Saturday 17 June 2023

Christianity in time, in history

I was reading a chapter by RJ Reilly called "A note on Barfield, romanticism and time"; in the 1976 Owen Barfield Festschrift "The Evolution of Consciousness" - in which Reilly begins by making some striking and insightful points about the fact that Christianity is located in history, posits a sequence of events that are changes, and a goal (i.e. resurrection, everlasting Heavenly life). 

It would seem obvious that the metaphysical roots, its most most fundamental assumptions, would include 'time' - not Time as some kind of separable abstract entity; but time inextricably woven into the basic assumed realities of Christianity.

Yet (as Reilly's chapter goes on to describe) many Christians - especially among philosophers and theologians - have felt it necessary to root Christianity in the Time-less and the unchanging. This decision - sooner or later, somewhere or another - leads to a contradiction; whereby the historical, sequential nature of Christianity meets-up with its supposed eternal but unchanging ground. 

The contradiction may linguistically be reframed - as a paradox, mystery, polarity, or whatever; but I regard these tactics as ultimately hypnotic word-spells, intended to stop-thinking. 

It is extremely rare to come-across a Christian who accepts what I regard as the necessity to base Christianity in ultimate metaphysical explanations that sustain the need for history, sequence, change, a goal...  

Barfield himself was Not one of these Christians. He continued to try and ground time-located/ directed Christianity in "the unchanging" - he merely attempted this in a different place and with a different terminology; but with the same contradiction (as indeed there must always be since a situation of change and no-change cannot be combined). 

This feeling that changelessness, no-time, is The ultimate reality - permeates Eastern Religion in general, and much of Western - such as Platonism and its developments - but it is in practice an "elite" concern. It seems that intellectuals - because of their propensity to speak and write in abstractions; are perhaps disposed to assume that such timeless and general entities are ultimate; and/or to regard the final goal of life as one of unchanging spiritual bliss - including an end to the thinking which is both the distinction and the curse of being an intellectual. 

The contradiction between the eternal and unchanging, and life, is necessarily found in all religions that include no-time as a fundamental assumption; although it varies where and how this contradiction is manifest. In Christianity, the contradiction undercuts the simplicity and clarity of understanding what Jesus did and taught. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the contradiction is instead between theory and practice - because the theory states that life is irredeemably worthless in its entirety.

Yet these are religions - making many discernments of values and practice, and having elaborate rituals, requirements, symbolism etc. There are all kinds of hypnotic word-spells that purport to join-together the time-less and time-bound; but they are psychological manipulations, not genuine understanding. 

Children, tribal peoples, and simple folk often have a very different way of talking about such things - yet typically implicit and unconscious; which is rooted in the assumption that the world is made of Beings - living, conscious, purposive Beings; that change and may transform, but can neither be created nor destroyed: they Just Are, and Always Have Been.

There never has been any good reason why Christianity shouldn't share exactly this 'primitive, Beings-based metaphysics - but explicitly rather than unconsciously and by implication; yet the first known person to understand Christianity in this apparently obvious and common-sensical fashion seems to have been Joseph Smith (the Mormon prophet) from about 1830!  

Neither Barfield, nor Steiner his Master, knew anything about Mormon theology, and did not make this inference on their own - so both remain captive to the contradiction. 

I regard it as a serious weakness of Christianity that the class of intellectuals and theologians have (like those of other religions) violated and over-written the innate and spontaneous assumptions about reality, with which we all came into the world; and replaced them with something that does not make sense.

Presumably, we are all intrinsically capable of recovering our original unconscious child's understanding, of making it conscious to our adult minds, and choosing to accept it as true.  

That sounds simple and easy, but the rarity with which it is achieved suggests that - although it may indeed be simple - it is not easy. 

Metaphysics never is easy to do; which is why our Western world is so deeply and widely corrupted, and still getting worse. 


William Wildblood said...

I admit that at one time I shared this attitude that true reality, the core of the mystical life, lies in the timeless state but you have to ask yourself what this actually means. It sounds good because time is change and pure being must be the highest state and that must be unchanging. But then it means that nothing ever happens. Everything just is in the eternal now, not static because that implies frozen time but not dynamic either. So, now the conclusion I must come to is that time and timelessness coexist. Being and becoming are two sides of the same coin and together they make life eternally new and creative. This is so much better than just of those states on their own.

Of course, there is a lot more to understand about this (!) but perhaps in Christian terms this is why the Father needs the Son and vice versa.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - " time and timelessness coexist. Being and becoming are two sides of the same coin"

I don't understand what it could mean that that "time and timelessness coexist"; but I do agree that being and becoming are indeed aspects of the same living entity/ process. That is the main thing, because time/ timelessness are - ultimately - just abstractions from that whole which is the self-sustaining nature of "a being".

William Wildblood said...

I mean that both are fundamental aspects of reality and one is not an ultimate non-existent that is swallowed up in the other. They both contribute to the unfolding of more consciousness.

Epimetheus said...

Our sense of Time on this Earth is so bound up with mortality, anxiety, and deadlines. No wonder people think Heaven might be an escape from all that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Epi - Indeed. People seek an escape from suffering, pain, worry etc - they seek 'rest', and (without thinking much further) regard that as enough.

But - as William Arkle made clearer for me - after we are thoroughly rested; and with eternity stretching ahead... What then?