A Little at a Time
by the Rev. Dr. George Dole
Faculty Member at the Swedenborg School of Religion
Newton, Massachusetts
In the December, 1996 Issue of Our Daily Bread

There is a natural and potentially useful tendency, as we move into a new year to review the one just past. This is not simply a religious phenomenon. On television and in the papers there are reviews of the biggest news stories of the year, the best films, the major sports events of the year.

There are, of course, unhealthy forms of an interest in the past. We have known people who tried to escape into the past in order to avoid facing the present. Sometimes the effort to escape was understandable; but still, our instinctive feeling is that evading problems only makes them worse. We have known people who see the past through rose-colored glasses. We can be quite sure, however strange as it may seem, that in half a century or so, people of this case of mind will see our own era as replete with virtues that their own age has lost.

A healthy interest in the past, at the least, involves an effort to learn from the past what can be useful in the present. "Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it." Awareness of the past shapes our understanding of the present.

It may help, then, to take a somewhat different view of time itself. We usually look at "the present" as moving through time. But if we take "the present" as a fixed point of reference, to which "the past" and "the future" are relative, we can distinguish three complementary modes of knowing. We see the present with a particular kind of directness and certainty, but often with a sense of ambiguity as to meaning. We see the past more remotely and selectively, but with a much clearer sense of its patterns. We see the future more remotely still, with a view shaped by our sense of patterns and colored by our hopes and fears - very hazy as to detail.

These three modes of knowing interact constantly. What we are doing and thinking right now is shaped by what we have learned over the course of the years. It is also shaped by what we intend and expect. We listen to sermons with our own situations in mind. A sentence may remind us of something that happened yesterday, or years ago. Another sentence may give us an idea about dealing with a difficult situation, or may prompt us to read a book or cultivate a relationship.

In fact, the present is quite meaningless apart from the past and the future. Our sense of purpose, of meaning, rests in our experiences of cause and effect. We have become accustomed to doing things that seem intrinsically unpleasant because they will lead to some measure of satisfaction. Otherwise, we would live strictly for the pleasure of the moment, with no heed for he consequences. If we do not clean up after our meals, the food decays. If we do not accept the expense and inconvenience of having the car serviced, it breaks down. If we do not fulfill our responsibilities, people learn not to trust us.

In the view of our theology, the most important applications of this principle have to do with our relationships with each other. From time to time, I am asked to write letters of recommendation for former students, and one of the first questions is, "How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?" It takes time for us to get to know each other, to understand each other. We form first impressions, of course, sometimes surprisingly accurate, but only time can tell. We may, for example, be quite sure that a new acquaintance is honest and reliable. As friendship deepens, as we learn more, we begin to gain a clearer understanding of how deep the roots of the reliability are.

As friendship deepens, we also learn about a person's hopes, dreams, and plans. Only as we begin to see what he or she is working for can we say that we understand. In terms of our theology, we are loves, which means that we are purposes. Our internationality is the most significant aspect of our being.

What we are discovering is not just something about mechanical causes and effects, about the way that one thing leads inevitably to another. We are discovering that this individual's past is present, that the memory of past experiences is very much here and now. Purposes are often unfulfilled. But they are like "future causes," with a powerful effect on what we are doing right now. In a way, a non-existent, future loaf of fresh bread is the cause of going to the pantry and getting out the flour. It may not happen. The telephone may ring. We may discover we are out of yeast. There are all kinds of unknowns. But that future, non-existent loaf of bread still "causes" us to start the process. That "future" has its own distinctive way of being present. In fact, the present does not make any sense without it. There is no intrinsic virtue in getting the flour out. In and of itself, it does not make the world a better place.

We are often counseled to live in the present, as opposed to the past or the future. This can be taken as justification for heedlessness, but such an interpretation rests in a misunderstanding of "the present." When Jesus spoke of "the signs of the times," He was referring to the future that is implicit in the present, When the Deuteronomist advised us to "remember the days of old," he was pointing to the fact that the past is implicit in the present. To live in the real present is to live in awareness of the presence of experience and conditioning and the presence of expectations and purposes. If our "first impressions" of others are accurate, it is because we have somehow perceived the general outlines of this mix.

There is one other aspect of this principle I should like to touch on. Just as we come to understand others over time, we come also to understand ourselves. Each of us is a completely history whose past is present in the form of experience and whose future is present in the form of purposes. Our total being as individuals stretches from our beginnings to eternity, and we become acquainted with that being only a very little bit at a time.

In 1935, a state-of-the-art photographer, Fred Faxon, took movies at Fryeburg, Maine. There is a scene of children running toward the camera, and one four-year-old is I. I have no recollection of the event. Surely not a cell of that body is part of me now. Still, the identity is unquestionable. That was a time of formative experiences which underlie my present characteristics and interests. To give just one little example, as the youngest of three children, I still tend to assume that I am "the youngest" in many situations, even though there are fewer and fewer situations where this has any basis in fact.

There is far more to any of us than we can experience in any given moment. We do have a tendency to forget this, though. When we are discouraged, we tend to see ourselves as fundamentally inadequate. When we are moved by compassion, it is hard for us to believe that we may feel disinterested tomorrow. We can look back on yesterday and wonder how on earth we managed to do what we did or feel those particular feelings.

The message of time is that those actions or those feelings have not gone away. They are still part of us. They are not the part that is in the ascendant at the moment, but they are still there. The child is still there in the eighty-year-old, just as the eight-year-old is latent in the child. We still have the capacity for child-like wonder and enthusiasm, even through our present bodies cannot readily respond to it, even though it may be overlaid by thick applications of caution. We still have the capacity for young love, even through we do not have the physical vitality we associate with it.

People who have had near-death experiences sometimes report having seen the entirety of their lives, and the result has been a whole new self-understanding. We are not likely to have that experience, but we can trust that if we did, we would find similar meaning. There is a tremendous amount about ourselves, about our lives, that we do not know. What we do know is that the Lord knows that there is a providential design wrought with a full awareness of past, present, and future. What is outside our ken is being far better managed than what is within it, and what we are being offered in our "present" has a blessed future within it. If we respond as best we can, given the little knowledge we do have, that future will be realized.


Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak;
Let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching drop like the rain,
my speech condense like the dew;
like gentle rain on grass,
like showers on new growth.
For I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
ascribe greatness to our God!

The Rock, His work is perfect,
and all His ways are just.
A faithful God, without deceit,
just and upright is He;
yet His degenerate children have dealt falsely with Him,
a perverse and crooked generation.
Do you thus repay the Lord,
O foolish and senseless people?
Is not He your father,
who created you, who made you and established you?
Remember the days of old,
consider the years long past;
Ask your father, and he will inform you;
your elders, and they will tell you.

Deuteronomy 32:1-17

Reading from Swedenborg:

As the Divine Infinite is not of space, so neither is the eternal of time. That a kind of idea of the infinite, and an idea of the Divine eternal is insinuated into the angels by the Lord, appears from this, that they know not what space is, for those who are in the extreme of the universe are present in a moment; and as to the eternal, that they have no idea of things past and future, but the past and future are in their present. . . neither is there in their idea anything of old age or of death, but only of life; wherefore they have no notion of time, but in all their present everything is as eternal.

Spiritual Diary #3973


Music: On a Distant Shore
ęBruce DeBoer