Moltmann Monday: About Time

Happy Moltmann Monday! I’m feeling philosophical today, so fair warning it gets a little nerdy here but this is all actually important to your lived life. So, here’s your selection from Experiences in Theology┬áin his chapter on “The logic of promise:”

Augustine rightly rejected creation in time (creatio in tempore) and talked about creation with time (creatio cum tempore). But that presupposes a mutable creation, for time can only be perceived from change. In what was is creation-in-the-beginning open to change? By being open for its own history which can bring salvation and disaster, consummation and destruction…If we imagine creation-in-the-beginning as a paradisal condition, then the concept of ‘reversible time’ would be appropriate, time as a circle; for the circle is the geometrical image of completion, perfection….This does not have the same eternity as God himself. Its eternity is relative and participatory, through the indwelling of God in it…

However, if we view creation-in-the-beginning from the perspective of its goal and end as the beginning of a history, then the concept that suggests itself is the concept of irreversible time, the time-pointer, with which we can distinguish before and after, and between past and future…

In all earthly systems of matter and life we can detect an openness for each other and for their own possibilities. The earthly community of creation is like a great participatory and anticipatory community system.

Okay, let’s just start by calling a spade a spade: in our clearest moments of understanding, we know there really is no such thing as time as we’ve constructed it. Time is this insanely complex and shifting thing that gives us a way to understand the world but is far, far less structured and consistent than we actually can comprehend. We talk about time because we have to talk about time, because one human form of insanity is an inability to gauge time and to be unable to distinguish past and present. So- what we are talking about right now is not what time IS (I am so, so not smart enough for that) but instead how we choose to understand time.

Basically (and I mean that literally), we have two options. We can see time as reversible, or irreversible. To put symbols on these ideas, we can see time as a circle or a line with an arrow. I have never met someone who actually lives day to day with the understanding that time is a circle. So trust me, you’re probably in the irreversible line-with-an-arrow camp, meaning you see time in terms of past/present/future. I think that’s because we are designed to see it that way, regardless of whether that’s true of time or not. (Uh, that’s certainly not the full story…we should be honest about that.)

Theologically speaking, here’s what’s at stake, and why I’m rattling on about this. If time is irreversible, then we have to deal with eschatology, which I KNOW is so problematic but there are good ways of doing this (see: The Coming of God). And, we have to give up our weird ideas about anything life-related as being “unchanging.” Nothing is unchanging in an irreversible world of time. Change is the only constant. Change is the very design of things, because not even a moment can be re-lived. Here is the adage by Heraclitus: ‘No one enters the same river twice.’

IF we could accept that change is the design of things, and if that acceptance could give us a sense of peace and freedom to move into change and with change rather than to fight against it, we would also find (I feel convinced) that spiritual maturity would flourish. We are creating not in time but with time. We are flowing on down the river. Change is the tide.

Then, we have to accept something else, which is that the future has many possibilities. Salvation and disaster, consummation and destruction. Also, most of the time, they won’t come out clearly as one or the other, but will live in that mixed bag of reality that is a little bit of each, and maybe it merely tips the scales one way or another, and maybe not. What we have to leave behind here is the idea that there is some past-perfect that we are desperately clawing our way back toward, if only we could get it together. Or, some future-perfect that we are creating if only we could get it together. Probably we should throw out “perfect” all together, for the benefits of our tiny minds and our limited understanding of time. I just don’t know when “perfect” is at all helpful to us.

If we wanted to really mess with things here and put political systems onto these ideas, we’d call clawing our way back to a previous perfect Conservatism and we’d call reaching out toward some idealized perfect future Socialism. Oh dear, that’s all I will be brave enough to say about that.

ANYWAY. Here is what it all boils down to, friends. We are time-bound people who are creating WITH time, meaning creating within stories of our own making and the making of others that has a past, present and future. And the sum of this whole system of change is “a great participatory and anticipatory community system.” We are an enormous ecosystem of change, this humanity, this Earth-dom.

When we do theology, when we choose (consciously or subconsciously) to live this way or that way, to respond this way or that way, to believe this thing or that thing, we do so together. And we do it well only insofar as we accept change as our catalyst and friend, and hold things lightly enough to change course pretty much all the time. We are alive to each other when we ‘detect an openness for each other and for their own possibilities.’

To put this in the most basic pastoral terms possible:

Do not write people off. It is an illogical thing to do in a world of tomorrows and a sea of change.

Do not give up. Not on yourself, not on social justice, not on your ‘enemies’, not on your worst most stubborn weakness. It is an illogical thing to do in a world of tomorrows and a sea of change.



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