It seems, as one becomes older, / That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence— / Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy / Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution, / Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
I wonder whether I would have understood these lines forty or even thirty years ago; but at the age of 64 they make perfect sense. Children, teenagers, young adults—we experience time as futurity, and the past merely functions as the necessary steps into that future. We are always looking forward—to the next Christmas or birthday; to acquiring our driver’s license, our first car; to going to college or just moving out of the house; to falling in love, to marriage and children; to career, promotions, financial success and security. But at some point, our experience of time changes. There was a time when the hours passed excruciatingly slowly. “Are we there yet, Dad?” “Christmas will never get here!” And now my life passes by in the blink of an eye. Next year I start drawing Social Security. How did the golden years sneak up on me?
Whether because of dissipating energy and deteriorating faculties or because of mounting disappointments, failures, regrets, and grievous loss, we begin to look backwards. We cease to be driven by expectation. Eschatology becomes pastology. I don’t know precisely when this happened to me, but it did. The existential questions rise unbidden, especially when I am alone and undistracted by television, computer, or books. What was the purpose of the life I have lived? What is my truth? Time is no longer a sequence leading step by step into the future. My present is filled with the past. This irresistible backward-look seeks to comprehend past, present, and future in dramatic wholeness. If my life is to make sense, if it is to be something more than a tale told by an idiot, I must grasp it as a story worth telling. The past cannot be discarded. Somehow it must be gathered into eternity. Thus Robert W. Jenson:
Human life is possible—or in recent jargon “meaningful”—only if past and future are somehow bracketed, only if their disconnection is somehow transcended, only if our lives somehow cohere to make a story. Life in time is possible only, that is, if there is “eternity,” if no-more, still, and not-yet do not exhaust the structure of reality. Thus, in all we do we seek eternity. And if our religion perceives the bracket around time as in any way a particular something, as in any way the possible subject or object of verbs—as in, for example, “The eternal speaks by the prophets”—we tend to say “God” instead of “the eternal.” (The Triune Identity, pp. 1-2)
As a Christian I believe that the coming Kingdom will reveal my life as participating in the eternal story of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I accept this in faith and with all my might hang onto the words of the Apostle Paul: “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:3-4). But I cannot pretend that this faith is easy. In one sense it is easier now. Growing older almost compels one to cast all hopes onto the final future of the risen Christ. But in another sense it is much harder. The past now feels more real, heavier, than the future. Regrets weigh. There are so many choices I wish I could make differently, so many outcomes I wish had turned out otherwise. Can even God redeem my past and make it into something worthwhile? The question of meaning—and therefore the question of God—has become more urgent over the past decade. Especially since the death of my son Aaron.
“Son of man, can these bones live?” “O Lord God,” the prophet replies, “thou knowest” (Ez 37:3).