This article represents an ongoing study for me and will be updated from time to time. Western culture is yet awash in a detrimental subjectivism which stems from the impact of the modern turn to t…
The Euthyphro Problem—The question whether things are good because God wills them or God wills them because they are good. These two aspects of the question do not do justice to a Judeo/Christian B…
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”1The Fleeting Nature of the “Present”
Gerhart B. Ladner, in his work The Idea of Reform, examines in some detail St. Augustine’s theory of time. He writes,
“How can we experience time if it is continuously passing? This is the problem of time in Augustine’s Confessions. The past of a thing no longer exists even in the immediately following instant and the future does not yet exist. The present, indivisible as it is—otherwise it would be part past and part future—is so closely ‘crowded in’ by past and future that Augustine exclaims almost in despair: praesens autem non hebet spatium [‘the present hath no space’]. If then we nevertheless experience and measure time, we can do so only by means of memory and expectation which are in our soul: memory of the past and expectation of the future.”2
Augustine lamented the fleeting nature of the present, regretting that there was no handle by which to hold it. As soon as we welcome the future into the present it slips into the past. Augustine was able to observe this even in a time when technology had not yet made it possible to measure the speed of light or to break things down digitally so as to be able to “see” the passing of time in terms of microseconds (a microsecond is one millionth of a second; it takes 300 to 400 microseconds for an eye to blink!).3 Technology has allowed us to see that what can properly be referred to as “the present” is actually so short-lived as to be practically non-existent. Apparently, the smallest scientifically meaningful measurement of time is the amount of time it takes light to travel a Planck length. A Planck length is 1.61619926 × 10-35 meters
I don’t know what that means other than that it is some fractional measurement of time, and that it is shorter than something called a yoctosecond which is one septillionth of a second.4 Augustine said,
“If any portion of time be conceived which cannot now be divided into even the minutest particles of moments, this only is that which may be called present.”5So, in our times, technology has reduced what can be considered “the present” into Planck lengths (notated lp) and yoctoseconds.
The Speed of Time
According to Einstein, “light, traveling in a vacuum, is the universal speed limit.”6 One might conjecture that the only thing faster than light is time itself (which seems like a nonsense statement until you Google it and read the discussion threads). Augustine lived in Hippo Regius (modern Annaba in Algeria), considered to be a major Roman city. Though life in the city would have been more hectic than life in the country, Augustine’s life would have been much less hectic and hurried than our lives today for one simple reason at least: the pace and flow of information and travel. Our ability today to send and receive information, along with our travel capabilities, allows us to live at a pace that would dumbfound Augustine. It also creates an almost insurmountable obstacle for the person who wants to live a contemplative, reflective, thoughtful life because our busy-ness and ability to be productive masks the reality that time is passing by at an alarming rate. This, in turn, has the tendency to prohibit us from being emotionally and spiritually available. If asked whether we consider time to be important, our resounding answer would be, “Yes!” but that’s because we see time as something we need more of so that we can get more things done. However, there are some things that force us to slow down and consider time in a different way—the death of a friend or loved one, our children growing up and moving away, an event giving us a glimpse of our own mortality. In those moments we realize that while we were busy making other plans, time was relentlessly flowing past at a pace faster than the speed of light, robbing us of our most precious opportunities in this life to connect with people and with God.
So, while technology has allowed us to measure the passing of time in astonishingly fractional increments, it has also so increased our capacity for production and busyness so that it detracts from our using time as an ally in an effort to be emotionally and spiritually available. Instead of looking at the rapid passing of time and allowing it to motivate us to greater relational and spiritual depths, we instead look at the passing of time and say, “I need to get more done.”
At one point in his Confessions Augustine said that he measured the present by taking note of the impressions left upon him by people, things, and events that have already slipped into the past.
In you, my mind, do I measure the times. . . . I measure as present the very impression (affectionem) which the things which pass away have had on you and which remains after they have passed away; when I measure the times, I measure that impression and not the things which have passed away . . .7 This is a profound observation, for not only have things, events, and people left their impressions upon us, even though they have long since passed away (or are in the process of passing), but we must also realize that we too are making impressions as we pass.
