CategoryWorldview

God Shaped Hole?

Photo by Valentin Lacoste on Unsplash

A lot of Christians talk about a void in every person that can only be filled by God.  We are compelled to fill it, but we will never achieve peace /fulfillment /wholeness unless this space is filled with God.   This “God-shaped hole” is an innate human desire to connect with the transcendent.

It’s a cliché.  And like most clichés, it’s an oversimplification, but it carries some truth.  Human beings have desires.  Besides physical needs and desires–we were created for relationships, we were created for community, and we were created to be in relationship with God.  To say that all we need is God is to deny the other good things he created us to desire and enjoy.  These ought not to be tossed aside, but understood as good gifts from a loving Father.  But, yes, our most profound desire is to know and be known by God.

For this post, I am borrowing from Tim Keller, particularly his book Counterfeit God’s and a lecture of the same name that he delivered at Cambridge Passion.

In his exploration of idolatry, Keller differentiates good things and ultimate things.

Good Things and God, The Ultimate

God created everything, and he declared them to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  The list of good things is obviously very long and it includes:

  • work,
  • romantic love,
  • family,
  • pasta,
  • baseball,
  • acclaim,
  • reason,
  • beauty,
  • self-expression,
  • justice,
  • pleasure,
  • and cherry trees.

The list goes on and on.

Above all these good things, God places humanity.  Humanity occupies this place above the good things because we alone were created in God’s image.   Here’s the text which articulates humanities special position in creation, above all the good things.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

–Genesis 1:26

Innate value has been conferred onto human beings by God.  Our value is linked to God.  In a properly ordered life or society, God is the Ultimate thing.  Human beings occupy a position above all the good things because they were created in God’s Image.  All the other good things are good, but they do not have more value than God or humanity.

“Disordered Loves”

Augustine called sin “disordered love.”  Sin is, in essence, replacing God with something else.  We take a good thing and make it the ultimate thing; we replace the Creator with the created.  The good thing in the ascendant position is an idol.

Career advancement is a common idol in our culture.  There’s nothing wrong with career advancement–it is a good thing–but when it becomes an ultimate thing, all other things must give way to it.  The marriage and the children will be sacrificed to it.  “Friends” becomes a name for those who can be used to aid advancement while others will be treated as rungs on a ladder.  Idols are very demanding overlords, they take and they want it all.

Beauty is a good thing.  And it is another common idol.  it demands huge amounts of money and often ones dignity, and it always fails those who worship it–we cannot stop beauty from fading.

Family is a good thing, but it is a terrible master.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is one of my favourite books.  It could only come from a brilliant and tortured mind.  His “This is Water” commencement speech to Kenyon College class of 2005, presents some of the wisdom Wallace has aquired through his struggles.  In this passage he explains the problem with false gods:

You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship… Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship-be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles-is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already-it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.  Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.

(If you listen to the whole speech, you will hear Wallace come dangerously close to pointing to a realignment of our loves under the transcendent god, for our sake and for the sake of others around us.)

Whatever your idol, it will eventually eat you alive.

God-shaped hole?  We should maybe stop using the phrase, but behind this cliche is the idea that everything you desires will destroy if they are put into the position of a god.  Conversely, if you subordinate all your desires to Christ’s Lordship, you will achieve the peace and fulfillment and wholeness you seek, because it was for Christ you were made.

Monkeys Don’t Get Music

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Human beings like music.  Macaques don’t.

This is not simply because monkeys are a bunch of uncultured louts.  Apparently, it’s a brain thing. Researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Maryland studied the difference between macaques’ and humans’ ability to hear things. They discovered that humans have areas in our brains that respond to music. Macaques don’t have these.

Scientists observed people brains and monkey brains as they responded to sounds. Sounds came in two groups: pitch without noise, like a sung note and noise without pitch, like a whisper. The auditory parts of human brains lit up much more when tones were played than they did when noises were played at the same frequency. The macaques showed no preference for to pitched sounds, even when they were based on their natural calls.

The ability to enjoy music seems to be structural to the human brain.

The big question for the scientists is “Why?”  Why have human beings evolved the ability to love music?  We might expect a rudimentary response to pitch in monkey brains, for what would have been an evolutionary advantage to our ancestors would also be an advantage to the macaques.  Why would we get Mozart and Kenny Chesney and monkey’s get squat?

I have an idea.

Perhaps music is not an evolutionary necessity, but a superfluous gift.

Perhaps music is not an evolutionary necessity, but a superfluous gift.Click To Tweet

The Gift of Music

Perhaps there is no evolutionary advantage to having brain structures that allow us to appreciate music.  Maybe we were given the ability to create and enjoy music as a gift of Grace.

