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The Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich


Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. This book was published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, in 1955 and is out of print. This material was prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.


Chapter 5: Meditatioin: The Mystery of Time


Let us meditate on the mystery of time. Augustine points to the depth of this mystery, when he says, "If nobody asks me about it, I know. If I want to explain it to somebody who asks me about it, I do not know." There is something unspeakable about time, but this has not prevented the most profound religious minds from thinking and speaking about it. It is not vain speculation when the writer of the first part of the 90th Psalm confronts the eternity of God with the transitoriness of human existence. The melancholy experience of human finiteness drives him to utter the tremendous words of the psalm. It is not empty curiosity when Augustine tries, in his most personal book, the Confessions, to penetrate the ground of our temporality. We are not making an abstract statement, but are rather expressing a profound religious feeling, when we sing, "Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away." It is not mere philosophy, but a tragic feeling of life, which impels the earliest Greek philosophers to say that all things must return to their origin, suffering punishment, "according to the order of time." It is not merely in the interest of systematic theory that the Fourth Gospel uses again and again the phrase "eternal life" as the expression of the highest good, which is ever present in Christ. It was a religious event when Meister Eckhardt pointed to the eternal now within the flux of time, and when Soren Kierkegaard pointed to the infinite significance of every moment as the now of decision.

Time is as inexhaustible as the ground of life itself. Even the greatest minds have each discovered only one aspect of it. But everyone, even the most simple mind, apprehends the meaning of time namely, his own temporality. He may not be able to express his knowledge about time, but he is never separated from its mystery. His life, and the life of each of us, is permeated in every moment, in every experience, and in every expression, by the mystery of time. Time is our destiny. Time is our hope. Time is our despair. And time is the mirror in which we see eternity. Let me point to three of the many mysteries of time: its power to devour everything within its sphere; its power to receive eternity within itself; and its power to drive toward an ultimate end, a new creation.

Mankind has always realized that there is something tearful about the flux of time, a riddle which we cannot solve, and the solution of which we could not stand. We come from a past which is no more; we go into a future which is not yet; ours is the present. The past is ours only in so far as we have it still present; and the future is ours only in so far as we have it already present. We possess the past by memory, and the future by anticipation. But what is the nature of the present itself? If we look at it closely, we must say: it is a point without extension, the point in which the future becomes the past; when we say to ourselves, "This is the present," the moment has already been swallowed by the past. The present disappears the very instant we try to grasp it. The present cannot be caught; it is always one. So it seems that we have nothing real neither the past nor the future, nor even the present. Therefore, there is a dreaming character about our existence, which the psalmist indicates, and which religious visionaries have described in so many ways.

Time, however, could not even give us a place on which to stand, if it were not characterized by that second mystery, its power to receive eternity. There is no present in the mere stream of time; but the present is real, as our experience witnesses. And it is real because eternity breaks into time and gives it a real present. We could not even say now, if eternity did not elevate that moment above the ever-passing time. Eternity is always present; and its presence is the cause of our having the present at all. When the psalmist looks at God, for Whom a thousand years are like one day, he is looking at that eternity which alone gives him a place on which he can stand, a now which has infinite reality and infinite significance. In every moment that we say now , something temporal and something eternal are united. Whenever a human being says, "Now I am living; now I am really present", resisting the stream which drives the future into the past, eternity is. In each such Now eternity is made manifest; in every real now, eternity is present. Let us think for a moment of the way in which we are living our lives in our period of history. Have we not lost a real present by always being driven forward, by our constant running, in our indefatigable activism, toward the future? We suppose the future to be better than any present; but there is always another future beyond the next future, again and again without a present, that is to say, without eternity. According to the Fourth Gospel eternal life is a present gift: he, who listens to Christ, has eternity already. He is no longer subject to the driving of time. In him the now becomes a now eternal. We have lost the real now, the now eternal; we have, I am afraid, lost eternal life in so far as it creates the real present.

There is another element in time, its third mystery, which makes us look at the future; for time does not return, nor repeat itself: it runs forward; it is always unique; it ever creates the new. There is within it a drive toward an end, unknown, never to be reached in time itself, always intended and ever fleeing. time runs toward the future eternal. This is the greatest of all the mysteries of time. It is the mystery of which the prophets, Christ, and the Apostles have spoken. The eternal is the solution of the riddle of time. Time does not drive toward an endless self-repetition, nor to an empty return to its beginning. Time is not meaningless. It has a hidden meaning salvation. It has a hidden goal the Kingdom of God. It brings about a hidden reality the new creation. The infinite significance of every moment of time is this: in it we decide, and are decided about, with respect to our eternal future.

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