Another aspect of the holistic perspective introduces the concept of eternity. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to be very careful in my word use here, because two words usually synonymous can have very different meanings in the holistic perspective: eternal and everlasting.
I like to compare the flow of time to a river. It has an origin – a spring in the mountains / the Big Bang – and a terminus, an end – the sea / heat death. Humans ride time like leaves on the surface of the river. We may only travel a short distance along the path, we may seem to move faster or slower, but we invariably move in only one direction – downstream. (For more on the science of this and how it relates to Christianity, see my blog entry “Entropy.”)
Within this context, we can refer to things as being everlasting or eternal. Something which is everlasting rides the time stream from origin to end, or in some cases only from some fixed point until the end. Water in the river is everlasting, though individual molecules of it may not be. It is the very water, flowing for the course that makes it a river. Something which is eternal exists alongside the river, outside the current. A bridge, in this context, would be eternal. Living, as we do, within the current, we rarely refer to things that don’t cross into the river in some way. We could say, then, that the eternal transcends the river, being both in the current and beyond. [This, despite common usage, is the original meaning of transcendent - not just outside, but both outside and permeating.]
As an aside, I do think many eternal things exist that never impinge upon the time stream. A tree standing a mile away from the river would be a great example. I’m somewhat dubious about how we would have any confidence in the existence or properties of such objects so, for tonight, I’ll focus on transcendent eternals.
The current does not transcend the river, so we can think of it as everlasting, but not eternal. A dam crosses the river and exists beyond it, but only at one point. We can think of it as eternal, but not everlasting. The air above (and interacting with) the river throughout its course can be thought of as both eternal and everlasting, while a solitary stone stuck to the bed might be neither.
Similarly, we can speak of temporal things. Those are objects within the time-stream. Everything about the current is temporal, but only the wet parts of the dam are. Only the dissolved oxygen from the air counts as temporal. So eternal things may or may not have temporal elements.
I think science can only talk reliably about temporal things. Science depends upon empirical data, information received through our physical senses. Science, then, inherently relies on the physical and sequential events reported by our temporal bodies. Nor, do I think, it should speculate on things outside the river, as we lack an objective reference frame. How can we say the river curves, when we cannot see objects on the bank to compare it to? How can we say the current speeds up or slows down if we cannot compare the flow rate to some clock unaffected by the current? I’m not saying we could never ask these questions scientifically, but I do think to do so begs the question – what is science? It would require philosophical assumptions we’re not prepared to accept at the moment. So for now, science only does temporal things.
Christian theology, on the other hand, speaks of eternal things. I don’t know that I can analytically prove the existence of things eternal. The existence of a river strongly suggests to me the existence of a bed. (See my post on “The Unmoved Mover.”) The persistence of entropy, which is currently our best understanding of what drives the current, also seems evocative of something transcendent. Nonetheless, belief in eternity usually comes from transcendent experience rather than discussion. I can show you eternity, but I have difficulty telling you about it.
Tonight, I wished only to introduce the idea, but I want to make note of a couple implications in theology.
1) Souls are eternal to my view, not necessarily everlasting. I think we have the opportunity to transcend time, which sounds far better to me than persisting forever.
2) I have always see the vampire literature as chiefly a commentary on everlasting temporal life (vampires), which can become a bore, in contrast to eternal life with God. Mind you, much of the vampire literature is about sex and power (as with most literature, come to think of it). Still, the prevalence of death, drinking human blood (rather than Christ’s blood), and being soul-less leads me to believe that it was at least originally Christian commentary on everlasting vs. eternal life.
3) This does away with the notion of everlasting punishment, which has always seemed rather cruel, silly, and wasteful to me. Eternal consequences are no cheerier, but seem far more logical.
4) Gregory of Nazianzus explains Divine omniscience in this way. We flow downstream in a river that passes around a mountain. Being temporal, being caught in the current, we see events sequentially and never know what’s around the next bend. We act in the time stream, directing our passage through the shoals. God, being eternal, sits atop the mountain and sees the whole path of the river in one glance. God does not see events before they happen, but sees all events as though they were happening at once. Thus Gregory attempts to reconcile will and predestination.
I’m not certain you need to believe in eternity, but if you do, I think it makes Christian theology far more rational than it may appear otherwise.