Another year is coming to an end, and that always leads me to think about how short life is. Can you relate to that? Or am I the kind of person you try to stay away from at New Year’s Eve parties? As a rule, I try to make my posts to this blog at least semi-polished essays, but right now I just want to think out loud with you. What follows are a few scattered reflections about the passage of time and how living “in time” is crucial to thinking both Christianly and historically.

As I’ve argued on more than one occasion on this blog, I am convinced that we too often have a misguided and superficial understanding of “Christian history.” We err when we define it by its focus, making Christian history synonymous with the history of Christianity, the study of Christian individuals, ideas, and institutions throughout the past.

We’re even more off the mark when we define Christian history by its conclusions. This has been one of the worst mistakes of the advocates of the Christian America thesis. Countless well meaning (but untrained) pastors and pundits have insisted that any authentically “Christian” history of the United States will determine that the United States was founded as a Christian nation by Christian statesmen guided by Christian principles. They condemn any interpretation that questions the determining influence of Christian belief as “secular,” “liberal,” “politically correct,” “revisionist,” or in some other way hostile to Christianity.

I propose instead that what best defines Christian history—history that is substantively Christian—is the way of thinking that underlies it.  My colleagues and I often talk about the “habits of mind” that we are seeking to inculcate in our students, and we are convinced that if these are genuinely Christian, the history that results—whatever its focus or conclusions—will be so as well. In his book The Christian Mind, Harry Blamires defined thinking “Christianly” as a way of thinking that “accepts all things with the mind as related, directly or indirectly, to man’s eternal destiny as the redeemed and chosen child of God.”

I’ll probably spend the rest of my life wrestling with what this requires of us, but here is what I think it means for the Christian student of history. Our study will be but a subset of our larger call to “love the Lord with all our minds.” We will bring a Scriptural lens to bear on our contemplation of the past, keeping in mind all that the Bible teaches about the sovereignty of God and the nature and predicament of humankind. Our motive will be to understand God, ourselves, and the world more rightly, to the glory of God, the blessing of our neighbors, and the sanctification of our souls.

Over the course of his distinguished career, the late philosopher Dr. Arthur Holmes admonished thousands of Wheaton College students that “All truth is God’s truth.” I also find myself meditating on these words as I think about the concept of Christian history, for I have been repeatedly struck by how the habits of mind that are vital to sound historical thinking are also Christian virtues.

The study of history is an inescapably moral pursuit, although not in the way that we often think. History is disfigured when it becomes a kind of Sunday School lesson for adults, a backdrop for superficial moralizing. History is ennobled when we determine to make ourselves vulnerable to the past, figuratively resurrecting the dead and allowing their words and actions to speak to us, even “to put our own lives to the test.”

But doing the latter successfully requires that we apply several Christian practices:

  • hospitality, as we seek conversation with figures from the past;
  • considering others as more important than ourselves, as we invite them to speak first while we listen;
  • humility, as we acknowledge the brevity of our own lives and our need for the breadth of perspective that history affords;
  • charity, as we remind ourselves that the apparent contradictions we perceive in others may have more to do with our own blind spots than with those of our subjects; and
  • love, as we consciously ask ourselves what the golden rule requires of us in our encounter with “neighbors” long since passed.

This New Year’s Eve, however, I am newly struck by an even more basic overlap between the practices to which the Christian is called and those which are essential to sound historical thinking. This commonality is so foundational, so fundamental, that we can easily overlook it: both thinking Christianly and thinking historically requires us to be constantly mindful that we live in time.

What does it mean to live “in time” as a Christian? I think it begins by daily reminding ourselves of one of the undeniable truths of Scripture: our lives are short. The Bible underscores few truths as repeatedly—even monotonously—as this one. “Our days on earth are a shadow,” Job’s friend Bildad tells Job (Job 8:9). “My life is a breath,” Job agrees (Job 7:7). David likens our lives to a “passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). James compares our life’s span to a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14). Isaiah is reminded of the “flower of the field” that withers and fades (Isaiah 40:7-8).

