A Secular Age (Part 2): Secular “Time”

One of the most fascinating but difficult topics to consider, reflect on, and analyze is “time.”  It surrounds us and carries us, we feel swept up in it and drug along by it.  It structures how we experience the world and how we make sense of and organize our daily activities.  Time is basic in such a way that it is difficult for us to pause and parse out its meaning and function in our lives.  Yet, as Charles Taylor so perceptively displays, whatever else time is, it is an inhabited social concept that has changed through history, allowing for a range of experiences which also deeply affects how we live and act.

Our current age experiences ordinary time as “secular” time: that is, “one thing happens after another, and when something is past, it’s past.  Time placings are consistently transitive” (55).  Taylor call s this kind of time “homogeneous” in that all time is the same, no special moment orders the rest of time.  In a related way, because no time is different from any other, all time is divested of the kind of meaning special moments can confer.  In homogeneous, empty time, there is no center of meaning or common referent from which the rest of time is framed, and so each moment succeeds the next, instant after instant, with no purpose. Time is a container, “indifferent to what fills it.”

Now this picture of time lends itself to modern (Reformed) discipline.  Here, the “use” of time takes center stage.  Time can be filled by whatever we choose, it has no meaning already attached to it that limits how we can use it–and thus we can “waste” it.  Time becomes a tool for economic and social development, a resource which we make our lives out of.  We better not “waste” time because if we don’t use it for something (say the Kingdom, liberal social Progress, or personal development), then it slips into the past, fading from our lives.  Time is only organized by the chronological relation between succeeding moments.  The preceding moment is irrecoverable because all time marches on “horizontally”, as it were.  But while the container is lost, what we choose to fill it with can find a new container, a new moment.  Time is homogeneous, empty; and thus interchangeable.  Time is thoroughly separate from what fills it and thus entirely quantifiable.

This kind of time is “flat” for Taylor because it is severed from higher time.  Higher time gathers and reorganizes secular time–it introduces “warps” that can make certain events closer to us than a chronological mapping would suggest.   For example, “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997” (55).  Ancient moments can be nearer than yesterday when higher time is at work.  Higher times make tracts of ordinary time anything but interchangeable.  Ordinary times are inescapably “coloured by their placing in relation to higher times” (58).  It is much more difficult to make sense of “wasting” time in this context, because time is not an indifferent container that is discarded meaninglessly as moment after moment marches on.  Rather,

If a tract of time is identified not just by its placing in secular time order, but also by its proximity to higher times, then what happens within it is no longer indifferent to its placing.  A time which has fallen away from the eternal paradigms of order will exhibit more disorder.

Likewise, a closer proximity to the paradigmatic order of higher time leads to more order.  These connections do not hinge on the personal use of time.  Thus, the inability of time to lose its connection to the higher regardless of how we fill it makes time, in a way, “unwasteable.”

But the pressing question is what gives higher time its height.  This is where Taylor explores two ways of picturing and presenting Eternity, a historic idea that has developed important variations.  To this he offers a third “ideal type” of higher time:

  1. Ancient Greek notions of Eternity focused on the really real as that which is unchanging and timeless.  Ordinary time is less than real in that what passes through it decays and is destroyed.  Still, it is ordered by way of higher moments which reach toward the unchanging, impervious realm of the Eternal Forms, and thereby sets a limit on the deviancy of time .  The Stoic idea of the great conflagration is an example here.   A great, cosmic reset moment in the flow of time brings decayed existence back to its original state.
  2. Christian notions of Eternity, linked as they were and are to Greek ideas of Eternity, differed in a Christological key.  Ordinary time is infused with eternal significance because God took on time-saturated human flesh in the person of Christ:  “The Crucifixion happened in time, and so what occurs here can no longer be seen as less than fully real” (56).  From this, Eternity is pictured as gathering all moments of ordinary time into a coherent whole.  A sort of great simultaneity in the hands of God.
  3. The folk traditions of a “time of origins”, studied and analyzed by Eliade, made the past more real–the agents of that time were “larger than life”–but which could also be reapproached by certain mechanisms:  like particular rituals.  Time circles back around through ritual and invests the moments in which they occur with a new intensity of meaning.

All three of these notions were at work in history in various ways.  They helped structure the “time-consciousness” of previous ages.  In these past worlds, the “flow of secular time occurs in a multiplex vertical context, so that everything relates to more than one kind of time” (57).

What Taylor is getting at with this analytical detour through “time” is the way our modern, secular world understands and experiences time.  This experience and understanding is always already connected to a moral landscape, a terrain of being and doing shaped by certain values.  Taylor wants to show the way our time-consciousness is informed by past frameworks of time, while also lifting out its distinctively modern shape and thereby isolate the dilemmas we encounter in our lives.

Taylor suggests that the dominant way we experience the world is in secular time, even as beliefs in eternity endure.  Time has been intentionally and unintentionally severed from the eternal in a way that has brought us gains and losses.  Oppressive social structures which drew their legitimacy from certain “higher times” have been deconstructed for the sake of freedom and human rights.  But there are also feelings of meaninglessness, so aptly manifest in the wake of WWI and WWII, which generate various life postures, some of which are not worthy of a collective embrace.   What is more, the need to avoid oppressive social structures may not depend on avoiding higher time altogether, but on reclaiming and reimagining time in a way that reinforces (even while transforming) the ethic of human welfare implicit in the effort to flatten time.

Through Taylor’s perspective, I’ve been able to consider how time helps structure a way of life–how our experience, time-saturated as it is, is shaped by and also shapes who we believe ourselves to be and what we find important to do.   Attention to time in a Christian key will, I suspect, enrich and empower ministry as it seeks to bolster human flourishing.   I feel that this sentiment is already gaining traction in renewed efforts by my denomination, the Disciples of Christ, to reclaim the liturgical calendar–the seasons and special moments of Christian life.  But I’ve also seen an effort by evangelical Christians to live into hitherto ignored Christian rituals and seasons, like Ash Wednesday and Lent.   I believe Taylor is getting at something quite important.

Taylor is able to probe our collective time-consciousness, past and present, because he  is making a subtle move differentiating our explicit beliefs from the tacit social structures which greatly determine our general experience.  His effort to get at the “conditions of belief” in our secular age requires exploring our “social imaginary.”  It is to the social imaginary that I shall turn next.


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