Linear and Non-Linear Concepts of Time
- Dear Prof. Allison:
Your previous answers concerning the Hell/Gehenna question seem to me to be right on the money. No argument from me on any of it. However, in the midst of these postings, and in your essay, you refer to the twin concepts of linear and non-linear time and language. This is what I would like to think about with you for a moment, if I may.
Allow me to assure you that I am not trying to be "picky" about this point. Instead, this is in essence to continue a conceptual conversation that first began with a bishop from the Coptic Christian Church (Bishop Peter) who was studying for his doctorate at Princeton at the same time that I was there. He maintained (with more than a little exasperation!) that "we westerners" (as he used to refer to us) had completely misunderstood the metaphysical underpinnings of both the Old and New Testaments, and that until we had corrected that mistake we would never understand these documents at all.
One of those underpinnings had to do with the eastern concept of time-reality. Bishop Peter asserted that the more linear approach to time-description (past, present, future) was solely for the sake of conceptual/linguistic convenience, and that, in reality, those distinctions could not ultimately hold. He saw the movement of time not so much being linear, but rather cyclical, meaning that past/present/future all grow out of one another and at the same time are causal for one another as well. This, of course, was a part of the larger issue of how the eastern world conceptualized reality in the first place, which, he asserted, was far more expanded and connected than was our more sense-experiential and scientifically-based understanding. Here he made use of both dreams and visions (which, by the way, he differentiated between) as being both "markers" and "gateways" to other dimensions of reality which, somewhat ultra-violet and infrared light, are not immediately accessible to us, yet are "real" anyway. [This is just a surface example, but perhaps is enough to get us on our way here.]
As evidence, the good bishop pointed first to the structure of biblical Hebrew, which as you are aware, lacked systematic verb tenses, requiring understanding of the context in order to assign the appropriate tense-translation. But he also pointed out that, in the prophets for example, this cyclical nature of time was central to the message the prophets were conveying. For them, the present was the arbiter of both the past and the future, with the future being "fixed" only in the sense that the present was "fixed" as well. Change the present, and one automatically changes the future-therefore the prophets could link the present to any number of different futures, depending on which "present" their hearers chose to follow. But this was related to the past as well, since how the past was to be perceived was as "present now fixed" by the operation of those existing within it. And this, of course, was also the link between the future and the past, where the past governed the future through the present, and the future governed the present's understanding of itself as past. Thus the cycle.
In the New Testament, Bishop Peter pointed (as I recall) mostly to the Gospel of John, and specifically to the "priestly prayer" of John 17. Here, the indwelling of the Father and the Son with one another, and by extension, with Jesus' followers, was for him not time-dependent. That is, eastern thinking seems to assert that this indwelling of Father-Son, Son-Father, Son-disciples, Father-disciples, and their respective obverses were co-extensive with the initial indwelling of the Father with the Son. Bishop Peter also, as you might guess, interpreted the eschatological aspects of the kerygma as also being non-linear, in that what God intends to do God has already done, AND that what has already been done is that which God continues to intend to do (in ultimate fulfillment?). This, he said, was why the Johannine tradition was so important to the Coptics and other eastern Christians: for them it articulated best this non-linear sense of eschatological fulfillment.
One problem, obviously, with this non-linear application of the NT is that biblical Greek, unlike Hebrew, is tense driven, and thus its use to convey a different form of reality is, for those of Bishop Peter's ilk, somewhat limited. Quite honestly, I rather suspect that my good friend would rather that Aramaic had been the lingua franca of the NT, not Greek. Or at least Syraic. But another issue that I would raise here is to what extent Bishop Peter could really deny that he and his community--historically as well as presently--had not been at least to some extent been influenced by the prevailing Platonic understanding of reality that was already current among Mediterranean cultures? I don't know the answer to this, for two reasons: one is that these conversations took place in informal settings (mostly in Princeton's dining hall) and were episodic at best; the other is that Bishop Peter had something of a temper, and he did not usually take kindly to close questioning or disagreement. Those disclaimers made, I continue to believe that he was attempting to make some important points which, as he insisted, the history of western biblical interpretation had mostly overlooked.
As you have raised the issue of linear vs. non-linear time in your own writings and comments here, I would be grateful for any remarks you might choose to make that would extend this old but interesting discussion.
Greetings and Respects,
Robert C. Davis
Associate Professor of Religion
Division of Humanities
- Dear Robert
Don't know your Coptic Bishop Peter, which might be a good thing given that he has a temper. I'll try to stay calm and go through the linear thing one more time.
i. I have no problem with thinking that ancients or easterners or whatnot had different ideas of and feelings about time. I'm sure they did. But what it would mean for the distinction between past, present, and future not to hold, I'm unclear. Last year I read Julian Barbour's The End of Time, in which a physicist claims that our equations don't need time and that it is an illusion. Am not qualified to have an opinion on that, but my guess is that being human brings with it some sense of past, present, and future, and all I'd want to argue is that, with the eschatology of the historical Jesus, the future will be very different than the present, will in fact in many ways turn it upside down. Now if you want to call this cyclical, because the end will be like the beginning (Mark 10:1ff.), I don't care. The future is still radically new, and that future as Jesus imagined it hasn't come. What would your Bishop make of John 21, which betrays the fact that some people thought the end would come before the last disciple died, and that when he died, people got upset?
ii. You write: >>he also pointed out that, in the prophets for example, this cyclical nature of time was central to the message the prophets were conveying. For them, the present was the arbiter of both the past and the future, with the future being "fixed" only in the sense that the present was "fixed" as well. Change the present, and one automatically changes the future-therefore the prophets could link the present to any number of different futures, depending on which "present" their hearers chose to follow. But this was related to the past as well, since how the past was to be perceived was as "present now fixed" by the operation of those existing within it. And this, of course, was also the link between the future and the past, where the past governed the future through the present, and the future governed the present's understanding of itself as past. Thus the cycle.<< Much of this I'd agree with. Certainly much OT prophecy seems contingent--you repent, this won't happen, you don't repent, this will happen. But how does all this annul the plain meaning of Mark 9:1? And don't the beatitudes bring consolation into the present by contemplating the future--which is the future being arbiter of the present, ain't it?
iii. Bishop Peter reads everything through the eyes of the liturgy, which is a realized apocalypse ("remembering . . . your second coming") and John; he has a hermeneutical key. I don't use that key when reading the synoptics as first-century texts or thinking about the historical Jesus. I don't think John says exactly what the other NT writers say. I see a diversity the good Bishop doesn't. And certainly I'm not going to read the later ideas about the eternal Trinity into the synoptics.
iv. Of course the Coptic church is an heir to Platonism. And let me add: that's more than fine with me. I've always loved Plato, and take some of his ideas very seriously. It's just that if you read the NT through Platonic eyes, I want you to be honest about it. Tell me you are reinterpreting--which again, is just fine: we all inevitably do this--don't pretend you're just repeating what Jesus or Mark had in mind.
v. Finally, when you write that maybe western biblical interpretation has overlooked some things, I'm certain it has. But I think biblical studies has tried to do a good job of trying to make up the lack. We're willing to hear about Mediterranean anthropology and so on. I just don't see that anything I've ever read about linear or non-linear thought illuminates the NT; I've either been confused because I haven't seen the point or thought that what I was reading was just plain wrong.