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Why I Don’t Believe in Time Travel – a Christian historiography

Have you seen the movie, Interstellar? I had the chance to see it in our local theater the other day and really enjoyed the movie. Christopher Nolan has done a great thing for cinema over the past several years, reintroducing textures of live action and set design alongside wonderful cinematography. Interstellar is no different, though one gets the feeling it is Nolan’s take on 2001: A Space Odyssey in some ways.

Part of the movie (and I’m attempting not to reveal anything in its conclusion) has to with the theory of relativity and, specifically, the nature of time. In watching the movie, the plight of humanity serves only as a backdrop, or perhaps a pretext, for engaging in a discussion of these major issues. Time travel is introduced…though I am not going to say how. So, this morning, I thought it might be good to use this movie as a means of explaining why I find time travel quite impossible.

One of the essential philosophical conversations one needs to have, at some age, concerns the nature of history and how we understand the way history works. There any number of critical engagements, and some very intriguing writing on all sides. To make a major engagement shorter, there are many views of historiography that include historicism, Marxism, cyclical views, dialetic, and Christian. Sub-categories proliferate, though they generally stay within these major categories.

Historicism, a concept that was developed heavily among the German schools of the late 18th century, posits that all cultures are the result of their mutual historical participation and are moulded  by the past. All cultures are participants in the larger historical narrative and is a process of natural development. (See Kant, Wilhelm Dithey, and Giambattista Vico, etc.)

Marxist views of historiography are, predictably, centered around understanding how individuals work and produce their means of subsistence. For the Marxist historian, the struggle of history is broadly seen and understood through the experience of production. (See Marx, Hegel, Engels, and Greorgy Plekhanov, etc.)

Cyclical, considers the movement of history across the ages through periods of birth, growth, renewal, decline, and death before the cycle begins again. Not surprisingly this view is popularized in eastern cultures (Chinese, Indian, etc.) as well as in agrarian societies where the natural order is seen in the season. (See Stoicism, Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee, etc.)

Dialetic, advanced most critically by Hegel, the world-spirit (Geist) is progressively developing the world towards a final synthesis. Broadly speaking, it is the historical outworking of “its turtles all the way down” but progressively so. This leads to progressive stages of increasing self-awareness among humanity.

Within this discussion, Christians have offered a philosophy of history that has been, largely, adopted by most culturally though it likely no longer holds sway among intellectuals. Christian historiography begins with the presupposition that God is a creator and has created the world and wishes to be known by His creation. Taking a linear approach to the study of history, creation has a specific beginning, a timeline of existence, and then an end.

As a result, what has happened historically is done, there isn’t access back to it in the realm of creation. There is no ability, nor reason, to access historical events because the point of history is the display of the God’s story (His-Story) across the scope of humanity’s existence. What has been done is done, yet the future is what awaits. Just as we cannot fast-forward into the future (other than sleeping…or a comatose state) by leaps and bounds, we also are not able to go backwards. Nor are we intended.

To be honest, I love time travel movies. Ever since Michael J Scott jumped in a DeLorean in Back to the FutureI’ve been hooked on them. But ultimately, they’reTime Machine just good stories. While theoretical physicists and cosmologists (who are entirely dealing in theory) can postulate any number of instances where this kind of thing is possible, the simple philosophical reality is that it is not. Indeed, for the Christian the simple theological truth is that God has provided no system whereby mankind can be part of time travel in this temporal creation.

And that is entirely okay. Our goal in history is, indeed, crafting the grand story of God’s glory as worked out and redeemed among humanity. We are part of God’s story, and our hope is found in looking forward to the promise that awaits, not behind at that which holds us back.

Time travel stories are great departures and wonderful ways to dream about something beyond us. For Christian historiography, they are just that…stories. Left there we can enjoy them and have moments of release. Ironically, what undergirds so much of time travel stories is the same thing that binds the Christian historiography together…hope.

We cannot travel back in time, nor leap far ahead either. Instead we can believe with hope that God is accomplishing something great in our world and creation that, ultimately, displays His glory and with which we can partner for a greater Kingdom that is to come.

