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Lezing George Pattison

Time and Eternity after the Death of God

Radboud Reflects, 12 mei 2016

Door theoloog George Pattison.

In most Western societies it seems that, despite the global superstar status of Pope Francis, despite the energy of manifold evangelistic movements, and despite the bewildering range of new spiritualities, religious belief is in a state of relentless decline, if, by religious belief, we mean belief in the ‘one, eternal God’ of traditional Christian teaching.

This process of decline has often been associated with secularization, the process by which religion has been progressively losing the powers it once enjoyed in political, civic, and educational life. Throughout the 20th century, it was widely believed that this process was inevitable and would, in the near future, lead to the elimination of religion from the public sphere. Yet religion has proved more tenacious than many of its critics had imagined, and by the end of the 20th century many were talking about a ‘return of religion’ whilst some have even claimed that we are now in a post-secular age. ‘Religion’, it is said, is now an acceptable marker of social identity and should be recognized as such in the formulation and application of public policy. But beyond acknowledging the need to respect beliefs and associated practices that may seem alien or mistaken, it is evident that most European nations continue to move towards an ever more rigorous neutrality as regards the conflicting claims of various religious groups, intervening only when these tip over into, e.g., abuse of children or terror. There is no indication of any move back towards the situation that prevailed across Europe between 1500 and 1900 when the state typically endorsed and gave active support to one particular Christian Church, Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox. In this situation, it seems to me that we have to accept that we are indeed living in a secular age.

But this is not just a matter of public policy at the macro level. It is also apparent at the level of local and specific religious practice. For a long time, clergy could console themselves with the thought that whatever people believed, they still turned to the Church for the defining rites of passage, baptism, marriage, and death. But these too have been in significant decline. In England, baptisms per live birth dropped from almost 70% in 1920 to approximately 20% in 2007. More dramatically, changes in marriage legislation that have made Caribbean beaches or Himalayan mountaintops photogenic venues for tying the knot have given impetus to a similar decline in marriages. At the start of the 20th century about 90% of all weddings took place in Church. In the mid-1960s the figure was still over 60% but by 2011 it had declined to less than 30%. Perhaps even more rapid is the decline in Church funerals. Between 2000 and 2008 the Church of England saw a fall of 19% in the number of Church funerals. Perhaps it is no less significant  that religious services themselves have often abandoned traditional liturgies, embracing strongly personalized elements, as in the funeral service for Diana Princess of Wales. Similarly, preaching on the four last things has largely been replaced by some kind of eulogy. Musically, the 23rd Psalm has been threatened by or even overtaken by ‘I did it my way’ and (I shudder to say it) Monty Python’s 'Always look on the bright side of life'.

How, then, can Christian Churches respond to this situation? I focus my response on death, since, I believe, this brings us most directly to some of the core issues about the meaning and nature of God in relation to human lives. In the end, however, any Christian view will necessarily maintain that birth, love, and death will, in the end, bring us to the same point. So, in a culture marked by the death of God, what can we say about God that might throw any light on death? Conversely, how can our present-day experience of death provide any point of contact for the Christian imperative to talk about God?

Of course, these are questions that need to be addressed at multiple levels and pastoral, liturgical, and doctrinal approaches are all equally valid. My own approach is that of a philosopher of religion and the philosophy of religion cannot prescribe how the Church might mark a death, counsel the bereaved, or reframe its preaching on death and eternal life. Philosophy is not life but only reflection on life and, as such, can provide only the broadest orientation in relation to concrete existential questions—although we might remember that, from Plato to Heidegger, philosophy has, as a matter of fact, consistently concerned itself with preparation for death and Spinoza’s assertion that death should be the least of philosophy’s concerns is the exception that proves the rule.

How then does philosophy come into the complex of questions about death, God, and our secular age that I have just sketched?

