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It’s High Time to think about Time….(Secular or otherwise)

Written by: on January 19, 2018

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.

About the Author

mm

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

17 responses to “It’s High Time to think about Time….(Secular or otherwise)”

  1. Lynda Gittens says:

    Chip,

    I love our post. Incorporating your son’s view of time and relating it to Taylor was wonderful, pastor.

    Time does not wait for anyone. But we must do what God has commissioned us and assigned to some before our time on this earth runs out.

  2. Mary says:

    There was just way too much stuff in Taylor’s book, Chip, so I love the way you illustrated one concept as part of the whole and yet indicative of what Taylor was saying.
    Yes, God created time and He can break into it whenever He wants to.
    One more thing I would mention – the book came out in 2007 before Twitter and Instagram. How do you see people perceiving “time” now? As people’s attention spans get shorter and the wealth of information gets larger do you see any frustration in our future?

    • Mary,
      Really interesting question about how things like Twitter and other social media have affected our perception of time….. I wonder too the advent of smartphones…. I have no answers, of course…. just more questions 🙂

  3. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Technology has certainly affected the way time and schedules affect us.

    I remember life before a VCR (now DVR). If you wanted to watch THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY, you had to be at home on Sunday nights. There was no other option.

    Now, if you miss a service on Sunday morning, you can just watch a recording of it on the internet later in the week.

    Many jobs offer their employees the option to work at home, taking advantage of a virtual office.

    Missionary kids, who used to see their grandparents every four years can now video call them every day.

    Is the bank closed? No problem, I can deposit checks into my account using my smart phone.

    I am fascinated how technology has changed the way we relate to time.

    • Stu – technology and it’s effects on us fascinate me too. I very clearly remember getting our first VCR…. My dad involved me in the decision making process – it was a prolonged discussion trying to decide between VHS and BETA!
      As always – these changes are double edged swords, providing both benefits and drawbacks, I think

  4. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Love this: “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.”

    If location, location, location is the 3 points to consider when purchasing a house (hope you considered that in your recent move), then relationship, relationship, relationship are the 3 things to consider when introducing people to God. We need to have a relationship with others in order to introduce them to God, Jesus died so we can have an eternal relationship with God, and God developed the church so we can live in relationship with one another. Thanks for the relational reminder.

    My daughter was obsessed with time too when she was little. She was the only first grader I knew with a wristwatch permanently attached to her little wrist. Not sure what this means psychologically, but today as an adult, she is always very prompt. Like she has an internal clock. Can’t say I have this gift.

    • Jennifer – yes! I really do think it is all about relationship…. I often talk about how our God is a relational God and how that has an impact on everything else….. And yes, we definitely considered location (and location, and location) when picking our new house

  5. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Well Chip, as someone who has always struggled with the rigid importance Western society places on time, I totally connected with what you are saying here. (Translation: I have no concept of time and hate the clock with a passion but need it because, society.)

    I love what you say about the longing for community. I think that takes us to the heart of Taylor’s discussion of story and narrative. The one thing that exists beautifully inside and outside of time is community. There are communities that work best on a strict schedule, and communities that work better with only a loose timeframe. Regardless, community works. This is where we make space for people to push the boundaries, explore the “unbelievable” and maybe even engage with the Holy Spirit. These are the places where God breaks in, as you suggested, to offer reconciliation. We could learn a lot about this from indigenous groups.

    • Kristin,
      Like Jennifer hitting on the importance of relationships, you have hit on the power of communities – which is a really, a group of people in relationship, right?

      I think we can learn not just from indigenous communities, but from our immigrant communities, as well – I know I have!

  6. Jim Sabella says:

    Very interesting engagement with the time theme Chip. Brough a unique perspective to Taylor and the idea that humankind is getting better with time, kind of like a helix circling upward. The imminent framework almost becomes an impassable boundary. We cannot be complete without passing that boundary into the transcendent. It is both a journey and a searching for meaning that stops at the border of the immanent. BTW: 10:00 AM is cappuccino time! Enjoyed your post, Chip!

  7. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Chip wow! There was so much in this post beginning with the personal narrative about your son to how Taylor discusses time, value and meaning.

    I agree that people do place high value on time in order to control their own life’s meaning and purpose. This can be dangerous in some cases but it can also cause people to be more intentional about choices they make in life.

    Your point about telling the reonciliation story is powerful. It makes us characters in the story and not the main focus. God becomes the main character that makes the story complete.

  8. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    I see you & I, (pastors??) latched on to the need for “moments of fusion.” There’s something full about gathering, whether around a campfire or a march, that brings us into being part of something bigger than ourselves. #gather

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