Saturday, April 18, 2009

The presence of the past

Jason Engwer once did a post on the question of whether God will restore our pets to us. I’d like to approach this question from a different angle and a broader perspective.

In one respect it comes down to the question of whether God values the past, either for himself or for his creatures.

The past is God’s handiwork. Like classic artwork. It reveals his wisdom and power.

The question is whether God regards the work of his hand as essentially disposable. Is it something he does, only to take down, crumple into a ball, and toss into the trashcan of oblivion? Is the past something that, once is past, is not worth remembering or preserving?

Of course, I’m not God, so I can’t answer for sure. But it seems to me that everything he does is bound to possess permanent value–for the simple reason that he did it.

For us, what is past seems to slide out of existence because we can no longer experience the past directly. But that’s because of our position in relation to the past, present, and future.

At present, the past is inaccessible to me. In relation to my present self, the past lies beyond my direct awareness.

That could mean it ceases to exist. Or that could simply mean I’m a timebound creature who can only experience the world one moment at a time.

On one theory of time, the past is just as real as the present. Abraham is still sitting under the oak of Mamre. But that’s not our time.

Yet even if you think the past no longer exists, the answer doesn’t turn on that question. For there’s still a sense in which the past subsists in the mind of God. As his complete idea of the world. The idea he enacted in time and space.

So even if the past is over and done with, it’s still available to God. And if it’s available to God, he can make it, or parts of it, available to others–if he so desires.

In this life, our experience of the world is necessarily limited. Severely limited. We skim the surface of a little bay within a vast ocean.

It all depends on when you live and where you live. You may see a sunset that no one else ever sees–because of when and where you saw it. That unique little moment in time. That particular square of sky and earth.

Then there are many marvels and beauties which go undisclosed. In the words of the poet, “full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

Of course, that’s a bit provincial in the sense that pretty flowers don’t exist merely for the benefit of human observers.

And yet it points to something significant: the world is full of wonders and beauties which, due to our timebound existence, can only be enjoyed by a few people at a time. Or none at all.

Aren’t you a bit curious about the oak of Mamre?

So the question is whether God will share the past, or parts of the past, with his people? This could take various forms.

He could cause us to experience the past. Or he could reintroduce the best parts of the past into the future. And he could also improve on the past.

Indeed, heaven, or the new earth, will undoubtedly be an improvement on what this fallen world has to offer.

And this is not to deny that heaven, or the new earth, may include many novel things as well, for us to explore and celebrate.

Of course, we can only speculate, but it seems unlikely to me that God treats all the treasures of the past as utterly forgettable or disposable. Is this a throwaway world? To be discarded without a backward glance? Does God look upon his handiwork as a beer can or a piece of art? Is the past a junkyard or a museum?

In the world to come, when we are purified from sin, we’d be in a better position that ever to rejoice in all the best that God has done. It will be the first time in our lives that we can truly appreciate the goodness of it all. To see old things through new eyes, as well as riches yet unseen.

Our fallen and fleeting lives afford us such a truncated exposure to all there is. Such a tiny sampling of the whole. A sliver of the Redwood. And in this life, that’s a blessing, too, since a fallen world includes the evil with the good.

I’m not sure what we can expect. But I wouldn’t be surprised if all that best in this world is waiting for us in the next world–restored to vintage condition. Indeed, better than ever. Not to mention many new and wonderful things to come.

1 comment:

  1. I've not made a superhuman effort (or any effort at all, really) to videotape everything the kids have ever done, for the very reasons you outline here. I'm fairly convinced God has preserved all of that for us in ways far beyond what any of us can imagine.