A central point in the religious response to death has long been the twofold assertion that whilst, on the one hand, human life is utterly inconstant, marked throughout by change, decay and, eventually death, God is unchanging, above or beyond time—in a word, ‘eternal’. As the psalmist put it, ‘The days of man are but as grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; when the wind blows over it, it is gone and its place will know it no more’. But, the psalm continues, ‘The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting’. God is not affected by the law that ‘all things must pass’ and this is precisely why we can and do turn to God when death reveals the radical impermanence of human life and the reality that everything and everyone we hold dear is threatened with annihilation and oblivion. As one well-known English hymn puts it, turning this abstract truth into a plea for help: ‘Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changes not, abide with me’. To be saved is, on this view, to be saved from time. It is therefore telling that both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, the two most influential teachers of Catholic Christendom, envisaged eternal life as a life in which we would be re-formed into a likeness of divine immutability, gazing in everlasting and unbroken joy at the divine presence.

This claim itself reflects the classical Christian doctrine, both Catholic and Protestant, that God is and must be eternal, immutable, unchanging, and timeless.  This Christian idea of eternity was formulated by the 5th-6th century Christian philosopher Boethius as follows:

Eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlast­ing life; this will be clear from a comparison with creatures that exist in time. Whatever lives in time exists in the present and progresses from the past to the future, and there is nothing set in time which can embrace simultaneously the whole extent of its life: it is in the position of not yet possessing tomorrow when it has already lost yesterday. In this life of today, you do not live more fully than in the fleeting and transitory moment. Whatever, therefore, suffers the condition of being in time, even though it never had any beginning, never has any ending and its life extends into the infinity of time, as Aristotle thought was the case of the world, it is still not such that it may properly be considered eternal.

Being eternal is an integral part of what God is, a point vividly evoked in James Moffatt's early 20th century translation of the Hebrew Bible’s name for God, Yahweh, as 'the Eternal' ('the Lord' in KJV), a translation also favoured by modern Jewish translators. But what, then, is God's eternity? How are we to think of it? Can we think of it?

Modern philosophers have in fact widely questioned whether the idea of such an eternal and unchangeable being is at all conceivable. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, probably the most influential European philosopher of the 20th century, argued in his 1927 book Being and Time that time is the horizon of the meaning of being—in other words, there is nothing that we can meaningfully think, say or do that is not marked through and through by time. Leaving to one side questions about mathematics and logic, this would seem to be a very plausible claim about anything that concerned the actual existence and life of living human beings. Even articulating claims about timeless truths can only be done through sentences that take time to speak, write, or even think. To find out what I am trying to say, you must listen to me and keep on listening until I am finished. And if at some point you suddenly see in a flash what I’m saying, this moment of vision is meaningful only in relation to the sequence of words that I have laid out in time and, if you really do see what I am saying, you can only demonstrate your understanding by setting it out in a new sequence of temporally extended sentences.

In relation to my opening comments about our secular age, it is then unsurprising that the word secular itself derives from the Latin ‘seculum’ meaning a generation, an age, a century, a time, and thus, as Riddle’s 1840 Latin dictionary puts it, ‘the manner of the age in which we live’. That a secular age defines itself precisely by such a time-word seems then to fit with the philosophers’ claim that time is indeed the horizon, the sole horizon, for the meaning of human life.

But if this is true, then it would seem that there is no place for any meaningful talk about a timeless, eternal God. Quite consistently, Heidegger was therefore critical of Christian thinkers such as Kierkegaard, who, he said, tried to explain time by reference to eternity. No, he insisted, time can only be understand in terms of concepts and categories that are themselves derived from and relatable to time. In this regard, Heidegger probably understood himself to be endorsing Nietzsche’s statement about the death of God, since, for Nietzsche, the death of God inaugurated an age in which there was nothing but becoming, nothing but process, nothing but time, and the only kind of eternity still possible was the eternal recurrence of time itself. In other words, there is no eternity outside of or beyond the temporal processes of life itself.

