Analytic Theology

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Another Take on the Prologue to the Gospel of John

August 29th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

DAVID KRONEMYER: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Prologue to the Gospel of John quite likely is the most enigmatic verse in the Bible. Because of this, it consistently repays further contemplation. I previously wrote an essay about it, focusing on the concept of logos. “Logos” is the usual translation from the Greek language for “word,” though (particularly in context) it has several other meanings as well.

There is another aspect to the Prologue which, insofar as I can discern, has been overlooked – temporality. Because its opening words are, “In the beginning.” If there is a beginning, then there must be an end. A “beginning” is the commencement of a term or a process; an “end” is when it expires or finishes. In this respect, as philosophers from the Pre-Socratics onwards have noted, events and processes are fundamentally different than “things.” Although things exist in time and are subject its vicissitudes, they are objects, not events.

Possibly that “end” is the one set forth in the Book of Revelation. It is improbable that the John who wrote the Gospel of John is the same John who wrote the Book of Revelation. Neither can be dated precisely. The consensus of modern Biblical scholarship is that the Gospel of John was written sometime between 60 – 140 CE, and the Book of Revelation was written sometime between 68 – 96 CE. Potentially, the Book of Revelation was written before the Gospel of John.

Regardless of dating, I am not inclined to think that the Book of Revelation was the “end” implied by the “beginning” of the Prologue to the Gospel of John. Rather, the Prologue must be considered on its own merits. Here is my interpretation:

1. In principle, it is difficult to imagine the beginning or the end of time. If time had a beginning, what was happening before it started? And if it has an end, what goes on thereafter? “At first glance and perhaps even at second glance posing this question seems to set us on the well-traveled road to antinomy. For instance, if we suppose that time had a beginning, our normal linguistic habits lead us, seemingly inexorably, to talk inconsistently of time before that beginning. To suppose, on the other hand, that time could not have had a beginning will lead us to conclusions which while consistent are unpalatable,” W.H. Newton-Smith, “The Beginning of Time” in The Philosophy of Time (1993) (edited by Robin Le Poidevin and Murray MacBeath). Mr. Newton-Smith continues: “[I]t is difficult to envisage within our current scientific framework a viable theory that involves positing a first event and time before that event.”

2. The same observation pertains to space. Even the most esoteric aspects of contemporary physics, such as string theory, are incapable of addressing what was there before the “big bang” that created the Universe, and just what it is that the Universe is expanding into. It can’t be “nothing.” Modern physics simply doesn’t have an answer to these fundamental cosmological questions.

3. If there is an end, as the Prologue to the Gospel of John implies, then either God vanishes at the end, or God doesn’t. The former would not be a palatable alternative for the Prologue’s author. The author’s God was meant always to have been there, and always to be there. In a way, God’s biggest problem (insofar as we are concerned) is transcendence. Which means, God not only is endurable over time, but also can’t be perceived in the same way one perceives (say) a rock (any object or thing).

4. Rather, it is the world (including people, culture, and all forms of being on earth) that is temporally constrained. God (understood as the “creator”) necessarily must be outside of time. Interestingly, this dooms any form of pantheism, or theology that identifies God with “nature. If God is the same as nature, or subsists in nature, or inheres in nature – and nature dies – then God lacks one of his most important ascriptive predicates, which is temporal durability.

5. The “end” that the author of the Prologue to the Gospel of John implies (as a counterpart to the “beginning”) therefore pertains to the end of purposeful human endeavor – not the end of God. Properly understood, any reference to the “death” of God is inappropriate, because God never was “born” to begin with. Philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche have misconceived the issue. Even Martin Heidegger, who analogizes “gods” to transitory social avatars, is only half right. While cultural figures certainly have the potential to transform themselves into role models or iconic representatives, which arguably are targets for something like devotion, it would be a misnomer to describe this process as analogous to religious phenomena. John Lennon famously opined the Beatles were more famous than Jesus. This was not so much an illustration of hubris, as it was a simple category mistake.

6. Non-technically, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is that the entropy of an isolated system (one which is not in equilibrium) will tend to increase over time. “Entropy” is a measure of a system’s disorder. The system has energy that is unavailable for work. An “isolated system” is one that does not interact with its surroundings. While its energy and mass stay constant, they cannot enter or exit, but can only move around inside. In an “equilibrium state,” there are no unbalanced potentials or “forces” within the system. A system that is in equilibrium experiences no change when it becomes isolated.

7. As a consequence of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it is inevitable there will be some kind of an “end” – certainly to the earth, the Solar System, and the Universe. In this respect, the Second Law of Thermodynamics has significant dysteleological implications. If the Universe is an isolated system, not in an equilibrium state, then it is consuming all of its available energy. Therefore, at some finite point in the future, all changes must cease.

8. Among other consequences, this eliminates the idea of cultural progress: that there will come a time when humankind evolves to a higher state, or makes progress towards a better outcome, however conceived. Unlike other physical laws, the Second Law of Thermodynamics is temporally asymmetric. It hypothesizes the degradation of a system over time, that is, a change in its physical state that is temporally correlated. Entropy was lower in the past than it is now. And, “Once we settle for (de facto asymmetry), other examples of physical irreversibility may be found” throughout nature. “[W]e may consider whether these factual asymmetries do not, in fact, extend throughout the history of the Universe,” Bas C. Van Fraassen, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Time and Space (1970) at p. 86.

9. The Second Law of Thermodynamics cannot apply to a transcendent God. As observed by Huw Price in his essay entitled “Burbury’s Last Case: The Mystery of the Entropic Arrow” in Time, Reality & Experience (2002) (edited by Craig Callender): “Why isn’t entropy almost always high …? We’ll still need to answer this latter question, even if – as we currently have no very strong reason to disbelieve …, – entropy turns out to decrease in the distant future, and the ‘end’ of the universe is as peculiar as its ‘beginning.’” Mr. Price is not a theologian. His remarks as to theory underlying the Second Law of Thermodynamics, however, tend to support a view that it can apply only to human endeavor, not to God (assuming there is one).

10. It is of course absurd to think that the author of the Prologue to the Gospel of John was acquainted with the concepts underlying the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or anything like it. It is not quite as far-fetched, though, to hypothesize it might be useful in an interpretation of the concepts implicit in the Prologue’s “beginning” and “end.”