Kierkegaard: Time versus Eternity, A Columbus Day Reflection. (10/08/2001)

Time has always been a relatively incomprehensible enigma to most western European philosophers. Kant was so befuddled by the notion of temporal reality, since it ran counter to his assertion that the highest Good (summum bonum) could only be appropriated by pure speculative reason if the individual pursuing it had timeless eternity to master it, that he was driven to claim that time existed only in the mind of those who perceived it. If no one did, he said, then time would cease to exist altogether. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian literary theorist, in his explanation of the essential elements of medieval Christian perceptions of time, emphasizes the fact that Christianity always insisted that there were two aspects of time: one horizontal (historical time), which is measured, metered out from its beginning in Genesis to its end in the coming apocalypse, while the other is vertical (eternal time), which is endless in its duration (without beginning or end), but does not exist for human beings until after the Last Judgment when historical reality reaches its end. Temporal reality, then, was thought to be an enclosed space bracketed off by a beginning and an end in the timeless duration of eternity and, as such, since eternity is greater than the merely temporal, historical time was thought to have no significance in the wider frame of God's true intention for human potentiality. The following diagram represents the essential aspects of this Christian conceptualization of the relationship between time and eternity:

One consequence of perceiving time as a subordinate element or duration of timeless eternity, especially since God Himself was considered to be the only entity who actually occupied it, was that time became an impediment to human fulfillment, was a gnarly, twisted, labyrinthine tunnel beset on every side by demons and monsters more likely to tempt and damn those passing through it than it was to assist in any way to help travelers escape its dangers and pass on to eternal happiness and bliss in the afterlife. Christianity considered time to be an enemy of human hope and expectation.

Near the end of his discourse in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Soren Kierkegaard approaches the problem of time, in a manner completely consistent with the essential distinction between the temporal and the eternal as outlined above in Bakhtin's exposition, when he notes that:

"paradoxical religiousness places the contradiction absolutely between existence and the eternal; for precisely the thought that the eternal is at a definite moment of time, is an expression for the fact that existence is abandoned by the concealed immanence of the eternal. . . .the eternal is at a definite place, and precisely this is the breach with immanence." (506)

Kierkegaard's argument that eternity has entered into direct contact with the temporal reality of history, that it exists as "a moment in time," is a reference to the fact that Christians believe Jesus Christ, as God and hence as eternity itself, actually entered time and temporal history when He became man. Placing eternity in the midst of time, as Kierkegaard notes, creates a contradiction between "existence and the eternal." Precisely what this means is unclear but the point of making the assertion is to emphasize the fact that God's presence in time, as "a moment of time," has always been seen as the supreme mystery of Christian faith, a concept that cannot be comprehended or understood or explained by any function or application of human reason. The concept is paradoxical because of the impossibility of placing what cannot be contained in a container. A person equipped with a one-gallon jug, for instance, and charged with the task of filling it with an ocean would not be able to accomplish that task. Doing it anyway, in spite of its impossibility, as God supposedly did when Christ entered history and was contained by temporal reality, constitutes the very essence of what the Christian mystery encompasses.

In an elaboration of his thinking, Kierkegaard asserts that

"paradoxical religiousness breaks with immanence and makes the fact of existing the absolute contradiction, not within immanence, but against immanence. There is no longer any immanent fundamental kinship between the temporal and the eternal, because the eternal itself has entered time and would constitute there the kinship." (507-508)

A point to be taken here, while perhaps too subtlely expressed, is that the presence of eternity in temporal reality necessarily overrides, if not completely obliterates, the fact and the reality of time itself. In other words, in the presence of eternity, time itself cannot be said to exist. This perception has several consequences. On the one hand, history becomes irrelevant because the existence of eternity in the place where time occurs, in the real world if you will, makes it impossible for anything merely temporal to exist. Hence, all human action that is not aimed at, or meant to become an active expression of, an eternal Godlike kind, while it may occur, has no significant consequence for the future of human potential. At the very worst, of course, human actions that are not meant to mimic or imitate the behavior of Deity are perceived as profoundly sinful and even eternally evil. It is this idea that fuels the notion that a distinction can be drawn between absolute Good and absolute Evil in the realm of moral philosophy, where it becomes the philosopher's task to articulate the difference between behavior that is consistent with, or that will lead a person to, actions that stand up in judgment as the kind performed by God in the context of his eternal nature. In other words, you must know the mind of God, which is impossible, before you can behave morally. This innate sinfulness, since human beings by definition cannot comprehend the mind of God and act in accordance with His absolute Goodness, even just because He is eternal while man is temporal, makes it necessary for God to enter time, live as wholly human, be sacrificed and die, so that man can be forgiven for his innate sinfulness.

Kierkegaard gets around to his real point in a "Comment" he added as clarification for his discussion of this idea. He notes throughout the discourse of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript that there are two kinds of religiousness: the type that has always been the norm in Eurocentric theology, which he refers to as type "A," and the kind he is advocating in its place, type "B," which differs from the first kind by virtue of being "paradoxical" in precisely the sense that the second kind is characterized by the absolute entry of eternity into time. He describes an essential aspect of the difference this way:

"In A, the fact of existing, my existence, is a moment within my eternal consciousness . . . and is thus a lowlier thing which prevents me from being the infinitely higher thing I am. Conversely, in B the fact of existing, although it is still a lowlier thing as it is paradoxically accentuated, is yet so much higher that only in existing do I become eternal, and consequentially the thing of existing gives rise to a determinant which is infinitely higher than existence." (508)

I have little confidence in my innate ability to elucidate this statement. The primary, even the only, reason I cannot say for sure what this statement means is that its essential category, eternity, does not exist in native American consciousness. When Kierkegaard says, for instance, that existence "is a moment within my eternal consciousness," I have no clear idea or sense or intimation of what he is talking about. Native American perceptions of time, among the Maya of Central America, for instance, which include the most sophisticated and fully articulated ones in animistic culture, are cyclical and repetitious. This fact excludes any possibility of there being a sense of eternity, as a condition that exists outside time, or for that matter within it as well, since all well-defined cycles of time simply repeat what has gone before, and continue to repeat what is possible in the future, in a continuous flow of day-by-day duration until the objects which mark that flow (sun, earth, moon, planets, stars, galaxies, etc.) cease to exist as visible objects in the sky. Since it is possible, through various scientific theories currently accepted as valid, that the universe has not always been distinct as a collection of discrete masses, and true as well that it might not always exist in such a state, time may eventually cease to exist as a function of the relative motion of one object to another. If that happens, then animistic cycles of time will simultaneously cease to exist, or have relevance, as a description of that inescapable reality.

Put simply: native Americans do not perceive, and do not embrace, the existence of super-natural, extra-terrestrial, or mega-temporal entities. God and Eternity, therefore, are categories that do not occur naturally or indigenously in most tribal cultures. When Europeans begin to talk about these things, we usually find something better to do with our time.

A final point one can make about Kierkegaard's exposition is that it inevitably leads to the introduction of categories that depend on hierarchical structure for their existence. This is a natural and inescapable development, of course, because the concept of God and Eternity cannot be said at all unless they are juxtaposed to lesser entities like man and time (or temporality). The impulse here is always the same: God and Eternity are positive Good and are to be pursued; whereas, man and time are negative Evil and are to be avoided. Hence, in Christian ideology, the greatest good (summum bonum) is to not-be human and to not-be temporal. Exactly how one goes about being or doing that, when there is no other possibility, is a question that always produces an answer, like the one Kierkegaard crafts above, that remains, even forever, incomprehensible to human reason.

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