King's Evangelical Divinity School

9 February 2010

Guest Post by Chris Lazenby: Faith, Fundamentalism and Time

Last month I asked my good friend Chris Lazenby if he would be willing to write a guest post for my blog. Chris is a tutor in theology at King's and also blogs over at KEDS under the nom de plume Provocateur (be sure to visit and see some of his thought provoking pieces). I had no idea what he would write on, only that because he writes some thought-provoking pieces I thought it best to let Chris say what he wants without input from me or any details about the leanings, theological or otherwise, of readers of this blog. So I was pleasantly surprised when yesterday he sent me the piece below which, among other things, dwells on the issue of God and time (something I've blogged about here before). More significant, however, is his appeal to avoid the language of polarisation, something I've been saying in several recent and forthcoming pieces on Christian responses to the Israel-Palestinian crisis. Anyway, I hope you enjoy what Chris has to say. Be sure to leave comments if you want to take him up on anything, he will be happy to respond to them.

Faith, Fundamentalism and Time (guest post by Chris Lazenby)

For the majority of those 'outside' the Church, the teaching contained in the primary documents of the Christian faith is seen today as being mostly irrelevant to the modern world. It belongs to another time. It is not 'scientific'. It contains miraculous elements which, to the modern person, seem completely unbelievable, and its historical accuracy (it is assumed) cannot be proved. So that when we stand on our podium (either actual or metaphorical) and confidently proclaim “the Bible says....” there is a sullen, insinuated 'So what?' hanging in the air over the heads of any secular hearers. This situation has led to a rise in the number of fundamentalists of all kinds; people like Richard Dawkins and Ken Ham; people who have been driven to extreme claims of certainty that this or that event happened exactly as related in science or scripture at a certain point in time in a specific way.

Despite the fact that in reputable debates, it is usually the scientific fundamentalists, Dawkins, Hitchins and company, who come across more bigoted and angry than their religious counterparts, it is, nevertheless, the Christians involved in such arguments who inevitably come out worst. Usually, the defenders of faith are portrayed as obscurantist, deluded dinosaurs with beliefs which are seemingly pickled in aspic, bearing no relation to any kind of existential reality. This sad state of affairs is, of course, due to the fact that, in the west at least, the mass media is heavily on the side of 'science'. We live in a world where even to suggest Intelligent Design as a hypotheses means being laughed to scorn, not just by many scientists, but by media pundits and even politicians (who obviously wish to be seen to be on the winning side).

And so I'm driven to conclude that although the historical element of our faith is extremely important, if we are to show the relevance of Christianity to our own times, we have to somehow move beyond the polemical arguments of fundamentalists who are obsessed with time; with the 'when' rather than the 'why' of things; the current obsession as to what year God may have created the earth; whether he took six literal days or six ages, and so on. Emerson said that 'God is, not was', and that 'historical Christianity proceeds as if God were dead.' Whilst I don't entirely go along with Emerson in much of his thinking, I'm sure there is some truth in what he says here.

And if we can't get people to stop thinking of Christianity in the past tense, we surely need to get people to rethink their notion of time; what it is and what it is not - this illusive, fictitious thing which can write off the truth of something based on nothing more than the turning of planets or the hands of a clock. For in truth, Christianity is about now; not just about history, archaeology, geology, geography and so on, interesting though these things may be to a student of Christian theology.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Christian, philosopher, thinker, writer, had interesting, though not original, views on the nature of time and faith. He saw time as virtually non-existent, other than as it relates to eternity. That which has gone before no longer exists; how could it? What is to come hasn't happened yet, and therefore by definition does not exist either. We like to think that 'now' exists, but this too is an illusion, for no sooner have we even thought of 'now' than this moment too is in the past and therefore no longer exists. No aspect of time as we like to imagine it actually exists in any kind of tangible way. Of course, we seem to live in a linear fashion, passengers on the express train of life, moving from left to right and heading inexorably for our own inevitable physical demise at the terminus buffers. But our own experience does not prove that time exists in the way we imagine, any more than the railway tracks we ride upon really do become closer together as we see them in the far distance. As Einstein famously said: 'The distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, however persistent.'

