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IV: The Problem of Time

IV: The Problem of Time
The relation of man to time is an essential factor determining the character of existence for the individual as well as for whole epochs and different civilisations. Everyone knows that the haste and rush which characterise our life are something typically modern and probably a symptom of a deep-seated disease. But there are few who take account of the basic elements which determine man's relation to time. It is not because modern man has watches and time-saving machinery that his life shows an ever-increasing speed; modern man has watches and time-saving machinery because he has a certain relation to time which expresses itself most crudely in that often heard phrase: I don't have time! Now that even children in the nursery use this phrase we can no longer postpone investigating the roots of the apparent time-disease of the present world.

All who have travelled in the East with open eyes and an impressionable mind are at one in finding an immense contrast between the quiet of the Orient and the unrest of the West. Although we cannot deny that certain external elements of technical civilisation contribute towards this striking difference its real cause does not lie on this superficial level but in a different relation to time. The Orient has a conception of time entirely different from that of the West and this difference belongs to the religious and metaphysical sphere. In all Oriental philosophy and religion time is something irrelevant and illusory compared with eternity although the individual interpretations of this basic conception may differ. Reality is beyond and above the time-process. Change means imperfection. Just as a man looking for change does so because he is not satisfied with what he has so nothing that is subject to change can be looked upon as true being. That which exists must have duration persistence; it must be changeless being satisfied with itself. It is not possessed by an urge to get what it does not have to become what it is not yet. True being is eternal. This idea is common to the whole Eastern world however differently this eternal being may be interpreted. The radical expression of this idea is again found in India. The world of change is unreal. Reality is—as we heard in a previous lecture—the One and All which cannot change and therefore has no relation to time. It is timeless motionless self-satisfied eternity; therefore it is the deepest desire of the Indian thinker to enter into or to share in that motionless eternal being in Nirvana.

This conception however was not foreign to ancient Greece. We find it in its most daring expression in the system of Parmenides and in a less extreme form in Plato's idealism. The ὄντως ὄν the true being of the world of ideas is distinguished from mere appearance or the half-reality of the world of sensations by this very fact that it is timeless eternity beyond all change. This world of sensible experience however is taken up with an incessant stream of change and becoming. There is a clear-cut opposition between eternity and the temporal world. Eternity is the negation of time: time is the negation of eternity. How this time-world came into being and what kind of being it has is a question which can hardly be answered satisfactorily from Plato's presuppositions. On the one hand Plato wants to get away from the blunt negation of the temporal world as represented by Parmenides; on the other hand he does not seem to succeed in giving the world of time and becoming its proper place. Neoplatonism which as we have already seen is so important for the formation of the mediæval world tried to solve the problem by the concept of emanation emanation meaning at the same time a kind of degeneration. By a process of flowing out or going down a whole hierarchy of half-realities is established between the eternal true being and absolute nothingness. In this hierarchy the distance of each step from the eternal is also its distance from true being or the measure of its approach to nothingness. Thus a continuum reaching from eternal true being to zero is conceived which forms a parallel to the modern concept of evolution but runs in the opposite direction.
Modern man's understanding of time is quite different from this conception. To him the temporal is the real. Whether there is anything eternal is uncertain; but that the things in time are is beyond question. But what is his concept of time? As it is quantity which determines his concept of reality time also is a quantum—measurable time time which consists of time-units time-atoms. The second hand of the watch is the symbol of modern man's understanding of time. He looks for reality in the present moment but the present moment is the smallest indivisible element or fraction of time. Life then cannot be but the sum or addition of such fractional time-entities of time-atoms. This quantified physical time has completely lost its distinctiveness from space; it has become a fourth dimension of space.1 Quantified time is spatialised time. Time dwindles away into space. It has no quality of its own. It is interchangeable with the dimensions of space and is therefore always about to pass into zero.
