The popular view of time conceives of it as a series of present moments that flow into the past and march forth into the future. From this perspective all we really have is the “now”: an elusive moment (for as soon as we try to mark it, it is already over) in which we currently reside.
This broadly pagan conception of time, in which the past has gone and the future is yet to come, can be contrasted with the classical notion of a timeless being that simultaneously inhabits the past, present and future.
It was Kierkegaard, in wrestling what it might mean for the eternal to break into the temporal, who was able to conceptualize a fundamentally different experience of time, one that worked off the classical notion of a timeless realm in which past, present and future co-exist.
He felt that the Incarnation revealed a different experience of time, for it described the timeless dimension entering into and disrupting the temporal.
This allowed him to think of the individual as no longer experiencing their existence as a slice of ungraspable “nows” always giving way to an as yet non-existent future and dissolving into a no longer existing past.
Instead the subject lives simultaneously in the past, present and future. Each one informing, inhabiting and re-visioning the others.
What this means is that the past is inscribed into the present as a living memory, and into the future as a range of possibilities. In turn the present is always able to reconstruct and revise the past while rethinking the future through new expectations. Lastly the future, as anticipation, itself reaches back into our present, influencing our current life decisions, and even further back into our past, causing us to rethink the meaning of what has already transpired.
To take one example, a lonely and abusive past can be re-envisioned by an individual in light of a positive encounter in the present, an encounter that itself changes the future of that person. Perhaps the individual falls in love and suddenly experiences the previously unbearable weight of the past as a time of preparation for this new love. This also frees them from a future in which they are condemned to return to the pain of the past. The point here is simply that the past and future are fluid, influenced as they are by an apocalyptic (meaning utterly unforeseeable) intervention in the present.
This is also the conception of time that we find in the psychoanalytic clinic. Here the one undergoing analysis (the analysand) discovers how past and future are inscribed into their present in various complex ways, and the role of the analyst involves making incisions into their discourse that might help them transform the way they comport themselves to these. In short, robbing the past and future of their oppressive power through an intervention in the present.
This notion of time can be described as the eternal existing in the passing. For the classical theological understanding of the eternal, as a simultaneous dwelling in past, present and future, is inscribed into our very lived experience.
Instead of the eternal being simply the ongoing now (the pagan notion), this understanding sees the eternal as the dwelling in all three registers. This is nothing less than the combining of past, present and future into a mass of infinite density that changes depending upon the way we observe them rather than some entropic, reified dissipation of now into a never-ending future.