Theology and the Reality of Deep Time

Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account (Eccl 3:15).

As I write this, it is now. I am at a particular place in time. As you read this, it is also now. Your now is as unreachable to me as mine is to you. You cannot live again whatever you are doing in my moment, and I cannot reach forward to yours. Nor can either of us choose in which order each moment comes, or pause the inexorable succession of one now after the other.

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Is there any way off this train? The Christian theological tradition says yes, simply because we know of a being who is not on board: God. It is clear throughout scripture and theology that God’s experience of time is very different from our own: ‘With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day’ (2 Peter 3:8). Perhaps the most influential theological account of time is the one that occurs in Book XI (chapter 11) of Augustine’s Confessions. In considering creation and the eternal nature of God, he argues that God experiences no past or future; to God, all time is the present. Your now and my now, so irreconcilably divided from our perspective, are both now to God.

“Those who say these things do not as yet understand You, O Thou Wisdom of God, Thou light of souls; not as yet do they understand how these things be made which are made by and in You. They even endeavour to comprehend things eternal; but as yet their heart flies about in the past and future motions of things, and is still wavering. Who shall hold it and fix it, that it may rest a little, and by degrees catch the glory of that everstanding eternity, and compare it with the times which never stand, and see that it is incomparable; and that a long time cannot become long, save from the many motions that pass by, which cannot at the same instant be prolonged; but that in the Eternal nothing passes away, but that the whole is present…”

This is significant because it means that our experience of time is not all there is to it. ‘In the Eternal nothing passes away’: our future and our past exist with just as much reality as the present. Here, Augustine describes the Wisdom of God as eternal. If Augustine is right, then it follows that the passage of time is a feature of our perception. There is something about being human (or being creatures) which means that we see time very differently to the way God does.

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The calculations of Bishop Ussher that the world was created in 4,004 BC have not helped theology’s reputation for collaboration or harmony with scientific investigation. I think that theology has something more useful to contribute to the understanding of time and our ancient past. This way of thinking about time might be helpful for thinking about our relationship to our ancestors. The enormous span of time between us and ‘deep’ or geological time can create a sense of separation and unreality which is not theologically warranted. That we are now only able to recover tiny fragments of a tiny number of lives should not lead us into thinking that those lives were sparse or those who lived them any less a complex, unique or valuable individual than you or me.

As you read this, the now of our ancestors is as inaccessible to you as my now. But my now is quite real, to me and to God; and so are the nows of our ancestors. The bones that we excavate are not, in this sense, lifeless. ‘Lucy’ is being born. A group of hominins are walking south along the River Thames, leaving footprints in the silt. Ochre is being smeared on the walls of a cave.

Finally, it is worth considering that much of the Christian tradition also holds that we will not always experience time the way that we currently do: ‘I have been divided amid times, the order of which I know not… until I flow together unto You’[Confessions, XI, c. 29). Based on this, I want to suggest that there is another question that the theologian interested in deep time should be asking. At some point, Augustine thinks we will be getting off the train. Who else will be disembarking?