...to a time when truth exists, to a time when thought is free…from the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink – greetings! Winston Smith, 1984
It is strange how once familiar things become charged with theological currents in a manner so obvious when they are looked upon once again after a period of theological training, that you wonder why you did not notice it before. A case in point is this scene where the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984 scribbles the above note on an illegally obtained diary in a quiet act of rebellion against the authorities of the totalitarian megastate, Oceania.
What is noteworthy is the addressing of this diary entry, not to a who, but rather a when. Winston’s rebellion by addressing his diary entries to a time rather than a person seems odd, given the post-Enlightenment capture of the public imagination of a solely temporal and chronological notion of time. In this “scientific time” according to Stephen Kepnes and Catherine Pickstock, empty units of measure are seen to follow one after in a meaningless procession. Indeed, underneath all of the yearnings for truth, even Winston’s references to a different time are symptomatic of this post-Enlightenment flattening of time.
Still, this reference to 1984 remains an important point of reflection for Christians, virtually all of whom have from time to time fallen victim to this Modern conception of time when reflecting on what Christians are called to do at any particular situation. In summarising the work of Graham Ward, James KA Smith draws attention to what may be the central question that drives works like Cities of God and The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Post-Material Citizens. The question that drives Graham Ward specifically and ought to drive Christian reflection generally is not to ask the question of the now popularised wristband, “What would Jesus do?”. The key question rather, ought to be “What time is it”? How does/should the moment we are situated in right now relate to the eschaton, where time ceases to exist?
Attention to time, rather than modes or objects of action, become pivotal moments for determining the shape, nature and efficacy of all types of action, religious, cultural, social and political. This is so because, according to Scott Bader-Saye, “the ways we experience, name and interpret time contribute to the kinds of communities we imagine and inhabit”. A central axis of Christian witness then is not primarily one of principles, issues or people, but of one form of time to another, where the chronological timeframe of the world is witnessed to by the Kairos of God. Christians do well to remain aware of the allure of Modern time in their public witness, for in remaining unaware of it, the Christian mandate to spread the Kingdom of God may take forms that mimic the social status quo, an eventuality that either discredits the Gospel or diminishes its vitality.
To revitalise apostolic witness, one must recover the centrality of what James Alison calls an “eschatological imagination”, where the temporal witness of the Church is laid against a backdrop of its participation in the inbreaking into chronological time, by the end of time altogether. In such a participation, the Church’s primary critique becomes not one centred on the world’s approach to an issue. Rather, it is a critique of the world’s obsession with the Chronos. It is this obsession that leads to a politics driven by what Chesterton calls the “small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about”. When the present is overemphasised, survival becomes the central cultural logic. When survival becomes central, hope is extinguished, however much theorists protest to the contrary. Thus, it is a rule that that produces political projects where attempts to perfectly include all in this time, paradoxically becomes defined by very narrow imminent criteria and an ever growing schema of exclusion of fellow human beings. This is an arrangement that leads to the marginalisation of whole sections of humanity, which in turn fosters relations of reciprocal violence both domestically and internationally. Simultaneously the Church reminds the world that in such a poor management of time, the world will ultimately be called to account by the Lord of time.
As a participation in the Body Christ, who is one in being with the Lord of time, judgement becomes a necessary part of the Church’s witness. It must not shy away from that. But at the same time, the Church’s participation in the collapse of past, present and future brings about not solely a dull politics of condemnation, but its coupling with the presentation to the world of an alternative of generosity, of a participation in the Son’s invitation to “share in [his] Father’s happiness” in the time of accountability, and becoming (imperfect) sites of that invitation to God’s eternal bounty whilst still in chronological time.
The Christian whilst inhabiting this time, also inhabits a realm where time is not. We are reminded of this in our repetition of a Nicene Creed that is almost neatly bookended by references to time. We recall that the Jesus we worship is “eternally begotten by the Father”, and we remind ourselves at the very conclusion of the Creed that our life in the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” involves looking for “the life of the world to come”. In our discipleship, how often do we overlook this traversing of time?