 

Addendum: Now, There is something to be said about God’s atemporality, as well as His omnipresence, at this point. Omnipresence is, usually, understood as God having causal access to all places at all times. It does not necessarily denote being able to move up and down a historical timeline. Atemporality speaks to the relationship of God and time. God stands outside of time, though having access to it, and sees all points of time. Mankind does not have this access. Perhaps this is echoed in Luke 14 and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that once one has died and is in Heaven, they are unable to re-enter the temporal sphere of creation. But I digress.

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The Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus Pt 2 – The Jesus of History

As we take up the second part of this brief two-part series comparing the Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus we now turn to consider Jesus Christ. For many scholars doing work in the area of the Historical Jesus, the parallel between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ is indeed an apt metaphor. Our goal is to look at the development of both individuals, in this Christmas season, and see how they relate to this larger issue of the Historical Jesus.

You can read the previous post, The Santa of Faith, by clicking here.

Though the term “Historical Jesus” is often a dirty word in evangelical churches, we should admit that the three, or four, quests have at least produced this benefit: we have a better understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus in His Second Temple era than before. Because of the pushback from rigorous scholars who have questioned the inculturated Jesus of their day, we now have a better view of who Jesus actually is and was in His day. Though there have been excesses and, let’s be honest, completely ridiculous side trails by a few scholars, the various quests have produced some compelling scholarship.

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Just like our previous inquiry about the Historical Santa Claus, the Historical Jesus is indeed rooted in an actual individual who lived in antiquity. Of the few things scholars of all camps generally agree on, Jesus Christ was an actual person who lived in Palestine during the late Second Temple period, had followers/disciples, and was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Outside of these facts there is little agreement down the scholarly line. Of course, once we get to the evangelical side (where I do align myself) we see a broader acceptance of biblical reconstructions of Jesus’ life.

Not to get too waylaid by the scholarly discussion, one of the realities about the Historical Jesus is that when we look across the timeline of history to see how Jesus Christ is portrayed there is a different result than when we consider the evolution of Santa Claus. Granted, there are certainly some terrible representations of Jesus that exist even in our day (i.e. Talking Jesus Action Figure…I have this on my office shelf for funsies.) Yet, in orthodox Christianity (small “o”) over the centuries between the death of Jesus Christ and now, the representation of Him (not necessarily the artistic one) theologically and liturgically has remained steadied in Christianity.

Of course, this is not the primary concern of Historical Jesus quests. Instead, they have sought to uncover (not deconstruct) the actual historical figure from amid the tattered depictions in the primary source documents: the Gospels and New Testament.

Jesus Christ is unique from Santa Claus in that there is an established corpus of literature that still remains as the sources for understanding how He was received and understood by His first followers. While the latest developments in scholarship showing the early veneration of Jesus by these followers is not entirely relevant to this discussion, it does bear some influence on how we understand the Gospels depictions. The Santa of faith relies almost entirely on translated traditions and oral transmissions of his story across 16, or so, centuries with varying depictions. The Jesus of history relies on a set of documents written within a generation, or two, of His death by both eyewitnesses and devoted followers.

With the evolution, or translation, of Santa Claus, we see a figure who entirely loses the original image between his fourth century historical life and his present day depictions. Gone is any attachment with a Catholic Bishop from the Middle East. Only visible is the overweight, bearded Scandinavian bestower of gifts from atop a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer…and Rudolph. The present day image of Santa Claus bears no resemblance to the fourth century St Nicholas.

Yet the present day Jesus Christ, and the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, is very much in line with the Historical Jesus. He remains ensconced in His Second Temple era amid struggling Jewish socio-political identity. A prophet and rabbi who came into this world through miraculous means (even if this is disputed by present day scholars) and died on a Roman crucifixion stake, still is found to be as Jewish today as He was in the middle first century representations. Though some have attempted to understand Jesus in their present milieu or through a lens of theological liberation, the orthodox Jesus of History remains settled in the Gospel depictions of Himself.

