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What time is it?

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 11 June 2014


Graham Ward, in his book "Cities of God" begins with the question "what time is it?" By this he refers broadly to an investigation going on in philosophy and theology of a description of the historical eras of Western civilization. These eras are marked off from one another by philosophical and theological moves that change the imaginary construction of the world. For example, we can define a border in time that separates the ancient world of Greek and Roman civilization from the emergence and eventual domination of Christianity in Europe. The fundamental change that occurred in this border was the elimination of the dieties of projection of Greek and Roman religion and their replacement by the Christian Trinitarian synthesis. Of course these borders do not act as impermeable barriers, Aristotle and Plato were important for the Medieval age but found themselves in a new context, that of Christian theology.

The next border was that between the Medieval world and the Modern. For us this was the most successful and also the most cataclysmic change in how the world is imagined. It may be said that one aspect of this change was that the analogical world was replaced by a world that was constituted by causes and the descriptions of objects. This coincided, and was part of, the move brought about by Dunns Scotus and William of Ockham that denied the existence of universals in the old analogical language and insisted that only particular things existed. This is also to do with the claim for a univocity of being; that language that described the transcendent had to be the same as language that described things in the world.

The other philosophical move that was at the centre of the border, as it were, was the announcement by Rene Descartes that the thinking of the isolated subject was the epistemological basis for all "clear and distinct ideas". Reason was thus redefined as autarchic and grounded on scepticism of received ideas. Each person, in Locke's phrase "was his own orthodoxy."

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These moves had the result that knowledge about the objective world became clearer and natural science was born but it also resulted in the near erasure of the kind of rationality, epistemology and analogical world view that was at the centre of theological thought. From now on human thought would be divided between two imaginaries, the analogical imaginary that could understand, for example that Jesus was the son of God and the other objective, causal imaginary that could make no sense of such a statement. Unfortunately, the new imaginary that was suited to describing the physical world and turning its mechanism to our ends largely displaced the analogical language and the reality that it and it alone could speak about, the transcendent. This meant that for many the transcendent could not exist and our view of the world and us in it was reduced to economics, will, power, money and consumption. This is the world reduced to flatness that allows no other dimension. It is characterised by the modern slogan "why not!" It is death to the human spirit and it increasingly characterises our time.

In the absence of the transcendent the subject is defined by personal choice i.e. desire. This is why Ward describes the modern city as cities of endless desire, the epitome of which is Las Vegas. Such cities are the product of untutored desire. They have their foundations of Hobbes and Spinoza and Locke whose anthropologies were based on the desiring person, the individual pursuit of happiness and the good that had nothing to do with community.

Reading that other book about the city, Augustine's "The City of God" I was stuck by a similarity to his and our time. He castigates Roman religion as lacking in any moral force. The primary aspect of Roman religion was contractual; it's aim was to please the gods in order to benefit the believer. In its many forms it did not entertain a notion of what the good life consisted or how it was to be lived. Likewise, in our day the gods that are worshipped in their purist forms contain no hint of ordered desire or meaning of life. Our gods, not even recognised as gods but given the same reverence, are such as human rights, freedom of choice and speech and democracy. They are godlike because they can never be questioned and are seen as the foundation of our civilization. They have one thing in common, they all tend to the fragmentation of community. This is because they are all based on an anthropology in which individual desire is paramount. None of them tell us that human Being and fruition can only come about in the context of the person next to us, the neighbour. Many of the ills of our age can be placed at the feet of the reduced anthropology of the Enlightenment that leaves each person to pursue his or her own desire.

Let us get back to the boundary between the Medieval world and the Modern. The Medieval world was prey to the plague that killed up to a third of the population in major cities. The modern world brought with it waste disposal engineering and evidence based medicine, that eliminated the plague along with many other causes of premature death. There were good reasons for the analogical world view to be replaced by the objective. However, with the difficulty in conceiving of the transcendent and the resultant dehumanisation of populations and governments the ledger of human deaths in the twentieth century slew off the scale, not because of natural pathogens but because of the spiritual void produced by the fragmentation of the human spirit. None of the mega-slaughters of the last century could have been possible without the reduction of reason to ends and means and of human beings to objects. The loss of the transcendent produced the loss of humanity. Instead of man being the creature suspended between heaven and earth, he became entirely earthly and was thus the victim of the will to power.

Each age tends to absolutize its own time. It is the duty of the historian to map out how we got to where we are so that our time can be understood as the result of numerous philosophical, social, economic and scientific changes. The result is that we begin to understand what time it is, how the imaginary of the present was established and hence to understand that it is not the end of history. We begin to understand what we sacrificed in order to get where we are and to assess how those sacrifices continue to benefit us and how some have left us vulnerable.

Our time is marked by the almost complete loss of its founding ethos in Christianity. Indeed, Ward comes to the conclusion that there is now no longer a cultural space for Christian faith. That does not mean that it is impossible, but it does mean that making the transition from the absolutes of modernity into a faith community is very difficult. It requires a relearning of analogical language without which Scripture and liturgy are incomprehensible i.e it requires us to critique the modern imaginary.

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We again approach a boundary between the closing age of the modern and what will come after. Significantly, this new age can only be called the post-modern because we do not as yet know its characteristics other than it is a reaction against modernity. Having suffered under the modern synthesis for now hundreds of years the church is involved with the postmodern in the hope that this will be an age more sympathetic to its ethos; that we may return to the grounds of faith but in a new way that will bring healing to our communities.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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