Friday 14 September 2012

Eternity as Out of Time


Theology and Philosophy at their most basic are concerned with the metaphysics of Time or Change - and the perception that there can be no knowledge of anything without reference to that which does not change and is therefore Out of Time.

The foundational problem of philosophy is therefore the relationship between Time and Eternity, between Change and the Permanent.

Thus the Ancient Jews founded theology and the Ancient Greeks philosophy in the sense that the Jews perceived that the one creator God must be unchanging and permanent and inhabit an eternal realm Out of Time, while the Greeks perceived the same but starting at the opposite end.

Eternity does not change and is thus Out of Time.


However, this matter is absent from most religions, and from the minds of most people: most religions and most people conceive of eternity as endless Time: Time that goes on forever.

On this understanding, eternity is (merely) change that goes on forever: thus eternity is conceived as either open-ended and never-repeating evolution, or else eternal recurrence.


Within Christianity the concept of Heaven as Out of Time is apparently restricted to the Catholic denominations (and to relatively few persons within these).

Clearly, the concept of Heaven as Out of Time, eternal, unchanging - is not necessary to salvation; and perhaps the best of Christians do not even ask such questions as lead to theology and philosophy.

But wrong philosophical answers to this question lead, recurrently, to such errors and stumbling blocks as the debates over predestination and 'the elect' - matters which were conclusively answered near the beginning of Christianity (on the basis of Heaven being Out of Time) by Boethius, among others; but which nonetheless came back to do considerable damage at the Reformation and since. 


And of course, every philosophical answer, no matter how correct and conclusive, leads onto further philosophical questions.

In this instance, philosophers ask how the eternal and the temporal realms are related; while Christians ask about the transition between Time and Eeternity which occurs at or around the time of death.

The Eastern Orthodox narrative of the soul guided by two angels through the upper airs, past toll houses inhabited by demons, for forty days before a first judgement as to its dwelling place - is one way of describing this which sticks to the concept of Time as linear and sequential. The Roman Catholic ideas of purgatory and limbo are other variations on the themes.

But none of the popular and accessible Christian accounts of what happens at death are able to say much about a transition between Time and Eternity (Out of Time); and indeed it is probably impossible to say anything more about this than Socrates/ Plato (who were probably the first to understand the problem).


In conclusion... if you have the kind of mind which sees the problem to which Eternity Out of Time is the answer - then you must not expect to get further precise and fully explanatory answer to the problems which follow on from this: the problems of the relationship and transition between Eternity Out of Time and Knowledge and this world we currently live in - this world of Time, Change, Decay and Illusion.



The Crow said...

It is the human mind that is unable to enter eternity.
The mind must be laid down at the gateway, and laid down, for good.
No mind-concept exists within eternity, so ideas such as 'time' are irrelevant, as is 'identity'.
All of this is completely compatible with the revelations of Jesus, which, as you may suspect, have been somewhat misinterpreted, over the centuries.
When you die, does your soul flower, or wither?
Each life is a preparation for this moment.
Success, or failure depends upon abandonment of all attempts at control, and of any notion of fear.

FHL said...

post 1 of 2
Despite my choice of academic study (philosophy), these questions and the answers given to them seem incomprehensible to me and have always been a burden on my back.

Metaphysics is both the soul and the curse of philosophy. Everyone has a metaphysical belief, but all metaphysical beliefs are either incomplete, inadequate, or self-contradictory -or perhaps all three. (I wrote a paper on this where I argued that "pure philosophy" was impossible and that metaphysics was bound to collapse so long as it was detached from experience- which I termed "natural metaphysics"- and bumpers to contain your thoughts -which I identified as Divine Revelation.)

As for what happens after death, I suspect it is closely related to what happens before death... you continue to grow in holiness on a linear yet infinite path. C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, spoke of those in Heaven continuously traveling towards the sunrise, yet never quite reaching it.

Like calculus, you can continuously approach the limit, but even though there is indeed a real, specific, and solid limit, you can never quite reach it.

If you were to look at a graph of certain equations, you would see that great gains seem to be made towards reaching the limit at first. But as one approaches the limit it appears that things slow down. But gains are still being made, although on a smaller scale. And if you were to zoom further into the graph, blowing up a particular section several degrees in magnitude, it could appear that great gains are still being made.

