Past, present, future. My history minded readers enjoy our discussions of the ages. Give us great speeches, or Shakespeare’s history plays, or Plutarch’s Lives, to debate. Let us analyze the politics of today, finding parallels to past triumphs and corruption. My nature minded readers glory at the cycles of time. Let us observe the seasons, with seeds breaking through the soil or farm animals bearing their young. Let us harvest in our generative years, before we begin to decompose, returning our atoms and bacteria to the soil and water that nurtures future Springs. My science oriented readers revel in the physics of that provide the structure for and the chemistry that energy for life. Big-bangs, black holes, god-particles, plate tectonics, hydraulic cycles rings their chimes. But, with all this activity, where does eternity come from?
My childhood and youth was strongly influenced by conservative Christian views of history, nature, and science. The earth was young, and God could create the structures as he wished, regardless of what theories men conjured up. The ages of man could be calculated by the genealogies documented through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. For me, even when young in the process of indoctrination, this all seemed too concrete and missing the point of the narrative from Genesis through the Gospels. Such reasoning muddled the basic idea that Adam and Eve, and all of us since have made similar mistakes. Rather, we quibbled over where those other civilizations came from that Adam’s children married when the got booted from the Garden of Eden.
Over time, I came to view the Bible’s objective as not being primarily a history or science text as we Post-Enlightenment cultures understand these, but an epic story. God and man, then the tribes of Abraham seeking each other. The Christians viewed their narrative as Jesus being the sequel to the story, with a strong emphasis on a future return to the Eden experience through heaven.
But, two thousand years of waiting has muddled this up too, with hair splinting theological points, politicization of religious rites, and division after division with the body. Christians became, to me, more like toxic bacteria than beneficial probiotic on the body of the church. Eternity became reduced to heaven and hell (maybe with purgatory somewhere along the line, though most of my Catholic friends cannot explain what they believe about this).
Heaven or hell did not really sound like places I would want to spend eternity, at least as my friends appeared to understand them. Retreating to present-oriented epicureanism seemed to temporal too. In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here, a satirical polka tune laments. Well, that is pretty close to my view of their view of heaven, as well as “Let’s have a party” minded folks. I am also reminded of a Jewish joke that I learned while living in NYC:
A guy from Flatbush (Brooklyn) dies. He regains consciousness at which point he believes that he has gone to heaven. He looks around and sees his familiar neighborhood. After walking around, marveling at how heaven is just as his life was, he walked up to the old hotdog stand guy, who had died a few years before. “Isn’t heaven great! Just like home, with all the friends we had.” The hotdog guy replies, “Who said this was heaven?”
All this emphasis on living for something that is somewhere else (usually identified with up-there, verses down-there) and some other time bothers me. Such though leads to doing “good” as if better behavior lead to better afterlife. Or, conversely, as in our annual Santa Clause ritual, we better be good because someone is keeping a record to put us on the naughty list. Certainly, there are plenty of Hebrew and Christian text reference to the dead being judged, but I doubt it is as concrete as some elderly man putting our good and bad behaviors on a scale, or reading a ledger sheet to calculate our capital gains tax on salvation.
My conclusion, over the years, as I assert it here, is that “past” and “future” are figments of language. To understand evidence, valued documents, archeological evidence, and physical properties, we attach these labels to provide time sequences. Certainly, days and nights, seasons, human actions, and cosmic events occur in a sequence. The the present is actually all we know. There is plenty of neuroscience evidence to question our own memories of personal events (just sit with a sibling while telling a story of your childhood to someone and watch your siblings facial expression say “That never happened”). There is plenty of psychological evidence to suggest that what we project to the future (whether politics, personal plans, or plate tectonics) is based more on wishful thinking and desire than facts.
But, we have our current experience, which if we are attentive is rich in sensory stimulation. Maybe the present, which has past and future as linguistic understandings, is as much eternity, as eternity being something beyond time. The physics that have been in play, as suggested by scientific theories, in the past are going on now. The politics that Plutarch and Shakespeare informed us about are occurring in our local communities and international arenas. The debris of last year’s garden is breaking dow to feed this years garden, which will sustain next years garden, all at once.
I think that the young-earth and old-universe believes are both wrong. From what I understand of their positions, both assume a sequence of past-present-future, just their time frame are different. Both spend more time defeating each other’s positions, rather than explaining their own. Young-earth believes discount the time that physics suggest, proclaiming that God just made the universe, earth, and us as we are. Old-universe believes start at the Big-bang, without explaining where all that energy and matter came from, or where it is going.
I’m content to put the two together. The Big-band was not the beginning, but part of an eternal cycle. The material in the universe existed before our Big-bang, in the form of some other universe. Preceding this was prior universes, and prior Big-bangs. After a period (time) of expansion, a mega-black hole accumulated all that material into an infinitely (eternally) small space, such that the energy used to contain it hit a point that it went Bang. I’ll accept Michelangelo’s illustration of this from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That energy is God.
The sequence of physical and social events since that release of concentrated energy, are the history of this universe and our societies. At some future point, our current expansion will revert to a contraction. God will pull all the material back, including the atoms that currently comprise us. Boom. A new universe will begin the cycle again.
The point of the Jewish joke about Flatbush is that where we are at this moment is our opportunity to make our present heaven or hell. During a recent trip back home, thunderstorms stranded our plane in Denver. As we deplaned, people were rushing about, frowning and cursing, as they tried futilely to get booked onto some other flight that night (the airport was closed, so nothing was coming or going). Then they frantically searched for hotels in the area. Turmoil, tension, harsh words, hell. We struggled about with the situation, had some disappointing false starts at finding lodging, ended up paying more than we wanted for a cheap motel on the far side of town, plus an expensive taxi ride. But, it was 11:30 p.m. and we wanted to sleep a few hours before boarding the flight that we could get out the next morning, actually going to a different airport that where our luggage would go and our vehicle was parked at.
In the morning, we chatted with a woman on the van that returned us to the airport. She too had been stranded, and had a tale to tell. After sharing our stories, with irritating and silly details, she turned to us and said, “It’s so nice to see you smiling after all that”. Should we spend our eternity of the present fretting about what we cannot control? We will arrive a day-late and dollar short, but we can catch up on our sleep, mow the lawn and tend to the garden over the weekend, get back to our work schedule, and catch up with friends. When we tell the story of this minute past event, we’ll laugh. Maybe Flatbush is both heaven and hell in eternity.