Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
At this, the beginning of the year of our Lord 2017, two things strike me: firstly, the number of people who bade – if only ironically and memetically – 2016 good riddance; and secondly, the idea that time is cyclical, or at least nonlinear, seems to have been having a real pop culture moment for a little while now, such as in True Detective, Interstellar, and most recently, Arrival and Westworld.
The bidding 2016 good riddance is, of course, very much a progressive impulse; crudely put, one believes that each future year will be better. Time, according to this view, has a direction, pointing forward towards a better life for everybody, as we discard the things we have outgrown and which are no longer useful or relevant to our lives. Our imaginings of having no countries, war, or religion shall come true, and there shall be peace on Earth; the Federation shall unite all of humanity and we shall explore the universe (peacefully and diplomatically, of course), evolving into enlightened beings who transcend our current petty divisions. If you wait long enough, progress will arrive, and 2016 will have been but a hiccup we overcame.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, juxtaposes this earthly optimism in progress that will build the city of man with the theological virtue of hope, which similarly sees history as pointing towards something, but to something outside itself: the wedding feast of the Lamb, the encounter with God, the Beatific Vision, the resurrection of the body, the new creation, and seeing the Love which moves the sun and the other stars. This shall be the triumphant climax of history.
The Limits of Progress
We might or might not build the Federation, but we know that the poor will always be with us and that human power to progress to the peaceable kingdom is limited. Indeed, as Benedict says,
Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man’s freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all.
Even though our technological achievements and progress might not eliminate suffering, this is not to say that we should give up, believing the effort to be futile. We must instead remember that unique persons are suffering who need our love and that while we cannot fall to the temptation of believing that it is our power that can end suffering, we can wait in hope for the coming of the King, who will ask what we did for the least of these. The line of time and history points not to progress brought about by our own power, but to God, while our own power might seem not to achieve any progress at all. Even if history as a whole points somewhere, there might not be improvement – whatever that looks like – from year to year.
Time is a Flat Circle
On the other hand, again crudely put, time also moves in cycles; each season repeats itself, and the stars move through the heavens only to return again. The sun rises and sets, rises and sets. Plants flower, die, and flower and die again. Any progress made in human history seems to be followed by times of terror and suffering, which sometimes give way to moments of fleeting stability.
At its worst, seeing time as cyclical can lead to the conclusion that no progress is possible, and that we – if not individually, at least as a collective – are doomed to relive the same events over and over again for all eternity. There is no salvation, and nothing points outside the cycle. There is no escape from the suffering that will eventually come, as it always comes, and because the line of history goes nowhere, but only repeats, there is no meaning to “progress” or the events we relive.
The Liturgical Calendar
The Church’s life is also cyclical: each year we wait for the coming of the Lord, we celebrate His birth, we do penance, we remember His death, we celebrate Easter, and so on. And then the cycle begins again. This liturgical repetition is not a trap. As T.S. Eliot says, in his poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,”
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By ‘eightieth’ meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
Redeem the Time
The Church’s life rests in both the cycle and the line. That cycle of repetition in the liturgical calendar creates layer upon layer of meaning, and by creating meaning, we come to see the direction of the line of history. Meaning and knowledge accumulate, and when we look again at what we have seen before, we can better discern is structure and meaning; the meaning the cycle reveals also reveals the direction of the line. We see God acting again and again through miracles granted to barren women, through dreams to men named Joseph, and when these recur, they are charged with the meaning of the events that presaged them.
By having celebrated Christmas last year, to use Eliot’s example, we know that the hopeful waiting of this year’s Advent will end and be fulfilled. What has been revealed to us in the celebration of Christmases past, and our remembrance of waiting in a world without Emmanuel, informs our expectation and hope for the next coming informs our anticipation of Christmases to come, and indeed the Second Coming, the end of that line.
Masculine and Feminine
Along these lines, Marc Barnes, of the weblog Bad Catholic, describes these two dimensions of time as “masculine” and “feminine.” For him, masculine time tends towards lines and progress, plowing forward, while feminine time reveals itself through cycles, but the problem is that a society obsessed with progress and plowing forward becomes “hyper-masculinized.” As Barnes says,
It is no accident that an age that treats time as a line treats the female body with similar violence. It is no accident that an age which has steamrolled the delicate ecological cycles sustaining our environment in favor of linear profit and progress also demands a masculinization of the female body via menstrual suppression, the impossible androgyny of female fashion, the lack of decent maternity leave, and our generally abysmal devaluation of pregnancy, motherhood and breastfeeding.
Just as humanity cannot be understood without one of the sexes, neither can time be understood without both dimensions. When the line is chosen over the cycle, we cut ourselves off from the tradition of accumulated wisdom; obsessed with looking forward, we forget our history, and not recognising that we are reliving it, we fail to understand the meaning of new but familiar events. When the cycle is prioritized at the expense of the line, there can be no hope for the future, no meaning to be revealed in repetition, and all action is futile.
Barnes speaks of masculine and feminine times in terms of death: the masculine is a memento mori that reminds us of our fleetingness, but the feminine points towards Resurrection and new life. As he says,
So the line is a reminder of death — insofar as it really is a line, and not an endless continuum — the circle is a reminder of new life, and the marriage of the two gives birth to a properly human vision of time. Thus Christianity asserts herself as a vessel of realism: The Church preaches death and resurrection. Not death that merely looks like death and really amounts to the movement of atoms from the cooling body into the tree — no, real death. The end of the line in all its severity. But here, at the end of all things, resurrection, surprising as a newborn baby, a turning of death into life, a rising-from earth, an ecological vision of rebirth, a lesson we learn from the feminine form — that life comes around again. Not a life that removes the Christian from having to undergo death, not a circle that forgets the line, but a circle that acknowledges the line it is destined to encapsulate. The line and the circle, not in mutual competition, but in harmony, husking off the false shell of either/or, giving birth to the typically catholic both/and of death and resurrection — this is what Christianity offers.
Earlier, I spoke of time as pointing to the end of Creation’s history; Barnes speaks of it as pointing to the end of personal history. They are not opposed to each other, as personal history obviously takes place within Creation’s. The hope is that each personal history is one of the places in which the story of creation and salvation echoes.
Liturgy and Remembrance
The liturgical calendar, which itself progresses from Year A to B to C, even as it repeats itself while the dates change, is how Catholics balance these two dimensions of time and history. We relive our history, remembering the ways in the God has acted in it, and by doing this we come to recognise how history rhymes, and how He continues to act, even as we look forward to the time when this repetition shall be fulfilled. We organise our journey forward around the remembrance of the past, still alive in how it is mirrored today and tomorrow. This is not simply me remembering my own deeds, but a communal exercise. I enter into the Church’s memory, and wed my own story to the Church’s story of salvation, that it may be echoed in my life.
At this, the beginning of the year of our Lord 2017, two things strike me: firstly, the number of people who bade – if only ironically and memetically – 2016 good riddance; and secondly, the idea that time is cyclical, or at least nonlinear, seems to have been having a real pop culture moment for a little while now, such as in True Detective, Interstellar, and most recently, Arrival and Westworld…