I wrote this for a class recently. The prompt was along the lines of discussing time through stories.
The human condition is marked by deficiencies. We have a psychological need for understanding our place within the context of how we naturally perceive time as flowing. That is: the past once was but is no longer, the present is, the future is not yet but will be. We live with the decisions we have made and anticipate future decisions which have not been made. Thus both the past and the future are treated as pseudo-existing in some way which is less real than the present.
The true nature of time may not be this way. There is a movement among physicists that time is more properly perceived as part of a “block universe”. This view suggests that the past is just as real as the present is just as real as the future – there is no “flow” of time. This is the “eternalism” view of time (Dowden pp. 150). But whatever the true nature of time, humans are doomed to experience it as a flow. That experience leaves us with needs.
There are two facets to our needs in this regard. The first is the social aspect addressing the issue from the perspective of society, and the second is the psychological aspect addressing the issue from the perspective of an individual person. We can glean insight from analyzing humanity through how we act as a group as well as how we act as distinct persons within a group.
In the social aspect, stories largely satisfy this need by providing role models for individuals to emulate. Stories have served this function since ancient times through examples like “the perfect husband” in the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy text. Ancient mythology is often still used as a source of role models for many people in contemporary society. When one speaks of Job, the listener is probably already aware of the story of suffering. When one wears a “What Would Jesus Do” bracelet, there is no confusion about the distinction meant between a Hispanic person named Jesus and Jesus of Nazareth as depicted in Christian mythology. Humans have formed groups and created stories for the individuals throughout all of human history.
There is no need to limit the focus to ancient mythology; stories are still being created which provide role models to emulate. For example: the rate of people wanting to join the Navy as Naval Aviators rose 500 percent after the film Top Gun was released. Top Gun provided the role model of Maverick as an ideal of bravery, courage and confidence. Because people were presented with those ideals they changed their course of action in an effort to live up to those ideals.
The second way of looking at the need is from the psychological standpoint, from the perspective of an individual person. We need to learn how to attain meaning in a life which has an end. Because this need is part of the human condition we have many stories to show us comfort and wisdom.
Sometimes they tell us that our life doesn’t end – these are largely religious stories. The need can also be satisfied through stories which show us characters which face the end of time and work to prevent that end, symbolizing our own secret desire to beat death. Or stories which show us characters which have somehow lost the meaningfulness of time and the experience serves to show us just how valuable time is.
There is a common thread throughout these sorts of stories. They generally take what’s first perceived as a weakness – life is futile, fleeting and meaningless – and turn it on it’s head to produce a story which tells us that it’s very fleeting nature of time which makes it so incredibly valuable.
In the television show Angel, the main character says it thus:
If there is no great glorious end to all this, if - nothing we do matters, - then all that matters is what we do. 'cause that's all there is. What we do, now, today. I fought for so long. For redemption, for a reward - finally just to beat the other guy, but... I never got it.The theme in this excerpt, and in the stories we are examining generally, is that by accepting the frailty of life we are able to truly value life.
To get a better understanding of precisely how stories do this, and how it relates to the role of stories in our culture, the role of time, and the role of humanity coping with the human condition, we’re going to be examining 4 stories. First, it is important to understand that when stories are referred to as mythological it is not a pejorative term. A mythological story is one which is spiritually or psychologically meaningful, the term does not pass judgment on the truth value of the story. The stories are:
- The mythological stories in the Christian Bible as understood by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS)
- The mythological stories in the Christian Bible as understood by the Jehovah's Witnesses (JW)
- The fictional story explained in the film Groundhog Day.
- The fictional story explained in the television show Doctor Who, specifically the two-part episode “The End of Time”
The first is a religious story. It’s the understanding of the LCMS based on the Christian Bible. It’s an amillennialist position, meaning that the portions of the Christian Bible which refer to Christ having a literal 1,000 year reign on Earth is properly interpreted as symbolic. The reign is introduced in the Christian Bible in Revelations 20 (NIV)
They [martyrs] came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.They believe that the reign is a spiritual reign rather than a physical reign. Thus they embrace the idea of eternal existence in a form similar to this existence but also different from this existence. They also do not believe that how we spend our time on Earth (when it comes to behaving morally) is enough to guarantee an eternal life of bliss. They teach that while everyone has an eternal existence, not every eternal existence is desirable.