Unlike Santa Claus, who is very much taken out of his original historical figure, the Historical Jesus that we know today looks very much like the first century Jewish messianic figure who is presented in the Gospel witnesses. As these Gospel authors are either eyewitnesses or relying on eye witnesses testimony, their unique purpose for writing and framing the actions of Jesus Christ still present a figure who is faithful to the historical figure that lived and died between sixty and forty years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The Jesus of history that we have been able to recover aligns closely with characteristics of the Jesus of faith that has been venerated and celebrated in the liturgies and worship celebrations of the Church and churches since the first generation of Jesus’ followers. Regardless of where we stand on other issues around Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels still stands as a historically faithful representation that has stood the test of time. Unlike the Santa Claus of faith, the Jesus of history remains attached to the historical, first century Palestinian Jew who lived among the tumultuous times of the late Second Temple period.

We can be thankful that instead of a benevolent saint who merrily grants wishes and bestows gifts to children, the Jesus of history is one who came into this world for a purpose and can be seen in the passages of Holy Christian Scripture as a savior who is given for the world for all days.

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It Really is Hard to Reconstruct Aspects of the Biblical Times

Last evening, well early this morning, I was reading James Burtchaell’s From Synagogue to Church and came across his discussion about the challenge of reconstructing the underlying forms or pre-existing offices that would have informed the earliest Christian communities. He points out that there well could be a number of traditional patterns and social attitudes that are simply unrecoverable to present day historians. He then provides this excellent illustration:

Imagine the impossible task of any future scholar trying to reconstruct the internal political history of almost any institution in America in ignorance of Robert’s Rules of Order, the format by which virtually all meetings are conducted. The wardens of a Congregationalist church in Newport, a teamsters union in Chicago, a chapter of the Disabled American Veterans in Dubuque: all of the them run their meetings pretty much the same way, Robert’s way. The book is a traditional item of community organization, entirely familiar to the nation, and for that very reason it is so taken for granted that it is rarely mentioned. By the same token, any familiarity which we can gain with similarly familiar antecedents of the earliest Christians will help us to construe better the way that they were following – because they were the only ways they knew of forming a community. (pg 199)

He goes on to note how the earliest Christians would have certainly looked to their common heritage and cultural milieu, specifically the synagogue.

Now, this really does capture the challenge of reconstructing the picture of the first century environment. After numerous generations of critical historical inquiry the picture is becoming increasingly clear. However, it still is missing pieces and a haze of uncertainty persists.

The underlying cultural forms that helped craft and structure authority in the earliest Christian communities are better known today than one hundred years when Sohm and Harnack (et al) were discussing the nature of charism in these early communities. Leaders in the scholarly communities that have pushed away the heavy stones of history have cleared the path and drawn on our growing knowledge of archeology and ancient understanding. Of course, the path is still clouded.

treaty-westSo to frame the continued challenge we think of the historical scholar in 1,000 years that looks back at the United States of America (or whatever country you might think of) and is attempting to work through a pile of yellowed manuscripts of official documents (since out data architecture long vanished because of its delicate state) from the wide ranging organizations as listed above. Perhaps she even has some official files from Congress. Yet Robert’s Rules does not exist in any written form. Imagine the frustration and limited horizons. If any of us could leap into her time we might be able to explain (once we learned the languages) these things better, yet we know we cannot do this.

This same problem vexes historians and biblical scholars.

We have a good picture of these times of antiquity and, perhaps more than any other people of the turn of the age (from BCE to CE) we understand Christians well. The development of the earliest Christianity wasn’t a static venture, but certainly an organic one that has many warts and scars. Yet here the Church still stands in this day (rather different I suggest) and still proclaims a Gospel so similar to the earliest Christian creed “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

The picture of these earliest believers might not be in full color or complete, but it is there and increasingly made clear through the efforts of legitimate, critical scholarship. For those of us looking to add to that picture, or at least learn how to add, a robust and competent historiography (historical method) is necessary for moving forward. It isn’t something that is easily spoken of in small groups or sermons, but it is absolutely necessary for helping finish the picture to which so many have already contributed. And yet, in 500 years, the painting might be just as unfinished.

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