We think of time in a very distinctive way, which many of our forebears did not. We think it’s linear, we think it’s homogenous—progressing in ordered sections we call days or years or hours—and we think it’s largely ‘empty,’ a container that is indifferent to what we fill it with.
I’ve been reading Charles Taylor’s massive and thoughtful, A Secular Age. One of the first distinctives he pulls out when comparing 1500 to the year 2000 is the way we think about time as ‘homogenous’ and ‘empty.’
Once upon a time… people spoke like that, for a start. Taylor demonstrates that people thought of time as knotty and a bearer of meaning. The word ‘secular’ comes from the Latin saeculum which means an ‘age’ or ‘century.’ It’s a term, originally, about time.
It was used to describe those who weren’t ‘religious.’ Though probably not in the way you think, saeculum was used to describe priests who weren’t monks, because they lived out in the world in ordinary time, rather than having turned away to live nearer eternity. Secular time is roughly what we think all time is. There was also a higher time, such a medieval thinker could think two things that sound whackadoodle to us.
Firstly, that Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion are closer to each other in time than they are centuries apart—in God’s time these two events happen at the same time as they are drawn into eternity.
Secondly, that Good Friday 2022 is closer to the Crucifixion than to the day you’re reading this post. (I’m following Taylor’s argument on 54-61 in these paragraphs.) Neither of these seems obvious to us, we don’t think of the Universe like that at all, and why that’s the case is what Taylor unpacks over the next thousand or so pages.
The medieval conception doesn’t have time as a container, indifferent to what fills it, but instead elevated (and perhaps also demoted) by its content. I don’t necessarily want to argue for the metaphysic that underpinned this different way of viewing the world, but I think we can pin some of the symptoms of our modern malaise on these features.
Two themes in my writing have been the importance of rest and our inability to actually rest. I named the blog after this problem, nuakh is the Hebrew word for rest. One of the reasons that we struggle with rest, thinking it means the same thing as relaxation and that to slouch on a sofa watching TV could have anything at all to do with resting, is that our sense of time has slipped.
We consider time as resource not to be wasted, precious, perhaps even a currency that can be spent. Forgetting that we are commanded from the opening pages of the Bible to be mastered by time instead of mastering it as God instituted the Sabbath. I think these commands maintain their wisdom for us, even though our relation to them has changed in Jesus the walking, talking Sabbath (Matthew 12, Hebrews 4). We are meant to pattern our weeks by resting.
While they don’t have Biblical force, there is wisdom in the Church calendar and its patterning of our year, like the way Israel’s feasts patterned the year (Leviticus 23). There are times of the year to participate in particular aspects of the gospel’s narrative, times that can institute a rhythm into our lives, times that are almost sacramental in how we receive them. By which I mean there’s a sense of the eternal—both the presence of God and the grand story that narrates the cosmos—breaking into our everyday containers for time.
This is one of the reasons it’s a shame when we run things in churches to school or University calendars. We give in to the subtle push of the centuries to, in Taylor’s dramatic prose, make us wear a uniform of univocal secular time.
I think it affects a particular type of resting that is dear to my heart: feasting at the table. We have lost touch with a sense of eternity as something we can touch, which means that meals become about fuel, and ‘special’ meals are not discernibly different from the rest.
Of course, both complaints are a little overstated. Being humans, we might think we carve our lives into tiny little slices of even space, but we don’t experience them that way. We don’t have categories for it, but it feels innately wrong to us to not celebrate Easter at Easter. Even if that’s culturally conditioned, there’s still a sense of touching something grander than ourselves in either the global Church or the heavens. This works, I think, in the same way that we are disenchanted and yet most people still believe in some form of magic, but it has been pushed to the margins of their daily lives.
These changes in thinking have been driven by a host of scientific advances having changed the shape of the stories we tell ourselves. We would not want to turn back the clock, but we must reckon with what we lost unintentionally along the way. We moved from viewing the cosmos around us as a Temple to the living God, inhabited by angels who minister to him and resounding to his majestic glory. Instead, we view the universe as a machine of cogs that obeys laws that rule over it. Our stories withered. We measure things and make them smaller.
As a result, we struggle to rest, not really knowing what it is anymore. Are we batteries that need plugging in to be able to go back to our workplaces and complete our tasks again tomorrow? Are we baskets for buying, who will find joy in the accumulation and consumption of things?
Or, perhaps, we are called to be priests in the divine temple, kings who rule over the earth in the stead of almighty God, prophets who have a seat on the divine council and give counsel to Yahweh. Perhaps the world is ordered to teach us stories, to lift our eyes, to instil wonder and delight, and to bring us to our knees in the worship of the God who spoke it into being.
What we think about the world around us flows out into a host of behaviours. Our science isn’t wrong (as far as we know), but it does limit our vision. Having seen the laws of nature in action enough that we can write equations which capture their operation doesn’t preclude that it’s angels that oversee or even complete these actions, but we think it does.
The world is a temple, not a machine. This might all sound esoteric, perhaps only helpful when reading the Bible or other works of the past to better understand how they understood the world around them. I contend and continue to that it really matters, and as we start to grasp it everything begins to change.
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