Eternity Now

By Pete Seiferth

In what follows, I will play with the notion of time. As Christians, we can be sure of two facts relating to time. For one, it did not always exist, but rather began. Both Genesis and John give witness to “the beginning.” Second, as Creator, God invented time. We can further see that our creaturely existence limits us to experiences in three spatial dimensions, yet only one moment at a time. How do we view these moments of/in time? How do they relate? Do they connect to the beginning? …the end? What difference does being a Christian make in these days when everyone is trying to keep up with the frenetic and frantic pace of life? Below I will delve into these questions and draw in some of Jürgen Moltmann’s thoughts about time as well. While not considered an “evangelical theologian,” Moltmann provides some challenging ways to freshen how we see and experience time and eternity.

A Kairos Moment

It was the day of my fortieth birthday, a Thursday. I had some time between appointments, and I was in the right neighborhood. Feeling something between entitled and opportunistic, I stopped in at a local store called “The Girls.” The shop features a three-week rotation of estate sale merchandise. The Girls do a brisk business liquidating the remaining material possessions of estates; items available since they are no longer needed by the original owners. I imagine that all the stuff has a forgotten story. On Thursdays, the goods that have been there for three weeks get marked down 60%. Every Thursday is a last chance for new utility.

I did not know a thing about pocket watches when I first picked this one up. The front popped open and “Swiss Made” was printed on the watch face, along with “17 Jewels.” The second hand was motionless, and I remembered legends of an age when watches needed daily winding. I wound it, and the second hand immediately began smoothly sweeping around the face. I was drawn to its analog simplicity: old fashioned, retro cool, low tech, yet mechanically beautiful. I wondered what kind of day it had been, the day that its original owner saw it brand new. There was no time like the present to present myself with this present. I was just a couple minutes behind schedule to meet a friend, to discuss developing this issue you are reading –an issue about time!

Time Today

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Notice all the temporal words in the description above: Birthday. Thursday. Time. Appointment. Week. Last chance. Watch. Second. Daily. Hour. Old. Retro. Day. New. Present. Minute. Schedule.

Charles Taylor has observed that “the disciplines of our modern civilized order have led us to measure and organize time as never before in human history.” Modern western secular culture is enveloped in a tightly managed time environment which seems, to us, natural. Time is a precious resource. Taylor describes the modern notion of “time frames” as an example of what sociologist Max Weber referred to as an “iron cage.” A “stahlhartes Gehäuse” or “shell as hard as steel” was a metaphor to describe how increased rationalization integrated into the social life of developing western societies. Weber saw this as the development of social systems intent on trapping individuals to control and calculate efficient productivity. “We have constructed an environment in which we live in a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done.” [1]

Watches have become ubiquitous articles of material culture, which reinforce and remind of the time environment we live in. Precise time pieces were not necessary until other technological advances demonstrated the need. Railway tragedies spurred the need for greater standards of precision and reliable pocket watches.[2] The need for coordinating battlefield movements led to the innovation of wristwatches during World War I.

Why do we really care what time it is? A missionary to Africa recently told me about the satirical humor arising from a national campaign in the country of Rwanda called “Time is Money.” This concept is not foreign to Westerners, but is difficult to relate to for many Rwandans. In Africa, “I will be there at ten o’clock” really means: “I will be there at ten o’clock as long as I don’t see a friend to talk to, and as long as the bus is running on time, and as long as nothing else happens along the way.” This idea of “African time” makes many uneasy, if not annoyed. My observation has been that people who have a higher degree of control over their lives (such as middle-class Americans) also have a greater expectation for themselves and others to be “on time.”

