Perspectives on time

In 2012 I was translating Caesar’s Gallic Wars with a group of Sophomores. We were working on the invasion of Britain, which is a fascinating story of Caesar making an all but instant conquest, then getting bogged down by a series of setbacks and conspiracies. I found the narrative fascinating, with many echoes to the recent Iraq War. I was puzzled why none of them were getting into the story. At one point I described what was happening: “Guys, don’t you get it? The Brits are mounting an insurgency”

<Blank stares.>

Me: An insurgency, huh? get it?

<Blank stares>

Me: Like the Iraq War. An Insurgency. It was only on the news a billion times for three years straight.

Them: Mr. Chastek, we were, like, in second grade then.

And so they were. The math checks out. But anyone over 25 would have gotten the hint.

I can remember feeling like this myself. My dad would tell me stories about being at the Democratic convention in 1968 and I would listen to them like they were ancient history, when in fact he was having the exact same psychological experience I would have if I were speaking about the Clinton administration or the Appetite for Destruction album. My grandmother has more vivid memories of WWII than I have of 9-11.

My children will sometimes be told, say, that they can’t do something for another half hour and they’ll ask “Is that long?” The question is unanswerable and absurd, but it’s the sort of thing we are doing all the time. Theologians solemnly raise the question of why God waited so long after the fall to become Incarnate, Hitchens mocks Christianity as absurd since God would not wait through 200,000 years of human history to reveal himself to some small tribe in the Holy Land. One of the first things we experience about intervals of time – ages, epochs, whatever – is that a sense that they are either long or short, but we’re asking the same question my five-year-old is. But if this question is absurd, what question are we asking?



1 Comment

  1. D.S. Thorne said,

    June 10, 2014 at 11:14 am

    One thing that God would have had to account for in his appearance in time is this constant shift between generations as to what counts as epoch-making, e.g. how the Kennedy assassination can be a watershed in my sister’s memory but not in mine because I was born too late.

    One of the limitations of the historical-critical method Benedict identifies in his books on Jesus (while greatly praising the effectiveness of this method within its scope of competence) is that it treats the past as past, as a terminated historical event. This of course leaves no place for the tradition Jesus consciously initiates in order to mediate his constant presence. Plus it does not allow for the unity of scripture, according to which images in one book (say, Adam’s rib becoming his bride) can resound in other books (say, the spear in Christ’s side resulting in his bride, the Church).

    But even with this, I would say that Hitchens’ question is a very good one, worthy of close scrutiny. If I have a problem with it, it’s in the way that he snatches it from the theologians and dangles it out there atop a heap of tacit, secular assumptions about what constitutes the good. Undermining Hitchens, as I see it, involves naming these assumptions and their shortcomings.

    ~DS Thorne,

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