Eternity in the Moment

“We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is? I sometimes fancy it like that.” [1]  —Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Since the development of semi-standardized prayer, every liturgically minded Christian has proclaimed, in some form or another, the doxological annunciation, “As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.” The Christian repeats, day after day, the preeminently important fact that God, in his unchanging goodness, entered into time without compromising his eternal perfection. From the standpoint of eternity, God makes the “now” part of the “forever” and embeds the passing moment with eternal significance. However, the famous philosopher Frederich Nietzsche challenged the validity of this understanding of meaning in time, arguing that by its reliance on an ideal realm to justify our non-ideal existence, Christianity engenders “an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental prerequisites of life.”[2] Nietzsche instead proposes a affirmation of the moment through recourse to the “opposite ideal: the ideal of the world-affirming, exuberant, and vivacious man, who has not only learnt to compromise and arrange with that which was and is, but wishes to have it again AS IT WAS AND IS, for all eternity.”[3] Our willful affirmation of the moment opens the door for self-created meaning through the imagined affirmation of the moment for eternity. Where Christianity moves from an assertion of eternity to the meaningfulness of the moment, Nietzsche moves from a moment to that moment willed by us ad infinitum, forever.

Most of us, in some way or another, fall somewhere between these two understandings of time and its connection to meaning. Especially in collegiate culture, momentary happenings exist as important entities in themselves. Take, for example, the short-lived vengeance with which the phrase “You only live once” (YOLO) hit the digital age. It’s the same adage blared across the title pages of self-help books and neon nightclub lights: “Live in the moment!” The implications of both these statements purports to be an encouragement to “let go, have fun” – at its most severe, the childish “no regrets!” But really consider the poles between which most of us balance our understandings of meaning in relation to time. On one extreme, the spontaneous trumps the planned. On the other, career paths project out in time, and the newly graduated march in a linear trajectory towards a six-figure salary. For diversion, they maybe sprinkle in nights out, travel, and other things for the sake of amusement. Many of us are like this: we are goal-oriented, looking ahead to a better future for ourselves and the world. Yet, at the same time, we try to fulfill our most basic desire for happiness right now. There is a massive disconnect between the long-term and the short-term, a temporal chasm that few of us can bridge. Like the donkey following the carrot hanging from a stick attached to his head, we may never arrive either at that future goal or at a real appreciation for right now.

We now have three ways to understand the meaning of the moment. Nietzsche predicates meaning on the strength of human will, Christianity finds it on the infusion of temporal with the eternal, and our culture (which includes us) probably falls somewhere between the two. We cannot but choose one of these options, for our actions will point towards our decision even if we do not voice it. If we, emboldened by a culture of inconsistency, aim to live as that donkey, we will simply become pawns of our age’s ethos.

If we try to live as Nietzsche proposes, we face quite a difficult prospect. Nietzsche conceives of Christianity as a false idealism that nihilistically denies meaning in this world. Nihilism – the assertion of meaninglessness – can only be escaped if we can find meaning in this world, and Christianity, Nietzsche thinks, certainly does not do this. Christianity is a symptom of man’s desire to will but not the solution to that drive. By positing an ideal and empty realm (heaven, life after death), man shows that he “prefers to will nothingness, than not will.”[4] Nietzsche argues, instead, that we should affirm our lives here and now: “This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence… The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”[5] In order to break free of the constraints of morality and idealistic nihilism, we need to truly imagine a life of eternal repetition. Only when we can imagine that and say yes and yes and yes, again and again, by sheer force of our will, have we managed to come to true freedom and a meaningful moment.

This does not seem possible, and indeed, Nietzsche hypothesizes the Ubermensch – the Overman or Superman – as the only person for whom this model would work. We haven’t yet reached the will of power or height of affirmation that Nietzsche calls us to pursue. But perhaps this isn’t real affirmation. Perhaps the impulse to derive purpose in life from one’s own strength of mind disallows the possibility of discovering a source of meaning that really is outside of the realm of our own will and cognitive abilities.

To respond to Nietzsche’s criticism, and indeed to contemporary understandings of time and meaning, the Christian needs to point out a model for a life that partakes in its own positive affirmation, but in the right way. Almost sixteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine attempted to do just that. In his spiritual autobiography, Confessions, he worries a great deal about time and meaning. He observes that we can hardly talk about time at all, for the future is simply current expectation, the past constantly falls behind us, and the present has no extension at all. Everything changes constantly, there is no stability, and our search for a fixed basis for self-understanding seems doomed from the get go. We can see that Augustine did not weakly pine for a future after death; rather, he wants to be “moving not towards those future things which are transitory but to ‘the things which are before [him],’ not stretched out in distraction but extended in reach, not by being pulled apart but by concentration.”[6] Contrasting future aims with his current mental state, Augustine desires to be in the present so strongly that he sees all diversions as dead ends. But the question remains how we ought to understand the possibility of continuity within the human life when we experience our lives as so temporally distended. Christianity’s primary claim is that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It is not surprising, then, that Augustine finds a remedy to the meaning of time within the Incarnation. “By him you sought us when we were not seeking you,” Augustine writes. “But you sought us that we should seek you, your Word by whom you made all things including myself, your Son.”[7] God seeks us through the Word made flesh; he entered time in an eternal form. Nietzsche’s dismissal of the ideal realm falls flat in the face of the ideal’s entrance into the world. If only we can meet eternity in the moment, then time becomes a channel for purpose rather than an anchorless flood of disconnected instances.

