While We Live We Are Eternal: The Interrelation of Past, Present and Future

posted 4/9/13

We-are-wasting-time_bannerThe 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.

15 Responses to While We Live We Are Eternal: The Interrelation of Past, Present and Future

  1. Korbyn says:

    I was introduced to this concept after I lost my father. During a group support session the leader stated that while our loved ones have been removed from our physical lives their emotions and actions of the past remain relevant to our emotions and actions in the present and the future.

  2. Melissa says:

    oh, this is so rich, have to respond more than just clicking “like.” I love the descriptions of disruptions in the present: being in love, the sudden clarity (which can be long in coming) of a therapeutic insight, even the simple shift evoked in Robert Frost’s poem “Dust of Snow”
    “The way a crow
    Shook down on me
    The dust of snow
    From a hemlock tree

    Has given my heart
    A change of mood
    And saved some part
    Of a day I had rued”

    And all of these shifts resonate because of the great disruption, the great apocalyptic intervention that is the Incarnation.

  3. Rico Picone says:

    Peter, I enjoyed these thoughts—thank you. I noticed (conjured?) a subtle critique of the Buddhist/mindfulness tendency of exalting the present and deprecating the past and future. It seems that the cognitive behaviorists have picked up this thread and embraced it, and, although I’ve found something of value in their approach, I have felt that the historical dimension of life was robbed and the ultimate meaning reduced to the merely aesthetic. This has repeatedly drawn me back to the existentialists and the depth psychologists, for I feel there that the anxiety and despair can finally be faced and not avoided. Thank you for your beautiful, uplifting thoughts. Your willingness to confront us with our own fallenness prepares the way for our acceptance of the upbuilding.

  4. Ryan Nix says:

    Really enjoyed your post today. Love the way you convey your thoughts and ideas. Thanks for challenging me to see things in a new way.

  5. KB says:

    Great post. Not sure how deliberately you meant it, but the ‘mass of infinite density’ is an interesting term to use. In the physical realm that would suggest a tiny volume having an infinite mass, creating an infinite gravitational draw… in other words a black hole. That’s a pretty interesting metaphor…
    This might be what you mean… but I’d want to push back if you did. We have an ‘abyss of person’, yes, but are we objects from which not even light can escape? Are we such powerful distortions of space-time that we suck in, consume and destroy everything within millions of miles of us? Pushing the metaphor I know, but I’d say that we are better to accept that we have bounds. That, despite what we might tell ourselves, our reach and influence – and significance – is way less than infinite. And to accept our finitude – in terms of finite life and finite significance – is something healthy. Past, present and future wrapped up, yes, but not forever, thank God.

  6. Tim says:

    Perhaps we are ourselves the limit (event horizon) of the “infinite mass density.”

  7. Tim says:

    Or else the limit is God and we have to leap across him…

  8. Cameron Freeman says:

    Great post Peter, this reminds of another heretical Irishman – John Dominic Crossan who wrote that the parables of Jesus demolished the idolatry of time.

    The one who plans, projects, and programs a future, is in idolatry against the apocalyptic intervention of God to make time time. Time is not our future but God’s present, which is not as eternity beyond us but as an event within us. For Crossan, Jesus simply took the commandment seriously: keep time holy!

    See: John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1973

  9. Cameron Freeman says:

    Edit: the 4th line of the above post should read: “against the apocalyptic intervention of God to make a new time” (I’m probably rushing due to a perceived lack of time… )

  10. NateW says:

    My wife turned 32 recently and periodically (usually upon remembering when something from the early 90s really was cool and not just ironic) bemoans how “old” she is. My response? “Sweetheart, you aren’t getting any older. Age is all in your head. In reality we are always the same age—”right now.” I don’t think it helps much. ; )

    I’ve been learning to see every conscious moment as a microcosm of what is eternal. Everything that is true is eternally present, everything that is not has never really existed. Theological arguments over the historicity of biblical events are exposed as a waste of… well… time… when I understand that their primary truth is an eternally present one, not one that hinges on the ability to prove that they are literal factual history.

  11. Benjamin says:

    Today marks my late mother’s 70th birtday, and, boy, do I experience these words as true. Thank you for ministering to me today, Peter.

  12. sharme says:

    Time is an expression of the measurement of the observable motion of celestial bodies.

    The future signifies that which has not occurred and as such is ever a potentiality. (Which may be comforting.)

    We seek the healing of injury. the diminishment of suffering. resulting from our perception of events. Time is one aspect of the memory of these events.

  13. sea_sure says:

    linear temporality is a functional fiction – proven on occasion when you catch your own eyes in a mirror. no one else can see whole histories of you in one such flash, but they occur, unmediated, simultaneously. (in this instant we do not shackle time with space.) and in those momentary mirror glances, so too projecting into/reflecting back whole futures (even if unwittingly.) such extra-conscious moments reveal a multiplicity of times converging/diverging, not merely memory and anticipation. for sure there is the eternal in the internal. the external is beyond me.
    (nothing’s beyond the realm of quipping!)

    tangent 1: perhaps there are more registers or inflections of time than past, present & future… especially if we accept the convergence/divergence of these three conventions in any given moment. i’m not proposing WHAT they might be, just THAT they might be. probably unnecessary brainache.

    tangent 2: could we draw more distinctions, perhaps say manifest time = cognitive, latent time = corporeal? (still with potential to become manifest/cognitive) – ie: is time dormant in bodies but dynamic in minds?

    (not sure i want to have got into that dualism! possible ‘edit undo’ there…)

  14. ken parme says:

    I think Dylan said it best.” I’m sitting on my watch so I can be on time.”

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