CategoryWorldview

Infant Baptism and Individualism

A few weeks back, we attended the parish Communion service in the Bath Abbey.

Two children were baptized in the service.

Baptism services always get me thinking.

While I attend a church that practices only believer baptism, I think that infant baptism was practiced in the New Testament church and is therefore biblical.  I concede that the scriptural support of infant baptism is contestable, but what is incontestable is the practical superiority of infant baptism as a ritual that prepares us to resist modern idolatries.

The community dimension:

On two occasions in the service, once from the altar and once from the Victorian baptismal font by the entrance of the sanctuary, the officiant emphasized the community of believers that was at that moment gathered around the child.   This community is to be “the resources and support” to the parents of those about to be baptized.  The importance of the community and its relationship to the child about to be baptized is central to the ceremony.

All those assembled made a solemn promise to meaningfully participate in the raising of these children in the faith.  The parents did, of course, but godparents were commissioned as well, adding another layer to the community.  I found it fascinating that the godparents made the same promises as did the parents. They didn’t just consent, but acknowledged their inadequacy by saying,  “With the help of God we will.”

Interestingly, the vows made by the community were almost exactly the same as those made by the parents and godparents.   They promised to “welcome and uphold” those about to be baptized, to “pray for them” and “draw them by example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ.”  They too acknowledge their limitations by promising, “With the help of God we will.” So many people are committing to these children, and they just lay there oblivious to it all.

Imagine the impact of this ritual over the life of the Christian.  Every baptism service is a reminder of the same basic truths:

  • That every adult within the community has the responsibility in drawing the individual into the community.
  • That human effort alone is insufficient to draw the individual into the flock.
  • That the body of Christ, comes first– the eye is there for the body, not the body for the eye.
  • That this is all about Grace; I was welcomed into the family of God, and I could do nothing but drool.

Where churches practice believer’s baptism, a “baby dedication” replaces baptism to commemorate the inclusion of the child in the church community.  While the congregational will often make a promise, the focus of this, usually casual, event is on the commitment of the parents.  In the believer’s baptism, the role of the community is as a passive observer as the baptism is the result of the individual’s decision to follow Jesus.  As in modern culture, in the modern ceremony of baptism, the role of the larger community is diminished and that of the individual is expanded.

Through baptism, individuals are not choosing God, rather, God is building a people.
The God Dimension:

The Liturgy of Baptism we followed in Bath Abbey begins,  “In baptism the Lord is adding to our number those he is calling.”  The idea here is that through baptism, God is building a people.

The liturgy begins with the recognition that baptism is about what God is doing.  God is very active in baptism; he’s not just adding; he’s also calling, helping and giving.

The liturgy declares that faith is a gift. A gift needs a giver. God is the giver and the gift is underserved. All Christians believe this, but human helplessness is better illustrated a drooling baby than a 23-year-old who has finally decided to follow Jesus.

The hebdomadal dimension:

Baptismal Font in St. Gile’s Church, Sidbury

This is a rare word that means weekly.

When you enter the Bath Abbey or any Anglican church, you walk past the baptismal font.  It’s very large and it’s been there hundreds of years. The members of this church were likely baptized at this very font.  But even if they were not, every week when they gather to worship, they walk past this physical reminder of their own baptism–they are reminded again of the basic truths inherent in the service of baptism in the Church of England.

I might be an exception, but the presence of the font in every church I entered, reminded me of my own baptism into a community that in its largest sense, includes the Anglican worshipers in the churches I visited this summer.

I think that a weekly reminder of God’s grace and the community of faith might be a powerful corrective to the idolatry of individualism that so dominates our thinking in the modern church.

Obviously, my argument here will not convince any believer baptists to become baby baptizers, but regardless of who we baptize when (let’s put baby dedication into here as well), we need to be deliberate about emphasizing God’s actions and the important role of the community going forward.

