Empty time and Now time

The second week of Advent brought us prophetic passages from Isaiah (11:1-10) that look forward to an idealistic time that seems entirely incompatible with the present.  “On that day,” wolves and lambs will live together, leopards will lie down with young goats, and a little child will lead the whole operation.  Such an occurrence would be something out of the ordinary indeed–wholly other from what we know as our current reality.

In the reading from Isaiah and among the critical theories and postmodern philosophies that shape my worldview, there is a structural or fundamental difference between time as we experience it and the time of the event that ruptures our current reality.  For Isaiah, the time in which such wildly pastoral events might happen is the time of the “to come,” an as-yet-unknown future, but one toward which we should look with active anticipation.  For Walter Benjamin, the difference stood between what he called a homogenous, empty time and the time of the now (Jetztzeit).  The former would be our ordinary conception of time as a series of moments, each more or less the same in terms of measurement and content.  The later, however, is the time of the now (but not necessarily the time of the present) that fills up the present moment.  This now time is pregnant or full of something new, something different, something other than the homogeneity or sameness of empty time.  In fact, it’s so full that when it gets itself inserted into homogenous, empty time Benjamin says that it blasts open the historical continuum.  The content of the time of the now is so potent that the present cannot fully contain it, at least not in the way that the present currently appears.  This now time, this event that gets itself realized, occurs in such a way as to alter the historical continuum, altering the homogenous present by inserting something new, something wholly other, such that the present can’t not respond.

Benjamin’s time of the now alludes to an eternal time in which the ordinary progression of time comes to a halt.  Time is at a standstill.  In Derrida’s (and Jack Caputo’s) terms, the arrival of the event interrupts the present in such a way that we are arrested, brought to a standstill, in the face of the event.  Isaiah too seems to long for this sort of arrival of the future, as he describes it in such a way that humans would be confronted with occurences that they couldn’t understand, couldn’t possibly fathom under present conditions.

Yet this shock of the time of the now, the standstill of time, allows us a moment to pause and arrange our thoughts.  For Benjamin, at least, the now time allows thinking to be arrested and to crystalize or become a constellation:  “Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystalizes into a monad.”  When we’re able to examine this monad, this crystallization of thought, we see the world not as it is, but rather as it might be.  And in this moment the messianic, the “to come,” flashes up, providing us a glimpse of what is always on the horizon.

It is only in the time of the now that, in Benjamin’s terms, something different might cross our horizon and enter our reality.  For Derrida, the wholly other does not come when or how we might expect, but rather it appears as the impossibility that surprises us by becoming possible.  For both, the goal is to blast open the homogenous time or the economy of the same that permeates our present reality.  Our call then is to grab ahold of the time of the now, to make the best of the standstill to arrange our thoughts such that the “to come” might show itself and alter our reality in profound ways.

Something different is coming and must come.  “On that day” things will not be as they are, but right relations will prevail–relations of equality, relations of justice, relations of peace.

Peter Rollins and Inverse Theology

My favorite Irish theologian and critical theorist has been at it again–deconstructing the church, Christianity, religion, and any other monolith that stands in his way! Peter Rollins’s latest book, Insurrection, unfolds what I call a Christian form of inverse theology–a theology that views damaged life (the material world in which we live) from the perspective of the redeemed. I’ve talked a bit about this notion elsewhere, so I won’t go into the details of inverse theology here. But you can listen to the podcast of Tripp Fuller and I’s breakout session at the Emergent Village Theological Conversation to get a basic understanding of what I mean by ‘inverse theology.’

In Insurrection, Pete does two things that I find particularly helpful from a materialist standpoint: first, he gives us a biting critique of “religion” that I think works well with a thorough-going criticism of Western Christianity as overrun and co-opted by the forces of global capitalism; and second, he tells us without any reservations that seeking an escape from this world in favor of a perfected realm “beyond” is not what God intends for us. On the first point, Pete uncovers “religion” as a sort of security blanket: it tells us what we want to hear and does it in such a way that no serious life change is required. This, he thinks (and I agree), is basically the opposite of the message of the gospels. For this reason, he asks Christians and Christian leaders (pastors, youth workers, etc.) to realize and admit their own doubts. Only by doing so can we ever unshackle ourselves from a “reified” religion in order to more fully experience the events of Jesus’ life as orienting us to participation in this world. He writes: “The whole religion industry is thus fueled by our desire to escape suffering and avoid the gnawing sense of meaninglessness. The certainty is marketable because it is a response to our unhappy situation, and it keeps selling because it is ultimately ineffective in properly transforming it.” These lines connect my first and second points by describing how religion attempts to make itself “marketable” by providing bits of belief through sound bites that don’t really have any depth or meaning and don’t ultimately either require a person to realize and admit her/his own doubt or engage more radically with the world in which we live. Our desire to avoid suffering goes hand in hand with a desire to avoid doubt, since witnessing or acknowledging suffering oftentimes leads to religious or existential doubt. Moreover (and most importantly for Pete), we cannot fully experience or participate in the crucifixion and resurrection if we are concerned solely with escaping material reality or damaged life.

In the second half of his book, Pete turns precisely to the resurrection, suggesting that the resurrection not be viewed as the means by which we leave the world behind, but as an invitation into deeper relationship with the world we currently inhabit.

“We do not find happiness by renouncing the world and pointing our desire toward the divine, but now we discover the divine in our very act of loving the world.”

Pete writes against what he calls the religious view by saying that we aren’t to seek God as a transcendent being–an object to be loved–but we recognize and realize God through the very act of loving. It’s what we do in this world with and for those around us that actually makes us most aware of God’s presence. “In the very mode of seeing that raises the suffering, broken, and excluded to the level of the beautiful, sublime, and absolute, God is present. Not dwelling behind or above, but as dwelling in the very midst.” For this reason, the resurrection is not a turn away from the world, but a return to the world (very literally).

This understanding of the resurrection I think highlights most clearly a Christian form of inverse theology in that it reorients our gaze away from a transcendent realm and onto the reality of damaged life, forcing us to acknowledge and live in and among the suffering, joy, pain, and bliss that life in this world entails. And in so doing it also requires us to work toward alleviating at least some of the suffering of damaged life. We can’t pretend that in 10 or 50 or even 200 years the world will be a shiny, happy place because of our efforts, but we can certainly hold out some small bit of hope that it will be better than it is now.