If someone today wanted to invest a few million dollars in a new magazine (a wildly defiant enterprise), I would like to see one dedicated to examining the many ways in which we imagine “the past” and “the present” and “the future,” with an awareness of the imponderable reality of eternity in the background. Much of the work done in this framework would need to be critical, exposing unexamined assumptions, yet a certain humility should inform the entire project.
Envisioning the future, our fellow humans in the past have occasionally gotten things right. But often, wildly often, they have been absurdly wrong. This is not to say we shouldn’t do our best to look ahead. To do so is quintessentially human. We are always looking back and looking forward, in ways large and small, even as we inhabit the elusive “present.”
If you have followed this column for a while, you know that I am unrepentantly fascinated by “time”: the manifold ways of talking and thinking about it, often muddled—not least in theological discourse, which is routinely deeply flawed in this respect, but also in a thousand other settings. I have dozens and dozens of scraps of paper (not, alas, all in the same place or even in just six places) on which I have copied down tasty pensées on the subject; also a few on which I have recorded howlers, including this one from Vine Deloria Jr.’s God Is Red: “Space . . . is determinative of the way that we experience things. Time is subservient to it because to have time, there must be a measurable distance to travel during which time can pass.” Say what?
I have more books on the subject than I can begin to enumerate, in several massive clusters in our house as well as scattered unpredictably here and there, and new ones keep arriving—from Yale University Press, for instance, Russell Foster’s Life Time: Your Body Clock and Its Essential Roles in Good Health and Sleep; and from Columbia University Press, Francois Hartog’s Chronos: The West Confronts Time. I’ve also been chewing on James K. A. Smith’s recent How to Inhabit Time. But I also “think about it” every day, many times a day, in routine settings. I’m not at all sure that most of us, most humans, don’t do the same thing in our individual ways, so saturated in time and talk about time are we, often without even consciously recognizing it. Then of course there is another massive vein of discourse focused on our “age,” as confidently identified in a tone that brooks no dissent: The words “modern” and “modernity,” for instance, are endlessly deployed, with less and less cogency.
As I have mentioned on other occasions, my grandma—who, with our mom, raised my younger brother and me—always had her Scofield Bible close at hand. She was a Dispensationalist, though not as dogmatic as many of her co-believers, and when I was a boy I absorbed this tidy historical scheme. Only later did I begin to understand how utterly it failed to acknowledge the extent to which God exceeds our grasp. (Many years later—in 2006—I wrote a piece for Christianity Today that featured my all-time favorite subhead: “Nobody Expects the Permian Extinction.”)
If you think I am condescending to my grandma, you are badly mistaken. After all these decades, her faith (like our mother’s) remains an inspiration to my brother and me. But the framework she learned for God and time, God and history, was mistaken. As to what “time” it is now—what time in the span of humanity—I don’t know. But I’m confident that my faith, our faith, is not misplaced.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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