It is this conception—not the watch or the telephone or the aeroplane—which is the cause of man's not having time. Time was lost to him metaphysically long before he had overcome it technically. The exact time-signal on the radio which every decent citizen notes in order to set his watch correct to the second the wrist watch which at any moment shows him the exact time—all these devices have been invented because man wants them because time vanishes under his fingers because he does not have time any longer. We have reached here the opposite pole from the Oriental view. Reality is pulverised temporality. It is in vain that Faust wishes to see that moment to which he can say: “Verweile doch Du bist so schön!” It is in vain that Nietzsche exclaims in a superb poem: “Denn alle Lust will Ewigkeit will tiefe tiefe Ewigkeit”. If once you have declared your option for the moment the fate of your reality as radical temporality is determined and radical temporality is vanishing time. Time dwindles away constantly approaching zero.
It is for this reason that modern man wants to snatch as much of this time as possible to get as much “into his time” as he can. He begins so to say a race with time and in this race man is inevitably the loser because it is the last moment which decides and the last moment is death. Man races death but death wins. Over the whole of life there looms this certainty of a lost race with death. But no one likes to face it. The thought of it is avoided because man's chances are so absolutely hopeless. Modern man puts out of sight as well as he can all reminders of death; he does not want to hear of it because the thought reminds him of his being the loser. All the same the remembrance of death stands behind him with its whip like a slave-driver and urges him on. This—and this—and this I must have cries man before it is too late before the door closes for ever. It is the panic of the closed door. This panic explains many of the features which are typical of modern life: man's hasty enjoyment his all-dominating craving for security to which finally he sacrifices freedom and his soul.
The Christian understanding of time and its relation to eternity stands midway between but also above and beyond the opposing views of East and West. At first sight it seems much more similar to the Eastern than to the Western concept its main thesis being that God is eternal and that therefore true reality is eternity. Is not the Gospel the promise of eternal life? Is it not said that God is unchangeable? “With Him there can be no variation neither shadow that is cast by turning.”2 He is the same yesterday to-day and in eternity. “For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.” The time-process in its totality from beginning to end is present in Him. For Him there is no surprise. Everything that happens does so according to His eternal decree. God is eternal.
But the relation of this eternal God to temporal being and becoming is totally different from what it is in Indian thought or in the systems of Parmenides Plato or the Neoplatonists. God creates the time He gives time. As He the Almighty gives man room for his freedom so He creates time for him for his becoming and for his free action. Temporality is not an approach to nothingness any more than the created world is unreal. God has created time together with the world He has set a beginning to time and will set an end of time. He gives every man his time with a beginning and an end to his temporal existence but the end of time and the beginning are not the same. The time-process does not come back to its beginning. Between these two points the start and the finish something happens which even for God is real and significant. There is history an individual and a universal human history in which God is infinitely interested. He is so intensely concerned with this history that He not only looks down on the scene of human life like an interested spectator but He Himself intervenes in it. Even more at a certain point in this time-process He Himself enters the scenery of temporal life; He the eternal appears in the shape of a historical person and as such performs once and for all the decisive act of all history. The incarnation of the word of God is at once the insertion into time of the eternal God: “When the fulness of time came God sent forth His son”.3 And in Him He revealed unto us the eternal secret of His will.4
This event charges the time of man's history with an extreme tension.5 It is the time of expectation of the end that end which is not the closed door but the open door. It is the expectation of fulfilment. Time conceived in that fashion is the time of decision and probation. It is that time in which the eternal fate of the individual is decided. Therefore this sense of time is as remote from Oriental indifference to the temporal as from that time-panic of the modern Westerner. It is of the utmost significance because it is within time that everything is decided for us and every moment is a moment of decision. In every moment we have to keep faith; the servants must be awake all the time for they do not know the day and the hour when the Lord comes; they do know however that if the Lord finds them sleeping they are lost and that it will be said to them as to those foolish virgins battering in vain on the closed door of the wedding-feast “I know you not”.6
All the same in spite of the tremendous tension and the weight of decision involved this temporality is not the ultimate reality; it is an intermezzo between divine election in the beginning and eternal perfection beyond time beyond the limit of death beyond this historical movement.
