That old but interesting neo-Marxist Ernst Bloch (one more ‘neo’ who’s already grown ‘paleo’) famously said that most of what goes on in our mind is pointed to the future – hopes, dreams, expectations, anticipations, projects, outlooks, etc. Nothing really new here, as most modern (and post-modern) newness – if they happen to get something right – typically only rehash, and often misunderstand, the wisdom that’s gone before. Aristotelian teleology, which modern innovators thought they had buried once and for all in the 17th century, has surfaced again, quite unexpectedly, in contemporary biology. It simply highlights that “cause of causes” which Aristotle called final causality: that through which our present is forever configured towards its indwelling form as that which makes it both be and become what it is. And in theology, the virtue of hope, with its anticipatory tension, simply complements the historical roots of the act of faith and the present imperative of the virtue of charity. Bloch, to his credit (and despite his Marxism), inspired a renewed look at the dimension of hope in 20th century Christian theology (Moltmann, Pannenberg, Metz), and even drew new attention to the neglected theological no-man’s land of eschatology. Still, Marxism’s messianic preoccupation with the future betrays a deep misunderstanding of the past – and even of time itself.
Since the 18th century, something odd has happened to the future. As someone wryly commented, “the future ain’t what it used to be.” Instead of following the obvious mandates of common sense to take into account the dynamisms of the present – the goals and purposes the wise must always bear in mind among the distractions of the moment – Enlightenment progressivism suggested the future receive more than just respect; it should be worshipped. For the enlightened, the future is where reality truly happens. Utopia lies before us, just around the corner, if only we will embrace a new ideology which guarantees its advent, or a new technology that will finally inflect the “future perfect” into our present. Utopias, however, suffer from an inherent handicap: they always lie in the future – always. In other words, they never come. But the past, in inescapable and often cruel contrast, never leaves us at all. Rather than passing behind us, it inevitably passes into us, and, as depth psychology has proven, it goes deep. This is so much the case that to the extent that we ignore the past, we ignore our very selves, and are thus easy prey to silly Shangri-La’s about a fantasized future.
So the present isn’t just the present, it is also the past. And whatever the future may hold, it is held here and nowhere else. “Living in the present” is often idealized as a goal of spiritual attainment, won by the person who gains full insight into the apparent non-existence of both past and future. He aspires to remain focused on the only reality there is: the one happening right now. But even those who promote such present focus have to admit that there is a brute-like staring at the moment that is the precise opposite of waking up to the richness of the present. After all, we regard the person who forgets the lessons of yesterday and fails to provide for the morrow as singularly unenlightened. Amateur sages never tire of reminding us that he who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it. But again, one reason for this is that past and future are not equally “non-present.” The future is quite literally illusory, and the past, in the final analysis, is not really absent at all. The future, as future, never truly comes; metaphysically speaking, it is nothing but the present promise of the fruition of the energies of the past. If it pretends to be more than that, it is fiction – future fiction.
But there is a way to live in the present that makes it transparent to the past, a past that is pondered and contemplated, which germinates and nourishes – not through nostalgia or wistful reminiscence, but through discerning appropriation. We must work hard not to forget the past, and even more not to misremember it; such effort constitutes the lion’s share of what we call education. But building pipe-dreams about the future is easy, for we’re making it all up to begin with. It’s child’s play. Those addicted to it refuse to face the present as adults, and thus cannot acknowledge its multiple roots in our extraordinary past. We have a hard time holding on to the past not because of its evanescence, but precisely because it is so resistantly real and heavy with fact. The future, in contrast, is easy to engineer, for it always slips away just before the hard work of making it real begins. True wisdom calls us to focus on the present in the light of the best of the past – to contemplate the multiple present dimensions of reality within us and beyond us, and so gather into our present moment all the truth, goodness and beauty that earlier ages have bequeathed us. The future – whatever it is – will then take care of itself.