However (and this is a crucial point), in other lectures, Heidegger also said that our concepts of time and eternity are relative, so that if our concept of time changes, then our concept of eternity will also change. Although he himself did not develop this thought very far, it seems to suggest an interesting alternative. Rather than just abandoning the idea of the eternal or of eternity, maybe the modern experience of time might be the starting-point for a new idea of eternity.

And here I return to the manner of our contemporary ‘secular’ relation to death. Here, it is striking that despite what the philosophers say, popular non- or quasi-religious culture continues to speak of 'eternal love' or 'eternal remembrance' without embarrassment. As one popular inscription on bereavement cards puts it, ‘to live in the hearts of those we love is not to die’. To be remembered is to live on, beyond death; it is, somehow, to rise above time as a mere sequence of change and decay. This year, of course, has been a year of almost non-stop celebrity deaths, of which the death of David Bowie was perhaps the most extensively commented. Listening to the radio, I heard one interviewee say that the singer had made himself 'immortal' through his art. This, of course, reflects long-standing Romantic and even earlier beliefs about art, as in the medieval poem ‘The House of Fame’: as the Jewish novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer put it ‘In art as in our dreams, death does not exist’, a sentiment to which Marcel Proust’s remembrance of things past also bears witness. However, in a secular age in which we seem no longer to believe in the possibility of eternity it's easy--especially for professional philosophers and theologians--to dismiss such talk as nothing more than emotional overdrive. In other words, when people say 'Forever' they just mean 'for a long time'. Surely, deep down, we all know that we who remember the dead will, with all our memories also soon pass into oblivion? But is such a dismissive response sufficient? Even if it is true that we live in an age of hyperbole, it seems to me that the breadth and tenacity of 'eternal-talk', even when not backed up by 'God-talk' calls for interpretation.

In the 1990s, the English philosopher of religion Don Cupitt wrote a trio of studies on 'the religion of everyday life' in which he attempted to look at how 'religious' themes are present in everyday figures of speech and to see these as revelatory of what people today actually believe, more so than answers to opinion poll questions that may not be framed in terms of any vocabulary they themselves use. Perhaps the most persuasive of his examples related to the ways in which 'Life' is now often used in ways that would once have invoked God: 'Life', he found, is something people feel obliged to trust, to believe in, to accept--a power not ourselves that both limits and grounds our possibilities: 'there's nothing you can do about it, it's just life', 'that's life'. This merits reflection. So too, I suggest, does the cluster of terms that includes ‘the eternal’, ‘eternity’, ‘immortal’ and ‘immortality’, ‘undying’ and ‘forever’. But, what kind of religious commitment, if any, or what relation to the particular cultural inheritance of Christianity does such language suggest?

We have seen that 'The Eternal' is one of the classic names of God, mostly understood, following Boethius, as meaning beyond or above time, that is,  as meaning that God is ‘timeless’. But apart from our secular age’s acceptance of time as the horizon of the meaning of human life, there are reasons to question whether such a negative view of God’s relation to time is really what Christianity most wants to say about God.

In fact, the 20th century saw a growing lobby in favour of the view that timelessness is actually not appropriate to the biblical God, who is very much a God who has temporal purposes, who acts in time, and who responds to what happens in time. The movement known as process theology, especially influential in the United States, was a theological movement that defined itself in terms of its insistence on there being a divine temporality, but many other non-process theologians came to subscribe more or less implicitly to such a temporal--or at least partially temporal--God. Richard Swinburne, one of the most influential figures in recent British philosophy of religion started out as a vigorous defender of divine timelessness but later embraced the idea of a temporal God, asserting that this does not make God time's prisoner and does not imperil God’s role as Lord of time. This invites detailed philosophical cross-examination, but the case is interesting. Another contemporary British philosopher of religion, Keith Ward, is even more vigorous in his support for a temporal God: ‘May there not be in God an element of creative spontaneity, so that he can freely generate new ideas, just as a human artist creates new tunes or patterns of colour?’, Ward ask, adding that ‘The archetypal world may not be immutably fixed; it may well be modifiable by the creative intellect’ so that ‘there is no stock of eternal ideas, but a constantly changing state of imaginatively created ideas’. Most succinctly, Ward states that ‘God is unlimitedly potential and therefore ceaselessly changing’ so that, even for God ‘the future is truly open and undecided’.

