“Eternity is the superabundant and groundless being that reveals itself in Christ as the truth of love.”
Contemporary man, still under Lessing’s spell, continues to perceive time and eternity as contradictory terms.1 The athematic but nonetheless pervasive atheism that holds sway over Western culture has left man prone to busy himself with the “things of this world” while living naively oblivious to the eternal.2 This decision, however much it was initially welcomed as a liberation, results ultimately in a conception of temporality that is dominated by monotony and meaninglessness. In order to perceive that eternity and time are not two refractory realities, and that their true relation is what gives newness to history, requires the rediscovery that time is patterned after eternity and directed towards it.3 If this is the case, then, without historicizing eternity (Hegel) or eternalizing time (Nietzsche), it would be possible to see that eternity is not simply a-historical but rather the truth of time.
The following theological essay offers a justification of the contention that eternity is the fulfillment of time because it is time’s origin, archetype, and final confirmation. To support this claim, I will give an account of time not so much in terms of the “measure of movement” or of a subjective category, but in terms of “life,” perceived not biologically but in light of an “ontology of gift.” It goes without saying that this sense of time in terms of “life” does not need to be seen in dialectical opposition to time as “measure”; rather, it includes it from within itself. The ensuing reflection is divided into three stages: the first elucidates Plotinus’ treatise on time to illustrate in what sense both eternity and time can be perceived in terms of life.4 The second part gives an account of this life in light of a theology of gift. The paper concludes by showing that time’s attainment of its own truth in eternity is an eschatological event whose nature can be analogically and proleptically perceived in the divine bestowal of mercy, which, as John Paul II illustrates, is the restoration of sonship.5
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1. There is an unsurmountable, “ugly ditch” between eternity and history: “accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason” (Gotthold E. Lessing, “On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power,” in Lessing’s Theological Writings, ed. H. Chadwick [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997], 51). See also Gordon E. Michalson, “Faith and History: The Shape of the Problem,” Modern Theology 1, no. 4 (1985): 277–290; Allan Arkush, “Theology and ‘Theater Logic’ in Nathan the Wise,” in Political Philosophy and the Human Soul: Essays in Memory of Allan Bloom, ed. Michael Palmer and Thomas L. Pangle (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1995), 189-201; Kenneth L. Schmitz, “Natural Religion, Morality and Lessing’s Ditch,” in Religions and the Virtue of Religion, edited by Thérèse-Ann Druart and Mark Rasevic (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992), 57–73.
2. See Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, trans. Edith M. Riley and Anne E. Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995); Cornelio Fabro, Introduzione all’ateismo moderno (Roma: Editrice Studium, 1964); Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (New York: Harper & Row, 1957); Michael Buckley, At the Origin of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990); David L. Schindler, “Modernity, Postmodernity, and the Problem of Atheism,” Communio 24, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 563–579; id., “On Meaning and the Death of God in the Academy,” Communio 17, no. 2 (Summer 1990): 192–206.
3. The fact that time and eternity are not two incompatible realities can already be seen in Plotinus’ contention that although “we run into difficulties” when we try to give an account of time and eternity, “we have a clear and distinct experience of them in our souls” (Ennead III, 7, 5. Plotinus, Ennead III, trans. A. H. Armstrong [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993]). References to the Enneads will be taken from this translation.
4. Plotinus, Ennead III, 7. See also Steven K. Strange, “Plotinus on the Nature of Eternity and Time,” in Aristotle in Late Antiquity, ed. Lawrence P. Schrenk, vol. 27 of Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 22–53; Louis Roy, O.P., “Neither Within Nor Outside Time: Plotinus’ Approach to Eternity,” Science et Esprit 53 (2001): 419–426; J. E. McGuire and Steven K. Strange, “An Annotated Translation of Plotinus Ennead III 7: On Eternity and Time,” Ancient Philosophy 8 (1988): 251–271; Hans Jonas, “Plotin über Ewigkeit und Zeit: Interpretation von Enn. III. 7,” in Politische Ordnung und menschliche Existenz: Festgabe für E. Voeglin, ed. A. Dempt et al. (Munich: Beck, 1962), 295–319.
5. John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, 5–7.