Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Time and Eternity

As I grow older the theme of this series of blogs on the relation of time to eternity takes on more urgent significance. This question has always been a facinating one for me over the past 84 years. I hope my readers will come on this journey with me into this deeply metphysical and theological journey!


From the perspective of a philosophy and theology of freedom, humans not only necessarily seek to free themselves from the determinisms of the past by means of projecting ideal goals for the future; humans are also necessarily driven to try to escape time altogether. However, the empirical scientist as such can only comprehend the human within time; the type of functional material interconnection which he studies is temporal of its very essence. Since science of its very nature is future-oriented, it tends to view the present and the thing in the present as merely a functional moment in a drive toward the future. As a result, many theorists of biological, psychological, and social self-creation do not express much concern for the individual now living, but tend to see him or her merely as the raw material for projects to be realized in the future.

One theorist, Gerald Feinberg, in The Prometheus Project, sees the essential flaw in the human condition as “man's conscious awareness of his own finitude.”[Doubleday, 1968,p.43) Feinberg locates that essential flaw in the fact that man is "beset by the specter of impending death, which always threatens to put an end to all our thinking and doing." Consequently, Feinberg proposes to overcome that flaw by proceeding to a radical reconstruction of the human. He evidently believes that the techniques will soon be available by which humans could be kept indefinitely alive, e.g., by the conquest of aging, replacement of worn-out parts, creation of intelligent machines and their association with organic systems, etc. Of interest here is the assumption that the human's necessary drive toward immortal existence can somehow be fulfilled by granting him or her an unlimited future. However, humans experiences time itself as the very essence of their finitude and the primary negation of their value and meaning.

The past never really exists in the present, and precisely in so far as humans are caught into the determinisms of the past, they experience themselves as nonexistent. So too the future never really exists, and in so far as a human is caught up into an endless future, he or she would be involved in a living death. The objective concept of the present is that fleeting moment between the non-being of the past and future which, like the geometrician's point, has itself no dimension. In denying humans a true present, the scientist denies them a true existence. Even those future generations, when their time comes, must relativize themselves to their future.

In fact, the myth of the human denied the blessing of death is the myth of a hellish entrapment within time from which the tormented one begs for deliverance.

Not only is the scientist caught by reason of his methodology into the tyranny of time, but even the Christian ethician sometimes falls victim to that same tyranny.Joseph Fletcher in his book Situational Ethics, for example, grants the Christian principle that love is the only absolute in the ethical order; but he defines love not as a way of being but as a style of doing. The loving thing to do is “that which does the greatest good for the greatest number.” Thus, the only question to be asked concerning the moral quality of any action is what future good will come of it. All values, then, are referred to the future. There is no understanding of the expression of love as a value in itself in the present situation. Christian love is reduced to a form of pragmatism, "a calculating process"; we must carefully figure out in every choice what will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Love, then, is understood in such a way that it has no value for the here-and-now, and any concept of love as a vital bond uniting human beings in the present is discarded. It follows that life can have no value in the present moment apart from its relation to the future.

The moral message of the New Testament, however, was a message of liberation from the tyranny of time. The new freedom announced to the children of God was the freedom to be able to live in the present moment fully through a life of love. The person of faith can be liberated from the past with its determinism and guilt. The person of hope can be liberated from anxiety concerning the future: prudent concern, yes; anxiety, no. Without faith or hope a human is necessarily dispersed over time, a victim of the tyranny of time. He or she has no present moment. And since the past and the future never really exist, to the extent that he or she has no present moment, they have no real existence. There is more than a mere semantic connection between the words “present” and “presence”; the human of faith and hope is the human who is capable of entering into the presence of his or her fellow human beings in the present moment in order to establish in its fullness the bond of love. The results of such an ability are precisely those forms of human relationship and community based not on rules or laws or functional interrelations but in vital, meaningful human bonds.

It is important to note that the present moment is only meaningful in itself in so far as one can encounter something that is truly of absolute value, something that is end-in-itself in that present moment. As Peter Berger points out in his book: Rumors of Angels (New York: Doubleday, 1965), there are certain forms of human behavior which give humans the experience of transcending their finitude in time, and therefore give humans an extraordinary sense of fulfillment. Among them are the aesthetic experience, the experience of play, and the experience of love. In each of these experiences what is being done now is experienced as totally meaningful in itself, not just related in a functional way to something else in the future. For the present moment to have value for me, I must be able to encounter something as end-in-itself in that moment. Human love has its necessary foundation and a priori condition in the value of every individual as end-in-him/herself. And love represents the only absolute in Christian ethics because only in the activity of loving is there a real encounter with the living reality of the one true absolute, God. "If any man loves, he knows God, because God is love."

From a theological perspective Rahner makes an important distinction between man's religious anticipations toward an absolute, eschatological future outside of time, and his anticipation of a this-worldly historical future to be achieved by planning and autocreation. As Karl Rahner said “Man's absolute future, given into his hands by God, does not aim at what can be planned and made of the manifold possibilities of the world. That absolute future surpasses, censors and deprives our historical future of any appearance of absoluteness.” Consequently, all human planning, all active self-fulfillment, is embraced by a future which is not subject to our purposes. The absolute future arrives in its fullness only in the act of dying, which is the only route to the fullness of life; and the only ultimate escape from the finitude of time is through the nothingness of death.

The tendency to view particular and general judgment as two separate events seems valid only within the phenomenal dimension of time. If, as Augustine suggests, after death we shall know God as God knows Himself and all else through God, the moment of the individual’s death and particular judgment must be seen as identical with the end of time, the individual’s entry into the absolute future is identical with the collective end of humanity’s historical future.

From a Christian faith perspective at the moment of death humans step out of time into the eternal now of eternity. From the viwpoint of eternity all of time from the creation to the final judgment are equally present. So from that perspectice both the paraticular judgemnt of the individual person and the general judgment of the whole of humanity are simultaneous.

Although in time there is a radical discontinuity between human's absolute and historical future, there is nonetheless a definite positive relation between them. Unfortunately, all too often religious believers have moved from a radical dichotomy of flesh and spirit to a radical dichotomy between humanity's historical and absolute future. This dichotomy finds its expression in the popular understanding of the theological distinction between particular and general judgment. The believer is inclined to view this distinction exclusively from within time, with the result that he sees particular judgment as a purely spiritual judgment on his individual soul in isolation from the flesh of human history. Even if the believer accepts the idea of a material resurrection at the end of time in the general judgment, he or she is inclined to see it as icing on the cake, in no way substantially related to his or her beatitude. The traditional theological concept of a general judgment was that humans are to be judged in their totality, body and soul, in the context of the totality of human history. In general judgment the absolute future and the historical future coincide. However, the believer is frequently disposed to see the building of humanity's historical future as merely an interim occupation.

In the Christian perspective it has always been understood that there can be no radical separation of love of God from love of neighbor. But what is being understood in a new way is that the love of neighbor is no longer achievable exclusively in intentions or merely in the sphere of private interpersonal relationships. Humans must achieve higher forms of socialization, of social and political unity. And the historical struggle to achieve these forms represents a “necessary mediation by which man is to open himself, through action and suffering, to the absolute future.” The unity of humankind as such can no longer remain an idea but must become a reality incarnated in the social and political institutions of our world. humans are under an obligation to create in time the concrete context in which active love of humankind is to be realized.

Pedro ArupĂ©, the former general of the Society of Jesus made these comments on his approaching death: "I look forward to death with great anticipation.  The moment of death will be my last great amen to this life and my first great alleluia for all eternity. Death will throw me into the arms of my lover!"  Amen, Pedro, and Alleluia!

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