But what can such speculations on God’s time really mean? If we bear in mind Heidegger’s statement that the meaning of eternity will always be correlative to the meaning of time, then perhaps it would be easier for us to start not with God, but with time. How might we think time in such a way as to open a path to rethinking the question of God’s eternity?

As we look back over the history of ideas, it seems that we have inherited what we might alternatively see as infuriatingly contradictory or richly diverse resources. On the one hand there is a tradition that seems set on thinking time in the mirror of essentially non-temporal categories, a tradition going back to Aristotle's attempt to define time by measuring the distance covered by the movement of the heavenly bodies. On the other hand we have the tradition paradigmatically formulated by Augustine and corresponding to the biblical experience of the days of man being but as grass that sees time as a succession of empty moments: a past that no longer is, a future that is not yet, and a moment that is gone in the moment we try to think it. On this latter view, time is self-consuming, tending to the oblivion of all that lives, and thinks, and moves in time.

Corresponding to these conceptions of time are (a) a conception of the eternality of God that is ultimately cosmological and mathematical and lacking in soteriological persuasiveness for beings whose self-experience is inseparable from the experience of their own temporality or (b) a conception of eternality as the opposite of time--i.e., the timeless God of classical theism whose saving power is precisely the power to save us from time.

Missing, however, is an account of time in which time is granted its proper primordiality, i.e., in which is acknowledged as an original and ubsubstitutable dimension of being, and experienced as positive, i.e., as a good and perfect gift of God in creation, perhaps even rising up to salvation. A move in this direction was made by Bergson, but whether it has been fully developed philosophically or theologically is an open question.  It is, however, in this direction that my own concern to rethink the character of time-experience lies. In other words, the question as to how God might be 'eternal' leads us back to what, in human time-experience, grounds the very meaningfulness of the question of eternity. But how are we to identify this eternal aspect, dimension, or opening of time in human life.

An important figure in modern reflection on the question of time is the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard attacked the idea that human beings can have a view of things sub specie aeternitatis, in the aspect of eternity, as some philosophers thought.  However, he did also introduce the idea of what he called the ‘moment of vision’, the Øjeblik, the flash of the eye, in which we ‘see’, as it were, what’s going on in time, corresponding, he said, to the New Testament’s idea of a ‘fullness of time’ or the ‘eschatological atom’ of time in which, as Paul put it, we shall, at the end of time, be changed. If time can yield such moments of fullness then it is no longer just the mere vanishing of empty moments but, perhaps, may be open to the presence of the eternal in time, even, Kierkegaard suggests, a gift of the eternal. Yet he still insisted (against Hegel) that this didn’t make eternity into an object of knowledge: we cannot know eternity though we can relate to it through prayer, gratitude, and praise. If, for Nietzsche, there is, eternally, nothing but time, for Kierkegaard there is eternally more to time than time or, to emphasize the personalist and eschatological orientation of Kierkegaard's thought, there shall be more to time than time: time is eternally rising up to or opening out towards the immeasurable time of God.

But what can this mean?

Fully to answer this last question we must take into account that time-experience is not something that occurs in a vacuum. We only ever experience time as one dimension of lived human life and time as such is only experienced in terms of its relation to life's other fundamental dimensions, eminently our relation to other human beings. Thus, the experience of time as empty succession--'the days of man are but as grass'--is not simply a response to our own sense of being individually thrown towards death, as Heidegger would have it. The issue is not just that I must die, that I must pass away and my world with me. The issue, as my remarks about the persistence of 'eternity-talk' in the context of bereavement indicate, is at least as much about the experienced deaths of others as it is about the dread of my own annihilation. It is the experience that everything that makes life worth living, all that we love best and those we love best, that is, the places, objects, events, causes, and people who co-constitute the framework of meaningfulness in which we live and move and have our being, are marked by radical transiency. The sting of oblivion is that it is not just the oblivion of individual self-consciousness but oblivion of the entire world to which self-consciousness belongs.

