but that each such truth must rather agree with all others; this mutual agreement and mutual implication of all the necessary truths being the basis of the Socratic doctrine of anamnesis, and the forecondition of mathematical reasoning. So in a motionless realm it would seem that there could be but one eternal being, who is God; and he could have but one, single, simple thought, that nevertheless comprehended all truths.

And not just the necessary truths, but also, somehow, the contingent truths, too. Since if a thing might ever happen, it must always – that is, eternally – have been possible for it to happen somehow or other, so the mere possibilities of contingent things like creatures and their acts and motions must be features of eternity. All contingency, then, and all temporal eventuation, must be “anticipated” – literally, “captured before” – in eternity. The scare quotes are needful because, of course, there is in eternity no such thing as “ante” or “post,” no “before” or “after.” And the fact that there is no “before” or “after” in eternity means that it cannot ever be true to say of eternity that, in respect to some actual event in some actual world (picked out from among the many possible alternatives thereto) there was some “time” in eternity “when” that event had “not yet” happened, or that there will ever in eternity be some “time” “when” that event has “already” happened. Somehow, then, all actual contingent events, and all truths about them, are known in eternity, not as derived from those events – i.e., not as dependent upon such events “already” having “happened” – but as prior thereto. But, NB, “prior,” not in any order of time – so that, i.e., the Divine knowledge of contingent actual events was not “before” those events – but in the order of logic.  

Eternity, then, would seem to be the opposite of the world we inhabit, and completely incommensurable thereto. I struggled to understand how there could be any relation or interaction between these two completely different sorts of being.

All sorts of difficult bits of theology and philosophy are tightly connected to that central puzzle. Perhaps the most obvious is the Incarnation. How could the God who is eternal be in time, in history, a temporal being, indeed a man who suffers?

But then there are the Atonement and the Redemption of the World, paradigmatically temporal transactions that changed the course of history. How can an historical event “happen” in eternity? In other words, and to put it baldly, how can the execution of a man at a particular time and place affect eternity in its relation to the world, and be thereby efficacious for, and available to, all beings of that world, where or when soever they might live? How can a particular creaturely event be ubiquitous, even in Heaven? How does a temporal event “get into” eternity, so as to be thus ubiquitously efficacious?

The same thing applies to Providence in general (of which Atonement and Redemption are aspects): God is said to have Provided for every bit of his creating and saving act from before all worlds. How can something that happens prior to all worlds, and so for and in all worlds (eternalities are present in all moments whatsoever), happen at just one time and place in one world? How does eternity “get into” time?

Then there is the tension between God’s Providence – which, being literally his “fore-seeing,” is a department of his omniscience – and creaturely freedom. How can creatures be construed as free to enact, or therefore as meaningfully responsible for, acts to which they were fore-ordained from all eternity by God’s true eternal knowledge of their facticity?

Then there is the really prosaic question of the character of Jesus’ experience as Risen, whether on Earth circa 33 AD or in Heaven today. Christ at Emmaus and in Heaven is embodied as Jesus of Nazareth. He breathes, he thinks, he speaks, eats, drinks, sings, &c. Or at least, he is capable of doing all these things. As thus embodied, does he experience the flow of time as we do, and as he did when he was, say, 23 years old? Is he somehow both in time and in eternity? How could that work? Is there not a basic contradiction between those two modes of being?

A related question: scripture consistently treats God as a living being, who responds to his creatures with love or wrath (if indeed there is a difference between those two things). But living involves having a career of experiences – or we could as well and accurately say, living involves experience. A living thing undergoes accidental changes while remaining essentially itself. How then could a simple, changeless being, such as God, experience anything, or suffer change? How could he respond to the contingent free acts of his creatures, whether with love or wrath? If God somehow responds to our acts without himself changing (so that while he seems to us to have changed, really he has not – a notion called Cambridge Change), that can only mean that in terms of things as they truly are – i.e., as God knows them to be, and therefore in very truth – our acts don’t really change anything. But if our acts don’t truly change anything, then really they are not acts at all. Indeed, in that case our acts don’t even exist, either as acts, or as ours. Nor, therefore, do we.