These two aspects of time enable us to understand the Christian concept of history. As has often been observed neither in Oriental nor in classical Greek thought does the problem of history play any rôle. For the Oriental as well as for the Greek—and we may say for all humanity outside of Biblical revelation—the image of temporal happening is that of the circle. Temporality as far as it has any reality and any significance is a circular movement always returning on itself. It is the same movement which we observe in nature: day and night summer and winter birth and death in perpetual rotation. This movement then has no climax; it leads nowhere. It is therefore not worth while making it a problem of thought. This is why Greek philosophy to which everything else has become a problem never made history an object of philosophic reflection.
The theme of history as a topic of thought is Judeo-Christian brought into our consciousness by the Old Testament prophets and by the New Testament Gospel. Here history is no circular movement. History is full of new things because God works in it and reveals Himself in it. The historical time-process leads somewhere. The line of time is no longer a circle but a straight line with a beginning a middle and an end. This is so because —if I may use a simile—God Himself has entered this circular time at a certain point and with His whole weight of eternity has stretched out this time-circle and given the time-line a beginning and an end and so a direction. By this incarnation or “intemporation” of the word of God time has been charged with an immense intensity. It has become as we have said the time of waiting of decision and probation. Thus history has become interesting as a theme even for the thinker. It is now worth while for a thinker of the highest calibre like St. Augustine to write his De Civitate Dei as a kind of Christian philosophy of history in fact the first philosophy of history ever written.7
We have been speaking of the tension of temporality. Comparing however the Christian existence with that of the panic-stricken modern man we could also speak of a removal of tension. “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life … nor things present nor things to come … shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”8 “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be levealed in us.”9 Christian man through his faith in Christ Jesus is time-superior time-exempt; he lives already in the coming eternity. Important as earthly events may be in his life and that of other men the all-important the true decision has already been made in Christ and the believer's life consists only in living on the basis of this earlier decision. This is what is meant by “Living by faith”.
The Christian conception of time then permits and even obliges us to partake in temporal happenings with the utmost intensity—the picture presented by the New Testament being usually that of an athlete on the race-course spending his last energy to reach the goal—and at the same time to be free from the haste and over-excitement created by the panic of the closed door. Those who live in faith are seriously intent on something going forward on this earth something being bettered so that the will of the Creator may be more fully expressed in His creation than it is now under the domination of evil. But at the same time the life-feeling of the Christian is not dependent on whether or not this earthly goal is reached. He knows that whatever he can do for the realisation of God's will is at best something relative. He knows that whatever goes on within this temporality is encircled by the limits of death and fragility. And yet this insight into the insurmountable barrier does not make him resigned. His true ultimate hope is not based on what can be achieved within temporal history but upon that realisation of the divine purpose which is neither dependent on man's action nor happens within time but sets an end to the temporal world and which is not a goal but the goal the ultimate τέλος the perfection of all things which God gives and effects in bringing about life eternal.
The Christian understanding of history and its goal is sharply distinct from the idea of progress and evolution which is characteristic of our era. Such a concept of universal evolution is unknown not only in the Eastern world but also in the West so far as regards antiquity the Middle Ages and the period from the Reformation right up to the 18th century. Where the totality of temporal reality is interpreted by the symbol of a circle there is no room for the idea of universal progress. Neither Heraclitus’ πάντα ῥει̑ nor Aristotle's entelechy means anything like a directed time-process. The stream of happenings of which Heraclitus speaks is a movement without direction and goal an eternal fluctuation comparable to the moving sea. But neither does Aristotle's entelechial movement have any reference to history. It is an eternal movement without beginning or end. No Greek thinker ever conceived the Cosmos in such a way that it represents a movement in time directed towards a goal so that the later generations of time are somehow better off than the previous ones. If there is anything like a universal direction in this time-process it is a movement downwards rather than upwards a decline or degeneration rather than an evolution or progress. Such is the mythical concept of the successive world-epochs as we find it in Hesiod and a similar consequence might be drawn from Neoplatonic metaphysics.
