The Monk’s Time Machine

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A discussion of Anselm's conception of time and its relation to time travel

As a product of the Enlightenment, most science fiction is undergirded by a distinctly post-renaissance philosophy, which leaves a wealth of ancient and medieval philosophy untapped. Not since C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy has the world received a distinctly science fiction tale rooted in a medieval worldview. However, there was a great deal less hard science in the medieval era, which is the foundation of contemporary science fiction. Perhaps the best one could do is science fantasy if one were to follow Lewis’s example, though there are more theoretical branches of science which lend themselves to certain stories that may be called science fiction. Michael Crighton, Ray Bradbury, and Connie Willis all delve into chaos theory with their works: Crighton to write a story about science’s limits, Bradbury and Willis to craft a time-travel story.

Given this, is it possible to craft a science fiction story based on medieval philosophy? Perhaps a better question is what would such a story look like? For the purposes of this study, let us narrow this question further to a specific kind of story and a specific medieval philosopher. Taking a que from Bradbury and Willis, our chosen subgenre shall be time travel.

There are a wealth of medieval philosophers to choose from, most of whom claim to say the same thing, regardless of how different their actual works appear. Originality was not lauded in those days. However, the philosopher who most fits a storyteller’s needs is St. Anselm of Canterbury, who crafted most of his major work like a theological secondary world. He sets up this world in his Monologion, beginning with a method for “contemplating the Divine Essence,” and each subsequent work builds on that foundation. Thus, Anselm’s theology has the same level of narrative consistency as a fictional story. As a medieval philosopher, Anselm held to the common, theocentric worldview that the Judeo-Christian God was the omnipotent, creator omnium, and arbiter of all reality. Further, he held that God was alive and self-existent (a se), which led to his conclusion that He was also simple (lacking parts), and eternal.

There is strong disagreement about Anselm’s particular conception of time, which falls roughly into two camps: those who claim Anselm held an inherently tenseless model of time (hereafter termed four-dimensionalists), and those who claim he held an inherently tensed model of time (hereafter termed presentists). Each party claims their position is the most consistent with Anselm’s theology and with orthodox theology as a whole.

However, Anselm scholar Lesley-Anne Dyer points out that any discussion of Anselm’s view of time ought to begin with a thorough understanding of what God’s eternity meant for Anselm. Anselm does not have a treatise of time proper, and addresses it only in his discussions of God’s eternity, which he believed to be an essential attribute. In his sequel to the Monologion, he streamline’s his foundational assumptions about God’s ontology into the claim that God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” From this, God’s self-existence follows. Because He is a se, all creation is created from and through Him, and there is nothing which exists outside of Him which is not solely dependent on Him.

Therefore, abstract concepts, such as justice, truth, and even time, depend for their very definition on God. Anselm would say God holds these attributes, not through accident, but in His very being: essentially. To say God is just is the equivalent of saying He is justice. To say He is true is to say He is truth. The same goes for eternity. God must exist in every place and time, since every place and time depends on Him for its existence. However, since God cannot be split into separate pieces throughout time, all of time must, somehow, be contained within Himself. Anselm articulates this idea in his De Concordia: “Just as every place, and those things that are in any place, are contained in the present time, so too every time, and those things that are at any time, are enclosed all at once in the eternal present.”

Drawing on this analogy and the concept that eternity is an essential attribute, Catholic scholar Katherine Rogers claims Anselm effectively expands created reality into four dimensions, spatial being the third, temporal the fourth, and eternity a fifth, encompassing the rest. Time thus becomes a kind of geography through which beings and events of the created world move.

On a theological level, this preserves God’s omnipotence and omniscience, in contrast to the Presentist model her Open Theist counterparts put forward. In their model, the present is the only thing which truly exists; the future has yet to exist and the past no longer exists. If this is a true picture of reality, then God must continually be “dropping” the past, for nothing can cease to exist unless He departs from it. Neither can God know the future, for He is not present to it if it doesn’t yet exist. This results in a God powerless to hold His creation together and ignorant of its fate.