But if to avoid this result we say with process theology (as it is understood by most process theologians) that God does change in response to free creaturely acts, then it seems that God must be in time as we are, or perhaps in some sort of meta-time. In this alternative, he would seem to be quite vulnerable to injury at our hands, and thus to a diminution of his Divine power. And the problem with this is that if God is subject to any lessening of his enjoyment, capacity, or being on account of the acts of some other, contingent beings, then he is in some respect himself contingent, and the ground of the necessary truths loses the fullness of its necessity. All is then subject to change, and God can no longer fill the role in philosophy for which he is needed, of being the First and Uncaused Cause. Whatever he is, he cannot then any longer be construed as God, properly speaking. The basis of becoming cannot itself be subject to becoming, and still function as that basis.

For a long time I held all these issues in tension, reading about them, deliberating, and waiting. The best I could do was gesture in what seemed like the direction of the right solution, by saying that eternity is not timeless, but timeful. It seemed to me that the basis of eventuation must himself be the greatest conceivable event; and that the basis of time must be, not atemporal, but supratemporal, not poorer in its index of causal relations than time and space, but richer. Beyond that, was murk.

Then one day about two years ago, I realized that I had been approaching the problem bass-ackwards. I had been trying to understand eternity in terms of time, when of course the correct thing to do was just the opposite. If eternity is the way things are for God, that means that eternity is just the way things really are, simpliciter, and we should approach time under the aspect of eternity.

Thus while things seem to us to be happening in time, and time seems to be quite a different thing than eternity, really it must be the case that things are happening in eternity. This means that time is an aspect of eternity; which is to say, precisely, that time is a perspective on eternity: ours. This is not a new thought. Indeed, it goes at least as far back as Plato, who thought time is the moving image of eternity. I had been looking right at it for decades, without seeing it.

Now it is absolutely crucial at this point to emphasize that, just because our perspective on things is partial and parochial, that does not at all mean it is wholly incorrect. Indeed, it is quite correct, so far as it goes, and within the limits of its proper domain, in rather the same way that Newtonian mechanics, while not as adequate to reality as quantum mechanics, is nonetheless true enough within the realm of its proper application. Thus it is quite wrong to say that there is really no such thing as time, or therefore that there is really no such thing as creatures, or a cosmos. That unjustified inference is the erroneous leap taken by those with but a naïve appreciation for the metaphysical insights of India. That God is the ultimate reality does not mean that there are no penultimate realities; that only God sees all things as they truly are does not entail that we can see nothing at all of how things truly are.

Indeed, to the extent that we exist at all, we must thereby participate in and express the perfections original to God, however partially or corruptly; for he is the source of all perfections, wheresoever expressed, or howsoever. Our apprehension of the causal, temporal order obtaining among actual events, then, is a veridical, albeit partial, apprehension of their supratemporal order, just as for us to understand the truth of “2 + 2 = 4” is to understand a bit of what God understands, and is therefore to experience and enjoy a bit of what he experiences and enjoys. But just as we cannot comprehend all the mathematical truths simultaneously, but are forced rather to entertain them a few at once, reasoning our way from one to the next seriatim, so we cannot comprehend our whole causal order at once, as God can, but must work our way from one node of the temporal matrix to the next. That we must do work to relate the past to our present acts, and to relate one insight to another, is no derogation either of that work, or of the insights and experiences we so laboriously wrest from the Divine integrity.

All right then. What this all means is that to the extent a thing is happening, it is happening in eternity, and only derivately in time. What happens in time is a derivate – as it were, a precipitate – of what happens in eternity. Eternity, then, is not a place where nothing happens, but the place where everything happens. It is indeed motionless, in the sense that in eternity nothing changes from one state of affairs to another; rather, all states of affairs are present all at once in eternity, and there is no displacement of one state of affairs by another – no wind. Yet as the Very Reverend Donne puts it, eternity is, not utter silence, but one equal music, as it were the fullness and completion of music, in which all music is played: the whole gamut, in full diapason. After all, there could be no music at all if there were no principle of music, realized in a principal of music. 

Because eternity is the place where everything happens, there can in eternity be real disparities between events, and entities; so there can be real causal relations among them. Thus eternity is the forecondition and Receptacle both of entity and of causality. Spatio-temporal order – causal order – is a partial expression of the completely comprehensive order of eternity.