So when a person starts out on the Christian path, his dilemmas are large and visible to all: "I'm an adulterer," "I'm a drunk," hell, perhaps even (God forbid) "I'm a murderer." Then, as the path to salvation continues, more sins- relatively smaller ones, appear into consciousness (and perhaps they appear even before the first large sins have fully disappeared...). But these sins, although small relatively, do not appear so small to the Christian walking the path; this is because he has "zoomed in" his viewpoint and found them to be significant. And this is how we end up with saints such as Saint Augustine, who wept because he once ate pears off of a pear tree without permission and considered himself a worthless and lost sinner because he had pre-marital (yet completely legal) sexual relations with one single mistress, while in modern days we have drug-addicts who distress over their addictions and recognize them as grievous sins but pay no heed to their deviant sexual behaviors. Saint Augustine is, in a manner, "zoomed in" and focused on details we consider minor but he considers major.

Likewise is the example of the Egyptian monk (I unfortunately forgot his name) who broke into tears and wept bitterly whenever he remembered the time when, as a child, he saw a cucumber fall off of a cart and ate it, instead of returning it to the cart owner.

FHL said...

post 2 of 2

Then there are some people who are "zoomed in," but who would do better to "zoom out," because their "zooming in" is not done from a desire of holiness and the search of loving God, but from a desire to avoid the reality of their situation when they are "zoomed out." For example: those who feel terrible guilt at keeping a pencil borrowed to them, considering it theft, all the while participating in extravagant deviant sexual behaviors yet never considering it a serious sin. (But I cannot judge, so if you are in a similar position, don't think that I am judging you in particular or even giving you advice; I have no idea whether you should concern yourself more with this sin or that sin for the moment.)

I suspect that Heaven or Hell will be based on, like you said before, an orientation... there are those who approach the limit, and those who move away from it. Both are infinite in their progress yet both start to taper out and appear motionless past the median.

I do not understand how a human being can become infinite. Infinite in his essence, that is. I do understand how a human being can simply exist for infinity once he was been created, in, as you say, an infinite series of events. Neither do I understand how a human can even interact with infinity without the infinite humbling itself into our constrained terms. This is perhaps the Orthodox side of me popping out, but I would think that the essence of God, the essence of the eternal- that which has always been and that which will always be, not due to its "stability," but due to it's very nature being so- must be untouchable in itself.

Yet I am not so sure why this should be controversial; human beings do this to a certain extent. At my core, I have a soul (although an important difference is that it is not stable and unchanging like God), yet that soul is never interacting completely with another in its fullness. No, instead, I reach out with small bits and small actions, piece by piece- physics, sound waves, light waves, that is what comes out of my soul to interact with the soul of another, whom I only know through, once again, physics, sound waves, light waves...

...any-who... I don't mean to speak any theological truths, just some thoughts, please ignore me, I'm crazy.

Oh, but I really like this part: "Clearly, the concept of Heaven as Out of Time, eternal, unchanging - is not necessary to salvation; and perhaps the best of Christians do not even ask such questions as lead to theology and philosophy."

It reminds me of a quote I posted on here before by Saint Augustine, but this time I will repost it within its context:

"Or is there any other source from which being and life could flow into us, save this, that thou, O Lord, hast made us -- thou with whom being and life are one, since thou thyself art supreme being and supreme life both together. For thou art infinite and in thee there is no change, nor an end to this present day -- although there is a sense in which it ends in thee since all things are in thee and there would be no such thing as days passing away unless thou didst sustain them. And since 'thy years shall have no end,' thy years are an ever-present day. And how many of ours and our fathers' days have passed through this thy day and have received from it what measure and fashion of being they had? And all the days to come shall so receive and so pass away. 'But thou art the same'! And all the things of tomorrow and the days yet to come, and all of yesterday and the days that are past, thou wilt gather into this thy day.

What is it to me if someone does not understand this? Let him still rejoice and continue to ask, 'What is this?' Let him also rejoice and prefer to seek thee, even if he fails to find an answer, rather than to seek an answer and not find thee!"

