Although I wrote this some time ago, a conversation that I had last night made me realize that this Hebrew view of time and the future might be just what many of us need to contemplate. So, here it is again.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
Course correction on the way to the Future
Everyone wants to have a crystal ball about the future. In spite of the difficulty of prediction, we still try our best to peer over the time horizon. If we are really sophisticated, we develop statistical models, forecasts and algorithms. If we are the ordinary types; we go for tarot cards, astrology and readings. But it always comes down to the same thing. Prediction is very difficult, especially when it is about the future.
God is interested in the future too. Fortunately, His view is a little different than ours. But He does give us some instruction about how to deal with this passionate future quest. The picture He paints comes from two important words from Scripture that help us settle once and for all the pressing issue of our future. These words are aharit in Hebrew and suneidesis in Greek. While these two words are never used together in the Bible, they each give us part of a picture that is a startling correction to our preoccupation with the future.
The Hebrew word is aharit is unusual because it literally means “afterward, backwards or after part”. So, how can it be about the future? H. W. Wolff says that the Hebrew concept of time is like a man rowing a boat. He sees where he has been, but the future is toward his back. He backs into the future. It is entirely unknown to him because it is behind him.
This picture has some very powerful theology in it. Only God can see “behind” us. We have as our guide what we see, the course we have been following – the past. We see the past because we are facing it. The past is in “front” of us. No wonder our history with God is so important. It is not just about where we came from. It is the visible guide for our course into the future.
The implicit powerful assumption in this metaphor is that I am “in” the temporal flow. Time is the water that surrounds me as I row the boat. My past is visible to me because I can see where I have been. But the substance of my future is just the same as my past and present. It is the stuff that I am moving in. I just don’t have the advantage of turning around to look where I am going.
This way of looking at time is not how we currently picture the temporal universe. Our metaphors for the future portray a different spatial relationship. A Greek metaphor has deluded us. The Greeks viewed time like a river. But instead of being in the river, we are passive observers on the shore. Where we stand on the riverbank is the present. What has happened already is now “down stream” in the past. The future is “up stream” flowing toward us. It is already there, but in a different location.
Notice how this metaphor changes some fundamental elements about my temporal relationship. First, it locates me on the sidelines. I am not “in” the temporal process. I am rather a passive observer of the process. I don’t impact the course of the river, the speed of the current or the volume of water flowing past me. I am much more like a witness to events that come into view on the river of time and then flow past me and out of view into the past. In this picture, time has its own life apart from me. Even if I were not on the riverbank, events would still just continue to flow along. In fact, my present location on the riverbank is really completely arbitrary. If I decided to move downstream, I would just see those things that were once in my present. And if I moved upstream, I could see what is now (relatively) in my future. This “riverbank” illusion leads me to imagine that if I could only change my location relative to the river flow, I could actually observe what is already in the upstream river – and therefore, I would know the future.
What an ingenious and deceptive model this is! It seems so “commonsense”. It has great appeal, so much appeal that it is the underlying model of all those science fiction stories about time travel. But it is deadly in its deception because it depends entirely on converting time into space. You see, it suggests that time is really some sort of physical-spatial reality. Like a river, time has events in its structure that are already in some present spatial relation. They are either in our present view or further (a spatial word) away from us downstream or upstream (both spatial concepts). In addition, this metaphor suggests that I have a relative spatial position in relation to the spatial structure of time. I am the passive observer at this particular point (spatial) along the shore. All kinds of confusions result from this model of time.
The biggest problem is this: time is not like space. It doesn’t seem to have multiple dimensions like width, height and length. It doesn’t package very well. It doesn’t seem to be able to be bent, rolled, angled, compressed, stretched or a dozen other spatial kinds of descriptions. It’s actually hard to imagine time in its essence at all. Time seems to be always connected with something else.