The LCMS does adopt the basics of general Christian eschatological (“a belief concerning death, the end of the world, or the ultimate destiny of humankind”) beliefs. This is to say that the Christian God (properly conceived as part of the Trinity) will bring all true Christian believers into Heaven where they will live in bliss for eternity. And an adverse fate awaits people who are not true believers: they will suffer an eternity of conscious torment in Hell.
LCMS has formed their beliefs on the state of persons after biological death based closely on the Christian Bible. One of the key verses is Mark 16:16 (NIV): “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned”. The word “saved” in this context refers to God saving a person from Hell. As Romans 6:23 (NIV) says: “the wages of sin is death”. Death in this context does not refer to biological death, rather it refers to death meaning Hell. This is clarified in Revelation 21:8 (NIV):
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and the liars – they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.This idea that the default destination is Hell is reinforced in Revelation 20:15 (ESV): “And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”. So the LCMS believe that persons are inherently deserving of leaving this reality and entering into one where, according to Revelation 20:10 (NIV), “They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever”.
The other side of this belief is that those who follow the necessary steps are destined for Heaven. The idea is clarified in Psalm 16:10-11 (NIV):
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.Keeping in mind that death in the following context refers to a second death (i.e., existing in Hell), the idea is further clarified in 1 Corinthians 15:26 (NIV): “The last enemy to be destroyed is death”.
Interpreting the Christian Bible in this way leads to an overarching story that the best way for humans to cope with experiencing time is to realize that this existence is only temporary. That the moral rules of nature, given to us by the moral law-maker (the Christian God), are set up in such a way that persons deserve eternal punishment without the law-maker intervening on their behalf. This means that the common notion that biological death means an end to experiencing time is false. We can escape the second death (Hell) but only through following the proper steps. This leads to an interpretation of John 3:16 (NIV) that when it says “whoever believes in [God] shall not perish but have eternal life” that while not everyone will have eternal life (i.e., not everyone will experience time in Heaven for eternity) that everyone will have eternal life (i.e., continue to experience time for all of eternity).
By contrast, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) consider themselves to be millennialists. They base their beliefs on the Christian Bible, but they interpret it very differently from how the LCMS interprets it. JW believes that Christ returned in October 1914, but that Christ returned invisibly. They chose that date based on Christian Biblical chronology, specifically Daniel 4.
Because JW and LCMS are based on the same book they’ll share many characteristics. For example, both believe in the Christian God. They have different perceptions of God, however. LCMS theology teaches that God is properly understood as part of the Trinity (that is: God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) while JW theology teaches that God is properly understood as one being. LCMS teaches that God is omnipresent (present everywhere) and omniscient (all-knowing) while JW theology teaches that God is one being who is not omnipresent and not omniscient.
They also differ in their eschatological beliefs. JW theology teaches that 144,000 people will ascend to Heaven to live in bliss for eternity, that practicing JW believers who aren’t chosen to be among those 144,000 will spend eternity on a Paradise Earth, while people who haven’t been chosen to ascend to Heaven or experience a Paradise Earth will simply cease to exist. By contrast, LCMS teaches that all who have accepted Christ will be saved. They clarify by saying in the Doctrinal Issues – Salvation portion of their website:
Paul is not contradicting his continual emphasis in all his writings, including Romans, that a person is saved not by what he does, but by faith in what Christ does for him. Rather, he is discussing the principle of judgment according to deeds. Judgment will be rendered according to one's deeds in the sense that the good works of thebeliever give evidence that he has faith. Good works, which are seen, give evidence of faith, which isunseen.So religious stories, at least the ones this paper will be addressing, tend to meet the psychological need by believing that the end of time – whether viewed through the perspective of an individual as a coherent biological being or through the perspective of ongoing human experience – is not necessarily the genuine end of an individual experiencing time. The individual suffers biological death and yet the soul persists. Ongoing human experience now takes place in a place of bliss rather than strife, but it still continues in a different sort of way.
The idea that we as persons persist after our biological death stands in sharp contrast with a materialist perspective. The materialist perspective is that “Everything that actually exists is material, or physical” which means that souls do not exist, God does not exist, the phrase “life after death” is self-contradictory, and so on. While the term religion can be notoriously difficult to precisely define, most religions reject a materialist worldview. They usually accept that material physical objects exist, but also that the spiritual exists. As an extension of this, they treat a materialist conception of time, and understanding time, as being being a less-than-full accounting of the nature of time in relation to persons experiencing time.