-from The Confessions, Book 1

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

“…relationship and transition between Eternity Out of Time and Knowledge and this world we currently live in - this world of Time, Change, Decay…”

Thanks for this very interesting post.
I wonder if you ever read or heard about the “Memorial” theology. The word Jesus employed when he instituted the Eucharist is the Hebrew term “Zikkaron”, notably related to Exodus and the Passover. The Latin “Memorial” or the Greek “Anamnesis” do not correspond exactly because they connote recalling the memories of a past event. I was taught in theology that “Zikkaron” is more like the actualization or re-enacting of a sacred event (like the Passover liturgy) or of an original myth as described in Mircea Eliade’s book Sacred And Profane. Liturgy as well as myth do not recall the past, they put the participants in contact with eternal events. We step out of profane time to pass into sacred time, or eternity.

It makes much sense that the great Greek philosophers, whose religion was based on a mythology, and the great Christian theologians, who knew very well what “memorial” meant, made a relation between knowledge and a sacred world where there are times and places of brief passage into eternity before the definitive passage at the end of life.

There is nothing much to be found on the web except this article by a Jewish scholar on the Zikkaron:
and The Sacred and The Profane:

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - thanks for this. In passing, the analogy of an asymptotic curve is one I have come across, but it doesn't correspond to anything in my actual experience, so I don't personally find it very clarifying.

The trouble with all this area of discourse, is that it is so easy to produce an explanation which leaves things even less clear! Or clarifies for the speaker while obscuring matters for the listener.

But I think it is hard to think about Heaven at all unless we can recognize that Time is and must be qualitatively different; otherwise endless serial duration can take on a nightmarish and cloying quality, like some religions' ideas of Paradise.

And then we yearn for extinction to escape the endless cycle - even if the cycle is pleasurable taken a bit at a time, the idea that it goes on forever is unbearable.

So I sometimes think realistic, this worldly, 'in Time' descriptions of eternity may do more harm than good, no matter how pleasantly they are depicted.

But then, of course, Heaven is not for us as we are, but for us resurrected and perfected; and that would make a difference to everything.



I haven't read this under this name - but I am familiar with the concept; and indeed the experience when I participate in the Eucharist and it 'goes well' (which has been most of the time, I am grateful to say). I mean the sense of re-enacting a sacred event in an eternal sacred time.

Conviction of the reality or validity of this personal experience is vital to many of my views.

FHL said...

I understand. While I sometimes delight in the idea that "It will never end! We will keep marching forward!" it also can seem like a mule being ridden by a man holding a carrot on a fishing pole. Endless anticipation.

Or just endless repetition.

But then the idea of "unchanging" can also seem to me like "frozen" or, even worse, death. No motion at all, not even of thought, seems (to me at least) to resemble nothingness- that is: annihilation, the blackness, Sheol, the land of shadow, an ancient Greek after-life; something like the Hindu idea of Nirvana, where you are absorbed into the godhead and lose all identity but escape the never-ending cycle.

But I'm sure that's not what you meant. It is difficult to put into words that which we only have faint impressions of. Like trying to describe color to a blind man.

It troubles me to think about it sometimes; the idea of eternity is frightening to the core. No matter which way it is presented, there will always be an anxiety- "that sounds nice and all, but... forever?"

I wrote on here awhile ago, during a darker mood, that sometimes I fear that God does not know who we are, and that when we get to Heaven, it will be terrible and miserable.

But I must put these thoughts out of my mind.

Sometimes there is too much of a focus on "what is it?" rather than "who is it?" Sometimes musings on Heaven and the afterlife in general can end up focusing simply on virtues, and legalistic proceedings and ideals, making it seem that Earth is a training camp for some future bigger training camp. "Lift weights here so you can lift bigger weights then." But no one lifts weights just to lift bigger weights later...

Maybe these all miss the heart of the matter? Like presenting Ecclesiastes without the Song of Songs?

"Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Bruce Charlton said...

Perhaps this is all a way of showing how God cannot be known except via Christ (that one must be a Christian) - we can know and love Christ without understanding because he is a Man; and this is what matters. We cannot understand Heaven because it is incomprehensible, but this does not matter since we have Christ's assurance.

All intellectuals are sophomoric (wise fools) - present company (you and me) *not* excepted!