Timeless God

Timeless God December 27, 2018

I enjoyed the television show Timeless immensely ever since it first started, and now that the show has concluded, I want to blog about it, as perhaps I should have done episode by episode all along.

The idea of temporal terrorism was just coming into view on Star Trek: Enterprise when it was cancelled, and other than the Spanish TV series that Timeless ripped off was inspired by, there hasn’t really been an exploration of precisely this scenario. And so that would have been enough to keep me interested. By “temporal terrorism” I mean things like eliminating individuals that oppose your ideology from the picture, in this case by killing them in the past or making it so that they never even existed in the first place.

All that is interesting enough. But when one episode brought God directly into the picture, that got me to sit up and take notice even more, as you might well have expected. Time travel and God intersect naturally, as I’ve discussed in connection with shows as diverse as Doctor Who and Fringe. But often the issue is whether time travel can take the place of God. Timeless, instead, focused on what place if any God has in a universe where time travel is possible.

The series was cancelled, but a two-part finale was aired recently to bring closure. Paul Levinson recently shared his thoughts about it, and that it its the sort of satisfying finale that makes one wish the show had continued. In an era when many people wait until a series wraps up and then binge watch it, I want to blog about why the show deserves your attention

Season 2 brought God into the picture more than others did, in a variety of interesting ways. As in any TV show, some of the references are superficial symbols and throwaway references. Others are profound. And as is usual, there is still more substance there when one is not looking merely for religious characters or iconography, but points of contact with what religion is and does. The organization that is working to change history in accordance with its white supremacist, patriarchal vision has a “cult manifesto” written by Nicholas Keynes, and it is described as being a mixture of The Handmaid’s Tale and Phillip K. Dick. There is talk by the team that is trying to stop them of preventing the apocalypse. When we meet Keynes as a character, he offers his vision of the future not only in speech and writing but painting. He says what he offers is not a map because they are not explorers, but rather artists with the mothership time machine as their brush. He describes them as carving away at the rock that is the human race until something like Michelangelo’s David emerges. The overall aim is described as “perfection everlasting.”

The third episode from season 2 is set against the backdrop of the Salem witch trials, and so engages with religion of that era in interesting ways. One of the activists opposing the witch hunts quotes the phrase “Beer is proof God wants us to be happy.” It turns out to be Abiah Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s mother, who finds herself accused of witchcraft. Another character says, “I haven’t touched a gun in years. I’m a godfearing man.” I particularly appreciated the direct and explicit reference to accusations of witchcraft being a form of terrorism to keep women from speaking their mind and having the influence they otherwise might.

Also interesting is the engagement with visions of the future, fate, and free will, in ways that lead naturally to the explicit discussion of God in episode 5. Jia and Rufus talk about a higher power, and the idea that everything happens for a reason. Rufus talks about his mother’s fruitless prayers to get them out of their crappy neighborhood, and states point blank that God does not exist. There is likewise discussion in another episode about the difference between prophecy and self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are also great discussions of the impact of marching, protests, individual humans, speeches, and so on. Almost without fail, in their time such things seem to have minimal impact. It is only with hindsight that we see their significance. And so part of the show’s message is to challenge us to act as though our small efforts might reap greater rewards in the long term than we have any realistic justification to expect.

Time travel raises lots of question of morality, and not only in relation to the central question of whether it is appropriate to change history if one can do so. For instance, is it adultery if someone’s wife is dead, and one enters into another relationship, but then history is changed and the wife is now no longer dead?

The question of how time travel relates to God and miracles is interesting from another angle, since it would be easy to mistake the impact of time travelers manipulating history for divine activity, as Wyatt indicates when Lucy says that Wyatt getting Jessica back is the closest thing to a miracle that she has ever seen. See my discussion of a Fringe episode on that topic linked to above. See also Paul Levinson’s posts about the show’s episode about JFK, the relationship between Flynn and Lucy, time loops (particularly interesting in terms of how the series ended), and the season 2 finale.

The show ended with a two-hour finale that fittingly brings religious questions into the picture, albeit not in a manner that I felt was overbearing. In the episode, the team finds itself in North Korea towards the end of the Korean War, and at one point Lucy and Jia enter a church to keep warm. There a Christian who is not planning to evacuate talks to them. Her husband and son have fled but she hopes they will be reunited soon when, she hopes, the war will be over and things will go back to normal. Jia finds a pendant in the church of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, which leads to a conversation about God between her and Rufus. When she had been stranded in Chinatown in the past, horrible things were done to her that led to her being literally as well as emotionally scarred. Yet it becomes clear that she has not lost her faith. She asks how she could possibly lose her faith in view of all the things that have happened, and so she believes that God will save them now. Meanwhile Rufus remarks that, if God were going to save anyone, you’d think that he (or she) would have saved the nun that had been killed.

