Abiding Presence

Book cover
The Circle Dance of Timeby By John S. DunneUniv. of Notre Dame Press. 164p $25 (paperback)

I take one step at a time,” John Dunne writes, “a paragraph a day, out of the heart, going from insight to insight.” He takes images, mostly from quotations, ponders them, juxtaposes them and returns to them again and again from different points of view, always seeking insight into them. Longtime readers will recognize many of the quotations as having played a part in Dunne’s thought for 30 years and more. At the center of it all is the question of time. The present book, his 18th, is the fifth to contain the word “time” in its title.

Dunne’s question is not Augustine’s “What is time?” It is Walter Benjamin’s “Is time constitutive?”—is time all there is? Is our lifetime simply a relentless march to death and humankind’s time merely “destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system,” as Bertrand Russell put it in 1903? Or is time, in a line from Plato that Dunne loves to quote, “a moving image of eternity”?

Dunne, who teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame, raises a similar question about space. He frequently cites “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” Blaise Pascal’s plaintive expression of the sense of homelessness engendered when early modern science replaced the ancient cosmos—the orderly whole in which our home was at the center—with a limitless, mostly empty space in which we occupy a random, insignificant outpost. Putting the early modern views of space and time together, Russell concluded that so “purposeless, [so] void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief...only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” We have Steven Weinberg today (“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless”) to tell us that Russell’s world is the real world. But is it?

Like Pascal, Dunne takes his clue from the very facts that we are terrified, we are tempted to despair, we look for a point, we are not just as indifferent as the universe is said to be. All these things express the voice of the heart—“The heart has its reasons that reason does not know” is Dunne’s other Pascalian starting point. For Dunne, the heart is “the place where thought and feeling meet and unite,” the seat of Augustine’s restlessness for God, the “center of stillness surrounded by silence” that Dag Hammarskjöld says “we all have within us.”

In his opening pages Dunne asks, what if the eternal silence of the universe is the same as the silence of our center of stillness? According to the Upanishads, he says, it is: Atman is Brahman, God in the heart and God in the universe are one. Both silences are the surrounding presence of God. But the heart’s desire for eternal life is not satisfied by an awareness of an eternal presence that we can touch in our temporal lives.

Christian faith offers us more: the Presence is one we can address as a thou, and in Christ it dwells in us, “I in them and thou in me.” Christ is Emmanuel, “God with us.” But is this only another image, only a way we can construe things? It is at least that; it “is an interpretation, and yet living out that interpretation is a real experience.... If we are faithful to the story of ‘God with us,’ the surrounding silences will speak.” They speak, Dunne says, through a kindling of the heart and an illuminating of the mind, revealing life as a journey with God in time and a relationship with God in Christ that “is capable of passing through death and surviving it.”

Dunne initially titled this book Faith Seeking Understanding, a phrase from St. Anselm that often serves as a definition of theology. Faith, Dunne quotes Pascal, is “God sensible to the heart”—our relationship with God felt in the kindling and the illuminating—and “if you enter into the relationship yourself, you will understand.” Dunne is indeed doing theology, although of a unique kind, as he ponders the Christian images of “God with us” and the modern images of a world from which God seems absent, seeking the insights that will reveal the abiding presence of God. He changed the title, however, to The Circle Dance of Time, taking an image from the Greek philosopher Plotinus of the soul and the universe circling their center in God or the One. Life and time, too, are a dance in the great circle of the love that is “from God, and of God, and toward God,” as Dunne quotes the words of a Bedouin to Lawrence of Arabia. In this vision, life is a going out from God and a return, but always a “journey with God.” The universe, too, goes out in emanation, as Plotinus says, and returns in evolution, as Teilhard de Chardin says, without ever losing its relationship to God in creation. “Secularism is a temptation on the far swing from God,” Dunne writes, as the circle passes through loneliness, darkness and death; and it can be answered by attentiveness to God, trusting “God with us” to lead us through illumination of the mind and kindling of the heart.

Dunne does not mention it, but Plotinus has another image of a choric dance, only this time a turtle wanders into it. It does not go well for him. Ever since I read that passage in college, I have identified with the turtle, and reading Dunne reminds me why. Almost every sentence calls on readers to meditate, to ponder images until insights come, to become aware through these insights of “God with us” in our own hearts, and finally to experience our lives and world as taking part in the great circle of God’s love. None of this comes easily to a turtle. Still, if we can read at all, I suppose that we are not real turtles; and, to use the example of Lewis Carroll’s Mock Turtle, Dunne invites us to make the effort, even if only a paragraph a day, to share the vision and join the dance.

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