The idea of evolution is however also entirely unknown within early Christianity. It is true that the basic conception of the coming kingdom of God includes the idea of a goal of history. It is also true that within this historical temporal world a hidden germ of this kingdom of God is growing intensively and extensively. Still the idea of universal progress is impossible within this Christian conception because alongside this growth of the kingdom there is the concurrent growth of the evil powers and their influence within this temporal world. The tares are growing together with the wheat.10 The opposition to the kingdom is growing at the same rate as the kingdom itself so that the later generations are in no way better off than the earlier ones. On the contrary—it is in the last days that the conflict between good and evil forces reaches a climax. The goal of history is reached not by an immanent growth or progress but by a revolutionary change of the human situation at the end of history brought about not by man's action but by divine intervention—an intervention similar to that of incarnation namely the παρουσία the advent of the Lord the resurrection of the dead the coming of the eternal world. That this end of human history is utterly distinct from continuity and immanent growth is most clearly expressed in the idea of the dies irae the day of the Last Judgment which puts an end to human history. The framework of this Universe is broken death—“the last enemy” and the characteristic feature of the temporal world— is overcome and annihilated and the eternal world is established. There is no room in this picture for the idea of universal progress and evolution.
On the other hand the popular belief that the idea of evolution and progress was first worked out within natural science and thence affected the conception of history is false. The reverse is true: the idea has been transplanted from an evolutionary conception of history into natural science. Lamarck and Darwin are not the pioneers but the heirs of this modern idea. The real pioneers are men like Rousseau Lessing Herder Hegel. The idea of progress and evolution is a child of the optimistic philosophy of the Enlightenment.
Its basis is an optimistic evaluation of human nature and as its negative consequence the repudiation of the fundamental Christian ideas of the Fall and of original sin. Human nature as such is good; at least it is raw material fit to be shaped into something good into true humanity. This anthropology seems to be based not on axiomatic speculation but on observation on facts. History does begin with primitive man; he is the raw material out of which perfect humanity can be shaped. He it is whose mental capacities are not yet developed whose cultural life has not yet begun. Civilisation and culture are acquired only in the course of a process extending through thousands of years growing from generation to generation. It is this undeniable fact of the continuous growth of the benefits of civilisation and of a progressive use of man's mental capacities which is the backbone of the 18th-century idea of the universal progress of humanity.
This idea however is possible only by using a very dubious equation i.e. the supposition that the more developed human life is in the cultural sense the more human or good it is in the ethical sense; that moral evil is therefore only the primitive the not-yet-developed; and that the good the truly human is identical with the no-longer-primitive the developed. Or—to express the same from the negative angle—the idea of universal progress is made possible only by denying the Christian conception of evil as sin i.e. egoistic self-will and self-affirmation contradicting and opposing the will of God and the moral law. According to the Christian conception there is continuity between the primitive state of mind and the developed one but between the morally good and the morally evil there is no continuity but merely contradiction. Moral evil understood as sin is not that which is not yet good but that which is no longer good. Sin is not undeveloped good but spoilt and perverted good. It is not something which is not yet there but it is a present reality of a negative character the antagonism of men's will to the will of God. It is therefore only by substituting for the contradiction for the Yes-and-No relation the merely relative contrast of less and more that the idea of universal progress is possible. As a consequence the Christian idea of redemption is replaced by the idea of cultural development. The more man is trained to use his mental faculties the more he gains power over the outside world and over his own forces the more human he becomes so the more evil disappears. This is the basic illusion of this favourite and most influential idea of modern man.