Finally, let me mention the fact that Emma, a Writtenhouse agent who tried to take the organization over, asks at one point, “No hug? What would Jesus do?” Far from a mere throwaway quip, the remark illustrates the way the powerful use religion against the religious for malevolent ends. And yet it also stands as an invitation to watch a show like time travel and ask what Jesus would do…if he had a time machine.

I loved that the Korean woman who talks with Lucy was a history teacher and commented on the pressure on her to promulgate propaganda rather than teach history accurately – especially poignant in a show about time travel and changing history. I also loved that she quoted Marcus Garvey, and that Lucy much later explains to a student who complained that he thought this was a “regular history course” and yet she had focused entirely on women, that she had intended to get to the men but ran out of time. This is at a later point when Lucy is once again teaching history at university.

The show is all about the importance of the things and people that historically (pun intended) have been neglected – not just women and minorities, but family relationships and personal connections. Because, as the show says, “Everyone’s important to someone.” And those meaningful influences and connections make more of a difference than we realize without the benefit of hindsight.

Perhaps more than anything else this statement that has circulated on social media sums up a key point:

Have you watched Timeless? If not, now that it is finished, I hope you’ll take my recommendation and give it a try!

 

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  • John MacDonald

    One interesting issue about God and Time is the question as to whether God is in Time, or outside of Time? I think that if there is a God (s), He/She/It/They is/are inside of Time. If there is a God, that God is a being (IE., is, in various ways). As such, whatever God essentially is persist throughout His various changes (analogous to the sense that it is still me that persists even though my mood changes from happy to bored, or persists as I go from thinking about T.V. to thinking about food, etc.). But, persistence through change can only happen over time, and so for God to be a being, He must be in time. If God is a ὑποκείμενον (underlying/persisting despite his various transitions of differences), He is temporal.

    • John MacDonald

      One other thought. As per the cosmological argument, whatever stuff that made up the Big Bang implies the question of “How the material that made up The Big Bang got there in the first place?” Given what I said above, The Big Bang couldn’t have created Time, because whatever the causes/materials were prior to the Big Bang must have been temporal – IE., insofar as this prior stuff were beings (is/are, in some way or other).

    • robrecht

      I would tend to think that God, if ‘she’, etc, exists, should exist both within and beyond time, whatever that might mean, if indeed it has any meaning at all.

      • John MacDonald

        “Time” is definitely a topic worthy of questioning. We all understand it and move within it knowingly, and yet run into difficulties when trying to pin it down as a concept – analogous to what happen when we try to define “Love.” An example I like is that we knowingly go to the grocery store and buy a bunch of carrots, take them home, and make a delicious salad with them even if we can’t define what a carrot is.

        1. From birth, we experience time as a series of nows steadily progressing toward the future, such as when we say “I will make it to Christmas in a few days.” As Heidegger saw, this experience of time proceeds by bracketing death, in that, for instance, I reach for a cup “as though” my hand will reach the glass – as though the next moment won’t be denied, even though it might be.

        2.We also experience time flowing in the opposite direction, out of the future, into the present, and passing away into the past, such as when we say “Christmas is coming … is here … has gone.”

        3. On the other hand, we experience a slowing down of time in boredom, and “time lies when you’re having fun” in enjoyment.

        4. Also, time disappears when you go under a chemically induced coma such as general anesthetic , drifting off when the medicine is given, and awakening the next moment, even though an hour has passed. Apparently beings are only experienced in time.

        5. On the other hand, in the examples I gave above about God, I referred to Time as something objective – not dependent on human experience.

        So “What” is time, and “How” is time?

        • robrecht

          I’m also reluctant to refer to God as ‘a being’, since that seems to imply that we have more comprehension of who or what God is than should be possible if God is really God. Thomas Aquinas expressed this by saying that God cannot be defined by genus and species, as one kind of being as opposed to another kind of being. He was very much indebted to the apophatic Neoplatonic tradition, especially through Pseudo-Areopagus, who went so far as to say that it was more true to say that God does not exist than to say that he exists.