This is problematic for some because it would imply a transcendent gift-giver.

The gift of music touches us so deeply that even if a satisfactory evolutionary explanation for the human ability to hear music is someday found it would be difficult to explain the universal power, depth, complexity, and diversity we find in humanity’s experience with music.

Our natural response would be wonder and gratitude.

Real Presences

George Steiner says that music tells us that there is “something else,” that music is “the great force, the hope of a transcendent possibility.”

In transcendent experiences, such as those encountered in good music, lies “a presumption of presence” (214)—the real presence of God.  Through them, we experience “the unassuaged, unhoused instability and estrangement of our condition.  We are, at [these] key instants, strangers to ourselves, errant at the gates of our own psyche” (139).  Steiner suggests that when we encounter the transcendent, we become aware of our alienation from ourselves.

So he laments the replacement of many forms of good music with “the deafening folly,” and “barbarism of organized noise.”   I’m not sure exactly what Steiner means by these aspersions, but I can guess.  We might say that degraded music degrades our humanity by making us deaf to the transcendent, a condition leaving us little more than macaques.

 

 

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.

Baptism as a Reminder

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.Click To Tweet

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.

Turning Routines into Rituals

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Both 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 locked in ordinary time, but rituals are linked with “higher times.”

Routines

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.

Rituals

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.

Mindless Rituals

In some Christian circles it is a given that “mindless rituals” are bad.  Notice that the basis of this censure is that rituals are bad when they are not of the mind, or non-rational.

Where rituals are opposed because of their mindlessness, is where the idol of Modernism is still maintaining some control of a church.  The thing about rituals is that they are fundamentally not about the mind–they are not and never were 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 do something to us.  We’ve got it all wrong when we think that humans are primarily rational beings.  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.

Routines into Rituals

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

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

I’d almost rather not have my morning coffee than to suck it out of a styrofoam cup. Almost.  I can’t imagine anyone sitting in a diner asking the waitress to replace the ceramic cup with a styrofoam one.  Coffee tastes better in ceramic.

Is this in our heads or is it really a thing?

In the modern secular West, 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 premise and are forced to the conclusion.  But what if the premise is all wrong.

Meanings are External

The Greeks used to think meaning was external–in creation–in the logos. Judeo-Christianity also teaches that meaning was external–it’s source is in the transcendent God.

In the recent past, we made a couple of turns in our thinking and end up assuming that meaning lies within us as individuals–meaning, indeed reality, is subjective–this is subjectivism.

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

The Mug Matters

So, back to drinking coffee from the Styrofoam cup.  The coffee itself doesn’t taste any different; it’s the experience that’s degraded.  It just 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. I think this experience is universal.

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

There is meaning in the mug.

Now a subjectivist will look at my argument that “it sucks” to drink out of Styrofoam and the experience is “degraded” and say that it is a subjective argument.  But I don’t think we have all independently decided that one vessel is superior to the other for the consumption of hot beverages,

Take 10 babies and raise them in isolation until they are 20, then give them a hot beverage in two vessels, one ceramic and one Styrofoam.  As them which they prefer.   100% of them will chose the ceramic.  It’s an objective truth and it lies in the mug itself.

The objective qualities that make one mug superior to another is not simply a matter of practical considerations, although these are important. For instance, if the vessel is too large, or the walls too thin, the beverage will cool too quickly. But there’s something in the intersection of subject and object that makes drinking coffee our of a ceramic mug better.

There is inherent value in the mug itself that enhance the consumption of its contents. This has to do with the blending of a host of qualities, not the least of which is tactile, that point at which its physicality encounters my own.

Is the mug 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 an object and that a thing that has value beyond 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

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Do 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?

Other Sources of Meaning

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.

A Prescription for the Modern Malaise

  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

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Where do we find Truth and Meaning?

Truth and Meaning reside in the individual mind.  It wasn’t always so.

The idea that meaning resides in the individual human mind, has been a long time in development.  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.  These relationships were understood in terms of hierarchies.  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 ordered 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.  The planets from sun, to moon, to the other “spheres” to lowly earth.  And 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.  Meaning and truth were external, sought and discovered in their context.

Freedom From 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.

Total Freedom, Increasing Isolation

This 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

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I’ve written a few posts about Time.  In the post that kicked it off, I suggested that having a “Biblical” or “Christian” worldview meant much more than opposing abortion and gay marriage, or being generous with ones time and money.

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

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 a new Shema to a new, very material, god:

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.

Time and Despair

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We modern folks have a very modern view of time.

