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Special Relativity, Time, and Eternity

The most prominent issue that theologians have addressed regarding special relativity is that of God's relation to time, or what is usually called the question of time and eternity. Is God totally separate from the flow of time, the divine eternity a timeless universal present, or is God both eternal and yet intimately involved in the world and, in specific, in our experience of the passage of time? This is a particularly important theological concern today because many contemporary scholars emphasize the idea that God experiences the events in the world as they actually happen to us, and responds in time to our prayers and hopes. Granted that we may, if we chose, still affirm the divine eternity to be either beyond time, as in classical theology, or at least beyond the flowing character of time, in which past and future are inaccessible as in our ordinary experience of time. But can God as eternal also experience and respond to our lives in time’s flow?

This issue is particularly important in view of the enormous suffering of people this century, tragically underscored by the Holocaust and other human atrocities, and of the environment, marred by the ravages of human sinful behavior. Theologians are increasingly arguing that the suffering of humanity and the environment is taken up into the divine life and experience, and that only thereby can it be transformed and redeemed. The suffering of God with the world, as compared with a more traditional notion of God’s being unaffected by the world, is thus a key theme in contemporary theology, especially among contemporary Trinitarian theologians.

Some theologies, notably process theology, go even further and argue that both divine and creaturely reality is essentially temporal, that we live in a world of becoming in which constant and enduring things are a construct of what is actually a series of pointlike, momentary and fleeting events. For these theologies, the reality of time for the divine life is fundamental. Thus both the notion of God’s temporal experience of and interaction with the world and of our ordinary human experience of flowing time are basic to many theological approaches today.This is particularly true for process theology and for contemporary work on the doctrine of the Trinity. For the former, see John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin, Proceses Theology: an Introductory...

The question is whether these views of time are compatible with physics and cosmology. Special relativity is often the key focus of this question, and the answer is surprisingly mixed. The block universe interpretation seems highly compatible with the classical view of eternity as the absence of change, the simultaneous presence to God of all moments and events in the history of the universe, but is the antithesis of the theologies which insist on the temporality of both human and divine life.

On the other hand, the flowing time view of the world is nicely compatible with the belief that God as eternal nevertheless experiences the world in time, hears prayer and acts in the world in the present moment. But does it so emphasize the fleeting character of time, the ‘goneness’ of the past and the ‘maybeneverness’ of the future, that the Lordship of God over all times, and the everlasting faithfulness of God’s promises to redeem the world, are undercut? And which interpretation of special relativity is more plausible to scientists and other scholars? This has been the subject of intense scholarship over the past decades,See for example C. J. Isham and J. C. Polkinghorne, "The Debate over the Block Universe," in Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature, Russell, R. J., et. al., op. cit. and interestingly, it remains one of the key questions at the frontiers of the philosophy of physics.What about other fields in physics and cosmology: do they favor a flowing view of time? Cosmology would seem to favor the flowing view over the block universe, since we regularly talk about an expanding...

I believe the challenge is to incorporate insights from both sides here into a richer synthesis.Related to these questions is the limitation on causality in spacetime; it suggests that if God acts at distant, spacelike events in the world, it must be through a timeless eternity. Surely God's eternity is the source of the time we experience, and thus God is capable of experiencing the world in its flowing present. Yet God's eternity eternally transcends its relations to creation and thus to flowing time, and offers a depth of time which unifies and completes all that remains broken and unfinished in our lives. Perhaps the ambiguous status of time in special relativity - block universe vs. flowing time - is a reflection, however poorly, of what in the divine eternity as the source of time is an inward differentiation and complexity of God's temporality, where alpha and omega merge together in the single divine presence.

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Special Relativity, Time, and Eternity

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Physics and Cosmology in the 20th Century
Special Relativity
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Thermodynamics, Chaos, and Complexity
Relating Science and Theology
The Theology of Creation
Big Bang Cosmology and Creation Theology
The Anthropic Principle and Creation Theology
The Theology of Providence
God’s Providence and Quantum Mechanics
Evil and the Problem of Suffering in Nature
Science and the Spiritual Quest


Dr. Robert J. Russell


See also:

Physics and Cosmology
The Relation of Science & Religion
Does God Act?
Was the Universe Designed?
Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
Steven Weinberg and John Polkinghorne Debate on Design
Sir Isaac Newton
Albert Einstein
Niels Bohr
Werner Heisenberg
Galaxies and Nebulae
Books on Physics and Theology