By contrast, Rogers’s model posits that each moment, from creation to the eschaton, is directly present to God. He, therefore, has created and knows everything that is, was or will be. Since His perception is the arbiter of reality, each moment exists on the same ontological level as any other, as though each were one of an infinite number of slides laid out on a table. This includes each moment of a creature’s being. Rogers actually draws on a time travel analogy to help explain this. In four-dimensionalism, Marty McFly exists as wholly and completely in 1985 as he does in 2015. Therefore, he could get in his DeLorean in 2015 and travel back to meet himself in 1985 without creating a paradox. Within eternity, both “versions” of him, as it were, exist in the same degree as McFly at different points along his personal time stream, just in the same temporal space.

While Rogers is writing this analogy in a world where time travel does not exist, her principle is the foundational assumption for those writing worlds wherein it does. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine assumes the future to be an unexplored temporal world that today’s time traveler can reach if only he had the right equipment. Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder runs on the assumption that dinosaurs still exist at some past temporal location to which big game hunters can travel for bigger and better thrills. Connie Willis’s Oxford Time Travel series is built on a world wherein historians constantly travel to previous time locations to learn about the past. The machine they use for this even works on a coordinate system.

However, Rogers’s model doesn’t quite cover the major difficulty most time travel stories run into: cause and effect. In Bradbury’s tale, a hunter steps on a butterfly, which leads to a series of effects that completely changes the future’s political landscape. In Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, a cat is accidentally brought into 2055 from 1888, triggering a series of causes and effects that involve one historian bouncing all over the time stream, another getting thrown into the Thames, and still another getting stuck in 1888 for several weeks. These stories must involve cause and effect because that is the human experience, and good stories are built on human experience.

In Rogers’s model, there cannot be a progression of cause and effect. The fact that man does not experience reality this way makes no difference in light of God’s perception. If something is logically proved compatible with what is true about God, we should believe it regardless of how strange it seems. If one looks at Anselm’s concept of analogy in the Monologion, he appears to be saying something similar. When trying to find any word that could properly describe the creator of all things, he assumes words in their “common” meanings cannot apply to the creator of words themselves. We often speak of something obliquely, as when we speak in riddles. This applies to our sight as well as our speech; a portrait is only an analogous image of the real person. Trying to understand what a real person is like through their portrait falls grievously short of understanding that person. By the same token, Anselm says “it is perfectly possible for our conclusions thus far about the supreme nature to be true and yet for that nature himself nevertheless to remain ineffable … For all the words that seem applicable to that nature do not show him to me through his distinctive character so much as they hint at him through some likeness.” All the attempts he has made to describe God have only served to paint a vague portrait that is much less than, that is in fact vastly different from the being he is trying to understand through this verbal portrait.

Man, therefore, cannot hope to explain or fully understand God and his perspective. Rogers would agree. However, the model she defends with this agreement is built, not on Anselm, but on a creation model first put forward by St. Augustine. To accomplish the same goals of preserving God’s omnipotence and simplicity, Augustine posited that all history, from creation, to the crucifixion, to the end of the world, was created simultaneously at the moment of creation. Thus, the idea that it took six days to create the world is illusory. In fact, if we are to believe Rogers’s model of time, all human perceptions are illusory. On top of the theological problems this causes, it also wreaks havoc on any story built on such a model. Good stories move forward based on the feelings, perceptions, and decisions of the characters. If their perceptions of the world are illusory, all the resulting reactions and decisions have no significance. No moment has greater significance over another, so what is the point of stories, or anything at all?

Anticipating this difficulty, Rogers claims an underlying sameness between God’s existence and man’s. Because creation only truly exists in eternity, and because God’s eternity is all there is, man somehow shares in God’s aseity. Thus, their freewill and His omniscience are preserved; man chooses to have meatloaf for dinner, and because the moment of decision is as equally present to God as those leading up to it, the moment of decision causes God’s foreknowledge of it eternally.

Though Rogers claims “this aspect of self causation or aseity is what Anselm holds to be crucial to freedom,” it could be argued that this concept is neither Anselmian nor Christian, and actually destroys God’s omnipotence rather that preserves it. In the words of Dr. Jonathan McIntosh, “Instead of a given moment of time being a created consequence of what God has already done, it is set free to operate as a prior (and posterior) uncreated condition of what God can do, meaning time does more to make God’s creative activity possible than it is something made possible by it.”