Having emptied time of transcendence, we think of it as mere chronology or sequence. Still, this sequence can be viewed optimistically; in our culture we tend to find meaning in time in terms of human progress. But there is a darker view of time in the absence of higher things. If God doesn’t exist, are Goodness, Truth, Beauty possible? Some say no, and despair.

Despair in A Fine Balance

This is the case of Maneck in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Time and its relationship to meaning is woven through the novel, most often through the words and musings of this young man.

For instance, there is the idea that life is essentially tragic because it is embedded in sequential time:

Our lives are but a sequence of accidents–a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call LIFE.

Why does Maneck see life as tragic and time as meaningless?

It’s because for him there is no God who is active in his creation.  He has this conversation with landlady, Dina:

‘God is dead,’ said Maneck. ‘That’s what a German philosopher wrote.’

She was shocked. ‘Trust the Germans to say such things,’ she frowned. ‘And do you believe it?’

‘I used to. But now I prefer to think that God is a giant quilt maker. With an infinite variety of designs. And the quilt is grown so big and confusing, the pattern is impossible to see, the squares and diamonds and triangles don’t fit well together anymore, it’s all become meaningless. So He has abandoned it.’

In the novel, we find reflections on the nature of time as we experience it–no minute is like another minute. Where I find this an an argument for meaning, Maneck ends up using the same phenomenon as evidence against meaning:

What an unreliable thing is time–when I want it to fly, the hours stick to me like glue. And what a changeable thing, too. Time is the twine to tie our lives into parcels of years and months. Or a rubber band stretched to suit our fancy. Time can be the pretty ribbon in a little girl’s hair. Or the lines in your face, stealing your youthful colour and your hair. …. But in the end, time is a noose around the neck, strangling slowly.

On his return home after the spreading of his father’s ashes, Maneck sits on the porch and begins

escorting a hose of memories through his troubled mind.” His mother’s interruption of his thoughts irritated him “as though he could have recaptured, reconstructed, redeemed those happy times if only he had been given long enough.” While he sits in the deepening dusk he spies a lizard. “He hated its shape, its colour, its ugly snout. The manner in which it flicked its evil tongue. Its ruthless way of swallowing flies. The way time swallowed human efforts and joy. Time, the ultimate grandmaster that could never be checkmated. There was no way out of its distended belly. He wanted to destroy the loathsome creature.

In a world where God does not exist, or has gone far away, if we are to find meaning in time we must first find it someplace else.  Some will find all attempts to find meaning under these conditions impossible. They, like Maneck, may despair.

Christians are Anti-Progress

ProgressB

Christians are often resistant to progress, sometimes when they shouldn’t be.  Christianity does not call us to be generally anti-progress.  But in one sense, we ought to be a little anti-progress.

The Good, traditionally understood, is in the transcendent category.  We are much more materialistic these days and, consequently, are suspicious of, or flatly reject, the category.

We haven’t lost the idea of “The Good,” but it has moved from a higher ideal to the material realm.  It now lives at the end of every line of progress, which we see everywhere, even when progress is an illusion.  The good is now “just what happens next.”

Progress Degrades Commitment

Pastor and blogger Toby Sumpter (“Committed as Christmas”) argues that living in this “evolutionary universe” erodes commitment.  The Biblical worldview emphasizes commitment–God is so committed to humanity that he would die for us.  People exhorted to be committed to God, parents, spouses, children, governments, neighbours, church and creation.  But, a commitment to commitments is out of step with the dominant culture.  Sumpter says that this “is why marriage . . .  is not merely an old fashion custom, it is positively anti-progress.”

Change and Permanence

It is not inappropriate to find pleasure in change.  We were created to desire change.  I love the changes between the seasons and, although I love steak and mashed potatoes, I don’t want to eat them two days in a row.  But we were also made to crave permanence.  The things that human beings love most are a balance between change and permanence:

Baseball always has four bases that are positioned 90 feet apart and there are always three outs per inning.  These permanent qualities are complemented with change, for no two games are alike.  In this blend of constancy and variety is the appeal of baseball.

The same is true of our fascination in watching a lava lamps, a campfire, or waves crashing onto the beach.  Our fascination is rooted in the balance between newness and change.

The problem arises, when we lose the balance between permanence and change.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis attributes our obsession with new experiences to demonic activity.

Now just as we [the tempters] pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty.  This demand is entirely our workmanship. . . .  Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for the infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up.

The task of the demons is made much easier by the evolutionary worldview, that progress is always good, that dominates popular thought in our culture.

Change is a good, but it is not The Good.  So in a sense, it is appropriate for Christians to be labelled inherently anti-progress.

 

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