These aren’t exhortations to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” They are meant to admonish us–to spur us to wisdom, not fatalism. The psalmist makes this explicit in the 90th Psalm when he prays that God would “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, New King James version). To “number our days” means to remember that our days are numbered, i.e., finite.   The Good News Translation is easier to follow here.  It reads: “Teach us how short our life is, so that we may become wise.” Part of growing in Christian wisdom, it would seem, involves reminding ourselves that our lives are fleeting.

American culture, unfortunately, does much to obscure that truth. Compared with the rest of the world, most American Christians live in great material comfort, and for long stretches of time we are able to fool ourselves about the fragility of life. The culture as a whole facilitates our self-deception through a conspiracy of silence. We tacitly agree not to discuss death, hiding away the lingering aged and expending our energies in a quest for perpetual youth.

Madison Avenue and Hollywood perpetuates this deceit, glorifying youth and ignoring the aged except for the occasional mirage of a seventy-year-old action hero aided by Botox and stunt doubles. If you need further proof that our culture flees from the truth of Psalm 90:12, just think about what will happen in Times Square this evening as the clock strikes twelve. Of all the days of the year, New Year’s Eve is the one on which Americans most pointedly acknowledge the passage of time.  We have chosen to do so with fireworks and champagne and confetti.

In his wonderful little book Three Philosophies of Life, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft sums up the message of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes in this way: Everything that we do to fill our days with meaning of our own making boils down to a desperate effort to distract our attention from the emptiness and vanity of life “under the sun.” Our pursuits of pleasure, power, property, importance—they all “come down in the end to a forgetting, a diversion, a cover-up.” Isn’t that what we see in the televised spectacles on New Year’s Eve?

For the Christian, being mindful that we live in time means not running away from the truth that our lives are short, but rather letting it wash over us until we feel the full weight of discontentment that it brings.  According to Kreeft, “Our desire for eternity, our divine discontent with time, is hope’s messenger,” a reminder that we were created for more than this time-bound life, fashioned by our timeless God with an eye to a timeless eternity.  Being mindful that we live in time should heighten our longing for heaven.  In A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken goes so far as to identify the “timelessness to come” as one of the glories of heaven.

If faithful Christian discipleship requires a mindfulness that we live in time, so does sound historical thinking.   To begin with, one of the most important motives for studying the past is the same basic Scriptural truth that inspired the psalmist to ask God to “teach us to number our days.”  Put simply, we study the past because life is short.

Although Job’s friends weren’t noted for their wisdom, Job’s friend Bildad the Shuhite conveyed this truth as eloquently as anyone I know of.  In perhaps the only useful advice Bildad gave his beleaguered friend, he encouraged Job not to limit his quest for understanding to conversations with the living. “Inquire please of the former age,” Bildad counseled Job, “and consider the things discovered by their fathers, for we were born yesterday, and know nothing” (Job 8:8-9a).

As Bildad understood, with brevity of life comes lack of perspective and narrowness of vision—born yesterday, we know nothing. As Christians, we combat that limitation first of all by searching the scriptures, God’s time-transcending revelation that abides forever. But we also benefit by studying the history that God has sovereignly ordained. At its best, the study of the past helps us to see our own day with new eyes and offers perspectives that transcend the brevity of our own brief sojourn on earth.

In sum, an awareness that we live in time is essential to any meaningful appreciation of history.  It is also the foundation of what historians like to call historical consciousness.   If there is a single truth that inspires the serious study of history, it is the conviction that we gain great insight into the human condition by situating the lives of men and women in the larger flow of human experience over time.  The person who has developed a historical consciousness understands this.  He or she would never try to understand individuals from the past while wrenching them from their historical context.

But the person with true historical consciousness doesn’t merely apply this sensitivity to figures from the past.  Our lives, too, are profoundly influenced by what has gone before us.  To quote Christian historian Margaret Bendroth, “People from the past were not the only ones operating within a cultural context–we have one, too. Just like them we cannot imagine life any other way than it is: everyone assumes that ‘what is’ is what was meant to be.”  In sum, none of us is impervious to the influences of time and place, and being mindful of that is essential to thinking historically.

