Last Sunday, a person in the adult discussion group that I have been leading in the parish where I am a priest associate outlined the traditional Christian view of time as a line with Jesus as the decisive inflection point. I disagreed, even though the linear conception of time, with God existing outside of time, was what I had been taught in seminary.
Time is more helpfully conceived of as a bumpy spiral. The bumps are reminders that history does not proceed in a smooth pattern. Spurts, plateaus, and fallbacks are all part of time. The spiral is a reminder that history does repeat. There are multiple inflection points: Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and many others. These are people who have altered the direction of history. Insistence on a single inflection argues for Christian exclusivity: Jesus is the only path that leads to salvation.
Whether the spiral, unlike the linear view of history, is going somewhere must remain an open question. One can make an optimistic case (Martin Luther King, Jr., famously remarking that the long arc of history is bending toward justice (c. the Ethical Musings’ post Finding genuine hope in Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead)) or a pessimistic one (e.g., human destruction of the earth through climate change and, more broadly, the consequences of entropy). As emphasized in process theology, God is not outside of time but enmeshed in the very fabric of creation.
Debates about Saudi Arabia and the role of its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, repeatedly evoked memories of that discussion. The U.S. has a history of supporting dictators who support U.S. policy goals while those dictators both suppress internal dissent and enjoy great wealth at the expense of their people. In the Middle East, the prime example of this type of policy was in U.S. support for the Shah of Iran, ignoring the gathering storms of dissent and unrest. In spite of a notorious internal security apparatus with few if any legal curbs on its power, the Iranian revolution overthrew the Shah and established a dictatorial Shiite state that routinely vilifies the U.S. as the “Great Satan.”
Is Saudi Arabia the next Iran? The House of Saud rules through a combination of religious rhetoric, giving its citizens economic benefits, and a far-reaching internal security apparatus that operates with few legal or ethical limits. Saudi Arabia is unmistakably a kingdom and not a democracy. Meanwhile, internal dissent grows. Dissidents often cloak their activities in a religious fundamentalism, which, although Sunni rather than Shiite in its theology, has political ramifications striking similar to those of the Shiite forces behind the Iranian revolution.
Successful foreign policies look beyond today’s arms and oil deals to ascertain potential long-term benefits of supporting the hopes of other people for genuine peace, i.e., the fullness of well-being consonant with the word’s meaning in the languages of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy books.