Civilization and Its Contents
Why Old Words Matter

When All Times Become One Time

On my first grade report card, my teacher, Mrs. Nell Teague, comments that "Stephen is so shy in class that he hardly ever contributes to class discussion." That was first quarter. The next quarter she says "Stephen speaks with less hesitation but almost never volunteers without being asked something specifically. The third quarter there is only this ominous comment: "May we have a conference Friday, April 16th at 2:45?" I suppose they planned some intervention to get me talking. I don't know what transpired, but by the last quarter of first grade she is able to write "I am delighted with Stephen's maturation - he is so much more outgoing and relaxed." I doubt that. I think she was just being hopeful.

I don't think I liked Mrs. Teague very much. But hearing her describe my hesitancy to speak up in class is to be thankful, to be reminded that I am not so much different than I was at the age of six, 47 years ago. I remain reluctant to speak up.  I have no problem being in front of groups of people, with public speaking or leading, but I do not like to speak up when in crowds of people. It's somewhat comforting to know I didn't just get that way overnight, and I'm probably not going to change.  In fact, I don't think I want to change.  What I have long realized is that there are plenty of other people who can articulate my inchoate thoughts (as well as no small number of blowhards), and so, given that it comes so natural for them, I let them.   It is who I am.  The core of who I was then is still the core of who I am now.  I am the same person, and for all the deficiencies I own, I am glad.

To look at my six-year old self, to peer back in time across a million moments good and bad since then, is an odd, sometimes surreal experience.  Reading others' words about me makes me feel close in time to who I was then, almost as if the intervening 47 years are elastic, accordion-like, sometimes stretching so as to feel a gulf impossibly wide and unbridgeable, sometimes collapsing to only inches like moments apart.  Somewhat akin to that odd sense of deja vu that comes upon us unaware, this elasticity of time surprises us, like something otherworldly and outside our day-to-day experience.  I'm not being blasphemous when I say it is God-like, a faint and fleeting shadow of the way God experiences time all the time.

That God is beyond time, even supra-dimensional, perhaps explains why we have such difficulty with apocalyptic literature in Scripture.  As Catholic writer Michael O'Brien recently said about the Book of Revelation:

We are in the final battle, we are in the apocalypse, we are in the book of Revelation, which the Church, beginning with most of the Church Fathers, believes to be a vision of the entire unfolding of salvation history after the Incarnation, culminating in the total victory of Christ over the entire cosmos and its restoration to the Father. The book of Revelation is not a schematic diagram or a flat blueprint or a purely linear time-line. It is a mysterious multi-dimensional vision which surely contains linear-chronological aspects, but that is not the whole thing. Indeed it is not the main thing.

In other words, God's revelation to John was a reflection of his multi-dimensional character, in time (or times) but also outside time.  Given our finitude, it is difficult for us to fully or easily grasp, and we revert to time lines and graphs to show its fulfillment, reducing it to something understandable, trackable, and (sometimes) even manageable.  God is not like that.  He defies neat categories.

And so do we.  We are made in God's image.  As such, impressed upon is is something of God's nature.  Nevertheless, theologians often distinguish between the communicable  and incommunicable attributes of God.  As it goes, the latter belong to God alone --- things like self-existence (asceity) or immutability (unchangeableness) or eternality (transcendence of time) --- as opposed to the former --- things like love, mercy, and goodness, or the fact that we create just as God created.  However, without minimizing that unbridgeable gulf between Creator and creature, I sometimes wonder if if such neat categorizations always hold up.

Take eternality.  Clearly God is everlasting in a sense that we are not and never will be, but is that attribute entirely incommunicable?  Michael Horton, who adopts Augustine's view of eternity, concludes that "eternity transcends temporal categories," and that [w]hile God transcends time, redeemed creatures will experience a regathering of their times in perfect joy and fulfillment."  if we experience this regathering then in whole, why not on occasion, even fleetingly, now?  Is what I experienced at six years of age really so far removed from where I am now?  Sometimes it doesn't feel like it.

So. . . Hello Mrs. Teague, class, Trina Payne, and Jimmy Simms.  It's me, Stephen, now just Steve.  I'm the same kid.  Really.  It's been a long time, I know.  Trina, I hope you found a husband.  Sorry it didn't work out for us no matter how many pennies you saved for it.  Mrs. Teague, what exactly did you talk to my mother about in that conference?  Jimmy, I forgive you for blabbing about me kissing Trina during rest time.  And people, I still don't speak up much, and I don't think I ever will.

 I look forward to Heaven, to the collapsing of all times, to the fulfillment of time, to the time when all times become in some mysterious sense one time.  Until then, I like to think I have just a glimpse of that through something as iconic as a report card, a window into another of my times.