But where did 18th-century philosophy get the idea of a goal towards which history moves—an idea which was utterly foreign to rational philosophy in pre-Christian times? The answer I think is obvious and the proof for it can easily be found in thinkers like Lessing and Herder. The idea of a universal goal of history is a Christian heritage although completely transformed in context. Whilst in the Christian view of history this goal is transcendent in character namely the world of resurrection and eternal life it has now become immanent being here identified with an imaginary terminus of the movement which leads from the primitive to civilised cultural life. In this fashion was formed that inspiring—not to say intoxicating— idea of idealistic progressivism which has taken hold of the best minds since the middle of the 18th century. It is the bastard offspring of an optimistic anthropology and Christian eschatology. Humanity as a whole is involved in a unique process leading upwards from primitive beginnings from a more or less animal start to the loftiest peaks of true spiritual humanity a process which is far from being finished in which our generation is involved; one which perhaps will never be finished but the end of which we are steadily approaching.11
It is this idea of evolution which modern natural science inherited and which it had only to supplement to support and substantiate by its own means. From this idealistic conception Lamarck Lyell and Darwin drew their ideas of an all-embracing evolution of life on this globe. The scientific evolutionism of the later 19th century is composed of two elements: this idealistic idea of progress combined with certain observations in the field of biology. What 18th-century philosophy had worked out in the limited field of human history was now brought into a much larger context. The history of the forms of organic life on our planet seemed to corroborate such an optimistic idea of a universal development. Was it not a fact that everywhere the primitive undifferentiated forms precede the differentiated the higher forms or organisation? Therefore it would appear that life is moving onward to unknown heights. Again it was not seen that this naturalistic form of evolutionism is based on an unjustified identification namely that the more “differentiated” in the biological sense is the “higher” in the human or spiritual sense.
But once taken for granted this idea of evolution seemed to give a new value to temporal becoming which in the thought of the ancient world was a merely negative concept. In the course of becoming the perfect seems to emerge gradually.12 The splendour of the idea of perfection which in ancient philosophy had been identified with the transcendent and timeless world of ideas and which in Christian thought had been reserved for the divine supernatural sphere then seemed to have shifted over to the historical world and to natural forces. From then on it seemed to be possible to believe in perfection on the basis of purely secular natural even material principles. Since the idea of progress had come into the wide field of natural science it seemed to have become independent of all metaphysical and religious presuppositions. It had become an instrument of natural explanation.
This was certainly not the conception of Rousseau Lessing Herder and Hegel. When they were speaking of evolution they meant something which was at the same time immanent and transcendent natural and divine. For them evolution was not merely a causal process of differentiation but in the literal sense an evolution i.e. the disclosure of something divine hidden in the natural. To them the time-process was at once both natural and supernatural and certainly in any case teleological and spiritual not merely causal and material. But with Darwin's theory of selection teleology seemed to be superseded. The one principle of causality was sufficient not only to explain a process as such but to explain a progress i.e. a process with a certain definite direction. Now it was possible to have finality without a principle of finality to have teleology on the basis of causality to have a direction of history by merely natural forces —in a word automatic progress.
This new phenomenon—the idea of evolution and progress—is not only important from the point of view of becoming but also as an element in that feature which we found so characteristic of our age the temporalisation of existence. By means of the idea of evolution it seemed possible to repudiate eternity and still keep all those values which in previous times had been connected with the eternal. The eternal is no more necessary to give meaning to life. Temporal life interpreted in terms of evolution had meaning direction and finality in itself. For that reason evolutionism became one of the most potent factors of temporalisation of radical repudiation of the idea of eternity within the conception of human existence.
But I am constrained to offer some observations which lead to a different conclusion: —
  1. Even granted that the idea of universal progress is correct— which we never should admit—it is undeniable that the result of this progress means very little to the individual. One has to think in generations in centuries. This means that the interest moves away from the personal to the collective. The individual and his fate his future become irrelevant. It is only the totality which counts; or rather it is an abstract humanity forming so to say the subject of this evolution.
  2. Therefore this present existence has no meaning and value of its own. It is merely a point of transition a rung on the ladder which leads upward. Its own value—if you ask for such estimate—must be left indefinite and is therefore open to question.
