Of time and the river
Why do the heathen rage
against God and his anointed? (Psalm 2)
Time is a slippery thing, it gets away from you quickly. None the less, in our minds we attempt to catch it, pinning moments of time down the way a collector sticks a pin through a rare specimen of papillonoidia. Time is the last thing we are likely to think of since it is a ubiquitous river in which we float, swim, or sink. Economists talk about time-preference. People who value the enjoyment of present time often wind up as debtors to those who value the goods of future time. The moralists have a great deal to say about this, which is of value to those who would be prudent. All other things being equal, as the economists are wont to say, planning is a very good thing for families, firms, and fellowships.
Social planning is a different matter. I have in mind the great five, ten, fifteen, and twenty year plans of the Soviet Union. These were plans drawn up by politicians, technicians, and engineers and imposed on people who had scant notion of what they were being drafted into. They were great leaps forward which inevitably landed flat on their face. The failure of these grandiose plans often led to want, starvation and death. We look back at this kind of 20th century socialist experiment with the same kind of detached historical curiosity with which we gaze upon the cuneiform records of the Assyrian conquests. The Age of the Soviet Planner has become a byword for past iniquity, and so we shudder and exit the museum, grateful that we are no longer blighted by the ancient curse. Except that the death of Total Social Planning has been greatly exaggerated. It did not depart on the last comet for oblivion but remains among us, incognito but in plain sight, and arguably stronger than ever.
The Christian and the Magical view of time
These thoughts came to me as I watched the gnashing of teeth by the Democrats during the President’s State of the Union message. It is frequently observed that many on the left have been driven mad since the last election. What is driving them mad and who (if anybody) is in the driver’s seat remain open questions. I don’t seek to exonerate the President or the Republicans, who are far from perfect, but when I look at the emotional reaction of their opponents, I smell a whiff of some far deeper mystery, a mystery of malice and iniquity…and my hunch is that it has something to do with different attitudes which mortals can take towards that one medium in which we are all embedded…time itself.
The pagan world, the world outside the gospel, is fatally divided on the subject of time. Indeed, what divides pagans is the notion of “fate” itself. Throughout the millennia Fate has served as the high god of the wretched. Whether in the field or in the kitchen, they knew that their mumbled invocations, however sincere, were ultimately impotent to break the chains of the celestial powers-that-be. Thus they trudged obediently through the corridors of time from birth to grave for countless generations, alternately blessing and cursing their stars, but always knowing them to be immobile.
Against this universal fatalism arose the select company of the magicians. Originating in the dazzling enchantments of the East, but reborn (hence “renaissance”) around the 15th century in Western Europe, they sought to break the high edicts of fate through a combination of science and alliance with lesser, presumably manipulable, gods. Perhaps in the beginning the magicians just wanted to wrest more of the good things of life from the hands of fate itself, more love, more wealth, more health and ultimately an unlimited amount of time on Earth, a false immortality. Understandable, albeit futile, goals.
Insidiously, this program of self-betterment was transmuted into an agenda for dethroning fate and establishing total control over reality by an elite. I cannot say whether Giordanno Bruno was the last of the old magicians and Francis Bacon was the first of the new order, but the emphasis gradually switched from the individual and the eccentric, to the orderly and the planned. However the goal remained the same, to hammer the edicts of fate into the instruments of a chosen destiny.
What a difference there is between the Christian and the magical view of time! So different that the magician will sneer at the gospel and claim that the whole system of Christianity is just a variation on the old idea of fate. Indeed, the Christian is taught to be humble, to “wait on the Lord” and to be patient. However this is not fatalism. Rather we have the supreme magician on our side, Jesus, who has broken the celestial powers of fate and rewritten our stories with the happiest possible ending. The Christian remains inside of time, but trusts that there is a Power far above either the edicts of fate or the wiles of the magicians. In the meantime, the Christian should not be too interested in predicting the distant future, or determining social outcomes with quantitative precision. The future belongs to the Lord.
Of men and women, time and monuments
So we return to the present, since (apart from prophecy which is a different subject) the future is not ours to see. However there is no prohibition against knowing the past. In fact, one of the most common criticisms that Christians encounter runs “why are you always sticking your nose into that ‘old book’ [a.k.a., the Bible]” Indeed, the Christian is not just allowed, but enjoined, to study the past. However this study comes with the admonition that “there is nothing new under the sun.” In other words we study the past in order to understand human nature, not to change human nature. Thus throughout history we see men and women engaging in complementary roles, even though the content of these roles may alternate given variations in technology, environment, region and epoch. However we never see men turning into women or women turning into men. Or rather, when we see these things happening we know that we are dealing with fables, like Ovid’s Metamorphosis. As we mature in our study of the past we gradually sharpen our ability to distinguish fact from fable, and notice that magic is subject to severe limitations. For,
It is he who has made us, and not we ourselves (Psalm 100)
Today very few people, outside of entertainment and the occult, would describe themselves as magicians. Even fewer would fess up to being social planners in the grand Soviet sense of the word. Simply because the word is not used doesn’t mean the thing itself has vanished. The thing itself wants us to think that it has vanished. However sometimes there are slip ups when we can see the ugly shadow of the thing itself.
I told you that I saw the shadow of the thing itself on the faces of the Democrats at the State of the Union message. Not that those Democrats are any worse sinners than you or I, but in this instance the shadow of an ugly spirit possessed them. Why? Well, during the last election time had come to a certain juncture, and the train of events went off on the right rail rather than the left rail. People talk about “parallel universes” which is bad science but a good metaphor here. Those Democrats felt themselves hurtling down the wrong branch of a parallel universe which they hadn’t bargained for. It wasn’t that they were angry at a man named Donald J. Trump. Of course they were, but only superficially. The real source of their anger was far deeper…they were losing their religion. They had lost control of time itself.
To speak of human beings “losing control of time itself” seems like a lunatic notion. I doubt that any of the Democrats grinding their teeth in the chambers actually thought they were personally in control of future history. Rather, they were the hitherto happy minions of persons or beings who had mapped out a line of events far into the horizon of futurity. That future had a palpable reality for them, and the destruction of those future mile stones was as disorienting as pulling down a beloved monument to the Founders would be to us. Hence the madness.
No, we conservatives don’t worship the past, we just respect it. When we raise our Ebenezer stones it is to memorialize the blessings which we have received in the past, and it is the Lord and giver of the blessings whom we honor. However there are those who actually worship the future, and try to tie it down to a certain destiny. I have not been there myself, but I have heard that on a desolate patch of soil in the state of Georgia, a monument to future events has been raised. You might consider that an uncanny thing, but mental monuments to an uncertain future are endemic to our present society, and capable, when disturbed, of driving people to desperation. I don’t know of any remedy to this epidemic other than a gradual and delicate reeducation, unless it were prayer.
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