And so, for Kierkegaard, there is only really 'now'. And if we could latch on to the 'now', what Kierkegaard calls The Instant, (in places The Moment) this would be 'outside' time; as it were, a fragment of eternity, or as he puts it; 'the finite reflection of eternity in time.' The Instant is that point outside time where Christ becomes real to us. Hence we may apprehend Him in reality and not merely in thought. This is a seeming paradox which the passing centuries have only hindered. The paradox must stand though, despite the fact that for centuries, theologians have tried to soften it or remove it, either by modifying the doctrine of God - so that He becomes merely a 'force' - or the doctrine of Christ - so that he becomes just a wandering teacher of long ago, someone to be admired, discussed interminably, dated, catalogued, preserved in great art and music. Almost anything except be followed. And of course, the more of that illusory 'past time' which accumulates, the more acceptable it seems to be to put the Lord of glory in a box and to 'contain' him; to 'sanitise' him and remove the existential challenge. Oh how people would like to keep this man in the past, and in a history which is almost impossible to 'prove' in the way modern science demands proof!

Of course, Jesus Christ did live in what we - for the sake of convenience - call the past. But time is not linear for a God who lives in eternity. And eternity is not never ending time (I mean, where would it all end?) [1] No, eternity is no time; it is now. When we are faced with interminable arguments which impinge upon our faith; how old the universe is for example, or when and where exactly a certain incident took place, the best witness we can give is not simply to rhyme out our long list of apologetic arguments. The most powerful thing we can ever say in such situations, is simply 'I believe.' This, Kierkegaard suggested, is our ultimate witness. I believe he was correct in his suggestion, because 'I believe' brings the whole discussion into the present moment. This kind of witness, stubbornly facing the unbeliever, undermines that person's disbelief, simply by the brute fact of the existence of a witness who claims to know the risen Saviour.

Christ lives still. He constantly comes to us; he is not imprisoned in the pages of the bible where we can peer at him, as if from the outside, a child in a manger, a wandering preacher. He is an ever present living reality - the Lord of all time and space. God creates constantly. He upholds what he creates constantly. He is the God of the living, not the dead (Matt 23:32). The Bible is not primarily about the past. It's about now, always now. Christ still asks: 'Who do people say that I am?' (Matt 16:13) And, more to the point, 'Who do you say that I am?' (Matt 16:15). Such questions – and they are by far the most important questions - are not tied to time. They are existential questions which resonate constantly and are relevant to all people everywhere, at every time. Whatever we may imagine time to be.

[1] To paraphrase Tom Stoppard.


Stuart said...

Wow! This is mind-blowing and worth a couple of reads...

Anonymous said...

I remember watching Star Trek once, and one member of the enterprise was able to travel at Warp 10 in a some sort of shuttle. This meant that he travelled so fast that he was everywhere at once. He said that he became like God, all knowing because of being so fast and being everywhere at once.

But of course travelling implies time anyway. Anyway, I liked the possible concept of God being so fast that He is so 'stayed'... an unmoved mover, or something like that.

A bit off topic (hope you publish this Calvin!) but it kinda made sense to me as to how God could be called the unmoved mover.

Oh, and I thought this before I had read that Aristotle thought the same!

Simian said...

A very thoughtful and compelling piece. There was just one sentence that I struggled with:
"This kind of witness, stubbornly facing the unbeliever, undermines that person's disbelief, simply by the brute fact of the existence of a witness who claims to know the risen Saviour."
Does it? What would Hitchens' or Dawkins reaction be? The author may not have these people in mind in making this statement, but if not them, then whom?

Chris Lazenby said...

Hi Simian
You are absolutely right that some people will not hear our witness, whatever we do. I was obviously being a bit too general in this comment, but I'm sure you know what I'm driving at. An open minded, thoughtful thinker (such as I believe I once was)can be quite challenged by the person who has a strong faith. It used to make me thing 'maybe I'm wrong'. Whereas, folk who started banging the bible and saying (what seemed like) rather extreme things about how and when God did this or that, used to just turn me off.

All this said, we do not know at any given time what effect our stance is having on another person. So many little comments, looks, arguments etc, can drop into place like a jigsaw, sometimes years or decades after the moments have passed; even for a Christopher Hitchen. At least he isn't wanting Christians arrested or even killed yet - as St Paul did! And look what happened there.

Blessings and thanks again