  3. But these factors lead in the direction which we have been calling the dwindling-away of time. The real existing man appears to himself like a snapshot a fraction of a large reel of film—a picture which taken by itself is as meaningless as a single frame cut from a movie strip and as absurd as a slow motion film. So this idea of evolution must—once its first intoxicating effect is over—take the whole substance away from life. It means that life is as it were eaten away from the inside.
Needless to say this idea of a universal progress of such a natural upward movement is irreconcilable with Christian faith. This does not mean that the Christian cannot acknowledge certain aspects of the evolutionary theory of natural science. From the point of view of Christianity there is no reason to deny that life on earth has a long history spanning millions of years; that it has passed through many transformations; that the origins of mankind lie far back in prehistoric primitive beginnings presumably in animal forms. Within the limits which conscientious scientists have set for themselves the evolutionist theory is not in conflict with Christian faith.
Two elements of this evolutionist thought however must be unconditionally rejected from the Christian point of view: first the identification of moral evil or sin with the primitive; and second the assumption that the development of human intelligence technical skill and cultural enrichment mean in themselves a progress in the sense of the truly human. The Christian conception of man includes the belief that the higher differentiation of intellectual powers as well as the increase of the means of civilisation is most ambiguous with regard to goodness and to the truly human. It can mean an increase of moral evil of destructive inhumanity just as much as the opposite. Civilised man with the highest scientific and technical training and commanding the accumulated wealth of ages of civilised life may still be morally bad even devilish and if he is he is so much the more dangerous. The highly developed human mind and the highly developed human civilisation may come to a point where they are capable of destroying all gains and goods in one frantic moment of diabolical madness.
This is why the modern identification of the idea of progress with the Biblical message of the kingdom of God is a demonstrable error which has most fatal effects. The idea of progress means a movement from here to there from below to above reaching more or less steadily towards a point in the far future in which perfection is conceived of as materialised. The Christian message of the coming kingdom however means just the opposite movement—a movement coming down from above to below from “heaven” i.e. from the transcendent to earth. Where it reaches the historical plane it breaks the framework of this temporal earthly existence. That is what is meant by resurrection parousia eternal life. The New Testament knows nothing whatever of a kingdom of God which develops according to the idea of progress slowly immanently from below upward. This so-called kingdom of God is simply an invention of the 19th century read into the Bible but not to be found there. It is a mixture of the New Testament message and modern evolutionism out of which nothing good can come but only illusion disillusionment and final despair.
One last question has not yet been touched: From the point of view of Christian faith and hope what is the result and value of the historical process? This question cannot be answered by a simple scheme. The Christian expectation of the coming kingdom first of all places everything historical under the radical negation of the divine judgment. All human history is flesh taking the word in its Biblical sense. Therefore it is transient. From the texture of history the two dark threads of sin and death cannot be eliminated anywhere from the beginning to the end. They belong to the picture of historic life. History in its process already performs part of this judgment upon its own creations. “Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgeriche.” History devours its own children; whatever it brings forth passes away some day. This however is only one side of the picture. There is also continuity there is tradition there is historical heritage. Not every epoch begins anew from nothing. We all live from the stored-up wealth of previous ages. Eternal life is not only the negation but also the fulfilment of this earthly life. It is not only a new world but also the perfection of this world. Even our body which seems to be particularly perishable and unfit to inherit the eternal will be not simply destroyed but transformed into a completely obedient organ and expression of the life of the spirit.
If however we ask whether there is any part of this reality any element of our present experience which as such shall be deemed worthy to enter into the perfect eternal existence the answer must be Yes indeed there is one element which whilst being an experience within the Christian life will also be the element of eternal life namely love in the New Testament sense of Agapé. Neither the State nor culture and civilisation nor even faith and hope are that element which remains in eternity hut love alone. For God Himself is Love. That is why it is said that whilst all other things pass away including faith knowledge language and hope love alone remains and this love is the principle of true humanity.