Is Atheism a Religion?

alikeI recently read an article in which the author insisted that public funds not go to support religious schools. The rhetoric in this article was very much in the “us” versus “them” vein. In essence, “their” views, that is those of the religious, are tainted with the irrational and divisive forces of faith or belief common to all religions, unlike “our” rational and unifying position which is free from dangerous subjectivity.

In the comment section someone agreed saying:

Religious indoctrination of children is nothing less than abuse, and ought not to be allowed let alone publicly funded.

What this commenter does not understand is that there is no way to raise a child without “religious” indoctrination.  Modern rationalism or postmodern relativism, which dominate much of western education are inherently “religious.” Even atheism are in a sense “religious.” So public schools are, in essence, are engaged in religious education.

I said as much in my own comment. Another commenter objected saying:

Atheism is not a religion for the same reason that bald is not a hair colour.

He is right, baldness is not a hair color, but it is a hair style.

There are two ways in which one might use the term “religious.” In one sense, atheism is not a religion–if religion is defined by religious rituals and believing in spiritual beings. In this sense, atheism is not a religion for the same reason baldness is not a hair colour. But in another very important sense, atheism is religious. The term can also refer to the guiding principles that one accepts by faith that shape ones reality and around which one organizes ones life.

These guiding principles revealed in how one might answer fundamental questions about reality. Not everyone is aware of their own answers to these questions, but their lives testify to having answered them one way or another.

Does life have meaning? If so, what is it?

Does human life have value? If so, why?

Do we have a purpose? If so why?

Does the universe have a purpose?

Is the universe friendly, hostile or indifferent?

What’s wrong with the world?

What is the solution to what is wrong with the world?

Is there a God or gods?

Every human being lives out their answer to these questions. Interestingly, many people proclaim an answer to a question, but live out another answer. The answers, stated or lived, are religious. They are religious in that they cannot be proven; they are accepted by faith.

The atheist believes that there is no God on the same, some would argue less, grounds that theists believes that there is.  Both do so by faith; neither can know it to be so.

One may chose not to use the term religion to describe this category, but it doesn’t get atheism out of the category, whatever you call it.

Baldness is not a hair colour, but it is a hair style. Atheism does not engage in religious activities that arise out of a belief in a God, but they do make unverifiable claims about reality based on faith.

There is no way we can have an a-religious education, so the government will always be funding religious education. The question now remains, which religions will they fund.

Turning Routines into Rituals

RitualsBoth routines and rituals involve a regular repetition of some action.

But they are very different.

Routines will flatten our lives, but rituals can thicken them.

Routines are like ordinary time and rituals are linked with “higher times.”

With a routine there is a clear, linear connection between the act and the purpose of the act. The routine of brushing your teeth is performed so that you have clean, healthy teeth. You routinely make a breakfast of oatmeal with flax and blueberries to prevent cancer or heart disease, I can’t remember which, maybe both. You grab a coffee on the way to work so that you can hit the ground running when you arrive. There is no more meaning in a routine than the desired outcome.

A ritual, on the other hand, does not have this clear relationship between the act and purpose. The purpose of a handshake, or fist bump or whatever it is the kids are doing these days, has nothing to do with the touching of hands. At a graduation, we don’t throw the hats in the air because we want them to be up there. In Holy Communion, we don’t eat the bread and drink the wine because we are hungry and thirsty.

The meaning and purpose of a ritual transcends the action itself.

In some Christian circles it is a given that we must avoid “mindless rituals.”  Notice that the basis of this censure is that it is non-rational. This preferment of the mind over all other aspects of the human being still dominates the Western church.  The thing about rituals is that they are fundamentally not about the mind–they are not supposed to be.  Does shaking hands when we greet someone make any rational sense?  Rituals train us in ways much deeper than the mind, deeper than the emotions even. They train and transform the deepest part of ourselves, precisely because we do them over and over again. And it’s not with our minds that we repeat rituals, but with our bodies.

