Polk On Augustine And Time

In a 1991 article in Augustinian Studies, Danne W. Polk talks about Augustine, Husserl (and to a lesse extent Heidegger), phenomenology, theological anthropology, and the relationship between time and eternity. And because I have written posts and a paper or two about all of them, it seems only fair to write one more. Allow me to begin by summarizing Polk's paper. It is a phenomenological anthropology in which Polk puts the time-awarness of human beingness under the microscope. And, after examination, Polk contrasts it with the being of God so that the being of God is revealed as the ground of the becoming of everything else. Here is a rough outline (Heideggarian language added by me in square brackets): Human beings are time-trapped creatures [da-Sein]; God is not As bodied things, humans beings interact with the world from a particular point of view [Geworfenheit, thrownness]; God sees it all Human beings interact with all things as they arrive and disappear in the flow of time [held out into the nothing]; All things are present to God Attention, expectation, and memory For human beings, the present is not an objective point but a subjective synthesis; God's eternity is timeless A critique of Aristotle's objective and static model of time God's being supports beings; eternity is the spoke of time's wheel


Human Beings are time-trapped creatures; God is not

The way human being are in the world is tensed. We move. We have extension. There is a a before and an after, a future that flows into a past. Time is dramatic; time is storied. Our lives are stories, and we tell stories about our lives. Polk says that Aristotle described a cosmic or objective time existing outside us. But Augustine, and much later Edmund Husserl and other phenomenologists such as Heiddeger and Merleau-Ponty, did not understand time like that. They said time is intimate and basic to human experience. Time is subjective to us, an insight that Husserl attributed to Augustine's Confessiones.

Temporality (pro tempore)--what Augustine would call "subjective time" and what Husserl would call "immanent time"--is so close to us that any attempt at uncovering the essence of the human person, or in more modern terms, a description of human existence, must include an equal attempt at a personal or 'authentic' portrayal of the way time in fact appears to us. For Husserl, this amounts to a 'pure' description of how "external" or "transcendent" objects come to be constituted within the continual flow of experience. . . . [Later, Heidegger would say that the] human subject as it exists in time (or as time) is . . . the phenomenological question par excellance.

If Aristotle is right about time being objective, we cannot know. How could we know? We have no access to objectivity. But we know time because we are time. "This field of presence is not the presence of God, but rather, it is the presence of ourselves in the existential unfolding of our own experience" (66)

And why are humans so trapped in time? We are so because our bodies fix us in place. Our bodies locate us. We cannot know nor do we experience time as an objective whole, but only in our fixed locatedness. This qualifies all human knowing.

Things come and go

Time, then, cannot be understood objectively. We only understand it from our perspective. And the same goes for everything else. Things come into our awarness--they come in from the future--and they pass out again--they recede into the past. Objects take time to be. "Neither thoughts nor objects are able to stand still, at least not in the radical sense that it would take to understand the object as God understands it."

Objects (including human beings) are "measured" by birth and death. That is, nascency and finality are the limits or boundaries between which the process of becoming takes place. These limits, and what goes on between them, keep us from knowing the object (or person) as a whole. . . . And it is this existential situatedness which marks off the contrast between time and eternity. (67)

Attention, expectation, and memory

So, then, our perception of an object is achieved by a synthesis in the mind. "Consciousness is a 'bond' which holds the object with its elements of being and non-being together (Husserl's Zeiterlebnisse, internal time-consciousness). We give conscious attention to things (for Husserl, intentionality). We anticipate or expect them. And we hold their passing by us in memory until they are gone into nothingness. Trying to hold anything in stasis, in an unmoving now, is impossible. The now is too thin, too transitory. We synthesize to form a whole. "Memory is the power of synthetically preserving the meaning of an object as it takes its time to make an appearance" (75). Through anticipation and memory, the mind dilates. The sliver of the present is thickened to behold the world. Say a friend recites a psalm. "We do not receive all the words and silences at once, but rather we gather them together in our minds to make a meaningful and understandable unity which fills itself out in its passing, moving from anticipation into the present and then into the past." In the psalm, "each moment exists in relation to all the others." (71)[2] Attention is necessary for this. Without attention, there can be no unity of experience.[1] The whole appearance takes time. Things occur in the realm of becoming, not in a fixed point of time, no matter how slight.