Religious stories about vary in their details but they overwhelmingly have a theme of accepting that our biological bodies and their existence are real but that something like a soul exists in addition. By inserting the concept of something in addition to the physical body they are opening the door to an individual experiencing biological death without experiencing true death of the self. They introduce a new twist: time doesn’t end; whether that’s desirable for you as an individual depends on how closely you’re following the rules.
They also help people learn how to behave. By codifying a set of laws and adding an addendum that the reward for following the rules is eternal life, and that the punishment for not following the rules is eternal punishment, they become very powerful tools when shaping people's behavior.
Interestingly, they can shape people's behavior even if the person is not a believer but merely has been exposed to these stories. For example, one study suggests that when voters are near churches that they are more likely to profess a belief in God and more likely to give conservative opinions (ABC News). The link between stories and human psychology appears to be a fundamental link that significantly affects us. More importantly, these stories change the concept of time in order to change how people view time and consequently how to use time.
The third story is the film Groundhog Day. This story is different in that rather than a divine intervention warning of a future event, the key revelation in our comprehension of time comes without warning and without any description. Humanity doesn’t ascend to another level of reality, nor does time reach an end. The story describes the protagonist as a shallow person who isn’t appreciative of the gift of time. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this quickly is to say that the protagonist holds the opposite of the perspective advocated by the character Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: Generations:
Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives, but I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment because they'll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we've lived. After all, Number One, we're only mortal.The protagonist of Groundhog Day rather views time as a background in which one operates egotistically.
Groundhog Day eliminates the invisible privilege that we, and the protagonist, experience. The film forces the character to relive the same day constantly, some estimates have put the time experienced as long as 10,000 years! So it takes away the meaningfulness of time for the main character.
Instead of presenting time in the traditional linear fashion, it presents time in a very cyclical fashion. It highlights the mundane uses of time which we take for granted and makes it so that the very mundaneness becomes the most significant thing in the world. It is a way of demonstrating meaningfulness in life by changing how we perceive time.
This is different from the religious stories in that they essentially say “this life is meaningless
The End of Time is a two part episode from the television show Doctor Who. It is epic and expansive, but I want to focus on one episode. In the Doctor Who universe there are alien races. One of those races are called the Time Lords. They are very similar to humans (i.e., they are persons, they appear in a human body, they eat and drink, etc) but also different (i.e., they are near immortal, they have two hearts, etc). The show exploits those differences to shine new light on human experiences. For example, the Time Lords can regenerate under most circumstances. This is an incredibly helpful device for the mechanics of producing a show about one person which first aired in 1963. More than that, it is helpful because it presents death in a similar light as many of the religious stories. Which is to say that death occurs but that the common notion of death as ending life is incorrect.
When a Time Lord is set on the course of events that would traditionally result in death (i.e., fatal but with the clarification that it is not necessarily going to be fatal) they engage in a process of rebirth or regeneration. Their physical body is transformed into a new adult physical body and yet the Time Lord retains his or her essence. The Time Lord, for example, retains memories and yet adopts a new personality. One of the recurring lines in the show demonstrates that they have no control about choosing their new body when the Doctor announces “I'm still not ginger!”.
This is similar to the religious stories because the person (not human, but person) experiences the end of his or her biological death – what traditionally means the end of experiencing time – and yet his or her essence exists after biological death. It is different in that the religious stories rest on the idea of humans moving to a new reality, while the Time Lords stay in their reality. There are small comparisons to changing reality since one's reality is largely determined by how one perceives reality (i.e., a person with a happy personality will perceive reality in a more positive light, a tall person will perceive reality from a slightly higher position, and so on) but the essential notion of transitioning to a new reality is lost.
There is also a comparison between Ecclesiastes 1 and one of the general themes of Doctor Who. The exact age of The Doctor is unclear but he has said that he has lived several thousands years and on another occasion 953 years. His experiences during those years – specifically his losses – have given him a wise and often tragic perspective. This is mirrored in Ecclesiastes 1:16-18 (NIV):
I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more griefThere is a parallel between the two stories in that they both include figures who have experienced time – and not merely passively experienced it, but rather fully lived it – and accordingly have wise perspectives on the meaningfulness or meaningless of this existence. The religious stories conclude that the wise perspective is that this life is without meaning, or at least that this life derives meaning from another life. Doctor Who concludes that while life can be tragic, and existence absurd, that striving to make life better for others is the most meaningful way of using one's time.
