By H. Boone Porter
Time is a big subject. The unceasing flow of future events into the present, whence they immediately become things past, is endlessly fascinating. Apparently consciousness is what holds it together for us. To be conscious is to see what is about to happen, what is happening, and what has just happened as a unified picture. Of course this is an ability which we humans share with many other creatures that move on the face of this earth. The first time a child tries to catch a robin, squirrel, or fish by the tail, the young human learns how well-adjusted other creatures are to time and space.
Perhaps we have a broader and wider view of space — but I would not wish to argue the point with an arctic tern, which flies from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back every year, or with a salmon which emerges from a certain stream, swims half way around the world, and returns in due course to the very same stream to mate and die.
On the other hand, we surely do have a broader view of time. A family, a farm, a business, a parish, or a government constantly require us to look years ahead. We all look back over our lifetime. Beyond that, there is what was told us of previous generations, what we have read, and what historians and archeologists have discovered of earlier eras.
All of this is true of communities as well as of individuals. For a group to be conscious of itself as a group, it must not only have a shared experience of the present, but also shared memories of the past and shared hopes for the future. The American traveler is often impressed with the sense of community in old-world towns, where there is so much common history and often so much agreement as to what the future ought to be.
The relation of religious faith to all of this is worthy of reflection. When our minds move from that future which we can envisage to a more ultimate future, or when we meditate with intensity upon the present, or when we try to go behind the past we remember to ultimate origins, then we are forced to think in different terms. We turn to symbols and a sense of the transcendent.
The same is true of communities of people. For a community to identify its ultimate roots, beyond any specific or remembered details, it must resort to symbols. In most cultures and civilizations, it falls to the priest to preserve the chronicles of heroic ancestors, great battles, and adventurous crossings of seas or mountains which give meaning to the origins of a people. Similarly it may fall to the priest to speak for a future in which the aspirations and hopes of a people may find fulfillment. The songs, dances, and epics celebrated by the tribe enable it to be a tribe, to find sufficient purpose and meaning for its existence, to find justification for the pain, toil, and anxiety of living.
We Christians are not totally unlike our brothers and sisters of other faiths. But beside the powerful and holy ancient legends of tribal prehistory, we also set the true story of the One who is the central figure in the history of the entire human race, the true stories of men and women and children who have lived and died for him ever since, and the hope of that heavenly country where we will live with them in his presence. We have a book, and bread and wine, in which past, present, and future are brought together. What we do on Sunday, as we gather around the lectern and the holy htable, is truly to be, to be conscious in a fuller way, to be human, to be those to whom God has given fuller life.
The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977-1990. This artlcle was published in our November 6, 1977 issue.