Monday, 13 February 2012

Christian Time

Christianity has to attempt to fold two radically different understandings of time into one. I’m not talking about the balancing of finitude with the infinite, however earnestly theologians, philosophers and poets have expatiated upon precisely that connection—it’s not that I don’t understand it, so much as that I don’t understand the sense in which it could be understood. I mean something that is, on the surface, simpler. One the one hand, in common with other major world religions, Christianity asks us to believe that God is not only coeval with the cosmos (the creation of which, though it happened a long time ago, is not lost in the backward abysm of an infinite past) but the chief cause of that creation. On the other, it says that, from the human perspective, God did not come into his own until a specific moment in history. A strict reading of Christianity as a salvational discourse, combined with a strict sense that it is only through Christ that salvation can be achieved, is tacitly a faith that dismissed billions of years, and many millions of human lives. Some iterations of Christian faith have addressed this issue straight on; the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, for instance, enact a policy of retroactive baptism, as if temporality were a sort of inconvenience, a simple obstacle to be overcome. But the notion that ‘we’ are saved, where all those who were born before us are ‘lost’ is a more profound thing than this. It reflects (as Heidegger probably says somewhere) the brute fact of our coming into an already existing world—the horrifying realisation that the world got-along perfectly well for enormous gulfs of time before we were here, and will do so again after our departure. The Christian story, in other words, puts God into the position of every human being: it articulates His belatedness. The sense that ‘we’ are special, because we have been born after Christ’s incarnation rather than before, in fact stands as a kind of photographic negative of the true state of affairs. It is that ‘we’ are precisely not special; that we are latecomers. In John 20:29, Christ himself puts a brave spin on the losses necessarily entailed by existential belatedness. ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed. How blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ This I have always assumed is an extension of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount; that the poor are more blessed than the rich, the hurt more blessed than hale and so on. It simultaneously finds consolation in loss and acknowledges that belatedness is a mode of poverty—that we can hardly not envy those who actually knew and saw Christ.

But—and this is the argument about time I am making—belatedness is integral to the Christian story. God for Christians is both father and son. Being a son means coming after one’s father; it is—not to be too literal-minded about it—a chronologically subsidiary relationship. It may also, of course, entail other sorts of belatedness; a desire to ‘live up to’ the achievements of the father and so on. But for this particular son, Christ, it includes within itself a transcendental folding back. For according to Christianity Christ is not merely a sort of belated temporal add-on to the divine principle, a secondary god who was budded off from the primary God just as BC swung on its invisible calendrical hinge around into AD. On the contrary, Christ is God, and God is Christ. Christ is a way of saying: God is at one and the same time prior and belated. In Islam, by way of contrast, Mohammed, peace be upon him, is only a man. As such his existential belatedness is no more and no less than that of any other human being. And although he appears relatively late in the larger narrative of the cosmos, Allah has prepared the way via a succession of increasingly important and wise prophets, a line which Mohammed fulfils and brings to a kind of climax. Christ in the Christian tradition is quite otherwise. Though the prophets are there, behind him, he is not a prophet: he is God. His belated appearance in world-history is not the culmination of a succession that serves to reinforce the motion of time in the world (as in Islam); it is a sort of contradiction of the idea of chronology at all.

It may be for related reasons that conversion narratives have so important a place in Christian tradition. Many Christians, I suppose, are raised in the faith and exist comfortably within it all their lives. But it is surely a truer sacrament to enact, as human beings, the spiritual belatedness of the larger Christian revelation—to come to faith only after a long, faithless period. The mid-life conversion provides the template for a great deal of Christian memorialising (from St Augustine onward); and mainstream, populous versions of Christianity enshrine the notion that a believer needs not only to be born, but to be born again. Kierkegaard’s insistence in Concluding Unscientific Postscript that ‘Christianity cannot be poured into a child’ is a way of saying this. It is his way of saying that to be a Christian must entail a belatedness:
No one begins with being Christian; each one becomes that in the fullness of time—if one becomes that. A strict Christian upbringing in Christianity’s decisive categories is a very venturesome undertaking, because Christianity makes men whose strength is in their weakness: but if a child is cowed into Christianity in its totally earnest form, it ordinarily makes a very unhappy youth. The rare exception is a sort of luck. [Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript Vol 1 (trans. by Howard and Edna Hong; Princeton University Press 1992), 591
I’m not sure, though, that the fullest implications of this understanding of the dynamic of Christian faith have been fully thought-through. A person who lives to 35 an atheist, converts, and dies at 70 a Christian is a soul who from the larger perspective (never mind sub specie aeternitatis) is a precisely balanced blend of atheism and faith. The atheism of her youth is not a embarrassing lapse to be brushed under the carpet, and not a sort of stain that is washed away by the miraculous detergent of conversion. On the contrary, her atheism is precisely the ground of her faith. Indeed—and this is the harder step to make, conceptually, however important—her faith is equally the ground of her atheism. Kierkegaard is surely right not just that compelling a child into Christianity is a mode of cruelty, but that a child who willingly, wholeheartedly embraces the faith is a freakish sort of creature. That mode of belief goes against the grain of the nature of Christ’s belated incarnation. Children, it has to be said, are usually wiser than that.

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