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

In Christ and Culture, Time, Worldview on October 23, 2015 at 9:04 pm

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.

Understanding Worldview

In Time, Worldview on October 12, 2015 at 6:59 pm

IceburgTwo books changed everything for me. In the late 80s I read A Transforming Vision by Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton and Leslie Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks. These books opened up to me the idea that my thinking wasn’t free; I looked at the world through glasses tinted by cultural context–a lot more than tinted, it turns out. Ever since I have tried to understand my culture and the lenses through which I viewed the world.

In Christian Education circles we talked a lot about worldview and how to integrate worldview conversations into the curriculum and these conversations continue (some even wondering if worldview education is misguided).

Use of the term worldview has since gone way beyond Christian educators. Now I regularly hear Christians talking about “Christian,” “Biblical” and “Secular” worldviews, but, clearly, the speakers haven’t read any of the books on the subject. Seriously limited understanding of worldview concepts are proclaimed in podcasts and from pulpits, and found in blogs and in books.

These well-meaning Christians often reduce the idea of a “Christian worldview” to some moral ethic. For many, to have a Christian worldview means to practice abstinence until in a heterosexual marriage and, then, to not get an abortion. For others the ethic is more social–to help the homeless, the refugee or the at-risk teen; to bring water, food and medicine to the world’s poor. Some reduce Christian worldview to purchasing decisions–they have a hybrid car and eat free-range chickens. These may be the external manifestations of having a Christian worldview, but they do not the worldview make.

There are two problems with reducing worldview to ethic. First, we think we are done when we haven’t really started. If all I need to do to have a truly Christian worldview is abstain from sex outside of heterosexual marriage–I’m done, nothing else to do except perhaps look askance at those who have a “secular worldview.”

The second problem with reducing worldview to ethic is that it creates an artificial line between us and our neighbours. Simplified understanding of the terms “Christian” and “Secular worldview” create “Us” and “Them” categories. This is inappropriate because “they” aren’t all that different from “us.”

OK, I hear you. We are different. Most importantly, we believe that Jesus was the son of God and that he died to conquer death on our behalf. There’s more, and it depends a little on what brand of Christian you are, but our views may differ from the dominant culture on issues like abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage. Some of what we do is different: we pray and attend Bible studies. Perhaps we watch different movies, or avoid certain TV shows. We’d like to think we are more faithful to our marriages, that we give more to charitable causes, and that we swear less.

I don’t mean to de-mean these important differences (especially the ones I agree with) but these are only the beginning of what has been called a “Christian (or a Biblical) Worldview.” Deep down we are not so different–the so-called “secular” worldview is comes right out of the Christian past, and Christianity, in the West, has been profoundly influenced by secular thinking. Consequently, a North American Christian has a lot more in common with her secular neighbour than she does with a Christian living in, say, Cameroon. It’s important that we stop using the term “worldview” in order to separate ourselves from others in ways that we are not separate. Worldview goes way beyond what we do on Sunday morning and what we don’t do on Saturday night.

A God Shaped Hole?

In Uncategorized on May 14, 2015 at 3:35 pm

WhyI admit that I wince every time I hear this phrase, but there is something here to think about it.

Everybody asks big questions at some time or another. Questions like “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Why is there suffering and death?” “Why bother?” Asking big questions is so common that it is often be considered a quality that is essential or structural to humanity.

Human beings ask a lot of questions and we are strongly compelled to answer them.   We cannot live without seeking answers. Seeking answers to questions asked of the material world is at the core of our sciences.   But we also ask questions beyond the material using human reason. Asking questions and compulsion to seek answers and meaning is foundational to being human.

Giussani says that if we have a hundred questions and answer ninety-nine of them, the one we can’t answer drives us crazy.  And the thing about the so called “big questions,” they are not answerable.  Hamlet quite correctly says, “There are more things, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophies.” As we seek answers to our questions, we come to the conclusion that we can’t answer all of our questions. This is a tough situation for us. On the one hand, we have an insatiable desire to understand and on the other hand we are limited to what we can know. The tension created by the disparity between our ideals and our actualities suggests the existence of a source of ultimate fulfillment.

C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

This from Blaise Pascal in Pensées VII

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

According to Lewis and Pascal, the big questions, which seem to be foundational to human consciousness, affirm the existence of an Ultimate. We cannot answer the big questions, yet we crave and even expect an answer. This expectation suggests that there must be an Other from which we crave the affirmation of our existence that an answer would give. Giussani says that our inability to answer these questions leaves us sad, but to deny the possibility of an answer is to disconnect man from himself because the desire for answers is structural–foundational to being human. To deny the possibility of an answer is to declare everything meaningless–this leads to the opposite of sadness–despair. As Macbeth says, it would be as if life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

There must be an answer; and a human being cannot live without seeking that answer. Giussani says that a human being can’t live five minutes without affirming “the existence of a ‘something’ which deep down makes living those five minutes worthwhile” (57).

The disparity between our questions and our inability to answer them leaves us sad. Denying the possibility of an answer leads us to despair.

 

A Christian Worldview?