Ironically, though it would seem that the present is all but non-existent, in God, the One Who lives outside of time, the present is all there is. (Re-read that sentence and let it sink in. I’ll wait…) At this juncture, I actually have two choices. I can follow my own instincts, and the instincts of my American culture and try to squeeze all of the productive juice out of every yoctosecond, or I can connect with God and align myself with His time. What does this say about how we should live? How we should live our lives in God?
Time is passing by. Technology has allowed me to fill my time with efforts at productivity and to travel. Because technology has increased production and travel efficiency, I do not experience “the present” like I might if I were not trying to pack so much productivity into my life.
If the present is so short that it immediately becomes the past, and if in fact we are rushing headlong into the future, what does this say about how we should live?
Augustine’s perspective that time is best measured by measuring the impressions that things, events, and people have left on us, all of which have now slipped into the past, what does this say to us about how we should live? What kind of impression will we leave?
1 Usually attributed to John Lennon in his song, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”; “Similar expressions were used by others prior to Lennon’s use of this line, and have been attributed to Betty Talmadge, Thomas La Mance, Margaret Millar, William Gaddis, and Lily Tomlin, but the earliest known published occurrence was the 1957 attribution of “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans” to Allen Saunders in Reader’s Digest, according to The Quote Verifier : Who Said What, Where, and When (2006) by Ralph Keyes http://en.wikiquote. org/wiki/John_Lennon
2 Garhart B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959), 203. The Latin phrase trans. is J. G. Pilkington’s as found in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 169.
3 http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/olympic-timing.htm; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/01/technology/impatient-web-users-flee-slow-loading-sites.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&; http://olympics.time.com/2012/07/27/technologys-touch-how-a-photo-finish-in-the-olympic-pool-gets-resolved/.
5Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff , Confessions, trans. Pilkington, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 169.
6 Jamie Conliffe, “Did Scientists Really Just Break the Speed of Light?” (Gizmodo, May 7, 2012) http://gizmodo.com/5908206/did-scientists-really-just-break-the-speed-of-light
7 Compare Ladner’s quote of M. Skutella’s translation of Book 11, Ch. 26:36 (Ibid., 204) with that of J. G. Pilkington’s as found in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 173.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing suggested there are two approaches to the study of man.
Either one considers man in particular or in general. Of the first approach one can hardly say it is the noblest pursuit of man. What is it to know man in particular? It is to know fools and scoundrels . . . .The case is quite different with the study of man in general. Here he exhibits greatness and his divine origin. Consider what enterprises man accomplishes, how he daily extends the limits of his understanding, what wisdom prevails in his laws, what ambition inspires his monuments.
This quote came to me many years after encountering the struggle myself, yet not knowing how to articulate it. I believe it is the distraction of man in particular that keeps us from valuing man in general, which would, in turn, lead us back to man in particular with greater love and patience.
 Lessing, Schriften, ed. Lachmann-Muncker, Vol. V, p. 143, quoted and referenced in Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951), 216.
A Secular Age. By Charles Taylor. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, x-873 pp., $48/Hardcover/Amazon
Taylor’s work must be read within the framework of a question he will not pose until the very first sentence of Chapter 1:
Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this is not only easy, but even inescapable (page 25)?
In answering his own question, Taylor will, before he is done, elucidate how Western culture evolved from a saturation of the belief in God and an “ultimate reality” to what he will refer to as “exclusive humanism” (page 26).
In the Introduction, Taylor gives an intriguing definition of secularism, at least as far as Western culture goes (or as Taylor refers to it “the North Atlantic world”) by characterizing it as being free of the “adherence to God . . . or some notion of ultimate reality” (page 1). He contrasts this development with our distant historical past when “religion was ‘everywhere’” and “you couldn’t engage in any kind of public activity without ‘encountering God’.”
Three Views of Secularity
Taylor offers three views of secularity before taking up the third one as his focus. First, there is the view of secularity as simple emptying public spaces of any reference to God or ultimate reality (page 2). In this sense, he is referring to public space verses private space in which God is relegated to the private spaces. He cites the United States as a place where people successfully retain their religious beliefs while keeping them private. However, in his second view, Taylor describes secularity as society in which religious fervor and belief in God has suffered a “falling off” (page 2). Taylor’s third view of secularity, the idea of believing in God is simply “one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace” (page 3).
