Ian, our seven year old, is somewhat obsessed with time. The first thing he does every morning – no matter how early it might be – is come in to our room, grab my cell phone and check the time (and the weather). If we are in the car, or at home there is never too much time that passes without Ian asking for a time check. Time is very important to him, he wants to know the exact time, all the time.
A big part of why Ian is so focused on the time, is because he is also focused on the schedule or what happens next. He is a planner: he wants to know what is happening, at what time, with who, where and for how long. As much detail as possible would be appreciated – as focused as he is on time, he isn’t in a hurry.
Without really even thinking about it, I think we assign meaning and value to time on a regular basis: noon is lunch time, 5:00pm is the end of the work day, etc. Everyone’s individual schedule will vary, of course, but we all have lots of times that mean something to us.
While we don’t often thing about it, the meaning often goes the other way as well, the time – or the memory of that time – can give meaning to us and our lives as well.
Charles Taylor, in his landmark tome, A Secular Age, says that – in contrast to every other time in human existence, we are now (since the enlightenment or so) living in what he describes as: ‘A purely secular time – understanding allows us to imagine society “ horizontally ” , unrelated to any “ high points ” , where the ordinary sequence of events touches higher time , and therefore without recognizing any privileged persons or agencies — such as kings or priests — who stand and mediate at such alleged points . This radical horizontality is precisely what is implied in the direct access society , where each member is “ immediate to the whole ” (Taylor, 714)
What Taylor is saying, in part (I think), is that with the secularization of our society, we have lost the so-called ‘high points’ in time, that gave meaning and value and purpose to our existence. These tent poles marked out time – the passing of another year, for instance – but they were tied into something beyond this immanent framework – that brought meaning and purpose to everything else.
In the span of a page and a half, Taylor makes several profound statements about time, that I will share and comment on:
- ‘Time for us continues to be marked by cycles , through which we orient ourselves . Even those who are most thoroughly immersed in the packed , measured schedules of a demanding career — perhaps especially they — can be totally at a loss if their routine is interrupted .(Taylor, 714)’ This is what, we spoke of above – we assign meaning and value – to time as a matter of control and a way of shaping the meaning of what we do.
- ‘It’s as though we humans have a need for gathered time , in one form or another (Taylor, 714). This is critical. Last week one of my cohort mates cited the famous phrase ‘God-shaped hole’ and made reference to our secular age and how in this secular age many don’t immediately seem to need to fill that hole….. but yet, even in the most ardent of ‘non-believers’ you are likely to find a desire – perhaps even a need – to be a part of some community, to be in the presence of some group.
- ‘Now , one way in which this has been met in our age is narrative , a more intense telling of our stories , as individuals and as societies (Taylor, 714).’ ; ‘We have a more intense sense of the unity of our story , because we’re now sharing it (Taylor, 715). As I read these two quotes, I nodded in agreement about the power of story, but I also couldn’t help but think of Netflix and other means we have to ‘bingewatch’ the shows we watch. Shows that have evolved from mostly mindless ‘popcorn’, pulp or soap opera material to prestige TV as we are living in what is often called the ‘Golden Age of television’. The stories have grown more mature, more complicated and more intense and our appetite for them and our appetite to consume them in one sitting has certainly grown as has the intensity level of the ‘fandom’ for the stories that we consume and prefer.
- But there are other moments when we find ourselves together , without a programme , as it were . Millions of people discover , for instance , that they are not alone in feeling what they do at the death of Princess Diana…….
These moments can be very powerful , even dangerously so……..But they seem to answer a deeply felt need in modern society (Taylor, 715) In the absence of time or moments (and memories of those moments) connected to the higher realm or plane – and thus having supernatural and religious meaning. When we are caught up in one of these moments they can be almost a religious experience: stirring us to action (BLM, Woman’s march, etc); engaging us in lament (9/11, death of princess Di – as Taylor mentions, etc.); celebration (International sporting events, i.e. Olympics, world cup, & I would argue you could include ‘viral videos’ here)
Taylor summarizes his point on our modern, secular world and time here:
In virtually all pre – modern outlooks , the meaning of the repeated cycles of time was found outside of time , or in higher time or eternity . What is peculiar to the modern world is the rise of an outlook where the single reality giving meaning to the repeatable cycles is a narrative of human self – realization , variously understood as the story of Progress , or Reason and Freedom , or Civilization or Decency or Human Rights ; or as the coming to maturity of a nation or culture . The routines of disciplined work over the years , even over lifetimes , the feats of invention , creation , innovation , nation – building , are given a larger meaning through their place in the bigger story …………So deeply has the narrative of human progress become embedded in our world that it would indeed be a frightening day in which all faith in it was lost . Its embedding is attested in much everyday vocabulary , in which some ideas are described as ‘ progressive ’ , others as ‘ backward ’ ; some views are those of today , others are positively ‘ mediaeval ’ ; some thinkers are ‘ ahead of their time ’ , others are still in a previous century , etc . (Taylor, 717)
While we are in the the time of the immanent framework, it is difficult (impossible?) to connect to to anything outside or above that framework for meaning and purpose in life, so our secular world has put forth human progress – the idea that we will get better and be better as the thing that we are all working towards and that which gives our lives value.
As we think about how to tell the Christian story in this place and in this time, I wonder if at least part of our focus shouldn’t be on the fact that God didn’t wait for us to look beyond our ‘horizontal’ realities, past the immanent framework or even beyond ourselves to ‘find’ God. No, instead, I believe we should be focusing on the story of how God loves and cares for us so much that God came down to us – joined our horizontal world, as it were, to offer us the only thing that can bring us true progress: reconciliation to God.