Anselm himself seems to contradict these statements in his comparison of man’s existence versus God’s existence. God is a se and creator omnium. In comparison, “all other things exist changeably in some respect. What they were no longer exists, and what they will be does not yet exist, and what they are in the fleeting, utterly brief, barely existing present barely exists.” Anselm translators Visser and Williams point out that such passages mark a clear distinction between past and future within created time, so much so that the past and future don’t exist. Creation’s contingent existence in the fleeting present is exactly what sets us apart from God’s illimitable existence. Anselm specifically states that God’s eternity cannot vanish with the past, which no longer exists, nor are there parts of eternity yet to come with the future, which does not yet exist.

This sounds distinctly like the presentist model Rogers speaks against. Indeed, several scholars have attempted to put forward a tensed interpretation of time. However, few address the above issues Rogers’s claim runs into.

Stump and Kretzman developed a parallel model based on relativity, but this only succeeded in splitting reality into God’s point of view as an eternal reference frame, and man’s point of view as a temporal reference frame, with no provision for the two existing simultaneously without cancelling eachother out. Man’s temporal reality thus became a time stream which was sempiternal with a watchmaker God who cannot participate in creation’s existence or subsistence.

Brian Leftow takes issue with both Stump and Kretzman and Rogers, going so far as to question her interpretation of Anselm. One such issue is with one of Rogers’s proof texts for her model, a passage from Anselm’s De Concordia: “now although in eternity there is only a present, it is not a temporal present like ours, but an eternal present that encompasses all times. Just as every place, and those things that are in any place, are contained in the present time, so too every time, and those things that are at any time are enclosed all at once in the eternal present.” Leftow points out that unless the universe is only an instant thick, it cannot be true that the present literally contains all places. There are places yet to exist which would not be contained in the present, no matter where one decided to put it. To say, as Rogers does, that Anselm means the present contains all places at that present time would weaken his analogy considerably, since he is attempting to explain how God’s eternity holds all times and places ever. If he held a presentist view, that analogy would work.

However, Leftow’s tensed model does not look too different from Rogers’s tenseless one. He takes Anselm’s dimensional view of time, claiming time’s dimension is co-present with God’s eternity. As two points may share the same time coordinate but different coordinates on the spatial plane, so a moment’s time coordinate can intersect the eternal plane at the same point as another moment’s without the two moments being temporally simultaneous. This allows God to be “simultaneously present at discrete, non-simultaneous times, without wiping out their temporal distinction.”

De Concordia seems to support this. Anselm takes it as a foregone conclusion that “a thing exists differently in time from how it exists in eternity, so that it is sometimes true that something does not exist in time that does exist in eternity, and that its existence is past in time but not past in eternity or future in time but not future in eternity.” Anselm seems to be setting up a picture of two separate times, that belonging to eternity and that belonging to creation, though those things in time also exist in creation changelessly such that “God eternally is directly aware of temporal events precisely as temporal.”

To help flesh this out, one can take the example of the truth value of future contingents. Bilbo Baggins’s existence is contingent on Tolkien creating him in 1937. Thus, he did not exist until 1937; statements like “Bilbo Baggins exists” were not true then. Within eternity, however, Bilbo Baggins exists as a creation of Tolkien, regardless of the temporal date. While this looks very similar to Stump and Kretzman’s model, Leftow deviates from them by insisting there is not one way to look at eternity. Spring-boarding off their interpretation of Boethius, he claims that God’s eternity could be viewed both in terms of duration and a point. There is precedent for this double interpretation in both Aquinas and Anselm. They speak of God’s eternity using both analogies, often in the same work, because they viewed God as both simple and alive.

Because he defines life as a sequence of events in a living being’s experience, he must reconcile that definition with God’s simplicity. Again, his solution is not dissimilar from Rogers’s model. An eternal being’s life may “involve earlier and later relations, and yet none of it ‘passes away’ or is ‘yet to come’… If this is so, then an eternal being could be one that somehow lives at once all moments of a life whose moments are ordered as earlier and later.” He calls this mode of existence Quasi-Temporal Eternality, meaning God’s eternity posses time-like qualities in terms of progression. Anselm himself seems to hint at this kind of existence when he speaks of the possibility that things can be logically posterior or anterior to one another without being temporally so.