This third view seems to be a flowering of the first two. A society in which a belief in God is the norm, particularly the Judeo-Christian God, but which allows itself to become comfortable with the relegation of that belief increasingly to the private domain will, of necessity, begin to experience a “falling off” of religious fervor and observance, and ultimately become a society in which God is not only one option among many but one which is increasingly seen as old fashioned and un-enlightened.
Taylor goes on to describe what life according to this third view might feel like.
I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith (at least not in God, or the transcendent). Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives. And this will also likely mean that at least in certain milieux, it may be hard to sustain one’s faith. There will be people who feel bound to give it up, even though they mourn its loss (page 3, emphasis mine).
This last phrase reminds me of Nietzsche and his “God is dead!” declaration. In The Gay Science, Book 3, No. 125, found in the Madman, Nietzsche writes:
Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market – place calling out unceasingly: “I seek God! I seek God!” — As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why! Is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden ? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea-voyage? Has he emigrated?—the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him, — you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forewards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? — for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knives ,— who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event,— and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history before this!” — Here the madman was silent and looked again at his listeners ; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. “I come too early,” he then said, “I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is travelling, — it has not yet reached men’s ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star, — and yet they have done it!” – It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam dec When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: ” What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God? “
Here we see nihilism and the result of the scientific revolution on the human spirit. Is this not the ultimate result of life in Taylor’s third category? I rather think that it is one of two paths, the other being exclusive humanism.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Madman,” in The Gay Science, as quoted in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and Tranlated by Walter Kaufmann, (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 95-96.
Israel Zangwill, a Jewish writer and political activist well known at the beginning of the twentieth century, wrote a play called “The Melting Pot.” In it, the Russian-Jewish immigrant David Qui…
In his arrival at what he called “the first principle of the Philosophy for which I was seeking,” Descartes famous “I think, therefore I am,” demonstrates the validity of the idea of design. That is, where we find design, we assume thought, and where there is thought, there is an existent being. Here is the excerpt from Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part IV, the first paragraph and part of the second:
I do not know that I ought to tell you of the ﬁrst meditations there made by me, for they are so metaphysical and so unusual that they may perhaps not be acceptable to everyone. And yet at the same time, in order that one may judge whether the foundations which I have laid are sufficiently secure, I ﬁnd myself constrained in some measure to refer to them. For a long time I had remarked that it is sometimes requisite in common life to follow opinions which one knows to be most uncertain, exactly as though they were indisputable, as has been said above. But because in this case I wished to give myself entirely to the search after Truth, I thought that it was necessary for me to take an apparently opposite course, and to reject as absolutely false everything as to which I could imagine the least ground of doubt, in order to see if afterwards there remained anything in my belief that was entirely certain. Thus, because our senses sometimes deceive us, I wished to suppose that nothing is just as they cause us to imagine it to be; and because there are men who deceive themselves in their reasoning and fall into paralogisms, even concerning the simplest matters of geometry, and judging that I was as subject to error as was any other, I rejected as false all the reasons formerly accepted by me as demonstrations. And since all the same thoughts and conceptions which we have while awake may also come to us in sleep, without any of them being at that time true, I resolved to assume that everything that ever entered into my mind was no more true than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately afterwards I noticed that whilst I thus wished to think all things false, it was absolutely essential that the ‘I’ who thought this should be somewhat, and remarking that this truth ‘I think, therefore I am’ was so certain and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions brought forward by the sceptics were incapable of shaking it, I came to the conclusion that I could receive it without scruple as the ﬁrst principle of the Philosophy for which I was seeking.
And then, examining attentively that which I was, I saw that I could conceive that I had no body, and that there was no world nor place where I might be ; but yet that I could not for all that conceive that I was not. On the contrary, I saw from the very fact that I thought of doubting the truth of other things, it very evidently and certainly followed that I was;
 a piece of illogical or fallacious reasoning, especially one that appears superficially logical or that the reasoner believes to be logical (https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=paralogisms)
 Haldane and Ross (trans.), The Philosophical Works of Descartes, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 100-101.