Both Omnipresent and Omniabsent

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 16

Another discussion in the Monologion meriting some consideration in light of the question of divine possibility is Anselm’s understanding of time’s relation to God’s eternity. A concern I’ve had with Boethius and Peter Damian is their tendency in places to represent God’s relationship to time in terms of a divine surveillance-at-a-distance, as though all of created history were extended before God such that every moment in time was never really past (Damian) or future (Boethius) for God, but always and only “present” to him in his eternity. I would characterize this view as broadly “possibilist” in its treatment of every moment of time as an abstract possibility whose content was for all times observable (Boethius) and even alterable (Damian, as conventionally interpreted) by God. Fortunately, there are significant and ultimately decisive elements in Boethius and Damian’s thought that push toward an understanding of God as more than the mere observer or even implementer of allegedly available, temporal possibilities, but as the designer and providential executor of those possibilities.

As with his doctrine of the divine utterance, what we find in Anselm’s treatment of divine eternity, I submit, are these earlier tensions and ambivalences once again finding themselves dialectically overcome and resolved within a more homogenous understanding of time’s relationship to and presence before God. From his starting principle that God alone exists through himself and all things else exist through him, Anselm plausibly concludes in chapter 14 that

Where he does not exist, nothing exists. Therefore, he exists everywhere, both through all things and in all things. Now no created thing can in any way pass beyond the immensity of the Creator and Sustainer, but it would be absurd to claim that in the same way the Creator and Sustainer cannot in any way go beyond the totality of the things he made. It is therefore clear that he undergirds and transcends, that he encompasses and penetrates all other things.[1]

From God’s necessary metaphysical presence to all things and places, Anselm goes on to infer his equally necessary immanence within all times. As the source of existence, God must exist at every time and place for which there is existence.[2] On the other hand, Anselm acknowledges an equally valid sense in which God, because he can exist at no time and place either in whole or in part, and because God in his eternity has no past, present, or future, cannot therefore exist at any time or any place.[3] God, in short, is both “omnipresent and omniabsent at once.”[4] “How, then,” Anselm asks, “will these two conclusions, which are presented as so contrary but proved as so necessary, be reconciled?”[5] His answer is that, although God is indeed wholly present at a given time and place, this does not prevent him from being equally present at any other time and place. Anselm recognizes that when we speak of God “existing in a place or a time,” we are speaking analogously:

even though the very same expression is used both of him and of localized or temporal natures because of our customary way of speaking, there is a different meaning because of the dissimilarity of the things themselves. When it comes to localized or temporal natures, this one expression signifies two things: that they are present at the times and places in which they are said to exist, and that they are contained by those times and places. But in the case of the supreme essence, only one of these meanings applies, namely, that he is present, not that he is contained by them.

Because of this ambiguity in language, Anselm says his preference would be to say that God

exists with a time or place rather than in a time or place. For saying that something exists in another thing implies more strongly that it is contained than does saying that it exists with that thing. And so he is properly said to exist in no place or time, since he is in no way contained by any other thing. And yet he can be said in his own way to exist in every place or time, since whatever else exists is sustained by his presence so that it does not fall into nothingness.


[1] Monologion ch. 14.

[2] Monologion ch. 20.

[3] Monologion ch. 21.

[4] Leftow, “Anselm: Eternity and Dimensionality,” 185.

[5] Monologion ch. 22.

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One thought on “Both Omnipresent and Omniabsent

  1. Pingback: Eternity as Time’s Possibility | The Flame Imperishable

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