The Constraints of Christian Time

I came to two very potent realizations some two weeks ago. I say potent because I’ve found it difficult to get back into that headspace. It will take some time and effort to change the wiring in my head, but the difference in how the world ‘looks’ is … extreme.

I was watching ‘Strange Gifts: the Mystery of Angus MacPhee’, when it suddenly occurred to me that the modern social paradigm of time is rooted totally in the Christian narrative. You see, our understanding of time dictates our experience of it, which then again reinforces our understanding of it, but the reality of how we experience time is determined by our social conditioning. Time is thus not a constant, a dimension or a fact of existence. It is in fact a social construct formed by our ongoing participation in a community consciousness. As such, it is almost entirely determined by religious tradition. Now I am not saying that our basic experience of immediate past-present-future is a social illusion, but that our broader understanding of our life, our past and our distant future is regulated by our social narratives.

Perhaps it will make more sense when you read where this goes. This temporal consciousness most fully manifests in two cultural moments: dating by the Incarnation and written, textual tradition. When God became Man according to Chrsitian tradition in that manger in Bethlehem humanity hit its midpoint. Everything before and after was suddenly put into sharp perspective by its relation to the two central Christian events: Christ’s birth and his resurrection. Everything before became ‘before Christ’ (BC) and after became Anno Domini (in the Year of the Lord: AD). The entire story of humanity could suddenly be put onto one timeline on which the incarnation stood as its anchor. Even now that people have started using the term BCE (before the Common Era) and CE (the Common Era) as an attempt to de-Christianize dating the paradigm of one central timeline, at the heart of which stands a central global(izing) event, still prevails. That paradigm is essentially Christian, rising out of a religion that presumes one common reality for all, thus one common narrative and thus one common time.

Of course it doesn’t need to be this way. There is every indication that, prior to the advent of Christianity as a dominant social force, most (at least European) cultures perceived time as essentially cyclical; present awareness occupying a mythic and eternal now, nested within an ongoing and recurrent process of change. The onset of dating by the incarnation developed an awareness of a long, linear narrative that began with the fall from grace in Eden, progressed through the redemption of the incarnation and finally ended with the final defining Christian event: the apocalypse, when God would right all wrongs by completely rewriting the code of creation’s operating system. Thus, the mythic now went PPHHHHTTTT!

This Christian narrative gave way in the early modern period (roughly 1450 – 1798) to a new ‘scientific’ narrative that replaced the fall from grace with humanity’s scientific awakening, the incarnation with the “Dark Ages” and Christianity’s final event with an indeterminate and infinite series of discoveries leading Mankind to a glorious and equally mythic ‘Tomorrow’. Thus the myth of progress was born out of Christianity’s essential and defining temporal paradigm, which determined a single progressive paradigm of temporal experience .i. not cyclical.

The place where this really becomes apparent is in written textual tradition, but I’ll have to talk about this later.


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