Posted by: Dan | November 5, 2005

Historical Christianity or the Eternal Now?

This is an article I wrote in response to another article written by one of my housemates.

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Historical Christianity or the Eternal Now?

I am writing in response to Audrey's article entitled, “Reality Check: You Have all the Time There Is”. Audrey is a good writer and I enjoy reading her articles; in this article I especially appreciate her point about how we should not confuse how we are doing with what we are doing (or not doing).

However, her quotation from Richard Neuhaus makes me slightly nervous. Neuhaus counsels us to “live in the present moment”, arguing that the future is the “enemy of the present moment”. Indeed, he suggests we come to see the future simply as “the next present moment” lest we end up coming to the end of our lives and discover that our lives have been wasted. As Neuhaus puts it, “Having never stopped to live in the present moment, we one day run out of present moments and discover we have never lived at all.”

What concerns me about this is the way that Richard Neuhaus imagines time. Here it is important to understand that time is not something neutral that we all experience or understand in the same way. Rather various religions, ideologies and worldviews require us to experience and understand time differently. Within Western culture the rise of postmodernism, premised upon the collapse of metanarratives, has deeply impacted our relationship with time. Many people are now living without a story that structures living and makes life meaningful. Without such stories one's living becomes decidedly ahistorical and one lives more and more within the present that becomes the eternal now. We can make no sense of our past and are afraid of the future and so we repress both as we embrace the present. And we encourage others to do the same — there is comfort in discovering we are all in the same boat. After all, those who embrace the past and the future are threatening to those who only have the eternal now. Consequently those who do embrace the past and the future are pejoratively labelled as sentimental or utopian, incapable or living meaningfully in the present.

However, Christians are called to be exactly this type of people. Christianity is deeply historical — it involves a transformed relationship with time and a different experience and understanding of the past, present, and future. Living Christianly means living within the Christian story, which means that our lives in the present are deeply impacted by remembrance and expectation, memory and hope. We remember what God has done in history — from creation, to the exodus, through the story of Israel to the Christ-event and the pouring out of the eschatological Spirit at Pentecost. And anticipate what God will yet do within history — make all things new, dry all tears, heal all wounds, and reconcile all broken relationships. Therefore, our lives in the present are transformed as we embody this story. It is historical living, not the embrace of the eternal now, that gives meaning to what we do moment by moment. Contra Neuhaus this means that if we come to the end of our lives having only lived within a string of present moments we will discover that we have never lived at all.

This is especially important for Christians to realise in light of the increasingly influential metanarrative of liberal democracies, which proclaims (with Francis Fukuyama) that history has ended (reached its telos) under the reign of free-market capitalism. Within this system there is no longer any future just “the next present moment”. Yet this is an essentially anti-Christian imagining of time. Therefore, Christians that embrace the eternal now will be unable to meaningfully resist Fukuyama's proclamation and the idolatry that is so intimately linked to it. History did not end with the fall of the Berlin wall. The end of history was inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Jesus and will be consummated when he returns. It is by re-imagining time that Christians are able to move from the kingdoms of this world and live the radically different lifestyle required of citizens of the kingdom of God. Re-imagining time allows us to move from worshipping false gods to worshipping the true Lord of history.

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