In the episode we are focusing on, almost the entire Time Lord race is trapped inside a “time bubble”. They are unable to come out of it and into the world except through ending time. They exist, but in a different dimension where they are unable to interact with the rest of reality outside their bubble. They are “time-locked” into their own existence.
They find a loophole and find that they are able to interact with the outside reality through a subconscious message with one of the only two Time Lords who are not trapped in the time bubble. The problem is that by breaking out of the time bubble they will be destroying Earth and its inhabitants thereby ending time from the perspective of humanity.
The protagonist of the show, known simply as “The Doctor”, is faced with the choice of bringing his race back into existence from the time bubble and ending the ability of humans to experience time, or allowing his race to be sentenced to an eternity of being trapped. One of the common themes throughout the show is the loneliness of The Doctor so the idea of having his race back is very attractive. But, in the end, he chooses to send his race back into the time bubble and thus preserving the ability of humans to experience time.
All of the stories take different approaches to highlighting the necessity of humans spending their time wisely. The religious stories call attention to the fleeting nature of time (as experienced by an individual) by contrasting it with the idea of eternity. Groundhog Day accomplishes the same thing by taking away what is significant about time: our ignorance of future events and ability to make choices changing the future. The End of Time does it by presenting The Doctor with something he deeply needs but can only achieve at the expense of the ability of humans to experience time.
The stories have a recurring theme of demonstrating some sort of impending doom: being sentenced on Judgment Day, brought about by biological death; being forced to relive the same day eternally; the end of humanity brought about by inaction on behalf of The Doctor. And then they demonstrate how this doom can be averted: following the proper steps; becoming a better person; sending the Time Lords back into their time bubble. It is a combination of first demonstrating some need and then providing a way for individuals to meet that need.
What allows an individual to use a story to meet that need is the ability to draw a correlation from the story into a need that is already present. This requires a slight qualification in that the religious stories present themselves as literally true while the other two stories present themselves as fiction. But what gives meaning to a mythological story is that it is meaningful to humans sharing this existence not whether its claims are ultimately true. So in one sense mythological stories are meaningful because they provide instructions relevant for the next life, but in the sense I am using the word they are meaningful because they give meaning to humans in this life.
Religious stories provide insight into the nature of the cosmos, ethics, the meaning of the concept death and generally providing guidance and comfort – or fear, but that is just as consequential – to humans. We have an innate need to understand what causes things to happen. This specific need manifests itself both in the how and the why. For example: how do tornadoes work (i.e., what is the description of the natural process) as well as why a tornado struck one house and not the other (i.e., why did the natural process behave that way instead of another?). So while humans do not have an innate need for, say, the name of God, they do have an innate need which is satisfied by religious stories which include details like the name of God. They create a need to satisfy in the sense that they create the proper steps one needs to take to avoid Hell. But in the course of satisfying the need they have created, they satisfy other needs inherent in the human condition.
The same applies to the fictional stories. In Groundhog Day they create the need for the protagonist to break out of the cycle of repeating the same day, and they satisfy that need by having the protagonist become a better person. This is meaningful because humans already have an inherent need to deal with repeating days (that is: existence) and an innate need to understand how one should behave towards others. The film makes a comparison between the need created and the need inherent, and then provides the solution to both needs: existence isn't futile, and we should treat people with kindness.
In Doctor Who they create the need of saving humanity at great cost to The Doctor. It presents the choice of fulfilling the ultimate desire at great cost to other persons, or to act selflessly and deny one's own desires in order to benefit other persons. This ties into the human need to understand selfishness and whether time is best spent helping others or fulfilling our own selfish desires. In addition to the general theme of the episode, a portion of dialogue between The Doctor and a human named Wilfred. Wilfred chose to enter into a small radiation chamber which is about to be filled with radiation. The only way out is if The Doctor enters the adjoining radiation chamber and locks himself inside. The Doctor has a choice of allowing Wilfred to be killed by the imminent flood of radiation or absorb it himself, but if he absorbs it himself then he will have to regenerate. While he won't lose his essence, he will lose his personality which is a large part of his identity.