God's Time / Human Time

Objectivity, such as Aristotle's present now, is unavailable to us. Aristotle presumed a now or a present moment as an objective point. Standing apart, high on a height, the world could be examined objectively. But, of course, there is no now from which Aristotle may stand objectively and judge the world. Such objectivity could only be achieved if we could stop time's flow. And that, for Augustine, would be to step into eternity, for only God sees things as they are. What seems to be present if we could stop the flow is eternity, stillness, sameness, it is the absolute ground of God. But for us, the flow of time continually pushes us off the center point of the exact now. (75)

Augustine said that eternity hides behind the flow of time. And when we raise the question of objectivity (or, rather, when we ask the question about the difference between objectivity and subjectivity), we stand at the rift between being and becoming. Augustine would say that we ask even how time and eternity are compatible, and with that, whether it is possible for God and creation to interact at all.[3]

Being and Becoming

Underneath this reflection on phenomenological, subjective time and experience versus Aristotle's objective time is the deep problem of how being and becoming might connect. Aristotle's objective now was upgraded by Augustine into God's timelessness, an eternity that for timely thing is like a distant star peeking out between rolling clouds. Nothing moves for God. Worlds stand still. Unchanging eternity supports and gives meaning to finitude and change. Eternity supports faith.[4] Consider this Lenten collect:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The thing is, Augustine's Neoplatonic metaphysics have been severely challenged in the twentieth century. There is a great suspicion that says the entire machinery of God's eternity is imported from Greek metaphysics, not the Bible. It is an ontology or onto-theology that has exposed Christian metaphysics to a host of dangers and defeats under the withering blows of Enlightenment ideas, under Spinoza's interrogation of substantia and Kant's critiques.[5] Many say its should be abandoned. A new metaphysics and a new doctrine of God should be built. I do not know. To run the other way seems to me to run into panentheism and process theology. Centuries of theological ground would be overturned. And God would not be eternal but, now, everlasting. God is not being but the most becoming of all becomings. God comes to resemble modernity; God becomes the wave that has us all.

Also to be considered is hamartiology. Augustine's teaching that sin (αμαρτια) is not being is, to my knowledge, the most useful understanding of sin that we have. [Augustine equates temporality with fallenness. "The experience of time indicates that the sould is 'distended,' fallen from the otium, the restful contemplation of eternal truth, into the busy negotium of temporal activity." (Robert O'Connel Art and the Christian Intelligence in Saint Augustine 72.] If being is eliminated as a category to Christian metaphysics, then this helpful explanation of how sin works with disorder is abandoned as well.

Therefore, I hardly know what to do. This is a major question that I have not yet solved. And, the thing is, I have done twenty years of work in an attempt to try and solve it. I'm afraid it is beyond me to understand the metaphysical philosophy necessary to choose wisely. So where does this leave things? I have only the incarnation. Augustine sought answers everywhere but in the narrative life of Jesus.


Danne W. Polk. "Temporal Impermanence and the Disparity of Time and Eternity" Augustinian Studies 22 (1991) 63-82.

See the pattern Opening a Closed Circle for God || Creation; Eternity || Time.

Works Cited

Augustine. Confessions
Ibid., De Musica
Edmund Husserl. The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness
Ibid., Phenomenological Psychology
Ibid., Ideas
Maurice Mereau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception
Heidegger. Being and Time


[1] Paying attention--allowing something to unfold itself under sustained contemplation--is learning to see things Coram Deo in the light of the resurrection. This is the theologian's calling a thing what it is. This is what the arts help us to do. Individually, we will never see a thing as it is [its absolute quiddity] with even a fully restored imago. But the community can together over time begin to take steps to reflect God's complete knowing. We are allowed, by grace, to name the cosmos. Human beings are Michelangelo, seeing the David inside the stone. / Here is where I can connect with the contemplative tradition, with the arts, with the ethics of being for others (Bonhoeffer or even Levinas), an ethics that gives others the attention/the respect to become what they are. Simone Weil's work on attention is worth noting. And the scientific method comes sheepishly to the table.

[2] Augustine is reminding me--such as how each and every moment in his psalm singing exists in relation to all the others--of Leibniz's Monadology. In his speculative metaphysics, the cosmos is made of innumerable points called monads. Each monad reflected from its position the entirety of the cosmos. Every monad forms an absolute relation with the others, yet each is its own individual thing. Each has its particular perspective. Each is its own center of the map of the whole. There is absolute individuality and absolute relation. Polk refers to the Confessions (XI, 18): "An essential difference between eternity and temporality is that eternity has no particular perspective while temporality is always situationally located." For more on Leibniz, see my introduction to his Discourse on Metaphysics.

