Ernst Bloch famously said that most of what goes on in our mind is pointed to the future – hopes, dreams, expectations, anticipations, projects and outlooks. 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.
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 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.” Beyond 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 worshiped.
For the supposedly 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, in a paradoxical sense, the present isn’t just the present, it is also the past. And whatever the future may hold, it is held here in the present, and nowhere else. “Living in the present,” 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, is not as easy as its sounds. Even those who promote such present focus must acknowledge the danger of falling into a brute-like, dim-witted fixation on the moment, and one 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 foolish.
The point that needs to be grasped 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, as very often occurs, it pretends to be more than that, it turns into fiction – future fiction.
But the wise have always taught that 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. 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 flighty and 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, and to face reality from a posture well positioned in that which was and still is. The future – whatever it turns out to be – will then take care of itself.