A lot of what I write on this blog is about the way our culture teaches us things that are both deeply non-Christian and also very deep in the fabric of the way we think, hidden assumptions that are taught implicitly but so strongly that we swallow them whole. Frequently I complain about Christians failing to see and deny these frameworks so it’s only fair that I should note that when it comes to the way we think about time Christians tend to have several alternative frameworks in mind.
When it comes to time our culture is solidly sold on the Myth of Inevitable Progress. This is a myth in the fullest sense – a story that is less concerned with telling us a set of empirical facts than it is in telling us about who we are and what we should value. (In case you can’t tell from my other writings I don’t consider calling something a myth in this sense to be at all derogatory.) Unfortunately, what the Myth of Inevitable Progress tells us is lies. Yes, certain realms of human achievement (science and technology notably) have progressed a great deal in a pretty consistent manner for the last few centuries. However, there’s nothing inevitable about this. When Rome fell it gave most people an opposite narrative, a narrative about a fall from a golden age into unending barbarism. Moreover, the Myth of Inevitable Progress tells us about who people were (not as good as us) and what their ideas and knowledge were worth (not much). Most Christians have at some point been confronted with one of the side effects of this, the person who simply has trouble thinking of ancient people (like the ones in the Bible) as being smart, capable people on the level of modern people. Of course, ancient people were just as sharp as we are. Men like Julius Caesar and Hannibal Barca weren’t nice people but their political and military accomplishments show all the acumen that we associate with the best modern minds.
Now, one of the major Christian counter-narratives to the Myth of Inevitable Progress is itself not one that I like very much. It’s a story about the collapse of the moral fabric of Western Civilization, the Fall of Rome in the spiritual realm. It’s tied to some ideas about the end of all things that I consider to be extremely bad reading. However, the fact that Christians in the West can look at the flow of history with two different lenses that are shaped by tracking different parts of that history is a good thing that should encourage mental flexibility.
Personally, I suspect that a Christian view of the sweep of history will end up being fairly neutral. People remain people everywhere and in all times. We sweep aside one set of evils and make room for another. Those who decry modern society often seem to ignore the vast injustices of the past but those who celebrate the progress we’ve made in things like anti-discrimination legislation seem to miss the way that we’ve also unraveled parts of the social order that provided stability for people who really did need it. I consider it a great irony of the modern world that we’ve moved strongly away from a previous order of business where a male executive could sexually harass his female employees with impunity to one where this is illegal but pornography is readily available. Ultimately, both sexual harassment and pornography celebrate the subjection of a person (almost always a woman) to the lusts of the perpetrator/viewer (frequently a man). There are differences in scope and focus between the two acts but we really have traded one evil for another of the same type.
There’s another myth about time in our culture, though. We embrace the Myth of Inevitable Progress when it comes to the whole of history but we have a very different narrative about the life of an individual where the peak is sometime in someone’s early twenties. Not coincidentally, this is generally the time when someone is at the peak of their physical condition and has acquired the rights of adulthood without the responsibilities. Like Inevitable Progress this is also a story about what people should value and it’s a destructive, anti-Christian message about how responsibility is a negative thing and where the physical is prioritized over wisdom.
Christians don’t always have much of a counter-myth here unless you count the obsession a lot of churches have with family. However, there is a rather clear Christian framework for thinking about time in our lives. First, the things we lose as we age (looks, the ability to stay up late, physical condition, etc.) are worth less than what we can gain (maturity and wisdom). Second, our entire lives should be a continuing journey towards the character of Christ. I’ll admit that it doesn’t always feel like one makes much progress (I feel like I battle many of the same issues that I did when I was eighteen) but this long view helps. Recently I was talking to a friend about the discipline of quieting the mind (something I find very difficult). She said that she also found it hard even after something like two years of continuously work. Is this an issue? If I assume that I’m trying to make progress over the course of seventy years not really – two years just isn’t that much time. If I’m trying to hit a deadline where I get this all taken care of before my hair goes gray (marking me as old, a useful way to say “dead without the grace to stop moving”) then yes, it would be an issue.
I’m not sure that these musing wrap up as neatly as some of my articles do but I have gotten a lot of mileage out of rethinking how I think about time. A lot just makes more sense to me when I think of people as basically the same across all of history. A lot of what we do in the modern world is really just new ways to make the old mistakes and a lot of the good of the past can also be reworked in minor ways for our modern era. However, it’s really thinking about my personal life as one that should progress continually towards a better spiritual place that’s made the most difference. It’s a distinctly counter-cultural idea but that may be why it’s worth so much – our culture oppresses anyone past the age of twenty-five with messages about avoiding being old. Christ simply doesn’t care about that.