James K. A. Smith says, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, that rituals aren’t just things we do, they are things that do something to us.  He says we’ve got it all wrong when we think that humans are primarily rational beings.  Yes, Descartes was wrong with his conclusion, “I think therefore I am.”  Rather, Smith says we are desiring beings–“I love therefore I am.”  Rituals get at the core of who we are, through out bodies.  If you say a rote prayer before the every evening meal, with folded hands and closed eyes, you are physically acknowledging a presence that deserves your reverence, a providential being to whom you ought to be grateful.  This simple ritual shapes identity, and it “thickens” experience in the world as it connects a person and his food to a transcendent provider–this “mindless” ritual is an incarnational event.  If this simple prayer is such a significant event, think about Communion.

We engage in functional, but empty routines all day long.  I wonder if we can’t elevate some of these to the level of ritual.  I’ve ritualized the routine of hitting snooze on my alarm clock.  Every morning when I wake up, well almost every morning, I say, “Good morning, Lord.”  This ritual reminds me that the day does not begin when I wake up; during the seven hours that I’ve been sleeping, God has been busy.  I am joining God’s day, “already in progress.”   It is a quotidian reminder and that the all-powerful king of the universe loves me because he’s there every morning to hear me say, “Good, morning Lord.”

I think I just leave the brushing of my teeth as a routine, but there are some interesting possibilities for ritualizing my morning coffee.

 

There’s Meaning in the Mug

Coffee 1Do you choose to drink your morning coffee out of a Styrofoam cup?

To cure the feeling that are lives are in some ways “flattened” we need a dose of objective Reality.

We have this idea that meaning is in the mind–the individual mind. The logic being: It has to be, because it can’t be anywhere else. We start with this assumption and are forced to the conclusion. But what if the assumption is all wrong.

The Greeks used to think meaning was external–in creation–in the logos. Judeo-Christianity also taught that meaning was external–it’s source in the transcendent God. In the recent past, we made a couple of optional turns in our thinking and end up assuming that meaning lies within us as individuals–meaning, indeed reality, is subjective–this is subjectivism.

It’s as hard to disprove this foundational assumption as it is to prove it, but we can look at where this view takes us in the end, and perhaps draw some conclusions.

Do you choose to drink your morning coffee our of a Styrofoam cup?  I don’t know anyone who would. The coffee itself doesn’t taste any different, but the experience is, for some reason, inferior. It sucks to drink coffee out of Styrofoam. My grandfather, it is said, refused to drink coffee out of a clear-class cup–I’m with him, but glass is better than the paper cups we get from Starbucks and nothing is as good as a ceramic one. This may be a universal experience.

I think tea drinkers are even more aware of this principle–the mug matters.

There is meaning in the mug.

I don’t subjectively decide one vessel is superior to the other for the consumption of hot beverages, it’s an objective truth and it lies in the mug itself. These objective qualities that make one mug superior to another is not simply a matter of practical considerations, although these are important; if the vessel it too large, or the walls too thin, the beverage will cool too quickly. There is inherent value in the mug itself that most enhances the consumption of its contents. This has to do with blending of a host of qualities, not the least of which is tactile.  That point at which its physicality encounters my own.  A mug is more than a mug, the physical thing, in the same way, although perhaps to a lesser degree, that I am more than a physical thing.

Perhaps the mug is magic?

If the mug is just a mug, then the drinker is just a drinker. When we devalue the world of objects, we also devalue ourselves.

When the world is flattened, we become flattened.

If you sense that you are more than a resource, than a thing that has value only for its utility, then perhaps you are in no immediate danger of the modern malaise.  If you want immunity, start by seeing the inherent value in your coffee cup.

So part of the cure for the modern malaise is the recovery of objective reality.

Read a related post here.  It’s about onions.

The Modern Malaise

ImmanenceDo you ever feel that life is a little flat?