This is why the Hebrew view is so incredibly powerful. First, it takes me right off the shoreline and plunks me in the middle of the flow. I am not an observer. I am a participant. Time is the stuff I row my boat in. Secondly, the Hebrew concept suggests that what I really know about time is all in front of me. Time is the continuous sequence of actions that stretch from me into the past. As the sequence of events that connect this moment to all previous moments, time places me in the historical fabric of created connection. I am not standing by observing the universe flow past me. I am stuck right in the flow of everything that ever existed up to this precise moment. And just like the water below my boat, as I row I make changes in the very substance of time. It is dynamic, not static. It can be altered.
But what about the Hebrew view of the future? My future is really in the process of becoming. Rowing the boat never allows me to see where all of this is going. It only allows me to see where I am coming from. Each pull of the oars draws another piece of the temporal fabric under the keel. I experience the effort, the slice of the oar, the slap on the water. It is real involvement. And I can change that involvement. I can pull deeper, harder, faster. I can alter course, steer left or right. My future (what is presently “behind” me and cannot be seen) is changed when I alter my direction by shifting course.
This idea is given more elaboration by the second important word, the word that Paul uses for “conscience”. That Greek word (suneidesis) is one of the few words that Paul uses that is entirely Greek. Most of Paul’s vocabulary is Greek but with Hebrew thought forms. But not this one.
Suneidesis comes from two root words, sun and eido. Sun is a common prefix that means “together”. We see the same thought in English with the transliterated word “sum”. Added together. The second root is eido. Greek has several words for “know”. These words distinguish how we acquire knowledge. The most common, ginosko, is knowledge that is gained from observation and experience. Paul avoids the implication of partial and progressive knowing when he uses eido. He wants us to see that the knowledge associated with his concept of conscience is not gradually accumulated from experience. This is knowledge that comes intuitively. It is not pieced together slowly. It comes complete. It is a fully formed insight, a personal revelation. It is the kind of understanding you have when you say to yourself, “I just know that this is right”. Paul tells us that conscience is the “bringing together of intuitive understanding”. So, where does this intuition come from? Paul’s answer is that it comes from the inscription of God’s moral code on the hearts of men and from the interaction with the Holy Spirit.
Because we are future oriented, we often think of conscience as an inner voice that guides us about future choices. We see conscience as a kind of inner roadmap that we need to consult in order to determine what we should do. But Paul tells us that the function of conscience is to evaluate what has already happened. That is to say, conscience looks back on my actions and either approves my choices or condemns them. Conscience is the vehicle by which I determine if I have been staying on course. Here Paul tells us that conscience is like an independent internal witness passing judgment on my actions. When conscience is entirely open to communication with God, this internal witness acts in two important ways: it corrects my course by passing judgment on those actions that misdirected me and it confirms my course by pointing me to the right buoy markers.
Let’s put these two words together and see how our picture is enhanced.
Life is the process of involvement in following a course. We are in the middle of it all, rowing into the future. Conscience directs our vision to the correct buoy markers in the past so that we can set the right course. As we look back, we see conscience showing us that this action and that action were not on course. And we see conscience showing us that these other actions were on course. The guidance we need in behind us. Once we let conscience show us the proper markers, we will row a straight course. This is the reason that our past history with God is so important. And it is not just our personal past history. We find direction in the history of God with every man. Conscience points to God’s total involvement in human history as the right markers for setting our course into the future.
If we have the right markers in the past, we do not need to see the future direction of our rowboat. By keeping on a course that uses these markers as bearing points, we know that we are going in the right direction even if we cannot see where we are going. It is not necessary to see the course of the future because our future is merely an extension of the same line we have taken with God in the past. Those of us who know God will know that we are on the right course because God’s faithfulness marks the way we have already come and God does not change course.
Those of us who are not using God’s markers for our course will have no idea if we are rowing in the right direction. We will have no history that shows us a faithful, straight line. We will end up trying to row a boat in the fog.
Rowing backward into the future is no problem at all if we allow our inner independent witness to constantly correct our view of the markers God leaves us in the past. Lining up all the points will always bring us on course – a straight line that will continue into the future because God’s faithfulness will keep it straight.
“Clear the way of the Lord in the wilderness, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” Isaiah 40:3