[3] Augustine drew a line between everlasting being and finite non-being. God was on one side; creation on the other. Now quoting from Polk (69) "Being," he thought, "is what it is because of itself, and time at best is only an image of the eternal sameness of Being. This means that objects are not only inadequate because of the way they appear, but because they lack the quality of true existence, 'for what is forever changing is not, since it does not abide.' But objects in the world do abide for a time, they are given a quasi-existence in 'my' time, and it is in this sense that an object is 'not wholly without being; rather, it is not supremely existent.' In this way, earth and sky exist as objects for me. In a sense, they are intimations of objects, subtle and delicate announcements of stability, which even though inadequate, participate in the ontological categories of the good and the beautiful. [Elsewhere, Augustine refers to time as a trace (vestigium or copy (imitatio) of eternity.] Still, in reference to subjective time, the world and things exist, but this realm of becoming is basically and essentially a lack of immutable Being. Unlike the objects of creation, Being has perfect self-identity which, for Augustine, is none other than the absolute being of God. By this ultimate standard, temporal objects are equivalent to nothingness just as our knowledge in comparision to God is equivalent to ignorance." Later Polk says "Augustine does not hold that objects are ever 'really real,' becuase all things are created, except for God, therefore all things are in some way mutable. That is, all things lack Being. (City of God VIII, 6). "Objects do show themselves, but they do so in time where faculties such as memory and expectation must be employed in order to hold the object together." (78) This makes objectivity a problem. // C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce comes to mind. As does Einstein's universe, where everything is exactly this: moving and subject to constant entropy. God, however, calls order from dissolving chaos. This order needn't be thought of as unchanging Being. Perhaps it need only be good enough, and that is as much as any created thing may be. // I cannot help but quote another lengthy bit from Polk--and I quote this because I hear it echo in liturgy even though it is talking about Augustine's view that the flow of time reflects Being's influence in its going:

In his early work, De Musica, Augustine does portray time as an image of eternity, but he moves away from this view toward an exploration of a radical difference between time and eternity in Confessions: 'times are ordered and made and changed, imitating eternity as they do when the turn of the heavens comes back to the same state and the heavenly bodies to the same place, and in days and months and years and centuries and others revolutions of the stars obey the laws of equality, unity, and order. So terrestrial things are subject to celestial, and their time circuits join together in harmonious seccession for a poem of the universe. (VI, 11.29)

Note also how the entire machinery of Augustine's anthropology of anticipation and memory come together in the singing of a psalm (Confessions XI, 28): Suppose that I am going to recite a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my faculty of expectation is engaged by the whole of it. But once I have begun, as much of the psalm as I have removed from my province of expectation and relegated to the past now engages my memory, and the scope of the action which I am performing is divided between the two faculties of memory and expectation, the one looking back to the part which I have already recited, the other looking forward to the part which I have still to recite. But my faculty of attention is present all the while, and through it passes what was the future in the process of becoming the past. As the process continues, the province of memory is extended in proportion as that of expectation is reduced, until the whole of my expectation is absorbed. This happens when I have finished and it has all passed into the province of memory.

[4] Because temporality has its source in eternity, God's providence is making of flux his economy--the fortunes of our lives included. // It is good to remember that, like Plato, Augustine believed in the natural immortality of the soul. That belief is the (pagan) flaw in the Western mystical tradition. Because their anthropology is flawed and their exegesis is at best dated, how can they be guides for spiritual practice? For ethical practice, of course, but not for guiding the soul. Augustine wrongly taught an inward journey because the soul participated in God's eternity. Perhaps a robust pneumatology might alter the flooring but keep the walls in place?

[5] See the posts Onto-Theology and Its Fate; On Panenthism; The Three Options; Heraclitus's Chiasmus as a philosophical step toward sacrament; You have to set aside a block of time; Padgett versus Wood on time and eternity; Hannah's Natality and Juergen's Novum.


Excursis: By reading this article, I am set up to make a leap forward. I am set to unify two arguments that, until this point, I had always considered very different. These arguments are arguments about time and arguments about interpretation. The former argument is represented by Augustine and phenomenology. The latter is represented by Hans-Georg Gadamer and hermeneutics. I can now bring them into relationship one another in a vertical and a horizontal. Phenomenology occupies the vertical around the question of God's being; hermeneutics occupies the horizontal with ethical praxis at the center. Both are, of course, united in the one living One. He occupies both and transcends each. At the juxtaposing center is the perfect quiddity of shalom.