Relational Understanding of Time

If, during the course of this study, the search for relationality has moved more and more to the center, this should not imply that there has never been a relational understanding of time in the history of theology. In Space, Time and Incarnation, Thomas F. Torrance has indicated that both relational and static models have figured in the world of theological concepts. He looks at parts of the history of theology from the point of view of these two competing concepts of space and time: the so-called container model, which goes back to Aristotle, and the more Platonic, relational model.9 Torrance himself prefers the relational model. While patristic and Reformed10 theology proceeded from a relational concept of space, Lutheran theology received the container model, allied itself with the Newtonian understanding of space, time, and God, and thus burdened all of modern Protestant theology with numerous problems that led, above all, to deism and the dualism of space—matter, God—World, and spirit—nature. According to Torrance, this development resulted in objectivist, rigid, and closed theological frameworks.11

Following the definitive collapse of the container model in the wake of the theories of relativity, Torrance sees the alternative in the conceptual integration of ontological and dynamic starting points. On the one hand, as the transcendent Creator, God does not have a spatial or temporal relationship to the world. On the other hand, because the creation has a relationship as object to God, who is its preserver, God cannot be imagined without space and time as the relation continuum. Space and time are the medium of the presence and the action of God.12 For this reason, God does not dissolve into space and time, but rather space and time, as created forms of rationality, are to be strictly distinguished from the eternal rationality of God.13 Here, Torrance allies himself with the Barthian tradition, but he also recognizes the difficulty of this model, namely, that God ultimately remains completely incomprehensible. In other words, ultimately the distinction within simultaneous relatedness does not overcome dualism. By presupposing an asymmetry of relation, he attempts to avoid dualism as well as the absorption of God by space and time: "... we must think of God's relation to the world in terms of an infinite differential, but we must think of the world's relation to God in terms of a created necessity in which its contingence is not negated."14

According to Torrance, this notion of the relationality of God allows for a concept of God as being free of all necessity, without God thereby being rendered inaccessible to all knowledge. God is not limited by space and time, but space and time are certainly a reality in God's relationship to the world; the relationship of the world to God, however, is always bound to space and time.

Is Torrance successful with this model of relatedness and simultaneous differentiation? It remains doubtful, particularly when Torrance reverts back to the concepts of horizontal and vertical and speaks of the penetration of the horizontal space-time dimensions by the vertical spiritual dimension.15 Torrance remains too closely tied to Barthian thinking to be able to develop a more radical relational approach at this point. He outlines three ways of understanding the Incarnation, which should do justice to both the divine and human frames of reference and simultaneously coordinate them without mixing them: 1) the Patristic line, as expressed in the creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon; 2) the analogy of topological language used by physicists in order to express difficult elastic connections between geometric and dynamic aspects and between mechanical aspects and those describing an organism; and 3) the possibility offered by Goedel's Theorem to comprehend the openness or incompleteness of a formal system as the constitutive nature of things. That, according to the latter, every formal system is open at the top and closed at the bottom, means, for theology, the openness of human thought towards God (upwards) and the coordination of theological thought with ordinary thinking and empirical knowledge at the base (downwards).16 These attempts at harmonization are considerable, even though they remain tied to a dualistic, upward-downward thinking and a narrow exclusivity. For, according to Torrance, without the Incarnation, the conceptions of God and the world lose their meaning.17

I consider it to be problematic that, in Torrance, two images overlap, that is, a) the notion of two axes, namely, the horizontal space-time axis of the reality of creation, and the axis of the spirit or incarnation representing the eternal reality that comes from above and is vertical to it;18 and b) the notion of a coordinate system whose two axes express the divine and human, the eternal and temporal, the invisible and visible, and the spiritual and material relationships.19 While the supposedly Barthian-inspired model a accentuates the discontinuity and inequality of the two axes, model b more nearly expresses the correlation and equal reality of the two coordinates. The discontinuity model standing in the foreground appears to prevent Torrance from completely exhausting the potential of b. By using model b and a formulation by Torrance himself, however, one can add a fourth way of understanding to the three ways just mentioned, namely, one that describes the meshing of the vertical and horizontal dimensionality in the Incarnation. I am thus assuming that, as Torrance says, in transcendent relationship to God, Jesus Christ generates "His own distinctive and continuous 'space-time track.'"20 The only way to recognize God the Father is by following this space-time track.21 I believe that this space-time line can be mathematically illustrated using the coordinate model. For this, I use the complex numerical level. The horizontal axis gives the real numerical values, and the vertical axis, the imaginary. In this coordinate system, a given complex number z = a + bi corresponds to a given point with the coordinates (a,b).22 This number can be represented by the vector from the origin (0) up to the marked point (a,b). This vector z has as its absolute value \z\=^ja2+ b2; |z| is always a real, positive number. By using different calculation operations with imaginary numbers, it becomes clear how real and imaginary parts interact, complete each other, and, as a total entity, represent a highly real meaning. Understood as a vector in the plane of complex numbers, the conception of an incarnational space-time line that has a transcendent relationship to God thus results in real, conceivable meaning. This model could be added to Torrance's three. It would have the advantage of overcoming the dualism of top-bottom. It would not first speak of relation and then—like Torrance—again move discontinuity into the foreground; it would instead actually make relation the focal point.