If you do, you are not alone according to Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor.  He calls it “the modern malaise.” Taylor says that the experience of living in a secular age is one of “flatness.”   This feeling comes about because of a new view of reality which affects how we experience reality. The view goes by various names–Naturalism, Physicalism, Philosophical Materialism, or Exclusive Humanism.  It is the belief that there is nothing over and above the physical.  There is no spiritual dimension to reality.

“Nature has no doors, and no reality outside herself for doors to open on” (C. S. Lewis, Miracles).

This loss of the transcendent results in a malaise. Without God, the world lost the enchantment it derived from his presence; meaning is more difficult to come by; it’s not so easy to anchor truth to anything absolute, the same goes for the good and the beautiful.

In the absence of a transcendent source of meaning, where do we look for it?

The Romantics looked for it in Nature and the Modern thinkers in Reason.  In the postmodern context, these have become inadequate.  In our current context, we look for meaning within the individual mind, says Taylor.

Well, that’s cool!

Is it? Any meaning to be found in the universe is to be found in my head. I get to decide if a thing is good or true or beautiful. I don’t know; I feel inadequate to the task.

“I told you once you’d made a God of yourself, and the insufficiency of it forced you to become an atheist.” –Robertson Davies

Without the higher things, our experience of reality is flattened. Hence, the malaise of modernity.

The symptoms for the modern malaise:

  • We ask, “Does anything have meaning?”
  • We seek “an over-arching significance” in life.
  • We tend to commemorate important life events, but feel as if these efforts were all for naught.
  • We have a sense of the “utter flatness, emptiness of the ordinary.”

People are obscenities. . . . A mass of tubes squeezing semisolids around itself for a few decades before becoming so dribblesome it’ll no longer function.” — Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

So how do we bring some fullness into our experience to counter the flatness?

  • Family
  • Membership
  • Sports
  • Toys
  • Vacations
  • Parties
  • Halloween
  • Etc.

These can sometimes mask the symptoms, but fail to cure the real illness.

I prescribe the following:

  1. A broader conception of time.
  2. The recovery of objective reality.
  3. The re-enchantment of the cosmos.
  4. Recovery of the transcendent.

I’ve covered the first in previous posts, the first of which is here.

The other three will be addressed in the posts which follow.

 

Radical Individualism–The End of Our Quest for Freedom

Human relationshipsWhere do Truth and Meaning reside?

The idea that meaning resides in the individual human mind, has been a long time in development. We take it for granted and it is no longer considered a way of looking at reality, but the way reality is. It has not always been so; 500 years ago, meaning was external–context mattered.

In the Medieval world and before, the human self was understood in terms of three key relationships. That between God, other people, and the world. Everything that existed was placed in a hierarchy; the most spiritual things were on the top and the most physical things were on the bottom. Angels were at the top, with humans just underneath, then animals, birds, plants, planets, and the purely physical elements. Each of these categories were structured in their own hierarchies–the animal hierarchy was headed by a lion with the oyster at the bottom.  The elements were framed by gold and lead.  Every human lived between the king at the top and the insane beggar at the bottom. One’s identity, and the meaning of all things, had everything to do with where it fit within all these hierarchies.

Then came a series of events that would free the individual from all these hierarchies.

  • Religious Freedom came about with the Protestant Reformation which began in 1517 with Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. This event was the catalyst to a movement that would allow individuals to read a the Holy Scriptures in their own language and interpret the content for themselves.
  • Political Freedom came in a series of revolutions. The English Revolution in 1649, the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution 1789 seriously limited or eliminated the hereditary position of king.
  • Freedom from the Transcendent/Divine. When did we stop believing in God? Some of us haven’t, but let’s just say that it was in 1882 with Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science. In it we find those famous lines, “God is dead. . . . And we have killed him.”
  • Racial Freedom continues to be clarified, but two significant events are worth mentioning: the Abolition of slavery and America’s Civil War in the 1860 and the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s.
  • Freedom for Women – In the first have of the 1900s women won the right to vote in many Western countries. Countries. Progress in even more equality were won in the 1960s.
  • Sexual Freedom was also a part of the 1960s.
  • Freedoms related to Sexual Orientation have been won in many jurisdictions in the last decade.
  • Freedom from Biology – 2015?  The latest emancipation seems to be from our biology. Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal are representative of this new-found freedom against biological gender and race respectively.

