Rethinking Matters of Time

Image - projection of a line across finite field

a representation of something linear that is all already there

One of the perks of having time off for the Christmas holiday is being able to watch a few movies, both “on demand” at our family’s house and in the theatre. Oddly – perhaps, but then again, perhaps not, since we live where we live when we do, so something could be happening in our culture – all the films we’ve seen have highlighted the effect of time and time-dependent interpretation: reaction time, in the case of Sully; time as grammatical tense and lived experience, in the case of Arrival; and historical time as one of the underlying conditions of cultural convention and its intelligibility, in the case of Hail, Caesar!

Arrival in particular has prompted me to think about the nature of time as a medium of experience. As I suppose everyone knows, we use spatial metaphors to think about time. In English at least we talk about past events as being “behind” us and future events as being “up ahead.” But also, I think, we think about the linear path that is opening up before us, so to speak, as blank until we encounter and live it, and the path behind us as being statically completed. Or, if we use the metaphor of a book, we think of the past as having been written, and the future as containing blank pages on which we, and the others with whom we are getting ready to interact, still have to write upon.

The premise of Arrival, the notion of time as something “non-linear” or “circular,” the events of which can be perceived from a point “in the past” relative to some “future,” would certainly require a radical revision of our familiar metaphorical notion of the “blank” pages of the future book or “uncreated” events of the future journey. Presumably, for something to be perceived, it needs to be perceivable, which means it needs to “be there.” So to perceive “the future,” the future needs to have happened, or to be happening, now. That doesn’t really make sense in our experience of passing through the events and efforts that bring future consequences into being in our lived experience, and it doesn’t make sense in the case of our language. But it might make sense if articulated through an alternative metaphor, or a revision of the one(s) we commonly use.

Surely this revision of metaphors would have theological implications. For instance, we have a tendency to think of “the activity of God” as something that has happened in the past, or that is happening now, or that will continue to happen in the future. But if the past is potentially unfinished, and the future is already happening, then “the activity of God” would presumably not only be going on all the time now, but would be going on all the time in the past and the future as well as the present. That would dramatically increase the potential options for human response to that activity, and its consequences. That seems to me … interesting.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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