Time in Modernity

The era of modernity, ushered in by the Enlightenment age of reason was led by thinkers who were largely distrustful of previous ages whose pre-modern point of view were based in tradition, mystery, and mysticism. The resulting patterns in modernity sought to disassociate from subjective knowledge to a search for universal theories and patterns. Modernity introduced the notion of tabla rasa (clean slate) from which a new world could be discovered, understood, and controlled, to achieve predetermined outcomes of utopian proportions.[3] Steven Toulmin observes that after 1630, philosophers ignored the concrete, timely, and particular issues of practical philosophy and pursued theoretical issues in the abstract, timeless, and universal. Different from the renaissance humanists before them, who doubted rational certainty, the modern rationalists’ quest for certainty led them to abandon questions about local, transitory, or timely issues in favor of the universal, permanent, and timeless.

This modern worldview (or as Charles Taylor prefers, the “social imaginaries” worldview) continues to permeate western thinking in and out of the church. Particularly in America, social life tends to be based on individual freedoms and consumer preferences that allow for a life largely disconnected from local realities, wisdom rooted in traditions, or embodied relationships. Even many Christians seem to prefer to live an abstract disembodied spirituality which protects and isolates from others.[4]

As Taylor points out, unlike our ancestors, we tend to see our lives exclusively within the horizontal flow of secular time. Not that people don’t believe in God’s eternity…“but the imbrication of secular in higher times is no longer for many people today a matter of common, ‘naïve’ experience, something not yet a candidate for belief of disbelief because it is just obviously there.” In contrast, the liturgical calendars followed during the middle ages identified higher times as well as ordinary times. Good Friday could be considered closer to the crucifixion in a sense of higher time, than the summer solstice that year. Modern scientific culture sees time as homogeneous and secular, free to progress forward unhindered by the past.

Moltmann and The Way of Jesus Christ

Jürgen Moltmann’s Christological work was assigned reading at the mainline seminary I attended. While Moltmann is considered among the great theological minds of the twentieth century, Evangelicals rightly wince at many of his conclusions which he develops over the many volumes of his systematic theology. While Moltmann’s work may not be agreeable to many, he is concerned with being in dialogue with those who disagree. Moltmann, in the best sense seeks to break modern philosophical patterns which would produce a wooden, abstract, universal and disembodied theology. Moltmann’s intention in his Christology is to replace both the pre-modern cosmological paradigm of the patristic age, and the anthropological paradigm of the modern period by a new paradigm which he believes the contemporary post-modern context requires.[5]

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Moltmann’s work seeks to find its identity rooted in biblical origins and its relevance based in the contemporary significance to the current context. Moltmann finds Jesus’ identity originating in Messianic Judaism. Jesus is the one who is on his way to his messianic rule.

“The coming One is in the process of his coming and can be grasped only in that light: as on the road, and walking with us. But for that very reason every confession of Christ in the history of this unredeemed world has to be understood as a reaching out, an anticipation of the new creation in which every tongue will confess him…Every confession of Christ leads to the way, and along the way, and is not yet in itself the goal.”[6]

Moltmann seeks to speak to the modern paradigm which he asserts is in crisis for three reasons. First, that the prosperity of the global north and the poverty of the global south represents a global inequality which is not sustainable. Second, that the nuclear threat of weapons of mass destruction place humanity in a literal “end time” situation with the capability of ending all human life on earth. Third, that the values of modern industrial society have placed creation on the brink of ecological death.

Moltmann’s use of the metaphor of “the way” builds a theology which wrestles with both the concrete reality of the ethics of embodied life in the world, and the expectation that in God’s time, Jesus’ return will bring about the end to time as we know it in the bodily resurrection of the dead into eternity. First, the way orients us to the Messianic expectation that Jesus proceeds toward a goal. Biblically we see this as Jesus’ mission initially to Israel, then to the nations, and ultimately to the breadth and depth of the cosmos. Second, every way is an invitation and something to be followed.

“The way of Jesus Christ is not merely a Christological category. It is an ethical category too. Anyone who enters upon Christ’s way will discover who Jesus really is; and anyone who really believes in Jesus as the Christ of God will follow him along the way he himself took. Christology and christopraxis find one another in the full and completed knowledge of Christ.”