To demonstrate how this would not theoretically demolish God’s unity and simplicity, Leftow gives the analogy of time atoms. An atom is an indivisible entity. However, we can conceivably imagine particular regions within an atom of space. Similarly, we can plausibly imagine specific moments within an atom of time while maintaining its indivisibility. Another good analogy is that of varying infinities. The digits between 1 and 1.1 make up and infinite set. In fact, the digits between 1 and 1.001 make up an infinite set. Between every decimal place exists an infinity of digits.

While this presents a solid model for a simple God that allows for progression, it is still incurably opaque. When boiled down, the final conclusion could be stated thus: “God somehow experiences progression all at once because He does.” This is no clearer than Rogers’s assertions. Neither does it reconcile our experience with reality. Leftow’s definition of alive can run us into a circular problem. We cannot understand or participate in God’s aseity, which is His life, because we would also be God. However, as created beings, God has given us life from Himself. The only mode of experiencing that life we know of is our own, so how that is how we define life, even when speaking of God’s life.

We must come back to Anselm’s concept of analogy to help sort this out; we exist so differently from God that our perceptions and explanations can only hint at His being. While Leftow had the right idea when he broke temporal creation and eternal existence into two planes, Dr. Jonathan McIntosh’s interpretation of Anselm provides the foundation for a more manageable model that addresses the problems with four-dimensionalism in a more coherent way.

While McIntosh doesn’t develop a specific model of time, he does privilege a tensed model in his actualistic interpretation of Anselm. “An actualist approach, after all would presumably tend to stress the respect in which each moment of time is tensedly ordered towards both the particular actualized past which alone has made it possible, and the future which it in turn helps make possible.” This approach stems from an interpretation of Anselm’s doctrine of creation, not based on Augustine as Rogers presupposes, but as a unique doctrine McIntosh calls the doctrine of Divine utterance.

With his typical care about semantics, Anselm deliberately avoids using the term “idea” in his discussion of creation. In chapter ten of Monologion, he describes creation as the “utterance of those things in his[God’s] reason, just as, when a craftsman is going to make some work of his art, he first says it within himself by the conception of his mind.” The craftsman thinks up the exemplar of what he is going to make, whether it exists already or does not yet exist. A craftsman can create from a model or brainstorm his own. However, Anselm makes the distinction between how a craftsman operates and how God would operate in such a scenario. The craftsman is very much in the position of the Timaean demiurge. Even if he tries to construct something completely new and fantastical, he is limited to only pre-existing matter and tools. God’s creation utterance, on the other hand, “was not collected from or assisted by some other source; rather, as the first and sole cause, it was sufficient for its Artisan to bring his work to completion.” He goes further to emphasize that all the things which were created through the Divine utterance “are nothing at all but what they are through his utterance.” Unlike Augustine’s Divine Ideas, which pre-exist creation as things themselves, though part of God, Anselm would claim that all created things were non-existent simpliciter before God thought of them and brought them into being. Further, this creation all comes from the same source, instead of various eternal exemplars.

To bring this high concept into bread-and-butter terms, one could liken this process to that of a storyteller, which is actually rather fitting for Anselm’s sub-creative theology. In creation, a storyteller like Shakespeare thinks up the plot, world, and characters of Hamlet before he writes the play, and then writes the whole thing. Similarly, God does cosmic brainstorming, devises not only the world but the whole story of time to Himself, then speaks it into existence. Anselm takes this idea further and claims that His utterance through which all things were made “also exists in him now that they have been made, in order that through it they may be known.” Hamlet still remained a part of Shakespeare after it was written and took on a life of its own, as it were. In the same way, we can say creation still exists in God and is sustained in God even after it has become a thing outside Himself.

We can take this storyteller model of creation into a model of time as well, for time can be seen like the plot of a novel. A plot is both the literary space in which every event in the story happens and that which is moved along by the characters’ decisions and responses. The fact that they are characters makes no difference to their agency within the story. While our time is a created span in which all things happen, it is shaped by those things and our decisions which create or follow from them. Just as the storyteller is entirely outside the plot and world of his novel while all his novel is still with him, God is entirely outside creation, yet holds all creation in His eternity. This model takes us beyond Leftow’s in its accessibility and gives us a more nuanced relationship between man’s agency and God’s omniscience than Rogers could.