This model would therefore do justice to the thought of differentness and simultaneous relation: Imaginary23 and real axes are just as clearly different as imaginary parts and real parts of a complex number, but, jointly, they nevertheless form a real unit (in the form of a vector). This model would furthermore have the advantage of being able to express dynamism, because one can compute with complex numbers in a way that generates real numbers and causes complex numbers to look like real (if b = 0) or imaginary (a = 0) ones. Complexity occurs, so to speak, "in, with, and under" real and imaginary elements. The complex plane allows the presentation of all combinations of complex, imaginary, and real numbers on a single relational level (imaginary numbers lie on the vertical axis, and real ones on the horizontal). It seems to me that this model is thereby able to overcome the narrow christological exclusivity that one finds in Torrance. The numbers that are "only" real do not fall outside of the system, that is, an un demanding of God and the world that does not take the incarnational space-time line into consideration need not necessarily be declared meaningless from the outset, as happens in Torrance's view. The elements that are only real remain a part of the complex plane; they just have different distances from the incarnational vector.

Overall, as a model for understanding the spatial-temporal Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the complex plane therefore means three things. It permits the depiction of relationality within preserved alterity, it expresses dynamism, and it enables an inclusive interpretation of the Incarnation.24 In this regard, it fulfills the requirements that, according to the findings of the previous chapters, must be placed on an adequate understanding of time.

At this point, the relationship of relativity and relationality should also be defined more precisely. There is a correlation between the two that must be differentiated in more detail. The statement that something is relative always implies relativity in relation to something else. The absoluteness of that "something else" is not presupposed; it can itself be relative. According to this, relativity always presupposes some type of relation and therefore carries its own relationality. When the absolute, which is conceivable without relation, was called into question, the possibility of a new paradigm opened up. Out of the deficiency of the loss of the absolute was born the virtue of relationality. The classical priority of substance over relation gave way to a new paradigm, which is more concerned with relationships and correlations than with nature and essence as such. In other words, relationships become more important than differences, without the existence of differences or the necessity of differentiation thereby being called into question. Both—differences and relationships—should be kept in focus. While traditionally definitions—and thus differentiations—of substance were the hallmark of scientific activity, it is now time to make relationality a priority. This in no way means a reduction in rationality. It instead means an increase, since the recognition that even rationality exists only in relatedness, only as conditional and not absolute rationality, enhances the claims on scientific precision and honesty.

The shift in emphasis from substance to relation therefore does not represent a simplification, but, rather, a complication and increase of these requirements. Whereas substance-thinking proceeds from a clear subject-object distinction, relationality attempts to describe processes and dynamic interactions. Out of the supposed unproblematic spectator or observer in substance metaphysics, there evolves, within the framework of relational thought, the actor or—to stay with the metaphor that has repeatedly imposed itself upon us since the first chapter—the dancer. Furthermore, causality and openness, determinism and history, and necessity and possibility are contrasted. While substance-thinking, as orientation toward that which exists, is more oriented toward the past, relational thinking, as orientation toward that which is possible, is more strongly oriented toward the future.

The trend away from a static reductionism and toward a relational dynamism was already visible in modern science; it can likewise be observed in theology.25 When the shortcomings of an absolute, theistic, static concept of God become obvious,26 a renewed search must be made for dynamism and relations in the concept of God. Thus, the renaissance of Trinitarian theology in particular elucidates the paradigm shift "from natures to persons, from substance metaphysics to a metaphysics of relations."27 This Trinitarian reflection claims structural significance for all of theology, not only for a certain specified area. I therefore consider it important to reexamine more recent Trinitarian concepts—now against the backdrop of what was elaborated in chapter 3—for their usefulness for a theology of time.

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