          • John MacDonald

            Robrecht said

            He was very much indebted to the apophatic Neoplatonic tradition, especially through Pseudo-Areopagus, who went so far as to say that it was more true to say that God does not exist than to say that he exists.

            We should clarify what “exist” means. The Scholastics, in view of a certain interpretation of Aristotle, distinguished between the essentia and the existentia Being of a being. For instance, a chair might be “brown” in its what-being, and “badly positioned” in terms of its how-being. Or, in thoughtful inquiry, we distinguish between what is disclosed, with the method of disclosure, both of which need to be explained.

            Kant further explained this by pointing out existence is not a real predicate, does not pertain to the ‘res,’ but rather is absolute position/positing, that is, posited without relation to the human subject.

            To say “God is a being” or “God exists” simply means God “is” in some way or other. A hallucination also is, even if it isn’t real. Think about it like Hegel did: Hegel said Being is the same as Nothing. He meant Nothing is, in the sense that people think about it and talk about it, but is not an entity. Maybe that helps. Heraclitus pointed to the value of considering beings in terms of their opposites, where applicable. For instance, Heraclitus said brightness is darkness in its essence, in the sense that powerful brightness is the same as powerful darkness = you can’t see anything.

          • robrecht

            I would rather agree with Nicholas of Cusa and see God as beyond our conception of the opposites, even of existence and nonexistence. Or, again going back further than Kant, consider the view of John Scotus Eriugena and see God as Nothing. Gotta love them apophatic dudes.

          • John MacDonald

            If you deny Being to God, it seems to be a little bit of linguistic sophistry to say God is nothing, but isn’t pure, absolute absence, lol. I would disagree with Negative Theology, and would want to argue that if you interpret God as pure Negation, a theist is identical with an atheist in terms of their understanding of reality, which is absurd.

          • robrecht

            I think most theology is sophistry, hence the fundamental need of apophatic theology as a necessary corrective. A glass darkly and all that.

          • John MacDonald

            Under your understanding, can you contrast what an atheist believes with what an apophatic theologist believes?

          • robrecht

            Ideally, no. God, if she exists, is way beyond or ability to affirm or deny her existence. At best we might show the depth of our affirmation of goodness or God through our behavior and I’ve seen no evidence that believers in God are any more honest or good or trustworthy than atheists. If anything, the believer is at a disadvantage because of the propensity for hypocrisy.

          • John MacDonald

            Robrecht said

            God, if she exists, is way beyond or ability to affirm or deny her existence

            So, the apophatic theologist would say God is, in the sense She is qualitatively greater than our ability to conceptualize her with the category of existence?

          • robrecht

            And also that She is not, in the sense that She is qualitatively greater than our ability to conceptualize her with the categories of existence (or nonexistence).

          • John MacDonald

            So if we put our last two comments together, there is a God (supposedly), just that God can’t be conceptualized by (overflows) the categories we normally use to grasp beings: namely, the categories of essence and existence?

          • robrecht

            Something like that, I suppose. But I would also think we should say something like there is no God because God can’t be conceptualized by the categories we normally use to grasp beings, namely, the categories of essence and existence, or any other categories for that matter. Sorry. I’m not trying to be obtuse, just as honest as I can be after only one Scotch (Lagavulin).

          • John MacDonald

            I think the acolyte of apophasis does have some very definite things to say about God. Apophasis does not approach God through essence or existence but, as I said, there is (Es gibt in German), in the sense that there is a God. Further, God is understood of as overflowing, specifically in our inability to grasp Her as we normally do – through categorical thinking of essence/existence reduction/limiting/conceptualization.

            In other words, apophasis admits we have some contact with God, just not like the contact we have with other beings.

          • robrecht

            It may very well be that you understand apophatic theology or God better than I.

          • John MacDonald

            lol

          • robrecht

            Not sure, but if I recall correctly, Thomas may have also believed that all humor (laughing out loud) is based on truth. And that the transcendentals of oneness, truth, and goodness (and sometimes beauty) pertained to all things that indeed exist. Therefore we should be able to laugh at everything that exists, even as both Abraham and Sarah laughed even at God. How much more should we laugh at apophatic theology, which is a witness to our comedy of theological errors. Too much Lagavulin perhaps. Peace out!

