stuck between past and future
November 17, 2013 Leave a comment
We’re finishing up the Exodus story in our family Bible readings. After the children’s bible’s story about Joshua and Caleb as spies, the grownups returned to Thomas Cahill‘s The Gifts of the Jews, in which we find this interesting further commentary on the idea that the Jews invented the conception of linear time (which I explore in the post "under the sun"):
Of the many innovations that Sinai represents — the codification of Abrahamic henotheism (that one God is to be worshiped, even though others are presumed to exist), the articulation of “ought-ness” (or what Kant will one day call the “categorical imperative”), the invention of the Sabbath — nothing is as provocative as the way in which this tremendous theophany brings to completion the new Israelite understanding of time. The journey of Avraham and the liberation wrought by Moshe transformed human understanding of past and future: the past is all the steps of my forebears and myself that have brought me to this place and moment; the future is what is yet to be. But the past is irretrievable and the future is a blank. The one is fixed, the other unknown. For the past I can have only regret, for the future only anxiety. To live in real time, to live in history, can be a horrible experience — and no wonder that the ancients contrived to escape such torments by inventing cyclical time and the recurrent Wheel, leading only to the peace of death.
But this gift of the Commandments allows us to live in the present, in the here and now. What I have done in the past is past mending; what I will do in the future is a worry not worth the candle, for there is no way I can know what will happen next. But in this moment — and only in this moment — I am in control. This is the moment of choice, the moment when I decide whether I will plunge in the knife or not, take the treasure or not, begin to spin the liar’s web or not. This is the moment when the past can be transformed and the future lit with radiance. And such a realization need bring neither regret nor anxiety but, if I keep the Commandments, true peace. But not the peace of death, not the peace of coming to terms with the Wheel. For in choosing what is right I am never more alive.
I keep thinking of my upper-level college philosophy course on postmodernism, which was the first time I had to struggle to get good grades in philosophy.
My current take on the class is that I needed to stop thinking like the Jews and learn to think more like the Greeks (and all other ancients, according to Cahill) to grasp the supposedly postmodern conception of time as circular. I am, in fact, so much more like Cahill’s Jews (which is to say, so entrenched in modernism) that I consider so-called postmodernism to be a form of retrogression.