Chapter 4 – The Mind Works on Infinity
WE have arrived at the notion of God as Infinite Existence. But unless the mind fixes itself upon these words with the determination to find some meaning in them, they will remain no more than words, and of no more value for our knowledge of God than the mental picture we are trying to outgrow. Obviously, there are a dozen ways of approach, but as convenient a way as any is by the consideration of a question often posed by unbelievers: "Where was God before the universe was created?"
The word WHERE raises the question of SPACE and brings us to some first consideration of God's Immensity: the word BEFORE raises the question of TIME and brings us to some elementary consideration of God's Eternity. The word INFINITY means THE ABSENCE OF ALL LIMITATIONS, NOT ONLY EXTERNAL BUT INTERNAL AS WELL. At first sight, this may seem needlessly subtilizing and even meaningless. Actually, it is quite vital to our knowledge of infinity. When we say that a being is infinite, we mean not only that there is no limit to what it can do, but no divisions within itself, no parts. An infinite being MUST be spirit.
How limiting this is to my being should be obvious enough: among other things, it means that parts can be broken off me - fingers and such. I cannot perform any particular action without a preliminary bringing together of the various parts of me that particular action requires. Further, this dispersal of my power means that I cannot do all the things I am capable of doing at any one time.
To have one's being in parts is an immense limitation, and under this limitation the whole material universe lies. Because material things are made up of parts, they are capable of occupying space. Division into parts means that one element in a being is not another element and neither element is the whole being. This fact makes it possible for a material being to occupy space: for it is of the very essence of occupying space that there should be elements that are not each other.
Unless a being is composed of elements that are not each other, it cannot occupy space.
We must not let imagination deceive us about the vastness of SPACE. Let our universe be never so vast, it occupies space only because it has the prior limitation of having it's being broken up into parts. The occupation of space is a limitation, because it is grounded in a limitation.
GOD on the other hand IS infinite. Therefore, there are no parts within Him. He is wholly Himself in one inclusive act of being. Because He lacks the limitation of having parts, He is free from the consequent limitation of occupying space. Space cannot contain Him. He transcends space and the things of space, and indeed all created things. He lives His life in utter and absolute independence of them.
Heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him
(3 Kings 8:27)
God does not occupy space, yet we say rightly, that God is everywhere. Everywhere is clearly a word of space: everywhere is the space occupied by everything. To say that God is everywhere means to say that God is in everything! We have seen that God transcends all things, but He is IMMANENT, in some way abiding in all things too. But what does the word IN mean when applied to a being totally spaceless? How can a being who occupies no space at all yet manage to be in everything that does occupy space? Clearly the word IN, the word WHERE, both need closer examination when we speak of God as being everywhere, in everything. For all spaceless beings the word WHERE has one meaning; a spaceless being is WHERE IT OPERATES, IT IS IN THE THINGS WHICH RECEIVE THE EFFECTS OF ITS POWER.
God is at the central point of the being of everything whatsoever because He is infinite, and all other things are finite, so that He can totally dominate them all by His power. And the first act of His domination is to hold them in existence, to keep them from being nothing. He is everywhere, that is He is in all things, because the effect of His power is upon all things:
He transcends things by the power of His own nature, He is immanent in things only to meet their need. The question we began with - where was God before the universe existed - fades away into the inconsiderable question: what created thing was being held in existence by the power of God before there was any created thing?
We have seen that the first part of the question led us to consider space in relation to God, and thus to God's total transcendence of space, which we call His Immensity. Now let us look at the second part of the question: "BEFORE the universe was created." For just as the word WHERE raises the question of SPACE, the word BEFORE raises the question of TIME, and we must be as clear about God's transcendence of time as about His transcendence of space.
What then is time? Time is the duration of that which changes; time is the measurement of the changes of the universe. Where nothing changes, there is nothing for time to measure. Where nothing changes, time has no possible meaning. Time and the universe started together. God is infinite and therefore changeless. The universe He created is a changing universe. And because change belongs to it and not to God, time belongs to it and not to God. To repeat, time and the universe started together: TIME IS THE TICKING OF THE UNIVERSE.