          • John MacDonald

            As I said, beyond the concepts of Being as essence and existence, we find the there is, such as when we say there is a God. As I said, the distinction comes through more clearly in German (Es gibt, there is / it gives) than in English. We can still think it in English, though, like when we stay up all night in futility try to solve a problem, when suddenly the answer comes to us / is given. The sense is that the problem was greater than my cognitive contortions/grasp (I could not will or unravel the answer), but the answer suddenly appeared in a flash that went beyond my futile, finite/limited conceptual grasping. We see something similar in poetry where inspiration comes in a flash, and so poesis involves remembering all that was contained in the initial flash. So, Being as there is represents an experience that overflows the conceptual, categorical grasping of essence and existence. That’s how I understand apophasis.

          • robrecht

            “Es gibt …” does not avoid the difficulty. What entity is bigger than God and therefore able to ‘give’ us either the idea of God’s essence or God’s existence? Or are you perhaps saying that God Herself gives us a direct intuition of Her own Existence?

          • John MacDonald

            I like the way Derrida’s colleague, Emmanuel Levinas, puts it. Levinas says one of the ways people encounter God is in the infinite responsibility we are called to by the face of the suffering widow, orphan, alien, and enemy, which is an encounter with an other that contains an overflowing surplus which my categorizing, appropriating mind can’t quite grasp in its attempt to conceptualize the other.

          • John MacDonald

            So, basically Levinas is saying we encounter the numinous in such a way that overflows our ability to appropriate/conceptualize it, which I think was your point too. In other words, we have gone in a circle – not a circle that is a bare repetition, but a hermeneutic circle whereby hopefully we have described Negative Theology in a more originary manner than when we started and considered why it is a meaningful approach to what and how people experience in an encounter with God.

            I am secular, so the numinous isn’t a sign of God for me, doesn’t point to God, but thinking about it helps me understand how it could if I was of a religious point of view and interpreted the evidence in that way..

          • John MacDonald

            Of course, it is difficult to escape the appropriating grasp of the concepts essence and existence (Being as twofold). For instance, what (essential) and how (existential) is a religious experience like for you? In other words, can you give an example of the content of a religious experience you have had, and describe the manner in which you experienced it (the way it presented itself to you)?

          • robrecht

            Actually, I’ve always found the essence/existence distinction and ‘concepts’ to be rather artificial and intellectual. I think I understand them in the history of philosophy and can apply them in analyzing religious beliefs but they don’t seem to be that intuitively given as part of experience itself, religious or otherwise. One of my religious experiences was, upon acknowledging the possibility of God’s existence, feeling completely loved as an infant held in his father’s arms and being overwhelmed by intense happiness that surprised me completely. I’ve analyzed my own and others’ religious beliefs in terms of their effect upon how one lives without necessarily considering the truth or falsity of the experience/belief in and of itself. That’s a little like distinguishing between the essence of the belief without considering the actual existence of the object believed or truth of the belief, but such analysis is very much secondary and does not seem part of the experience itself, which is experienced in a more holistic way.

          • John MacDonald

            robrecht said:

            One of my religious experiences was, upon acknowledging the possibility of God’s existence, feeling completely loved as an infant held in his father’s arms and being overwhelmed by intense happiness that surprised me completely.

            Yes, you seem to be consistent in describing some aspects of the numinous as overwhelming, surplus, etc.

            As Heidegger points out, categories do sometimes present themselves in experience, and are not simply abstracted to. For instance, I could be walking down the road and hear a living thing scurrying at my feet. But when I look down, I realize I have mis-taken a child’s toy car for a living thing. But what this phenomenological privative of mis-taking shows is that we did experience the category “Living Thing” in a lively and direct way.

          • robrecht

            I wouldn’t overemphasize the overwhelming nature of religious experience. More often than not he seems to speak with a small, still voice, or even just a nod.

          • John MacDonald

            Which is why I said “part” (some aspects) of the numinous.

          • John MacDonald

            At the end of the novel Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maude Montgomery has a nice turn of phrase about the subtle presencing of God for Anne, who has been mad at God for giving her red hair, making her an orphan, etc. The last line of the book reflecting Anne’s spiritual transformation is “God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the world.”

            Similarly, Aristotle recounts a story where men came to see the great Philosopher Heraclitus, and expected to see and hear extraordinary things. To their surprise, the saw Heraclitus simply warming himself by the stove. Heraclitus saw their surprise and invited them into the stove, saying “even here, gods come to presence.”

            This is summed up with the Greek concept of parestios, which translated interpretively means “the one sated by being in the sphere of the warmth of the hearth fire.”