A Moment of Clarity

Reflections, Resources, and Recommendations from the CSC

Throughout this semester at the study center, we have been thinking about time. More specifically, we’ve been thinking about the moral and spiritual dimensions of our experience of time. We’ve explored, for example, the many ways our relationship to time becomes disordered in contemporary society. This may seem like an unusual formulation, but it captures a truth most of us know implicitly: something about the way we relate to time is broken.

Common symptoms of this disordered relationship to time include our constant and not unjustified complaints about busyness and burnout, our inability to abide stillness and quiet, our compulsive desire for distraction, and the constant feeling that some better version of ourselves would be attainable if only we had more time.

According to sociologists John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, “American Society is starving … for the ultimate scarcity of the postmodern world, time.” “Starving for time,” they add, “does not result in death, bur rather, as ancient Athenian philosophers observed, in never beginning to live.”

There are a host of technological, economic, and cultural factors contributing to our temporal disorder. Tools that promise flexibility and convenience, for instance, have also made it possible to blur temporal boundaries marking work, the market place, and the home as distinct spheres of activities. Moreover, as German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has argued, as the pace of technological change has accelerated, so to has the pace of social change and, consequently, the pace of life as we experience it day to day.

But to say that our experience of time is disordered also implies that it can be rightly ordered. To speak of a rightly ordered relationship to time is to suggest that there is a way of relating to time that is in accord with the kind of creatures we are. It is to suggest that there are more humane ways of ordering our experience of time so that it is conducive to our flourishing.

Two observations from the Scriptures may quickly serve to reinforce this point. First, consider the primacy of the Sabbath in the historic practice of the people of God. As the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel has noted, “it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first. When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time.” The Sabbath recalls the creative activity of God, provides for physical and spiritual renewal, and delimits the scope of our labor and consumption.

Additionally, we may note that throughout the Gospels as we read about the life and ministry of Jesus, we never encounter Jesus hurried. Indeed, we often find him acting, even in the midst of crisis, with a calm deliberateness that sometimes exasperates even his closest companions. In this, as in all other matters, Christ is our exemplar. He is the model to which we ought to aspire.

Most of us have a long way to go. And, we should acknowledge, the deck is often stacked against us. While we have gained all manner of freedoms, real and ostensible, in the modern world, we have succumbed to temporal tyrannies. We have ceded agency with regards to the ordering of our time. In fact, some scholars have given increasing attention to the significance of chronopolitics, or how power is reflected by the ability impose demands and strictures on how others experience time. To opt out of inhumane temporal regimes is a luxury many are unable to enjoy.

Our present crisis, of course, might seem to only exacerbate our temporal dysfunction. Many of us now likely find ourselves inhabiting a bizarre temporal state. Perhaps we find ourselves with more time than we know what to do with. Or, because our ordinary rhythms and patterns have been disrupted, we may find ourselves lost in time, having to pause for a disconcertingly long period to figure out exactly what day it happens to be or how much time has passed since a recent event. We are unmoored in time. Or, to try a different metaphor, it feels as if we’ve entered into a temporal fog.

But there is another way of framing our situation. Perhaps our disorientation can, in fact, be clarifying. It’s often hard to perceive the habits and patterns that structure our day to day life precisely because they are so familiar. They are the cultural water we swim in and never quite perceive as such. To see them more clearly, we require a rather dramatic shift in perspective. The kind of shift sometimes afforded by travel to a foreign and unfamiliar culture during which we learn not only about how others live, but also, and perhaps more importantly, about how we live. The sudden and dramatic changes that we are all now experiencing as our society grapples with the measures designed to contain the virus may offer us just such a change in perspective.

We may now be in a better position to see how exactly our experience of time had become disordered by the external structures that governed and regulated the passage of time for us. We may now also perceive more clearly the internal habits and dispositions, which hampered our ability to receive time as a gift. If we are now granted moments of stillness, do we know what do with them? If we are now liberated from debilitating schedules, do we know what better rhythms we ought to embrace?

Right now, many churches, institutions, and organizations are trying to figure out how to produce more content for the people they serve. They are determined to keep the information flowing. They are quickly navigating the pivot to digital means of communication. The study center is involved in similar projects, of course. In fact, this newsletter is one way we are trying to continue our work when we can no longer hold our classes and events on site and you’ll read about similar efforts on our part below.

This work is not unimportant, and it can be useful as we seek to maintain the life of the mind through this period of uncertainty and anxiety. But it would be a mistake for us to focus only on the transmission of knowledge and information. We now have an opportunity to not only remain well-informed and thoughtful, but to substantially recalibrate the pace and pattern of our lives in pursuit of a more humane experience of time. That is to say, we may now have an opportunity to reshape our experience of time to reflect our moral and spiritual aims rather than the imperatives of the market or the inducements of technology.

We will be thinking—and we encourage you to think with us—about how we might encourage one another toward such an end. It’s encouraging to note that we are not flying blind in this respect. The Christian tradition affords us a multitude of resources to help us think more clearly about the ordering of time. For example, even if you are not part of the Anglican tradition, you may find the Book of Common Prayer a valuable guide to ordering your days around appointed times of prayer and reflection. You can read the daily offices (or times of prayer) here.

We hope you’ll find this newsletter useful in the coming weeks and months. Please feel free to share it widely, even among those who may have no other connection to the study center.

Study Center Resources

Although our on-site classes and events have been suspended because of the health crisis, our work continues.

You can now listen to associate director Michael Sacasas’s third lecture in the Timely Virtues series, “At Peace With Time.”

The Director’s Class, also exploring the question of time, is now being posted online as well. You can watch or listen here.

Additionally, we will be hosting our Auden reading group online this coming Tuesday (3/31) at 5:15. Use this link to join us then as we discuss “A Walk After Dark.”

Recommended Reading

“Community + God: Inextricable?” by Marisa Casagrande in Comment:

“In our frenzied and complicated world, as we look at the perplexing statistics on youth well-being, there is perhaps nothing more important at this moment in time than understanding the conditions for child flourishing. Paradoxically, as our capacity for choice and speed expands in Western society, there is a countering and seemingly primordial need for rest, ritual, and deep relationships. We crave a human-scaled life. The search for belonging, meaning, and truth is a universal one, shaped and enabled over the centuries by communities—faith and otherwise—of shared liturgies and understandings. Our longing for community is mysteriously connected to our longing for the divine, and more than ever, the public debate on education needs to begin here.”

“Love in the Time of Coronavirus” by Andy Crouch in The Praxis Journal:

“At this extraordinary moment, local leaders — people who lead groups of 10 to 1,000 people — have perhaps the greatest opportunity to shape culture in the United States that they have ever had. This is a guide for those of us who are Christian leaders at this moment.”

“Can we live in a world without a Sabbath? Rethinking the human in the Anthropocene” by Norman Wirzba at ABC Religion & Ethics:

“To characterise the human as a creature made by God to serve and delight in the goodness and beauty of others, and then to develop the many economic policies, cultural institutions, legal codes and education systems that will be necessary to repair a world that too often evokes lament rather than delight, is an enormous task. To move in this direction will require creative and improvisational skills that are inspired by God's own abiding and delighting Shabbat. It will require of people that they slow down, pay attention and come to know the places and the creatures of their life as worthy of their cherishing and care. Inspired by love, they may yet become the humans who work for a better world.”