Saturday 30 July 2011

Retrospective prayer - I get it!


In Charles Williams' novel Descent into Hell the climactic scene is when Pauline Anstruther offers herself (in what Williams refers to as 'exchange') to suffer - by 'substitution' of herself - the fear and pain of an ancestor who is being burned at the stake for (Protestant) heresy.

I always regarded this idea of prayer working backwards in time as at best incomprehensible and at worst insane (and leading to intractable confusions).

But yesterday I (at last) 'got it' - as an example of the difference between living in (human) time and living in (divine) eternity - out of time; that is, an example of argument of Boethius in Consolation of Philosophy.

It is illustrative that it has taken me considerably more than a year to make this link-up, more than a year since studying and thinking about this classic book.

So, it is clear that although I thought I understood the point made by Boethius (and explained elsewhere - e.g. by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity) - I didn't really understand it.

It is very important, because understanding this point clarifies why it is reasonable (i.e. in accordance with reason) to pray for the dead, to pray concerning things that have already happened - indeed to pray about anything and everything. What seems backwards in time or in reverse of causality to us; is not so for God.

(Of course (fortunately!) it is not necessary to understand these things in order to do them; nonetheless lack of understanding can be a stumbling block.)

I think I do understand it now - but I would still find it very difficult to explain both briefly and comprehensibly


From C.S Lewis: Mere Christianity:

Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow. But if He knows I am going to do so-and-so, how can I be free to do otherwise? 

Well, here once again, the difficulty comes from thinking that God is progressing along the Time-line like us: the only difference being that He can see ahead and we cannot. 

Well, if that were true, if God foresaw our acts, it would be very hard to understand how we could be free not to do them. 

But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call "tomorrow" is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call "today." All the days are "Now" for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday; He simply sees you doing them, because, though you have lost yesterday. He has not. 

He does not "foresee" you doing things tomorrow; He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. 

You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow's actions in just the same way-because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. 

In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already "Now" for Him."



Gerry T. Neal said...

Another thought of Lewis' that might be related to this is his concept of Christian miracles as God doing the same things He is always doing just in a much shorter timespan. An example he gave was of God turning water into wine through natural processes - the water is taken in by the roots of the vine, turned into juice in the grape, and then ferments. The event at Cana was considered miraculous because Jesus accomplished it instantaneously. Lewis pointed to Jesus' comment about His doing nothing but what He has seen the Father do and contrasted this with what the Devil tempted Jesus to do - turn the stones into bread, something which God does not normally do through natural processes. This was part of Lewis' argument that Christian miracles are more reasonable and believable than the kind that appear in many pagan mythologies.

This correlates to what you are talking about in that we ought to expect that when God hears and answers our prayers, His ordinary way of doing so will not be through a miracle but through processes which from our perspective in time He put in place long before we ever prayed.

The Crow said...

Once in my life, I reached a state where the notion of time ceased to have boundaries.
I was everywhere, always.
Along with time, "I" ceased to have boundaries, too.
All things, everywhere, always.
This is the egoless state of death.
No body, no mind, no identity, yet still existing.
Everlasting life?
One becomes what one always was: "One".
The mind's identity was all that stood in the way.

God doesn't "watch".
It simply "is".

Kristor said...

Congratulations! I struggled with this one for decades myself until I finally broke through just last October. The key that unlocked it was the realization that eternity is logically prior to time. Time is a derivate of eternity, and is happening all at once in eternity. So, God does not know what we do before we do it, because for Him there is no such thing as "before" we have done something.

When you think about it, there is no way that even a temporal being could experience a before of event x until x and its before were already actual and in its past. Until there is a completed x, there is no way to have a before of x.