So where does this leave us?  We live in time.  Our culture does all that it can to obscure this.  The psalmist exhorts us to remember it, and history teaches us that it is true.

May God bless you in 2015.


4 responses to “ON LIVING IN TIME

  1. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

  2. I loved reading both this article and the one on It’s a Wonderful Life. If you were at a local university (South Australia) I would enrol in your classes. I have not studied History but as part of my undergraduate degree concentrated on Asian Studies which included some History. This preamble is merely to say that I am not qualified to give an informed opinion, but I will say that I love reading what you have written and look forward to much more. Have to find some your books or published articles soon. Thank you for your end of your musings – I would love to spend New Year’s Eve with you … and contemplate what is worthwhile.

  3. danieldavis0220

    Dr. McKenzie,

    Thank you for this very edifying post. You write about something that has impressed me, too, in recent days. I’m getting to that age (almost 23) where the pace of time is really starting to pick up. It’s surreal. This March, it will be 10 years since my family took our ski trip. Particularities like that cause the time-chasm to truly hit home.

    I don’t know if you ever experienced this, but every time I hit a transition from one chapter of life to the next, I suddenly feel juxtaposed against all those other past moments of transition. In that moment, time feels near non-existent, and I feel as though I’ve evolved almost into a new creature overnight. Time is now a palpably scarce resource, and the fear of wasting it begins to set in. I am reminded of the C.S. Lewis quote you used in Senior Seminar, that time is like a “roaring cataract.” My small paper cup can’t even begin to contain its gushing currents.

    That astonishing realization, as you have noted, is healthy and in fact prerequisite for appreciating the past and those in it. In a broader sense, I think it is also prerequisite for living a God-oriented life. We have to reach a point where we know we are nothing, a whithering blade of grass. We have to feel insignificant before we can appreciate the infinitely significant One. But if recognizing one’s own utter finitude is transformative for the Christian, I cower at what the atheist must feel in that moment.

    If I can just expand on that. The more I grow older, the more I notice that I’ve changed. I see this when I come home for the holidays. I’ve had the same inner longings my entire life, but the ways in which I’ve acted to satisfy those longings have evolved, even in the last few years. I spend my time differently. I find different things fulfilling. I respond differently to the same situations. In all of this, I find that I am a perpetual “being-in-becoming,” as the philosophers would say. We are not static beings; we’ll be changing until the day we die. Now admittedly, I’m tempted to fall into fatalism here, if only momentarily. If every moment of my life is a moment of change, then do I have an essence at all? Toward what end am I “becoming” in this life? As you know, and have vividly experienced during your time at UW, materialism’s answers to that question range from depressing to horrifying.

    Thankfully, as beings created in God’s image, we don’t have to take that fatalistic (and false) turn. The exciting truth I just wanted to highlight is that Christianity makes living-in-time (and thus, being-in-becoming) not only tolerable, not only rational, but also embraceable. As redeemed people, our living-in-time and our being-in-becoming are oriented toward God himself. Time does not merely erode us like petals on a flower; if indeed we are his, we are becoming more and more like Him, even as this body wastes away. As long as we continue to behold his glory with unveiled face, we will be transformed “into the same image from one degree of glory to the next.” And when we are consumed with his glory, the naval-gazing stops; our created purpose is fulfilled.

    One final note. I absolutely loved your reference of Peter Kreeft. Our vain pursuits of meaning and fulfillment outside of God’s order amount to “a forgetting, a diversion, a cover-up.” That’s brilliant! Every man knows that he will die, yet we do all we can do suppress that truth. Deep down, we all know that something Monumental stands to meet us on the other side of death, and that we are ultimately accountable. We see it in the eyes of those who are moments from death — like Oscar Wilde, who at his death asked to see a minister. Everything prior to that meeting with the priest was a grand “cover-up.” Amazing. The grandiose New Year’s celebrations are certainly another instance of that covering-up. And we’ll see more cover-ups when people make half-hearted New Year’s resolutions, a faint mockery of Jonathan Edwards’ eternity-minded LIFE resolutions.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Thanks very much, Daniel. I hope many readers will read and relate to these thoughtful reflections. God bless you and your family.

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