One response to this situation is to withdraw our investment in the meaningfulness of such relationships, as perhaps expressed in the ubiquitous expression 'I've moved on'. Denial of death transmutes into denial of mourning, but this (I suggest) is ultimately to concede the leading part to oblivion, implying as it does that nothing really matters that much. This, I suggest, is a real and present danger of our time.

What, then, might give us grounds for hope that oblivion does not have the last word? Where better to look than to what, on a generous interpretation, lies behind declarations of undying memory, that is, to the experience of love?      One of the most insistent attempts in modern English literature to counter the Nietzschean version of eternal recurrence with a counter-discourse of love is the poetic work of the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959). As a young man Muir came under the spell of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but later realized that eternal recurrence meant denying the meaningfulness of time's lived fullness. If all things recur eternally, then, Muir writes, the crucifixion was a sham—as he put it:  'the Actor on the Tree/ Would loll at ease, miming pain,/ And counterfeit mortality' ('The Recurrence'). Eternal recurrence was also a denial of the meaningfulness of Muir's own experience of love for his wife, his friends, and, importantly, for the generations subject to the world wars, genocides, and mass migrations of his time. Muir was not ignorant of the annihilating power of time, yet, equally, he regarded time as the necessary condition of meaningful life.

In the poem ‘Love in Time’s Despite’ from the 1949 collection The Labyrinth, Muir writes of the lovers’ relation to time that ‘we who love and love again can dare/ To keep in his despite our summer still,/ Which flowered, but shall not wither, at his will’. Time, in this perspective, is what gives us the possibility of love and, once this possibility is given, it cannot be withdrawn. But this statement must be qualified. In the poem ‘Love’s Remorse’ Muir writes that ‘Love is exempt from time.’ ‘And that is true,’ he adds, although adding that it is ‘only the truth’, that is, only love’s truth, that is ‘always new’, whilst ‘we, the loved and the lover, we grow old’. Here, then, is a complex interplay of time as effecting the irreversible and inevitable decay and annihilation of our human powers whilst nevertheless revealing the truth of love and, in that sense—perhaps!—bringing love to its highest fruition.

Time—and this is certainly no new thought—is therefore essentially ambiguous, a Janus-faced phenomenon that reveals a basic choice at the heart of human existence. Perhaps Muir's sharpest statement of the paradox at issue here is in the closing lines of the posthumously-published poem 'The Heart Could Never Speak': 'Time, merciful lord,/ Grant us to learn your word'. We may read these lines either as addressed to the 'merciful lord' of Christian faith and as praying for time in which to learn the divine word or as lines addressed to Lord Time, praying for the word that Time alone can bestow. But, either way, this word is, simply, the word of love that is God's gift and time's.

Here, then, we have a vision of time in which time's truth is not that it reveals the emptiness of all worldly concerns and all worldly loves but that it reveals what endures in such concerns and loves, what is of most value, what is essential, in them. And, for Muir, it is important to add that the power of love is not just limited to lovers’ enduring love for one another.  It is also the affirmation of our solidarity with all who stand under the rule of time.

A major theme of Muir’s poetry is what he calls ‘The Journey Back’, that is, the psycho-analytically enabled journey back through successive layers of his psychic existence, setting out (as he puts it) to ‘Seek the beginnings, learn from whence you came, / And know the various earth of which you are made’. This takes him through the embedded memories of his father’s world and back to the archaic, prehistoric world out of which his human lineage emerged. At this level we can see that there is more to such an inner journey back than simply tracking one's own inner identity. Muir confessed to an abiding ‘socialism’ and an important aspect of that has to do with his sense of solidarity with the many generations of poor Orkney farmers from whom he was descended. For Muir the self is what it is as a part of and in solidarity with the larger human community, the tribe, the people, ‘all we’ (as the opening words of one poem have it). It did not choose this history or this descent, but it is an essential element in its journey to itself that it learns its identity with all who have gone before.

