Thursday, December 13, 2007

Time and Tide...

I have just read an extraordinary article by Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, that was published as an Ekklesia News Brief today. In it he says:

Last month, headlines were grabbed by the Archbishop of Canterbury's attack upon US foreign policy. But the deeper point, widely missed, was his attack upon western modernity in general. "There is something about western modernity which really does eat away at the soul," he insisted in his interview with the Muslim magazine, Emel. And his argument was simple: our brand of modernity turns people into things defined by their function. All too often, we are what we do.

This was the sort of thing that used to be said by Marxists back when they were a more potent cultural force. In the world of efficiency savings, productivity and league tables, humans are more and more treated as tools in some vast machine-like system. We all too easily cede our humanity to the impersonal workings of the day-to-day routine.

Which is why for the Archbishop, as for a great many religious leaders, the key battleground is time. He wants us to slow things down, to resist the frantic fascism of the diary. He calls on us to fight back with a battery of practices: art, prayer, holidays. Not art to make us more sophisticated; not prayer to lobby God; not holidays to get us ready for yet more work - for all this is to render them in overly functional terms, as if they always must have some further purpose. Rather, we must learn from our children and, specifically, from children's play: something that is both joyous and yet, as far as they are concerned, wholly without deeper purpose...

Religion resists the oppressive efficiency of time management because there is nothing to measure. Atheists think that it's the fatal weakness of the God idea that it lacks empirical verifiability. But a world where everything is measurable and testable, and can be turned into a league table, is a world where competition can find its way into every nook and cranny of life. And this, in turn, allows no escape from the omnipresence of market forces.

Marx made the point that capitalism turns everything into a commodity - and thus people into objects. Christians would agree, but also see Marx's uncompromising materialism as being part of the problem. For in spite of Marx, this materialism has been conscripted into the service of capital and forms the bars of our cage. Which is why the Marxists failed, and why the people offering a genuinely countercultural critique of western modernity are to be found in churches, mosques and synagogues.

It's well worth clicking over and reading the whole piece. The point Fraser is making is crucial to our own spiritual survival. In her marvellous book Time (SPCK 2006, pp. 7-8) Jill Fuller TSSF writes:

In reflecting on time, we need to regularly remind ourselves that we live in God's world and God's time. This span of time has been given us to rejoice and marvel at God's creation and to become the person God wants us to be. Our worth lies in that we have been created by a loving God, are loved by God, and will return to the source of that love. Psalm 23... gives a vision of what it is like to live now, the the present moment, with an understanding of a loving God who invites us to dwell with him 'all the days' of our lives. Here is a poetic vision of a God who is not harrying us along and goading us to eat faster or walk more quickly, but one who encourages us to 'lie down in green pastures'. This is not a God who terrifies us with tales of wicked wolves or alarms us with fears of precipitous falls over unseen cliffs. This is the 'Good Shepherd' who is himself our provider, guide and protector. He provides waters of peace for us to rest by... When we allow ourselves to refresh ourselves by these still waters, then we may have a new vision of time and eternity and see that there is all the time in the world.

I well remember growing up caught between luminous visions of the immeasurable truth and significance of Creation - whether in the vastness of the sun between clouds over a sea that was, where the light touched it, green beyond green, and the gulls picked out living silver against the deep blue-grey of the clouds as the sun caught them in mid-flight, or the flicker and glint of cilia along the flanks of a spinning, twisting slipper animalcule under the microscope - and a world of timetables, homework and school dinners, where any transgression, whether against school rules or against the iron tick of the big enamel classroom clock was punishable by detention or worse, where sarcasm replaced gentleness, and panic took over from wonder.

Gradually, in most of our lives, the world of the clock and the assignment crushes the wonder and the dreaming, and we live out our lives between the hope of success and the expectation of condemnation, between finishing one task and beginning another. But this is the life not God gave us, and we need desperately to recover that if we are to survive personally. More than that, I believe that we as a society need to recover the sense of what God made us for if we are to begin to escape the tyranny of a society that has led us to the narrow gap between unjust war and global environmental catastrophe - for make no mistake, that is the destination of western modernity.

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