Augustine gives a number of examples whereby a type of union with eternity is possible on earth. Two of the most compelling cases revolve around liturgical practice. Now, it seems unlikely that the set prayers and customs – which many Christians so quickly disparage – could give a great thinker that much comfort. What, really, does liturgy have to offer other than static sounds, ossified formulations, and empty phrases?

Liturgy grounds the person in a way of prayer that tends towards eternity. “Suppose I am about to recite a psalm which I know. Before I begin, my expectation is directed towards the whole. But when I have begun, the verses from it which I take into the past become the object of my memory. The life of this act of mine is stretched two ways, into my memory because the words I have already said and into my expectation because of those which I am about to say. But my attention is on what is present: by that the future is transferred to become the past.”[8] The passing of time stretches the mind towards the oncoming future and into the receding past. Yet, in a certain sense, by knowing the whole psalm, Augustine is no longer purely at the mercy of the movement of time. Though still temporal, recitation grounds the mind within a system that includes future, past, and present and which may begin to open the possibility of stability.

Another central liturgical practice, the Eucharistic feast (the Mass), commemorates and partakes in the perfect sacrifice of Christ. “In my poverty,” Augustine declares, “I desire to be satisfied from it together with those who ‘eat and are satisfied.’ ‘And they shall praise the Lord who seek him.’”[9] By both receiving and distributing the body and blood of Christ, Augustine praises and seeks God. By participating in the shared sacrifice of Godmade- man, he accepts God’s invitation into the liturgical prayer of praise and thanksgiving that continues without end. Liturgy and its rhythms and cycles and sacraments offers the believer real life glimpses at eternity.

Both liturgical prayer and the Eucharist reveal God to us in the moment, and both point towards a model for the Christian life. The recitation of an individual psalm, which “occurs in particular pieces and its individual syllables,” acts as a synecdoche for “a longer action in which the psalm is part” – perhaps Lauds or Vespers (traditional morning and evening prayers). This system “is also valid of the entire life of an individual person, where all actions are parts of a whole, and of the total history of the ‘sons of men’ where all human lives are but part.”[10] Human life, though temporal and passing, aims at a larger goal beyond the confines of an auditory individual sentence. It aims at those things that are “extended in reach” but not in time. Our lives, Augustine claims, will be meaningless if we aim at future things (including Nietzsche’s ascetic ideal) because those things, or self-conceptions, will necessarily move into the past. Thus the Eucharist and liturgical prayer are moments in and models for the well-lived life. They are places where we see that “Christ is the Beginning because, unless he were constant, there would be no fixed point to which we could return;”[11] and we discover that a union with the ideal realm can occur at this very instant, right here, right now.

Every moment then takes on much more meaning, for “the kingdom of God is near.”[12] Though there is no isolated moment in which we can hide ourselves from the ever-encroaching future and receding past, temporality becomes nothing to fear; though our agency lies in time, it has atemporal affects. By paying attention to Christ in every moment, we can strive to build a past that inspires a better future; we can build habits of continual conversion. The Christian call is not to enter a static cycle of failure and reform, but to be in a cycle of growth, whereby we come to realize certain branches have died and need trimming, certain motivations are false and need amending, certain lifestyles are broken and need changing – and all this in reference to God. Eternity shows us the meaning in the everyday, and in eternity we find something incredibly personal. Augustine beautifully predicts of God, “I shall find stability and solidity in you, in your truth which imparts form to me.”[13] In the everyday application of this realization, we move from future to past to present and discover the meaning given to our lives here and now.

[1] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment (Andrews UK,
2012), 411.
[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, tr. D Smith (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996), III, §28.
[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Wellington: Floating Press, The Jan. 2008), §56.
[4] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, III, §28.
[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Tr. W Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), §341.
[6] Augustine, Confessions, ed. H. Chadwick, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008), XI.xxix.39.
[7] Augustine, Confessions, XI.ii.4.
[8] Augustine, Confessions, XI.xxviii.38.
[9] Augustine, Confessions, X.xliii.70.
[10] Augustine, Confessions, XI.xxviii.38.
[11] Augustine, Confessions, XI.viii.10.
[12] Mar 9:24 (ESV).
[13] Augustine, Confessions, XI.xxx.40.

 

David Nolan ’13 is a philosophy major from Williamstown, Mass. He loves his hometown, farming, theology, and dinner parties with good company. He is currently a Junior Fellow at First Things, where he blogs as J. David Nolan. He recently published a piece titled My Doubts About the Internet.

 

Image by presto44 from morguefile.com.

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