What we do, then, we do in the whole of eternity – and to it. It is by virtue of their coinherence with eternity that disparate things are coinherent to each other, so that they are able to exert causal effects upon each other: to communicate, and infuse each other; to help or harm each other; to convey their defects and perfections to each other. Thus eternity is the medium of space and time, is the space of space and the time of time, their Receptacle. Their common eternal Receptacle is the source of each being’s solidarity and communion with all others. It is the basis both of their harmony and their discord.

Because each of our acts is inflicted upon the whole body of eternity, the sinfulness of one is imputed to all, and vice versa (this being, in essence, the doctrine of Original Sin), and we are therefore each of us responsible for each other, our brother’s keeper. This is why the first Great Commandment is to love God, and the second, like unto it, is to love each other.

Likewise also with what God does. His act at Calvary is in and for the whole eternal realm of being. Thus the Atonement is happening right now, in and for all nows; likewise also the Creation, the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Resurrection, the Harrowing of Hell, the salvation of the Prophets (those of Israel, and those of all other worlds and times whatsoever), and for that matter the eschatonand the life everlasting.

Thus the eschaton, and the New Jerusalem, begin always right here, right now. But while they suffuse this world, and indeed make it possible and order it to its proper ends, they are not of this world. It’s the other way round. To mistake this relation is the basic metaphysical error common to all sin. Sin is, at root, a disagreement with Reality, with Truth. It is to mistake this world and its categories, beings, motives, and so on as somehow – anyhow – prior to eternity. Such is pride, that is realized always in some sort of idolatry, some perversion of desires.

But we must not think, either, that this world is wholly corrupt or illusory. That’s the Gnostic error. To the extent that this world has being, it partakes of eternity, and of God. It is therefore noble, and good. The heavens are glorious because they tell the glory of God. But this doesn’t mean the stars are not really glorious; on the contrary.  

Divine foreknowledge and creaturely freedom are reconciled in the recognition that because creaturely acts occur in eternity, there is for God no time before they happen, and no time after they happen (even though they may – and within a given world, certainly do – have causal, temporal relations with each other). Thus God does not know them before they happen, and neither do they need to happen first, in order that he may then know about them afterwards. The happening of actual contingencies, and God’s eternal knowledge of them, happen all at once in eternity. So creaturely acts, like God’s, are free. Creatures depend on God, and their acts on his, and he constrains and orders them; but all are free.

To make this a bit more concrete, it may help to consider Jesus. How can an eternal being be in time? All beings are in eternity, including the Logos. That the Logos should be in time is no more remarkable than that you or I should be in time; for we and the Logos are all alike beings that exist principially in eternity. The difference between us and the Logos is that the latter is from all eternity, and we are from him; he is coterminous with the whole of eternity, while we are coterminous only with a particular contingent worldline described therein. But both we and the Logos can be in time only by virtue of our prior being in eternity (not that our being in eternity had to happen “before” our being in time, but that our being in eternity is logically prior to our being in time).

How then is the experience of Jesus of Nazareth different from our own, whether here on Earth or in that other, everlasting causal system, Heaven? It is different simply in this: that while he feels himself to be causally related to all things, and thus in all particular times, Jesus also always fully “remembers” the eternality of all his moments. He is fully aware of their complete eternal extent. He never, ever forgets, as we do, that the Kingdom is not of this world, but vice versa. So he lives each moment in the Kingdom, and understands each of them as expressing it.

And this awareness is more or less what is described by Christian saints and mystics, and by the doctrine of the Church, as the Beatific Vision. How could a mere creature possibly gain access to a share in the Divine Life, as Christianity says we may? How could it be possible for us to attain nirvana, as Buddhism says we may? It can happen because we are already there, already in eternity, as all time is in eternity. Eternity is the forecondition, and the basic character, of all temporality. So then, simply by turning from temporal attachments and attending to the basis of all our experience, the root of our being, the Eternal One, we may remember that we have our very being, at first and last, by a participation in him, and thanks to his gracious donation of himself for us. He is the beginning of each of our moments; this is another way of saying that each such moment is created ex nihilo.

