Creation as Promise
September 5, 2022

A central theme in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger is his critique of traditional conceptions of time. Aristotle is his bete noire. Aristotle defines time as a “number of motion,” which “inclines toward the quantitative, and so chronological sense of time as a sequence of ‘nows’” (D.C. Schindler, A Companion to Homo Abyssus, 51).

This led, in Heidegger’s view, to an unfortunate elevation of the present; if time is “nows,” then the past and future simply don’t exist. Theologians and philosophers compensate for the loss of past and future by positing an eternity as a nunc stans, a standing “now.” But that has the same effect: Past and future are absorbed into the present.

In place of this chronological/quantitative theory, Heidegger proposes a “primordial” or “ontological” understanding of time that fits the human way of being in the world (which Heidegger describes with the word Dasein, “being-there”). Heidegger thinks of temporality as “the unity of three ‘ectases’ of human existence.” Temporality is the “distinctive way that the human essence ‘stands out’ in being,” in contrast to stones and trees and bluebirds.

In Schindler’s summary, “man is not a thing circumscribed in juxtaposition to other things but transcends that objective sort of being (‘presence-at-hand’) in his temporality, his having been (past), his being along with (present) and his ‘coming toward’ himself (future).” The future is decisive: “Dasein projects itself beyond the horizon of every day actuality and, through anticipation, ‘comes toward’ itself.”

For Heidegger, what Dasein anticipates is the end that collects all our experience into a whole, and for Heidegger that end is death. Dasein stands above the rest of existing things because his being is conscious being-toward-death (52-3; note that Heidegger’s theory is, consciously or not, an outright denial of resurrection).

For Schindler, Heidegger’s meditations on time serve as background for the work of his subject, the Catholic philosopher Ferdinand Ulrich. Like Heidegger, Ulrich objects to the Aristotelian and scientific reduction of time to a series of instants, but his Thomistic alternative goes in a very different direction from Heidegger’s.

Ulrich is impressed by the “generous patience of existence,” which enables him to see the intrinsic good in a world of spatial and temporal limitation and distance. Being planted in place, having to wait for things to unfold – these are not frustrating features of finitude, but goods (ultimately, he believes, gifts of God). Being gives time “to ripen and opens up space in itself and for itself.” Being does not move with “relentless impatience that is driven to seek the non-activity of completion.” The “mood of being” is instead a “generous letting be, a giving. A giving of time and space that affirms in a wholehearted and undistracted way the particular presence of things.”

The drama of space and time “is not a function of evil but an expression of gift”; gifts given and gifts received are only possible if there is “a distinct before and after, a this when it could have been that, a here rather than a there” (54-5). Time and space provide the intervals that can be traversed with gifts.

Within this framework, Ulrich can affirm the novelty of the future, which is “not simply an ‘addition’ to what is already there in a superficial way but unfolds from what is given. It is a fruit of the present, which may thus be said to be pregnant with the future, just as it is a free gathering up and grateful affirmation of the past.”

The past is not simply closed, finished, and gone, isolated and inaccessible. Instead, “the past proceeds from the future: it is in our moving ahead that we come to see what we are and whence we came (and vice versa: by knowing whence we came and who we are we understand where we are going).” Things are not simply inert bits of stuff, but each thing “comes to be what it is in time, which is to say that it ‘comes toward’ . . . itself, rises up to meet itself.” Future and past are not closed off from one another, but “are determined . . . in relation to each other” (58).

Schindler sees this as an application of Aristotle’s physics. Consider the humble acorn. It’s going to grow up into an oak tree. But how? The future oak tree isn’t the product of the material elements (water, earth, light, air) that allow the acorn to grow. The reality is the opposite: “the seed takes in these elements precisely because it has the form of an oak tree already in itself, a form that exceeds its original material conditions and so requires that those conditions be expanded to catch up to it.”

The form defines the acorn as a potential oak tree. And that means, from a certain angle, its growth is a matter of the acorn becoming what it already is: “the tree only becomes what it already is; it comes out to meet itself in the future, and the future reveals to it what it already has been.” The essence of the acorn is “that from which activity proceeds . . . and toward which it approaches.” Thus “past and future may not be separated from each other as mutually indifferent and unrelated quantities” (58).

What Thomas adds to this Aristotelian picture is an elevation of the present that provides the basis for an understanding of history, not merely of time. From the viewpoint of creation, “there is something more in the gift/task of being than the simple unfolding of a thing’s essence.” If that’s all we have, then we’re left to “self-enclosed substances, which at best can only make use of what is other . . . in order to become what they always were.”

For Ulrich, “things do not only become themselves; they give themselves in their becoming themselves, and vice versa.” Things become present to other things, and this involvement with other things doesn’t “threaten their self-being” but rather “brings it to perfection.” Past and future are “life-giving dimensions” to each thing as it becomes present. Thus, “the present is not opposed to the past but is its flourishing”; and “this flourishing is an open one.” The present is “futural,” with the “shape of hope.” The future is not merely an unfolding of a static essence; it is “not simply given as already having been completed.” It includes the possibility for novelty and surprise (60-1).

I like this, a lot. But I think there’s a better way to state it. We can call the driving force of the acorn’s growth toward its fuller self a “form,” but I prefer William Desmond’s suggestion that things exist as “promises” (Being and the Between). Desmond intends this as an ontological claim. A “promise” is what a created thing is. The acorn is a promise of an oak tree; the pear tree is a promise of pears; a human being is a promise of eternal glory.

For two reasons, “promise” is more compatible with a creationist outlook than “form.” First, a “promise” implies a Promisor, in a way that “form” doesn’t imply a Form-er; “promise” thus implies both creation and a Creator who creates by His Word. To put it somewhat differently, “promise” implies a “verbal” understanding the world; “form” implies a visual one.

Second, forms do their job more or less automatically, turning acorns into oak trees. God can be safely left out of the picture. Promises are more tenuous than Aristotelian forms. If the acorn is the promise of an oak tree, its ability to reach its fulfillment depends entirely on the faithfulness of the Promiser. Promises can go awry; things can stand in the way; a promise might fail and end in frustration and death.

“Promise” thus introduces a note of contingency, of drama, that’s lacking in “form.” And, once again, it implies dependence, for a promise that ends with death might yet be fulfilled by a Promiser who keeps His promises even beyond death.

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