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.

That Which is To Come – Thoughts on Advent

For Christians, Advent is a time of expectation and anticipation, a time that we look toward a coming event.  The traditional scripture readings used in most churches for these four weeks leading up to Christmas point toward this expectation as hopeful anticipation of an event in which the structures of our world will be radically changed, turned upside down.  This hopeful anticipation involves waiting and desiring that which is to come.

But there’s a problem here.

In this particular Advent season many of us don’t feel all that hopeful; nor do we much feel like waiting.  Our political, social, and economic situations leave us desiring that which is to come–the promise of an event that might overturn our present conditions.  Hate crimes are on the rise; the divide between a wealthy elite and the low and middle class is growing; and young persons of color are killed in the name of “law and order.”  We don’t feel like waiting with hopeful anticipation.  In fact, for many the future may seem more hopeless than hopeful, and waiting seems like a panacea meant to lull us into complacency.  Our Advent reflections then lead us to question whether any hope in the face of seeming hopelessness is possible.  And what right do we have to ask people to wait when they’re already hungry for peace, justice, and equality?

John Caputo’s radical theology puts a different spin on the Christian season of Advent by focusing on the “to come.”  As a singular event (an occurrence like no other), the “to come” is that which will alter our reality in profound ways.  The coming lies in the future at some unknown but expected point.  For Caputo, as for Derrida and others, the coming should be anticipated, though it is deferred.  It is always not yet, always on its way.  Its arrival lies ever on the horizon, giving us a glimpse of that which is to come, but without a complete image of the event itself.  The “to come” brings with it the peace, justice, and equality that we desire…but not yet.  It turns around our present circumstances into more life-giving and life-sustaining ways of being…but not yet.

However, while this “to come” is oriented toward the future and always not quite present, that which is to come does not turn a blind eye to the here-and-now; it does not leave us high and dry in our current conditions.  Rather, that which is coming calls us and impinges upon us in significant ways, urging us to respond in the present to the call of a future coming.  “It calls us, it solicits us, it urges us, it lures us toward the future,” says Caputo.

What is this future that it urges us and lures us toward?  It is the expected and anticipated future in which the structures of the world will be radically altered in the name of peace, justice, and equality.  Caputo says “The to come shines a white light of urgency on the present, and it exposes all the faults of the present.” The urging does not mean that these structures will change overnight or that when we wake up on Christmas day all will be well in the world.  But it insists that we should not simply be waiting.  We should be working, in whatever small way that we can to kindle a glimpse of the “to come” in the present, among the brokenness of the world.

If we are waiting this Advent season, let our waiting be active rather than passive.  Let us respond to the call of the “to come,” and let our expectation and anticipation motivate us to work toward that which we are awaiting.

Radical Theology and Faith vs Belief

In honor of Paul Tillich’s birthday (20 August) what follows combines Tillich’s helpful reminder of what faith is not with John Caputo’s musings on what faith in a radical theology (a la Derrida) might become.

Tillich3I happened to flip through Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith today and was struck by his insistence upon the difference between faith and belief. Well, that isn’t quite true. I had actually gone in search of this chapter on What Faith Is Not. I am frequently in search of one thing or another these days, and this time I actually found what I was searching for. What I am really in search of is a weak theology, a radical theology that takes my restless searching seriously. This theology must be one that does not offer cheap answers to difficult questions, or it could be one that doesn’t offer answers at all. I am less interested in answers and more interested in questions. My purusal of Dynamics of Faith today reminded me that Tillich also was less interested in certainty (belief) and more interested in the state of being ultimately concerned (faith), or in pursuing something, searching after something with one’s whole being. According to Tillich, “The most ordinary misconception of faith is to consider it an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence” (Dynamics of Faith, 36). Accepting theoretical knowledge as fact is a matter of belief, not faith. Faith, on the other hand, is unconcerned with fact and is something much more radical. Tillich understands faith as the state of being ultimately concerned. He makes very clear that one’s ultimate concern must be a concern for the ultimate, which sounds like circular reasoning but really means that one can’t be ultimately concerned about something mundane, ordinary, or non-ultimate. For him this ultimate would be something metaphysically distinct from our reality. While I don’t want to go in the metaphysical direction with Tillich just yet, I appreciate the radicality of his understanding of faith. The matter of ultimate concern reorients one’s life and actions toward that concern. This is not a simple affirmation of a set of beliefs or doctrines, but a call to a different way of operating in the world. Hence, while belief may seem cheap and easy as a matter of assent, faith requires responsibility.

This piece of responsibility and human action as a result of faith resonates with Caputo’s statements on faith in The Insistence of God. Unlike Tillich, Caputo is not interested in metaphysics or even in claiming God’s ultimacy. Yet he is interested in a radical understanding of faith that again reorients one’s entire self toward a different and risky way of life. “I measure theology by the extent to which it avoids the pitfalls of a too-comforting piety…” writes Caputo (Insistence, 24). While belief and approximations to fact or theoretical knowledge may provide some comfort, this is quite possibly entirely antithetical to the Christian message. Faith for Caputo is faith in the event, the means by which we are called upon in the name of God. (for more on the event and radical theology, see this post) The very nature of the structure of events is such that they surprise us and impinge upon us in unsuspected ways, meaning that the comforting piety of belief simply won’t do. “If the name of God is not causing us a great deal of difficulty, it is not God we are talking about” (Insistence, 28). What gets itself called in the name of God, what arrives via the event is, like Tillich’s state of being ultimately concerned, a bit risky and shaky. There is no guarantee that all will be well, at least not in any immediate sense, but nevertheless our responsibility lies in responding to the call, to the event.

Life is messy and raises messy questions; therefore, easy answers just don’t work. Moreover, easy living misses the point. “God’s problem is that God insists, is an insistent problem that won’t go away…” (Insistence, 29). Such insistence requires something of us. If God insists and we exist, then our existence becomes the means by which God acts in the world. This radical theology is not a sit on your laurels, cling to your favorite worship song sort of theology, but is one that calls us out. Thus faithfulness to the event or faith as the state of being ultimately concerned does not rest in easy answers; it finds no solace in piety and prostration, but calls us out of church buildings and into the fray to deal with the messines of the world.