The phrase " before the universe was created " has no meaning at all. Before is a word of time, and there could be no time before the universe because time began with the universe.
CHANGE means that the being which is subject to it is never at any moment the whole of itself: it possesses its being successively. You, for instance, are never at any moment the whole of yourself. What you were last year, what you will be next year, all belongs to the totality called you. But last year has gone, and next year has not arrived. It is obviously an overwhelming limitation that one never wholly possesses one's self, that one possesses one's being in successive moments and not simply in one act of being.
There is no such limitation in God. He possesses Himself wholly in one act of being. This is what we call His ETERNITY. Infinity means not only the absence of external limits, but of internal divisions as well. Just as space has parts lying alongside one another, time has parts following one another. Eternity is not time. The definition of eternity by Boethius is “the whole and perfect possession in one act of life without end.” or roughly as ALL AT ONCE. God's eternity means that He possesses the totality of what He is, not in successive acts as we do, but in one single act. Just as time is the duration of that which changes, eternity is the duration of that which simply IS, the duration of the Being who, in one infinite act of being which does not change and does not cease, is all that He is, and does all that He does.
We may help to clarify our notions of eternity and time by considering what the word NOW means as applied to each. Our now, the now of time, is the FLOWING now. At every use of the word NOW, it applies to a different instant. In other words, time's present is a very fleeting present indeed: God's present abides. He lives in the eternal now. We must not think of God creating the universe after a certain amount of eternity had rolled by, because there are no parts in eternity, and it does not roll by.
How then are we to conceive creation, if we are not allowed to think of time stretching back to its beginning and eternity stretching back before that? We must try to conceive it in some such terms as this: God who possesses the whole of His Being in one single act of infinite existence wills that a universe should be which possesses its being in successive acts, bit by bit. Eternity belongs to the one, time to the other. God's creative act, like all His acts, is in eternity, because God is in eternity. The result of His creative act is in time.
God is alive, and life is activity; and God is infinite so that His activity is infinite, too. Thus, we are in the presence of two truths about God, that He is infinitely IN ACTION and utterly IMMUTABLE; both truths are certain, yet it is immeasurably difficult for minds like ours to see how they can be reconciled. In all our experience of activity, change seems to be of activity's very essence.
God is not simply something, but Someone. He is personal, that is He knows and loves. Therefore, we can see that His activity will be personal activity, His life will be a life of knowing and loving, knowing infinitely, loving infinitely. In our thought of God's activity, we very naturally tend to think first of His actions in relation to the universe and so to us, but we do not belong essentially to God's life and activity at all - it is of OUR essence that He should act upon us, but not of His. We must study Who and What that God is Who thus deals with us. Otherwise we shall fall short not only in our understanding of God, but as a consequence in our understanding of His dealings with us. One result not infrequently observed of this concentration upon God's Providence and neglect of God is a tendency to figure God's activities as one's own action, to assume that He acts as one would act oneself, to read His purposes as one would read one's own.
Let us concentrate upon God's own life, so far as we can come to any knowledge of it. It is a life of knowing infinitely and loving infinitely. The innermost secrets of the personal life of God remain to be considered in the light of the revelation given to us by Christ Our Lord. Here we shall consider them only in relation to our present problem, which is to see how infinite activity can be one thing in God with utter changelessness. At this first level we can see that the combination of these two truths means that God KNOWS infinitely and LOVES infinitely, and that these two infinite activities imply no faintest shadow of change within Himself. But His knowing and His loving are in their very being the perfect expression of His own infinite perfection. By the mere fact of being, they cannot grow because God is perfect; they cannot diminish because God is perfect. Infinite knowledge and infinite life are INFINITE activities, and change can find no point of entry. How the changeless Being lives His own changeless life is one thing: how the changeless Being handles the affairs of this changing universe is another.