What is Time? How Do We Experience It?

Moltmann identifies seven building blocks of a historical theory of time in view of science, on the one hand, and theology, on the other hand.[7] These “building blocks” each provide a different perspective of looking at time. Some are apparent, and some require imagination as he tries to make abstract concepts understandable.

1) The present. The present is the key building block in thinking about time. The present is a point which cannot be perceived simultaneously, but only from a distance.

2) The connection of past, present, and future. There is an irreversible relationship between past, present, and future events as we think the linear and quantifiable (measureable) passage time. Along this timeline, the present can only be perceived as just past, or anticipated as almost future.

3) The quality of time as necessary, real and possible. The ontology (existence) of time suggests beyond the quantitative timeline, a qualitative correspondence between the past and the necessary (as it is unchangeable), the present and the real, and the future and the possible.

4) The subjective experience of historical time creates perceptions of the past as memories and thoughts of the future as expectations. Memory and expectation are coupled, interact, and are interpreted in the human life process of tradition and innovation. The presence of the past in memory is the necessary “experience-space” of reality. The presence of the future in expectation is the possible “expectation-horizon”.

5) The past plays a role in the present formulation of future hope. Since this is true for all ages, “we recall not only the past of our own present, but rather, more precisely, the past present.” Since every present moment is a coupling of memory and expectation, we can consider the past present of previous generations and their own perceptions of the real past and the expected future. For example, we can imagine what the reformers thought about their past present and how it shaped their expectations of a more or less, traditional or innovative future.

6) The presence of eternity in the historical moment. (Here, Moltmann gets a little heady.) If the previous building blocks have referred to the homogeneity of chronos, considering eternity in the present requires the ecstatic experience of the present as kairos. While the present from a chronos perspective visualizes the past and the future, the “spiritual present” always visualizes eternity “between the times” of the past and the future. Moltmann expresses this as a relative simultaneity of the past and the future through the power of memory and expectation. This presence of eternity in the historical moment is not the eternity of “wholly other” God, but the analogous, relative, participative eternity of God’s image on earth. Eternal life from this perspective is not about timelessness but the experience of the eternal in the moment. The desire for the eternal present arises out of such experiences of the present eternal. The “fulfilled life” which is lived in the moment makes us hungry and thirsty for the eternal “fullness of life.” It is due to this understanding that, Moltmann considers the contrast of “present eschatology” (the already here) and “futuristic eschatology” (the not yet) misleading. In truth, it is about an eschatology of the “presence of eternity” on the one hand, and the “eternal present” on the other hand. The former is the anticipation of the latter, and the latter the fulfillment of the former.

7) Death as the exit from time. Since modern times, Moltmann observes that death has been viewed as an exit into eternal nothingness. The experience of temporal life appears totally different if the exit from time is experienced in the fulfilled moment of present eternity. Eternal life begins here and now in the midst of transitory time. On the basis of this ecstatic experience of the present, death is not expected as the exit from time into eternal nothingness, but as the beginning of that transformation into eternal life which is fulfilled in the resurrection of the dead. In light of this expectation of the resurrection, time in its essence is not determined by transitory-ness but by future-ness. And it is expected, experienced and remembered in the corresponding “rebirth into a living hope” as the history of the future.

Relevance

I am reminded of a truth learned in childhood; that not everyone has the same notion of play and what is fun. If you’ve made it this far, you are probably wondering about the point of all this play. My hope is that a right view of time, and a biblical practice of “living time”[8] can contribute to a fruitful and edifying way of life and ministry which sees time as continually connected to eternity, and God’s purposes.