What Muir is talking about here is, I think, what is expressed in more theoretical terms by the Russian religious philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev and which he called ‘creative memory’:

Memory of the past is spiritual; it conquers historical time. This . . . [is] a creatively transfiguring memory. It carries forward into eternal life not that which is dead in the past but what is alive, not that which is static in the past but what is dynamic. This spiritual memory reminds man, engulfed in his historical time, that in the past there have been great creative movements of the spirit and that they ought to inherit eternity. It reminds him also of the fact that in the past there lived concrete beings, living personalities, with whom we ought in existential time to have a link no less than with those who are living now. Society is always a society not only of the living but also of the dead; and this memory of the dead . . . is a creative dynamic memory. The last word belongs not to death but to resurrection. But resurrection is not a restoration of the past in its evil and untruth, but transfiguration.[1]

In one respect, Berdyaev is here repeating in his own way the Renaissance humanist creed concerning our possible communion with past minds. Yet he also gives this a Christian twist. This is not just a matter of communing with the great minds and great books of the past but, in that communion, finding also a path to the future. In this way, the revelation in and through time of what shows itself as creative and significant also becomes a ground for hope, hope that time is not just endless vanishing into emptiness, but possibility of transfiguration and resurrection, the eschatological and utopian hope for a time in which we can build our houses, sing our songs and lift our hands to some God (to borrow some further lines from Edwin Muir).

Muir, as we have seen, connects the saving possibilities of time to the revelation, in time, of a word. For Muir, as a poet, this is proximately the poetic word, the word that he as poet is called to speak: 'The heart could never speak/ But that the Word was spoken' and it is the Word spoken in time, the word of time itself, that, in the timed rhythm of poetic discourse, brings this utopian possibility to view. But, precisely as a poetic word, it is not a word of knowledge but of promise, the promise that we shall be faithful; it is not a word of teaching--he laments the Calvinist creed that makes God 'three angry letters in a book'--but of prayer.

Alongside his work as a poet, Edwin Muir and his wife Willa translated a number of seminal works of German literature into English, including Hermann Broch’s novel The Sleepwalkers. In an essay on ‘The Disintegration of Values’ interspersed into the pages of the novel Broch argued that the dominance of reason and autonomy in modern society leads to ‘the unaccented vacuum of a ruthless absoluteness, in which the abstract Spirit of God is enthroned . . . reigning in sorrow amid the terror of dreamless, unbroken silence that constitutes the pure [i.e. abstract, formless] Logos’.[2] Yet, Broch adds, no matter how far we go in the direction of the ‘muteness of the abstract’, there remains ‘the voice that binds our loneliness to all other lonelinesses, and it is not the voice of dread and doom; it falters in the silence of the Logos and yet is borne by it, raised over the clamour of the non-existent. It is the voice of man and of the tribes of men, the voice of comfort and hope and immediate love: “Do thyself no harm! for we are all here!”’.[3]

This, then, is an experience of time that, interwoven with a fundamental experience of solidarity with the human other, all human others, offers potential redemption from the oblivion with which time, the ever-rolling stream, continually threatens us. Again, however, I must stress that this is a hope that cannot be transcribed into any science, theological or otherwise. It cannot justify its claim that memory stretches to eternity, and since 'modesty befits mortals' it may be wise not to throw such claims around too freely. But, in repudiating oblivion, and concretely death, as the measure by which time's ceaseless flux is to be measured, it opens a vista onto the measureless depth of time that establishes a context of meaning both for the 'eternal memory' of the dead and also for the faith that in death as in life we are always journeying before the face of an eternal God.

[1] Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom, p. 111.

[2] Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers, tr. Willa and Edwin Muir (London: Quartet, 1986), 639–40.

[3] Broch, The Sleepwalkers, 648.