BufferedThis is where we are now.  For the modern self, context doesn’t matter–meaning is internal, within the individual human mind. There is no authority higher than the self. The modern human is an autonomous human, not to be ruled by God, pope, king, or biology.

There are some consequences to this shift from external to internal meaning.  Just one effect is our isolation from other people and things.

We aren’t as engaged in our world as we once were: In his book, Bowling Alone Robert Putnam points out that civic engagement has been in steady decline in the last third of the century. What is the evidence?  We don’t do a bunch of things as much as we used to, things that Putnam suggests are indicators of civic engagement.

  • newspaper reading;
  • TV news watching;
  • attending political meetings;
  • petition signing;
  • running for public office;
  • attending public meetings;
  • serving as an officer or committee member in any local clubs or organizations;
  • writing letters to the editor;
  • participating in local meetings of national organizations;
  • attending religious services;
  • socializing informally with friends, relatives or neighbors;
  • attending club meetings;
  • joining unions;
  • entertaining friends at home;
  • participating in picnics;
  • eating the super with the whole family;
  • going out to bars, nightclubs or taverns;
  • playing cards;
  • sending greeting cards;
  • attending parties;
  • playing sports;
  • donating money as a percentage of income;
  • working on community projects;
  • giving blood.

As far as I know, there is no proof that civic disengagement is a result of the radical individualism I have described, but it seems to follow.

Freedom and Individuality are good things, but they are not ultimate things.  We’ve made them ultimate things–we judge everything based on the degree to which it aligns with the worship Individual Freedom.  But good things cannot fulfill the demands made of them when we put them into the place of God. They will become very cruel gods before too long, but before that, they will move us away from the other.  That they move us away from relationships, suggests their inadequacy as gods, for we find we are most fully human within our relationships–the purpose for which we were made.

Hear Oh People, The Lord is Chronos

Time WorshipI began this series of posts suggesting that having a “Biblical” or “Christian” worldview meant much more than opposing abortion and gay marriage, or being generous with ones time and money (read more here).   I argued that these things make up a very small part of what we call our worldview and that American Christians have the same worldview as their non-Christian neighbours.  I attempted to make the point Americans, whether Christian or not, have a very secular idea of time.

Secular Time:

  1. It is homogeneous — a minute is a minute; one hour is the same as every other hour–not really.
  2. It is sequential — minutes, hours, days and years occur one after the other.  There is another way to look at time as non-sequential–read more here.
  3. structured by progress — we are, things are, improving, evolving, getting better as time passes.  Not really–read more here and here.
  4. It has been emptied of the transcendent — there is nothing supernatural in our conception of time.  Really?

The Shema is considered by Jews to be the most important part of the prayer service and it is recited twice a daily.  It is found in Deuteronomy 6: 4-9. It is so important because it asserts the central tenant Judaism–there is only One God.  It says that the only way we can remember that God is God, is by making this idea central in our lives.

Worldviews can be built and shaped through ritual and repetition.   All residents of American culture are steeped in religious repetition and ritual in their worship of secular–or Chronos–time.   Here is my version of the Shema to reflect this idolatrous reality:

4 Hear, O resident of the secular age: The Lord is Chronos, the Lord is Linear. 5 Fear the Lord Chronos with regret for the past and fear for what the future might hold. 6 Time consciousness should always be on your hearts. 7 Impress on your children the importance of not wasting time and be sure they are in time for things, when necessary use bells. Talk about punctuality when you sit at home and as you walk along the road, insure that you set an alarm when they lie down so that they may get up in time. 8 Tie time symbols on your wrists or bind it on home screens of smart phones. 9 Hang them on the walls of every room in your houses, in your cars and at your places of work.