Shakespeare had the eternal perspective, as it were, which Hamlet could not have unless he broke out of the confines of his fictional world. However, within his fictional world, he chose not to kill his father and at the same time Shakespeare ordained he not do so. Taking this back to reality, man’s perception and all he does to shape it is just as real as God’s perception because He has ordained it so. He has built this world and the rules on which it operates, and He commits himself to playing by those rules. Nevertheless, since temporality is the modal property of creatures, man cannot break out of temporal reality into God’s.

Admittedly, though this model fulfills all the requirements of maintaining both God’s omnipotence, aseity, and omniscience with man’s existence as a free agent, it has only clarified the strange tension between the two without fully explaining it. However, it is no stranger than the tenseless model, and if one is writing a time travel story, one should be prepared for strange.

Speaking of which, the purpose of this essay was to explore what kind of time travel stories would flow from an Anselmian model of time. Enough time has been spent on Anselm; let us return to time travel. Unfortunately, this final tenseless model falls short here. Traditional time travel stories are built on the assumption that man can break out of the temporal sphere, a place which it is neither proper nor possible for him to occupy within the storyteller model. Therefore, any attempts to create a time travel story in the traditional way would likely result in a Lovecraftian horror story rather than a time travel adventure.

However, time travel of a sort may still be possible on this model if the characters did not physically travel at all. In the storyteller model, while the past and future may not temporally exist, they still exist in some way in God’s eternity and in man’s imagination. Man remembers the past because he has lived through it when it was the present, and he may be able to predict what will come based on his present actions. With this in mind, one could craft a story wherein the time traveler’s consciousness travels back to when his memories were still the present.

There have been stories that operate on this model, though they are few and far between. J.R.R. Tolkien dabbled with the concept of ancestral memory in his unfinished novel The Notion Club Papers. Two Oxford dons, Alwin Lowdham and Michael George Ramer, travel back into the consciousnesses of their ancestors who lived during the Atlantean era through lucid dreaming. Another recent exploration of this method is Marvel’s X-men film, Days of Future Past. The story follows Wolverine’s consciousness which is transported back to his body in the seventies in order to stop a catastrophe. At that time, he retains all the memories of his older self along with the consciousness of his younger self. However, that story leans heavily on traditional time travel tropes: an example of the difficulty in using this system.

Even with this possibility, the storyteller model remains rife with limitations. Travel to the future is impossible, unless one were to take a leaf out of Doctor Who and view time as a wibbly-wobbly thing. But that would break the model. One possibly couldn’t even travel beyond one’s own lifespan, which doesn’t make for a particularly exciting milieu for the average-aged protagonist. Also, if, as Wolverine did, the time traveler changed the past when his consciousness was in his past self, how does one reconcile his memories of the now non-existent present? Does this make the past contingent? Since this model operates on the assumption that human memories have some sort of existence, does Wolverine’s memories make that past somehow still existent in eternity? This brings up the possibility of the creature creating a parallel universe, an entirely different branch of theoretical science outside the scope of this paper.

What is a storyteller to do, then? It is next to impossible to write a time travel story that doesn’t ultimately break down on the philosophical level, the story mechanic level, or both. However, the inherent flaws in the system may be turned to advantage. For example, a traditional time travel story wherein the protagonist meets his previous self could lead to a poignant story about what makes us individuals. A tensed time travel story could privilege those who have lived the longest as the best time travelers, not a common thing in contemporary literature. Even the Lovecraftian horror of breaking into a forbidden sphere in order to travel in time could be a cautionary tale. So, by all means, write your story, but be mindful of its philosophical underpinnings and be prepared address them.

About the Author

Rachel Strnad is a writer and freelance editor based out of southwest Florida, where the only two seasons are hot and very hot. After her professor explained Thomas Aquinas in class, she fell in love with medieval philosophy and began a lifelong exploration of ways to blend it with science fiction and fantasy. She holds an M.A. in theology and creative writing, and her work has appeared in the Canon Press Newsletter, The New Calliope, The Linking Ring, and Serpent and Dove’s most recent anthology, Silent Screams. If you’re in need of editing services, or if you just want another person to geek out with you about Star Wars and science fiction in general, e-mail Rachel at redwalrusediting@gmail.com.

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