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Telling Time: The Apologetic of the Present, Part 2

By Corey Latta

(Part 1)

Temporality, once reflected upon and resigned to, proclaims to humanity its essential question—the one Tolkien so eloquently asked—“what to do with the time given us.” It’s a common philosophical observation that time isn’t in itself material but is used to measure the distance, relationship, and alteration between material things. We measure our lives by time. We consider a relationship significant if it lasts fifty years. We call service to a job quality if it has the tenure of time. We want to make something of our lives in the time we have. We reflect on the past as a way to understand what kind of people we are. We look to the future in hopes that we won’t repeat the mistakes of today. We hope to leave moral legacies behind us as we near the end of our time.

Biblical authors understood the importance of time in creating moral urgency, and they often wielded timely rhetoric in attempts to empower their audiences to action. Jeremiah laments for the time wasted by his kinsman and delivers an urgent warning, “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, and we are not saved” (Jeremiah 8:20). Chiefly, the scripture writers emphasized the importance of the present. The temporal now is the only time to obey the will of Yahweh. 2 Corinthians 6:2 tells us that God proclaims, “At just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you. Indeed, the ‘right time’ is now. Today is the day of salvation.” If one is to know Christ, there is no other time in which to know him than the present. And since God meets me only in the always present and since existence, in response to God’s presence, isn’t actualized in past or future,[1] I have only this present moment to respond to God. The eternal Christ can’t be met yesterday or tomorrow, only in today’s exact now.

Perhaps no period of time has seen more attention paid to the present than the twentieth century. Writers like Joseph Conrad, Walter Benjamin, Paul Valery, Wyndham Lewis, and C. S. Lewis fore-fronted the importance of time as the ultimate measure of humanity’s existential significance. Through time, we know ourselves. In time, we become the people we desire or fear to be. By time, we measure the space between the meaningful moments in our lives. From time, we learn an Ecclesiastian mortality. For Christian writers like C. S. Lewis, time pressed upon the human soul with all the force of heaven and hell behind it. In The Great Divorce, Lewis’s most superb example of his theology of the present, a ghost with a little red lizard on his shoulder is approached by a flaming, radiantly angelic solid person on the high plains of heaven. The ghost, a lost soul, has a strained, spiritually unhealthy relationship with the lizard, a metaphor for the ghost’s besetting sin of lust. Lewis catches sight of the ghost and noticed that “he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience. ‘Shut up, I tell you!’ he said. It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him.”

Lewis then narrates the solid person’s reply, “Would you like me to make him quiet’ said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood.” Once the ghost admits that he would like to be rid of the lizard, the flaming Spirit announces, “Then I will kill him.” Shocked and afraid, the lizard-clad ghost defers, “Well, there’s time to discuss this later.” The flaming Spirit announces, “There is no time.” The ghost complains, “It would be most silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.” To which the solid person replies, “There is no other day. All days are present now.”

As a part of Lewis’s fictive eternal order, the angelic being serves as a metonym for God’s very essence. Though eternal, though standing outside of time—the slippage of time runs throughout the text serving as the novel’s bedrock theme—the angel’s eternality speaks to his moral perfection. In the high plains, once good is ripened, perfect timeless solidity constitutes nature. God’s timelessness, like His holiness, His perfect loving-kindness, and His omnipotence becomes the banner under which our temporality, like our sinfulness, our selfishness, and our weakness surrender. The solid person incarnates an apologetic of the present, which exposes the ontologically incomplete and morally decaying nature of temporal existence and of the ghost’s ephemeral sins. It is the weight of the present bearing down on the ghost that causes his conversion. He dies to what is temporal, knowing it as non-existence against heaven’s ultimate reality, and lives into the eternal. Once the ghost resigns to time’s deterioration, giving his decay over to destruction, a death by eternity, he transforms into pure, immortal substantiality. But transformation must take place in the present. All days are present for the ghost because all days are present for God.

If, alongside Augustine, Boethius, the biblical writers, and writers like Lewis, we are to understand God, then we must do so in full embrace of His atemporal existence. If I am to know God, then it will be at that crossroads of eternality and temporality called the present. Temporality proves an apologetic of ruin that forces from us the undeniable cry of mortality. The eternal God stands in perfect existence beyond time, though He enters time through the always present that we might shed the temporal and put on the incorruptible. Through time time is conquered. We turn to the eternal through the temporal present, which is the eternal present for God, and we gain immortal solidity. As Lewis says in his allegorical Pilgrim’s Regress, “The human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given—nay, cannot even be imagined as given—in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.” May we enjoy more than time can afford.

[1] In other words, there is only evidence of my existing yesterday through artifact and memory. And I’m sure I’ll exist tomorrow. But I only exist in freedom of will and full actualization of life now.

 

Photo: “Museums foot tunnel, South Kensington,” L. Plougmann. CC License.

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