Napoleon once famously said that history is the account of the battle as described by the victors. The human understanding of time is inextricably tied to the wielding of power, and where we believe that power rests defines our expectations of time. Ultimately, however, we are all victims of powers that we have no idea are conspiring against us. Indeed, the manner in which we view time rarely corresponds to the reality of our experiences.
The vast majority of world cultures have espoused belief that time began with an original perfection, but all things since that origin have been steadily deteriorating. This faith manifests itself in devotion to “tradition,” and the highest authority is the cult of the ancestors. Creation myths are of key importance, and adoration of “founding fathers” or Promethean figures abounds. In this Traditionalist system, whoever controls the means by which the present is brought back to the perfection of the past ultimately controls the fate of the future and therefore also the present. In contemporary American society, this conception of time predominates in “Red States,” where individuals are apt to glorify particular historical events as discrete entities that were the result of no historical development. Their religious books fell from the sky in perfect, completed form, and their religious institutions have no origins in previous systems of thought. Preservation of the past is essential, and those who seek to alter the status quo are the most vile of offenders. This conception might be summarized by reference to that classic Beatles song “Yesterday”: Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away! …/ Oh! I believe in yesterday!
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a cultural faith in the future—a faith that is relatively recent in world history, but nevertheless pervasive throughout modern Western societies. Individuals in this culture believe that history is a steady march from chaos toward order. Wars and other catastrophes are not the product of the decay of civilization, but rather merely occasional blips on the chart of human progress. Furthermore, deviations are to be expected, for the power of the primordial ooze from which civilization is dragging itself, but awareness of the difficulty is precisely that which affects the pathos of this Progressive culture’s heroic ideals. Those who oppose and overcome the powers-that-be are deified, and “revolution” or “reaction” for its own sake is fetishized. The past is ultimately irrelevant, except insofar as it provides models for overcoming the tyranny of the even more distant past. In our society, this conception of time is overwhelmingly found in “Blue States,” where individuals express naïve hope in the human capacity to effect change in the world. They are likely to have no religious book at all, for such is a trapping of devotion to the primeval. They are nevertheless found of stories that inspire them to keeping fighting the good fight, and religious literature may provide such inspiration. There are many songs that might evoke the ideals of the Progressives, but the theme song of Bill Clinton’s 1992 President campaign, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” is perhaps the most perfect example: Don’t stop, thinking about tomorrow /Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here / It’ll be, better than before / Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone. / Don’t you look back. / Don’t you look back.
The problem with these two conceptions, however, is that irrespective of one’s political or religious affiliations, no one experiences the impingement of time as a product of the idealized past or glorified future. For most individuals, there is a particular moment in his or her experience that defines the interpretation of both the past and the future. For instance, the victim of a tragic break-up is likely to believe that no one ever loved him in the past, and that furthermore no one will ever love him in the future. A young girl who is called “fat” by her dance instructor might convince herself that she has always been overweight and will always be so, necessitating drastic action if she is ever to be accepted. A stray word from a parent, professor, boss, or lover is apt to throw any man or woman into a tailspin, drastically reevaluating the past and the future in light of that particular moment. Such traumas are nearer and dearer to our hearts than our beliefs about origins or destinations. Despite what control we think we derive from the past or force we believe we apply toward the future, we find ourselves the victim of a damning power that is vested in a private memory that has come to define us. The U2 song “Stuck in a Moment” best summarizes this existential reality: You’ve got to get yourself together / You’ve got stuck in a moment / And you can’t get out of it / Oh love, look at you now. What we need, then, is not to look toward the future or the past as an escape from the moment in which we are trapped, for our conception of each is tainted by the pain of our individual sufferings. We are in need of a theory of time that simultaneously accounts for the power vested in particular moments while also opening a future that is more than a simply a reaction to that invested power.
There exists only one moment in time that accounts for decay of the original perfection, thus satisfying the demands of the Traditionalists, while also providing a means to realize a brighter future, thus fulfilling the expectations of the Progressives. That moment is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, where the sins of the whole world (our individual “pasts” that would otherwise be left behind when we die) are erased, and where the hope for the Resurrection of the flesh (our collective “future” that would ultimately always prove just out of reach) is born.
Though you publicly protest, in your heart you know that you are stuck in a moment. You have tried deference to tradition in order to recapture an original perfection, and you have tried to push toward progress in order to attain some ultimate culmination. Each of these attempts to exert a power of your own has proven unable to overcome that outside force that has captured you prevented your flourishing.
There exists only one moment that has a power to free rather than to bind. Until you have faith that the power oppressing you has been broken by the cross of Christ, you will hopelessly look toward “Yesterday” and “…Tomorrow,” all the while knowing that You’ve got yourself stuck in a moment / And you can’t get out of it.
Jeffery David Jean ’06 is a Religion concentrator in Adams House.