Not till we have the face to face vision of God in the next life shall we be able to see the two as totally one, so that we shall see the immutability as identical with the infinite activity. We know that it is the complete negation of limits, but we cannot conceive the Infinite as it IS. We can develop an awareness of the elements of limitation in our own being and our own action, and try to conceive what the absence of these limitations must mean in God. We have spoken of God's KNOWING. Now all we know about knowing, we derive from our own knowing.
Positively, we discover that we know a thing when what it is present to our mind. Knowing will not be less than that in God: the mode of it may be beyond our conception: the majesty of it may be beyond our conception: but the essential of it we have hold of; all things are present to the mind of God as what they are.
Now for some of the limitations of our knowing. I do not pretend to list them all.
In the first place, we know so little; there are such vast masses of things that we do not know;
A second limitation is that in our efforts to acquire knowledge we have to proceed one step at a time, we cannot know about anything by the mere act of looking at it;
Even of the things that we do know, we cannot hold more than two or three in our mind at once - attention to one set of things means that we cannot be attending to another set of things at the same time.
These three are limitations in our knowing that no one can possibly fail to hit upon at once. There is no great difficulty in realizing that God's knowledge will be free from them - there is nothing He does not know, He does not have to acquire knowledge, He knows all that He knows in one act of knowing, the same light bathes them all. But there are certain other limitations in our knowing less obvious than these, which one who comes new to such thinking might not discover as limitations.
Two of these will lead to very considerable advance in the knowledge of God. The first of these not- immediately-obvious limitations is that our knowledge is dependent upon the object known. Our knowledge of an orange, for instance, depends upon our having an orange to study. Our knowledge demands a real submission of our intellect to the evidence of the thing. We are so accustomed to knowing things this way, that it does not even strike us as limitation. But to be dependent is always a limitation. God's knowledge, being infinite, knows things, not as we do by looking at them, but by contemplating Himself. Knowing Himself He knows what being He gave them. He does not need to look at them.
The second is less obvious still and very much harder to grasp, but leads us to a most profound truth about the nature of God. It is a fundamental limitation in our knowing that our act of knowing is distinct from our self. My knowing is something that I do, but it is not I. If my knowledge were the same thing as I, I should not have to make the distinct effort of setting about knowing: I should be engaged in the act of knowing, and of knowing all that I know, all the time; nor should I ever forget anything if my knowing were myself. God's knowing is not distinct from Himself. God and His knowledge are one. God is His knowledge. God's knowledge is God.
There is no distinction between God's attributes and God, and therefore no difference between one of God's attributes and another. God's justice is God Himself and God's mercy is God Himself. Infinite justice and infinite mercy are not two opposing tendencies in God: they are one same God. Let us make one further effort towards the realization of this. All perfections are in God, yet not distinct from one another because not distinct from God Himself. But our minds cannot handle all concepts in one concept. We must see them as distinct in order to see them at all. The mercy of God is an infinite reality. The justice of God is an infinite reality. In the Being of God they are the same reality: but if we try to begin our thinking by seeing them as the same reality, we shall simply not see them at all. Here as suggested earlier, is the opportunity for the right approach to the polar elements in any mystery: accept them both at white heat, and in some utterly unsayable way they will tend to fuse into one. With God's attributes, as we in the mind, live with them, our sense of their distinction from one another will grow less, and there will form in our mind some faint suggestion of their oneness with God. We have all sorts of attributes, and they are not we. But there is no real distinction between what God has and what God is. God is what he has.
But whatever light may be about to grow in us as we grow in the knowledge of God, we begin by stripping away limitations. We may know that we are not taking anything away from God, because to subtract limitations is to add reality. Reality as we are accustomed to it, with all its limitations, has a kind of thickness compared with the thinness of infinite spirit. It is true that what I have called thickness results from the element of nothingness, and that all the realities that we know as mingled-with-nothingness because they are created, are to be found in utter purity in the Creator. But it is hard to realize that this purity increases their intensity. Fortunately man's seeking for God is not the whole story. God has also sought man, a seeking with a long history that culminated when God became man and dwelt among us. Nothing could be less remote than Jesus Christ.