On this day when we look back to the past year and forward to the new year, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on time. Recently I read Pope Benedict/Cardinal Ratzinger's excellent Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. The original motivation for my picking up the book (which required my obtaining it interlibrary loan, though it's so good that now I will have to buy my own copy) was that it was recommended by Sister Timothy Prokes as a book in which Ratzinger discusses the natural world. Largely that promise has not borne out, but one notable exception is the following exceptional passage:
... we must ask how time belongs to man precisely as man, and so whether it is possible to find here a starting point for conceiving a human mode of existence beyond that which depends on physical conditions of possibility. Pursuing this question, we will find that "temporality" pertains to man on different levels, and so in different ways.
Most valuable in such an analysis is Book X of the Confessions where Augustine traverses the varied landscape of his own being and comes across memoria, "memory." In memory he finds past, present and future gathered into one in a peculiar way, which, on the one hand, offers some idea of what God's eternity might be like, and, on the other, indicates the special manner in which man both is bound to time and transcends time. In these reflections, Augustine comes to realize that memory alone brings about that curious reality we call the "present." This it does, compass-like, by cutting out the circumference of a circle from the continuous flux of things, and demarcating it as "today." Naturally, the present of different people differs, in dependence on the extent of that which consciousness presents as present. Yet in memory, the past is present, albeit in a diverse manner from the presence of that which we take to be "the present." It is praesens de praeterito: the past, present in its quality as past. And something similar is true of the praesens de futuro.
What does this analysis tell us? It tells us that man, insofar as he is body, shares in physical time measured as that is in terms of the velocity of moving bodies by parameters which are themselves in motion and thus also relative. Man, however, is not only body. He is also spirit. Because these two aspects inhere inseparably in man, his belonging to the bodily world affects the manner of his spiritual activity. Nevertheless, that activity cannot be analyzed exclusively in terms of physical data. Man's participation in the world of bodies shapes the time of his conscious awareness, yet in his spiritual activities he is temporal in a different, and deeper, way than that of physical bodies. Even in the biological sphere, there is a temporality which is not mere physical temporality. The "time" of a tree, expressed in the yearly rings of its trunk, is a manifestation of its specific life cycle, and not a mere unit of rotation around the sun. In human consciousness, the various levels of time are at once assumed and transcended, rendering that consciousness temporal in a way all its own. Time is not just a physical quality ascribed to man but wholly external to him. Time characterizes man in his humanity, which itself is temporal inasmuch as it is human. Man is temporal as a traveller along the way of knowing and loving, of decaying and maturing. His specific temporality also derives from his relationality—from the fact that he becomes himself only in being with others and being towards others. Entering upon love, or indeed refusing love, binds one to another person and so to the temporality of that person, his "before" and "after." The fabric of share humanity is a fabric of shared temporality.
When I read Confessions in my undergrad studies, I was fascinated by time. I must have overlooked the import of Confessions X because it struck me as too "subjective," and not enough about the nature of things in themselves. I did not yet realize that when we give an account of physical reality, we primarily have to give a phenomenology of human experience (at very least a preliminary one). I will definitely have to re-read Confessions X!
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, trans. Michael Waldstein (Washington, DC: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1988), 182-184.