Thus he says that “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” Because it is within us as the first principle of our existence, and thus utterly pervades everything that we are and do, it is the still small voice within. Because it sounds in everything, it is the hardest thing of all to notice. But when we still all other voices, it may be heard.

Note: many thanks to Lydia McGrew for her patient participation in a long email exchange last year that corrected and clarified my thinking about eternity.

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4 thoughts on “Credo: Before all Worlds

  1. The following excerpt from the scholar S.H. Nasr on the topic of time and eternity may be clarifying:

    Man lives in the world of change and becoming wherein he experiences time, which marks his earthly life and which finally conquers him as it leads him ineluctably to his death. Yet he is in turn able to conquer time because he has issued forth from the Eternal Order. Man has an innate awareness of Eternity whose idea is deeply imprinted upon his mind and its experience still echoes in the depth of his soul where something remains of the lost paradise which he inhabited before joining the caravan of terrestrial life.…He is, therefore, a being suspended between time and Eternity, neither a purely temporal creature nor a being of the Eternal Realm, at least in his ordinary earthly state….To understand the nature of man is to become aware of his existential situation as a being belonging to the Eternal Order but living in time, which itself cannot but be related to Eternity since all orders of reality are of necessity interrelated….
    The notion of Eternity evokes at once the idea of changelessness, immutability and perfection. It is related to the Divine Order, to the Divine Principle itself as well as the world of the Spirit residing in the Divine Proximity, hence the usage of the term ‘eternal life’. It is known by man through the tenets of revelation as well as through intellection and can be experienced even in this life through spiritual realization and the “eye of the heart”…whose gaze is ever fixed upon the Eternal Order. In any case there is in principle no need of the world of becoming in order for man to know the Eternal, except that as the subject of this knowledge man is himself situated in the world of becoming. Even there, however, he is able to know and experience Eternity directly as a being who belongs ultimately to the Eternal Order, though not simply as a creature who is the product of the world of change and becoming for only the like can know the like….
    The yearning for transcendence which characterizes normal man means that he is not only able to experience time but also to have an awareness of its limitation and termination and of his own existence as an immortal being beyond time. To understand time in itself and in relation to Eternity, it is therefore necessary to turn to the ontological status of the world of becoming and the universal hierarchy of existence which makes it possible to understand the meaning of time and also its relation to Eternity, of which it is the “moving image.”…
    As for the world of becoming, it is already removed from Eternity by the very fact that it is becoming. The origin of time resides in this very separation of the world of becoming from its ontological principle and origin. To become is to change or to move as this verb is understood in traditional natural philosophy such as that of Aristotle. Moreover, in the same way that becoming has its roots in Being and the cosmos derives its existence from Being without which it would be literally nothing, time which characterizes the state of becoming must be related to and have its root in the Eternal Order; hence the famous Platonic saying that time is the moving image of Eternity. This metaphysical assertion summarizes the relation of time to Eternity. It asserts first of all that Eternity has an “image”; that is, the Eternal Principle manifests Itself. Secondly, since this manifestation is in the mode of becoming and in fact constitutes the world of becoming, it is a moving image. And time is none other than this moving image. If there were to be no moving image there would be no time, and if there were no Eternity or the Eternal Reality which is at once the Absolute, the Infinite and the Perfect Good, there would be no moving image. The very fact that the Absolute alone is absolute while the world is contingency necessitates the distinction between Eternity and time. Those who deny the Eternal Order are also those who fail to distinguish between the Absolute and the contingent and hence bestow upon the world the quality of absoluteness which belongs to the Divine Principle alone….
    It is not accidental that…the Psalmist sings, “From everlasting to everlasting, thou art God…. A thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday” (Psalm XC.2,4).

    [from S.H. Nasr, “Time – The Moving Image of Eternity” in “The Need for a Sacred Science”; also see A.K. Coomaraswamy, “Time and Eternity”]

  2. Modern difficulties with the Creed (or Creeds) are partly due to modern language ‘translations’ which are actually modern reductions and re-interpretations.

    The Creeds in the Book of Common Prayer are miracles (literally) of truth, beauty and balance – modern langauge versions… not so much. More like a CliffsNotes, bullet point-summary of the Creed – done by someone with several axes to grind.

  3. Pingback: Credo: ante omnia saecula « The Orthosphere

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