In Worldview on September 14, 2013 at 4:28 am

Secular freedom storyThe term “Christian worldview” is often used, but not always understood.

Too often, people think that if you simply believe the Bible, oppose abortion and avoid R-rated movies you have a Christian worldview.  OK, this is a bit of a caricature, but my point is, Christians often have a far too superficial understanding of worldview.  Even Nancy Pearcy’s book Total Truth, which is a book about worldview, begins with the story of Sarah, a Christian woman who works as a counsellor in a Planned Parenthood Clinic.  Pearcy explains this incongruity:

“Sarah’s story illustrates how even sincere believers may find themselves drawn into a secular worldview–while remaining orthodox in their theological beliefs” (32).

Although Sarah’s story may illustrate what Pearcy says it does, it does not help readers to understand the depth at which we hold worldviews–Christian, Secular or whatever.

Here’s an illustration that I think better illustrates how deeply worldviews are held and the conflict between a Christian and a “Secular” worldview.

I’m teaching Grade 9 Humanities this year so I started reading the textbook.  I think it’s a standard textbook for Social Studies across the province.   I didn’t get beyond the first page and I knew that this year I would be teaching a lot of worldview in my class.  Two sentences in the introduction to the first chapter entitled “The Early Modern Age” grabbed my attention.  They present a worldview that is completely contrary to a Biblical one.

Here’s the first sentence:

Sometime around the year 1500, Europe began to experience profound changes in its political, religious, social, economic and intellectual life.  As a result of these changes, European history began to enter a new era–the Early Modern Age.

This is the second:

All civilizations experience a kind of evolutionary change in their histories.

The significant word here is “evolutionary.”  The popular use of the term “evolutionary” connotes a positive change.  The Free Online Dictionary captures the developmental aspect of the word when it defines evolutionary as “A gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form.”

Together these sentences suggest that humanity is moving toward a better world and that the Early-Modern Age was a significant step in that direction.  Many people accept this without batting an eye.

It is true that there were a lot of changes going on in Europe around the year 1500.  It is also true that some things have improved over the last 500 years–transportation technology, for example, is much faster than it used to be.  But is it true to say that our civilization has improved just because some aspects of it has?  A survey of the last hundred years–with two World Wars, one Great Depression, the nuclear arms race, ecological disasters, new and deadly diseases–provides a lot of evidence to the contradict the idea that things are getting better.

So why does the textbook make this claim?

They make it because it is true; true within a certain story.

No claim (or “fact,” thing, event, person) means anything until we place it into a story.  This is why human beings always tell stories — we are always seeking meaning.

All stories, whether myths or movies, share some common elements.  They always have a protagonist, a person who strives for some goal.  This quest drives the story toward a meaningful end.  Stories also have conflict because there are always antagonists, that is, a person (or people or a force) that impedes the protagonist in the fulfillment of his or her purpose.

Two stories concern us here:  the so-called “secular” story and the Christian story.  In the secular story, the dominant myth in our culture, the protagonist, humanity, is on a long quest for autonomy (freedom from authority).   Some of the antagonists in the secular story are  kings and queens, God and the church, communism and socialism, and tradition and social conventions.  Many of these villains and monsters have been vanquished and only a few remain.

Because my grade 9 Social Studies textbook has placed the events following 1500 into this Secular story, it can claim that we have experienced evolutionary change in our history.

This is the dominant story in our culture, but it isn’t the only one.  The Christian story says that humanity will find fulfillment only in the presence of the loving God who made him.  Sin, the antagonist, thwarts humanity at every turn, but the hero of the story has come to find us and will bring us home (actually, bring home here).  This is the meaningful end of the Christian story.

When you consider civilization from this story, change has not been evolutionary–civilization has not improved because we have come no closer to dealing with our basic problem.  Freedom, according to this story, is a good thing, but Sin causes us to make GOOD things our objective instead of he who gave us the good things.  This inversion is, in essence, to make Freedom, into a god, a false god, an idol. Freedom is a good thing, but it is not the ultimate thing.

The secular story, or worldview, is foundational to my entire grade 9 social studies textbook and most of the other textbooks used in schools all over North America.  And it’s not just textbooks; it’s the worldview upon which the whole curriculum is built.  And it’s not just in schools, this story is reinforced by popular culture.  We are inundated with this story, and it is a powerful story.  When we consider the people who have fallen away from the church, I don’t doubt that many they left to seek autonomy–they wanted to do what they wanted to do and not have anyone or anything restrict their freedom.

One’s position on abortion is not a worldview–worldview runs much deeper–but your position on the issue of abortion is dictated by your worldview.  So will be your position on other issues that are, at their core, about human freedom.

I’m still using that textbook though, because discerning worldviews is one of the objectives of this and every other class taught at my school.  I worry for the Christian kids who aren’t in a school that is deliberate about exposing the competing stories in our culture.  And I also worry about the kids who are, because the secular story seems so true, because we are immersed in it.

I take more than a little comfort in the fact that none of the competing stories ring so true as the one where sin is the antagonist and the end is being reunited with the One who gave us every good thing–including Freedom.