The Bible reminds us of God’s provision in creation, and interaction with his covenant people in history. “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28 NIV). Brother Lawrence reminds us that even in the mundane acts of temporal life, we may “practice the presence” of the eternal God, who exists outside of time, yet is in relationship with us through Jesus Christ in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Modernity influenced leadership in churches as the methods and techniques of modern corporations were applied by pastor “CEOs” in congregations. These are the same forces that have led us to feel driven or controlled by our wristwatches. Church leaders need to wrestle with the real consequences of the use of power and authority to impose “one size fits all” techniques to bring predetermined outcomes and impact. Have these techniques really developed God’s people as disciples of Jesus Christ who read, reflect, and interpret God’s word to live the eternal now which anticipates the coming Christ who is on the way?

Church leaders need to abandon the notion that there is ever a “blank slate” from which to step into congregational ministry. As long as there are people, there will be a “past present” and a set of expectations that are impossible to control and manage. And this is not a bad thing! For example, there is great promise in using such methods as Appreciative Inquiry[9] to bring the best memories to present conversations, in order to generate shared expectations of a vital future. Contextualized church leadership at its best invites the people of God to dwell in the Bible in order to bring their shared memories and expectations into focus –A focus that is illuminated by the in-breaking Reign of Christ.

A Final Word from Screwtape…

My dear Wormwood,

I had noticed, of course, that the humans were having a lull in their European war—what they naïvely call “The War”!—and am not surprised that there is a corresponding lull in the patient’s anxieties. Do we want to encourage this, or to keep him worried? Tortured fear and stupid confidence are both desirable states of mind. Our choice between them raises important questions.

The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present—either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.[10]


Footnotes

[1] Charles Taylor. A Secular Age. Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA. 2007. 57.

[2] The 1891 Kipton, OH train crash is cited as a factor by the Ball Watch Company in Webb C. Ball’s improvements in the railway time management system, time pieces, and the expression, “Get on the Ball.” http://www.ballwatch.com/global/en/company/history.html

[3] Steven Toulmin. Cosmopolis. The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. University of Chicago Press: Chicago. 1992.

[4] For more about the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism evident among American teens see: Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Oxford University Press, 2010. This is based on work by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton.

[5] Richard J Bauckham. Moltmann’s Messianic Christology. Scottish Journal of Theology. Vol 44, 1991 (519-531).

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993. 33.

[7] Jürgen Moltmann, What is Time? And How Do We Experience It? dialog: A Journal of Theology, 39:1, Spring 2000. pp27-34

[8] Verbs used to describe the action of time tend to reflect a modern partiality for consumerism (spend time), consumption (eat time), instrumental rationality (use time), or passivity (pass time). I’ve intentionally chosen to say “live time” though I understand the awkwardness in English.

[9] An excellent resource for to guide congregational leaders in implementing an Appreciative Inquiry process is: Mark Lau Branson. Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change (Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 2004).

[10] Lewis, C. S. (2011-04-05). The Screwtape Letters (Enhanced Special Illustrated Edition) (pp. 75-76). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Pete Seiferth

Pete Seiferth

Pete is a graduate of The University of Arizona (B.A. Anthropology & Religious Studies), Austin Seminary (M.Div.), and Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Min.). Pete serves as Associate Pastor for Discipleship and Multicultural Ministry at Northminster Presbyterian Church, in Tucson, AZ, where he works with disciples of all ages and among the church’s growing immigrant membership. He is married, and has two school-age sons, and two young Labradoodles.

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2 replies
  1. Avatar
    Jacob Zoller says:

    Hi Pete, I’m new to Resonance and I really enjoyed your thoughts!

    Time is a profound mystery that I love to probe, whether through philosophical articles or late night “Whoa” moments with my church youth students.

    Moltmann, N T Wright, and many others opened my eyes in seminary to the nature of Jesus’ basic announcement as eschatological, that the “time is fulfilled.” The kingdom has come and because we live in a new historical moment, everything has changed.

    I am really into time management and productivity. Perhaps the main thing I’ve found distinctive about Christian productivity is that we operate from a different perspective on time. It is not a scarce resource, but an unlimited one! God has gifted us eternal life and that life starts right now. That kairos perspective radically changes the way we order and use our chronos.

    Reply

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