WILFRED: Look, just leave me.DOCTOR: Okay, right then, I will. Because you had to go in there, didn't you? You had to go and get stuck, oh yes. Because that's who you are, Wilfred. You were always this. Waiting for me all this time.WILFRED: No really, just leave me. I'm an old man, Doctor. I've had my time.DOCTOR: Well, exactly. Look at you. Not remotely important. But me? I could do so much more. So much more! But this is what I get. My reward. And it's not fair! Oh. Oh. I've lived too long.WILFRED: No. No, no, please, please don't. No, don't! Please don't! Please!DOCTOR: Wilfred, it's my honour. Better be quick. Three, two, one.The Doctor has faced the larger issue of sacrifice and now is presented with a smaller scale reward. Wilfred is old, he chose to enter the chamber, he is a human. The Doctor just saved the human race; he deserves a reward not death.
So while Doctor Who has created a need in the sense of impending doom of humanity and then the death of Wilfred, that need is mirrored in the pre-existing human need of learning about selflessness. In both instances The Doctor freely chooses to sacrifice – both the return of his race and then his identity – on behalf of others. The ultimate desire is shown not to be fulfilling a selfish desire, rather the ultimate desire is to freely sacrifice on behalf of others. It is only through sacrifice that we can achieve meaning in life. This satisfies the inherent need of humans to learn how to achieve meaning in life.
There is also a more general need innate in humanity: the need for life having significance. Religious stories tell us that this life is significant because how behavior and beliefs will influence ourselves after we undergo biological death. The details vary, to be sure, but that is the gist. This is particularly present in the theology of the JW. They emphasize evangelizing based on Matthew 28:19-20, when Jesus of Nazareth said:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”They emphasize that using time meaningfully means, to a large degree, spreading their religion.
Groundhog Day satisfies this need pointing out that being able to experience time is a privilege. By taking away that privilege it uses contrast to demonstrate the significance of experiencing time. We see the transformation of the character from egotistical and unable to appreciate life, to egotistical and still unable to appreciate life (once he is in the loop), to selfless and finally able to appreciate the gift of time's apparent flow. It directly addresses the difficulty of finding meaning in a finite life by showing how undesirable an infinite life is.
The End of Time illustrates the same need by setting up a scenario in which a powerful moral person is forced to choose between humans experiencing time and something he needs. It is a bit different in that the protagonist is not strictly speaking human, but it is fairly obvious that The Doctor is meant to represent humans. By making his choice and sacrificing so much he is able to help others appreciate the gift of time.
The other common thread is that these stories generally rely on privileged information. This takes the form of privileged experiences. In the religious stories the privileged experiences are caused by the divine, and the authors of the Bible are privy to the information. By sharing that information with people who lacked the experience, they are able to help them learn what is important about life and how we spend it.
The fictional stories also rely on privileged information. In The End of Time, The Doctor is the one who has access to special information. The sort of privileged experience is a bit different in form, however. Rather than being told something from an outside source the privileged experience comes from a combination of his wisdom from living for such a long time as well as his capability. He is not told some sort of information per se, he is able to form an informed judgment based on his uniqueness as compared to humans. In Groundhog day the main character clearly has access to information that the other characters lack. Specifically, he is able to know what will happen during the day that he is reliving as a loop.
The stories differ in their methodology and intention. But they all highlight something intrinsic to humanity – we experience time as flowing, filtered through our ignorant mammalian brains – and use it as a way question how we should view time in the context of experiencing time. Although we only examined this phenomenon through 4 stories, it is present in many stories. It is a unique way in which humans produce material to help ourselves deal with the absurdity of the human condition: deficiencies and the need to address those deficiencies. To quote Christopher Hitchens:
"I know what's coming, I know no one beats these odds. It's a matter of getting used to that, growing up and realising that you're expelled from your mother's uterus as if shot from a cannon, towards a barn door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks. It's a matter of how you use up the intervening time in an intelligent and ironic way. And try not to do anything dastardly to your fellow creatures."Even though everyone can not be right simultaneously on precisely how we should appreciate the gift of experiencing time – or if the “barn door studded with old nail files and rusty hooks” even exists! - it appears to be a timeless fact that every thinking person will spend time struggling to find an answer if not The Answer.