A Little at a
by the Rev. Dr. George Dole
Faculty Member at the Swedenborg School of Religion
In the December, 1996 Issue of Our
There is a natural
and potentially useful tendency, as we move into a new year to
review the one just past. This is not simply a religious
phenomenon. On television and in the papers there are reviews of
the biggest news stories of the year, the best films, the major
sports events of the year.
There are, of
course, unhealthy forms of an interest in the past. We have known
people who tried to escape into the past in order to avoid facing
the present. Sometimes the effort to escape was understandable;
but still, our instinctive feeling is that evading problems only
makes them worse. We have known people who see the past through
rose-colored glasses. We can be quite sure, however strange as it
may seem, that in half a century or so, people of this case of
mind will see our own era as replete with virtues that their own
age has lost.
A healthy interest
in the past, at the least, involves an effort to learn from the
past what can be useful in the present. "Those who do not
know history are condemned to repeat it." Awareness of the
past shapes our understanding of the present.
It may help, then,
to take a somewhat different view of time itself. We usually look
at "the present" as moving through time. But if we take
"the present" as a fixed point of reference, to which
"the past" and "the future" are relative, we
can distinguish three complementary modes of knowing. We see the
present with a particular kind of directness and certainty, but
often with a sense of ambiguity as to meaning. We see the past
more remotely and selectively, but with a much clearer sense of
its patterns. We see the future more remotely still, with a view
shaped by our sense of patterns and colored by our hopes and fears
- very hazy as to detail.
These three modes
of knowing interact constantly. What we are doing and thinking
right now is shaped by what we have learned over the course of the
years. It is also shaped by what we intend and expect. We listen
to sermons with our own situations in mind. A sentence may remind
us of something that happened yesterday, or years ago. Another
sentence may give us an idea about dealing with a difficult
situation, or may prompt us to read a book or cultivate a
In fact, the
present is quite meaningless apart from the past and the future.
Our sense of purpose, of meaning, rests in our experiences of
cause and effect. We have become accustomed to doing things that
seem intrinsically unpleasant because they will lead to some
measure of satisfaction. Otherwise, we would live strictly for the
pleasure of the moment, with no heed for he consequences. If we do
not clean up after our meals, the food decays. If we do not accept
the expense and inconvenience of having the car serviced, it
breaks down. If we do not fulfill our responsibilities, people learn
not to trust us.
In the view of our
theology, the most important applications of this principle have
to do with our relationships with each other. From time to time, I
am asked to write letters of recommendation for former students,
and one of the first questions is, "How long and in what
capacity have you known the applicant?" It takes time for us
to get to know each other, to understand each other. We form first
impressions, of course, sometimes surprisingly accurate, but only
time can tell. We may, for example, be quite sure that a new
acquaintance is honest and reliable. As friendship deepens, as we
learn more, we begin to gain a clearer understanding of how deep
the roots of the reliability are.
deepens, we also learn about a person's hopes, dreams, and plans.
Only as we begin to see what he or she is working for can we say
that we understand. In terms of our theology, we are loves, which
means that we are purposes. Our internationality is the most
significant aspect of our being.
What we are
discovering is not just something about mechanical causes and
effects, about the way that one thing leads inevitably to another.
We are discovering that this individual's past is present, that
the memory of past experiences is very much here and now. Purposes
are often unfulfilled. But they are like "future causes,"
with a powerful effect on what we are doing right now. In a way, a
non-existent, future loaf of fresh bread is the cause of going to
the pantry and getting out the flour. It may not happen. The
telephone may ring. We may discover we are out of yeast. There are
all kinds of unknowns. But that future, non-existent loaf of bread
still "causes" us to start the process. That
"future" has its own distinctive way of being present.
In fact, the present does not make any sense without it. There is
no intrinsic virtue in getting the flour out. In and of itself, it
does not make the world a better place.
We are often
counseled to live in the present, as opposed to the past or the
future. This can be taken as justification for heedlessness, but
such an interpretation rests in a misunderstanding of "the
present." When Jesus spoke of "the signs of the
times," He was referring to the future that is implicit in
the present, When the Deuteronomist advised us to "remember
the days of old," he was pointing to the fact that the past
is implicit in the present. To live in the real present is to live
in awareness of the presence of experience and conditioning and
the presence of expectations and purposes. If our "first
impressions" of others are accurate, it is because we have
somehow perceived the general outlines of this mix.
There is one other
aspect of this principle I should like to touch on. Just as we
come to understand others over time, we come also to understand
ourselves. Each of us is a completely history whose past is
present in the form of experience and whose future is present in
the form of purposes. Our total being as individuals stretches
from our beginnings to eternity, and we become acquainted with
that being only a very little bit at a time.
In 1935, a
state-of-the-art photographer, Fred Faxon, took movies at
Fryeburg, Maine. There is a scene of children running toward the
camera, and one four-year-old is I. I have no recollection of the
event. Surely not a cell of that body is part of me now. Still,
the identity is unquestionable. That was a time of formative
experiences which underlie my present characteristics and
interests. To give just one little example, as the youngest of
three children, I still tend to assume that I am "the
youngest" in many situations, even though there are fewer and
fewer situations where this has any basis in fact.
There is far more
to any of us than we can experience in any given moment. We do
have a tendency to forget this, though. When we are discouraged,
we tend to see ourselves as fundamentally inadequate. When we are
moved by compassion, it is hard for us to believe that we may feel
disinterested tomorrow. We can look back on yesterday and wonder
how on earth we managed to do what we did or feel those particular
The message of
time is that those actions or those feelings have not gone away.
They are still part of us. They are not the part that is in the
ascendant at the moment, but they are still there. The child is
still there in the eighty-year-old, just as the eight-year-old is
latent in the child. We still have the capacity for child-like
wonder and enthusiasm, even through our present bodies cannot
readily respond to it, even though it may be overlaid by thick
applications of caution. We still have the capacity for young
love, even through we do not have the physical vitality we
associate with it.
People who have
had near-death experiences sometimes report having seen the
entirety of their lives, and the result has been a whole new
self-understanding. We are not likely to have that experience, but
we can trust that if we did, we would find similar meaning. There
is a tremendous amount about ourselves, about our lives, that we
do not know. What we do know is that the Lord knows that there is
a providential design wrought with a full awareness of past,
present, and future. What is outside our ken is being far better
managed than what is within it, and what we are being offered in
our "present" has a blessed future within it. If we respond
as best we can, given the little knowledge we do have, that future
will be realized.
Give ear, O
heavens, and I will speak;
Let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching drop like the rain,
my speech condense like the dew;
like gentle rain on grass,
like showers on new growth.
For I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
ascribe greatness to our God!
The Rock, His work
and all His ways are just.
A faithful God, without deceit,
just and upright is He;
yet His degenerate children have dealt falsely with Him,
a perverse and crooked generation.
Do you thus repay the Lord,
O foolish and senseless people?
Is not He your father,
who created you, who made you and established you?
Remember the days of old,
consider the years long past;
Ask your father, and he will inform you;
your elders, and they will tell you.
As the Divine
Infinite is not of space, so neither is the eternal of time. That
a kind of idea of the infinite, and an idea of the Divine eternal
is insinuated into the angels by the Lord, appears from this, that
they know not what space is, for those who are in the extreme of
the universe are present in a moment; and as to the eternal, that
they have no idea of things past and future, but the past and
future are in their present. . . neither is there in their idea
anything of old age or of death, but only of life; wherefore they
have no notion of time, but in all their present everything is as
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