Sacred Memories

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have this sacred memory.  It was the summer of 2010.  The previous 4 years had been difficult.  But now I was in Rennes, France on my honeymoon.  While my wife was napping.  I went for a walk in the old town.  I sat down at an outdoor table on the cobbled street.  I watched the pedestrians stroll past the 5oo year old buildings that faced me.  I ordered a beer, one I’d never heard of,  Picon Biere.  It’s flavour was a surprise that I couldn’t identify at first–oranges?!  This beer was incredible.  The setting was incredible.

Then I experienced this feeling of profound peace.  It was a gift of grace.  I’d never felt this so strongly before.  This for me is a sacred memory.

I have no doubt this feeling had a transcendent source.  God was behind it somehow.  I don’t know what it meant, but I carry it with me always.

Dostoyevsky wrote of these moments:

People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.

Brothers Karamazov

I’m curious about your sacred moments.  Do other people have them?  I don’t hear much talk about them.  If you are willing to share them, post them in the comment section.

The Myth Progress

 

Photo by Prateek Verma on Unsplash

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

This quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. I don’t think it’s true. For one thing, I don’t think it is necessarily the most dangerous phrase — others are more dangerous. For instance, “because we’ve always done it this way, let’s try something else” would be more dangerous when applied to driving on the left or eating glass.  Sometimes the way we’ve always done things is the best way to do it.

That’s the way it is with sayings; they aren’t universally true, but they communicate a truth.

Hopper’s saying resonates particularly with Westerners because we love change. We tend to equate change with progress.  We believe that new ways are better than old ways.

Time and Decline

Interestingly, the ancients actually assumed the opposite.

Book five of The Iliad follows Diomedes’ busy day on the plains before the city of Troy. In one episode, Diomedes has just killed boastful Pandarus with a spear throw that severs the braggart’s tongue. Aeneas attempts to recover Pandarus’ body, but has to face Diomedes who “picked up a stone, a massive rock which no two men now alive could lift. He threw it all by himself with ease.” The Greeks thought that the great men of old were better than the men alive in their time, and not only in terms of physical strength.

The book of Genesis in the Bible shows the same idea.  The first men lived far longer than we do today.  Adam 930 years and Methuselah made it to 1069.

Time and Progress

The Modern story, however, holds that our times are better than previous times. The increase of knowledge in the area of science and the conversion of knowledge to power through technology certainly can give the impression that civilization is advancing.

Check out this Radio Shack flyer from twenty-five years ago. The author of the accompanying article points out that the function of almost every item from the coolest page in the newspaper in 1990 is now on the phone in my pocket. If that ain’t progress, I don’t know what is.

It is progress, but only in two categories–scientific knowledge and technological sophistication.  This is not the same as cultural or moral development.  In these we’ve not progressed at all; human beings remain the same. The problem is that our scientific knowledge and technological power do not make us better, they only increase the effects of what we do–be that good or evil.

Human cultural and moral progress is a myth.

Chronological Snobbery

Agent Colson told us as much  in the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.

People tend to confuse the words, ‘new’ and ‘improved.’

C. S. Lewis also argues that is that time is not structured by progress.

“The idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. ”

— (“The World’s Last Night”)

In Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, an experienced demon, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, Wormwood, a novice tempter, on how to undermine the faith of “the Patient” and thereby secure his soul for damnation. One of the diabolical strategies for populating hell, is to control how modern man understands the past.

Screwtape describes the “the intellectual climate which [the devils] have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe” (139). He jubilantly reports,

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done so by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. . . . To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is important to cut every generation off from all the others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. (139-140)

Lewis calls this view of history, “chronological snobbery,” and defines it as “the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” (Surprised by Joy 167).

Blinded by our technology, we stubbornly cling to the Myth of Progress.

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” –Malcolm Muggeridge

We are certainly progressing technologically, and we are moving steadily toward a more free, open, liberal or tolerant society. But make no mistake, humanity is making no progress culturally, politically or morally.  Nor will we–ever.

Man was not made for Time, but time for man?

Understanding Worldview (2)

Time is moneyWhat can you spend, save and waste?

I asked my students this question and the answer is about 50/50–money and time. You’d expect people to say money, because that’s the right answer.  In what way is time anything like money?   They are not alike at all, but we use exactly the same verbs to describe what we do with them.  You don’t spin a banana, or peal a yarn. You don’t run with petunias and plant scissors.  Yet some how we’ve managed to manage time as if it were something like money.

Richard Lewis explains in “How Different Cultures Understand Time“:

For an American, time is truly money. In a profit-oriented society, time is a precious, even scarce, commodity. It flows fast, like a mountain river in the spring, and if you want to benefit from its passing, you have to move fast with it. Americans are people of action; they cannot bear to be idle.

This view of time is by no means universal.  At a social gathering a few years ago, a Cameroonian man said to my wife , “You people . . . ” (By this he, of course, meant you Americans.) “You people have such a strange way of thinking about time. You think of it as something you can grasp, something you can hold in your hand.”

For North Americans and most northern Europeans, time is linear.  It’s a line, a time line, with evenly spaced hash marks designating the minutes and hours, days and years. This line extends into both the past and the future and in the middle is a point called the present. The line of time continuously slides at a constant speed through the present from right to left. On the future side of the present we affix plans and promises–commitments to others and to ourselves as to what we will do by particular points on the time line.   In our culture, we focus a lot on the future–in both hope and fear.

I can’t pretend to know anything firsthand about what is called “Africa time,” but one of the pastors at my church was born and raised in Kenya.  He tells me that in Africa people aren’t governed by the clock, rather they take the view that “things will happen when they happen.”  I told him via email that I would give him a call at about 3:00–I called him at exactly 3:00.  In Africa, he says, “In Africa, I would be crazy to expect the call at 3:00, because 3:00 really means ‘sometime in the afternoon,'” and it is not a surprise if the call didn’t come in at all.  That’s OK, because “tomorrow is another day.”

Why this seemingly irresponsible for keeping appointments and living up to agreements?

It’s all about relationships.  In African culture almost everything is about relationships.  My pastor explained, “If I were on my way somewhere and I encountered my friend Trent, I would stop and have a conversation.”   A present conversation is too important to cut off before it’s naturally concluded–until then, there is not other place to be.  African time bends and stretches according to the present relational needs. It matters not what a clock might say.  Africa is a big continent and it’s got many different cultural groups, so generalizations are dangerous, but there is apparently some commonality in how time is conceived–and not only in Africa,  but in Latin America as well.

Looking at it another way, in our culture we consider an event to be a component of time whereas other cultures often consider time to be a component of the event.

Interestingly, in our culture we suffer from boredom, if we have too much time, and stress, if we have too little.  I asked my friend if, in the absence of mechanical time, if Africans experience boredom and stress.  He said that an African person will be bored if they are alone, and experience stress when there is a brokenness in their community.  Again, it comes down to the primacy of relationships.

I’m not sure if the African conception of time is morally superior to mechanical time, but I think, with its focus on relationships, that it might be.  But we have to admit that there are also many advantages to our Western notion of time; I love the timeliness by which German trains operate.

My point is that when it comes to conceptions of time, whether Christian or not, residents of Northern Europe and North America have a “secular” view of time. We should, therefore, be hesitant to claim that we have a “Christian” or a “Biblical” worldview–because in our understanding of time, we do not.  We have a pretty “secular” worldview.

© 2018 crossing the line

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