Sunday, December 21, 2008


Today is the winter solstice, the day with the least sunlight. According to James Frazier in the "Golden Bough," on this day (or Solstice eve) it was the practice in a number of ancient European cultures to collect large logs (including the "Yule" log) and burn them on the highest point in the surrounding land, thus lending heat and light to the sun in an effort and hope that its powers would again wax in subsequent days. Eventually it became the practice to burn the evergreen - the tree that remained green even during the dead of winter - to add vitality to the attempt. Invariably the effort worked - daytime increased each passing day until the summer solstice six months later. In this way ancient cultures not only practiced a form of pagan magic and ritual, but marked the seasonal passing of time, the annual cycle of the earth's rotation around the sun and the entry into the season of winter and the hope of warmth and life to follow.

Frazier intended his book as a kind of expose of the pagan practices that underlie Christianity, but such exposure could only really have purchase in an increasingly Protestant culture that sought a purified form of Christianity (or to expose it as a nonsensical collection of cultural practices that were not essentially Christian). Early on, however, it was easy to see how Christianity was able to adapt aspects of these ancient practices, given that they were not contradictory to the way in which time was experienced in the life of the church. While there have been many claims that Christianity introduces a linear conception of time, the life of the Church is experienced in a circular fashion - from Advent to the birth of Christ, through the "Ordinary time" in which the words and deeds of Christ are recalled, into the Lenten season of penitence and fasting (during the deadest months of winter and just before the bursting of Spring), to the Triduum and the Easter celebration of resurrection and renewal (coinciding with the beginning of Spring, with all of its images and resonances of fertility), and again into "ordinary time" until the coming again of Advent. The Church's calendar was overlaid on these ancient practices, recognizing the coming and passing of seasons, of planetary motion and of the course of human birth, life, death, and (it was hoped) renewal.

It has been persuasively argued by a number of scholars that linear time is the result not of Christian historiography (though aspects can be found there), but rather a modern conception of measured time that increasingly divorces the marking of time from the natural world and instead resorts to mechanical tools for measuring time (see, for instance, Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum's History of the Hour, which dates this development to some time beginning in the 14th century). Even if this dating is correct, it can be safely assumed that most people continued to live less by the demands of the clock than the movement of the sun and the passing of the seasons: this would be especially true of societies still fundamentally based upon, and populated by, agricultural work and farmers. The explosion and increasingly monolithic experience of linear time comes especially during the 19th-century with the rise of the industrial revolution, decreasing numbers of farmers in favor of industrial workers (whose lives do become increasingly parceled out by the time clock, or the factory whistle), and - as Wilfred McClay has pointed out in his book The Masterless - the need for uniform time zones due to the demands of railroad scheduling. From that point midday is no longer marked by when the sun is at its zenith in one's spot, but rather by a standard measurement of time that may occur as much as an hour before or after the sun's zenith, depending on where one lives in one's time zone.

Above all, the sense of linear time is not only experienced because of mechanical measurement, but due to a sense that time now marks not the rhythmic cycle of birth, life, death and renewal, but rather a clear and perceptible advance of human progress in the world - in particular, the growing human capacity to govern and master the natural world. We understand years not as cycles, but accumulations, as growth rather than circularity. As our mastery of nature advances, our basic reliance upon, and connection to, the natural world decreases, further eviscerating any sense of the ancient conception of circular time. Our use of non-renewable energy forms - beginning with coal in the 19th-century and petroleum in the 20th - divorces us from a deeply lived understanding of the connection of our use of energy for life from the sun. While fossil fuels are ultimately extremely potent forms of stored sunlight, we do not intuitively understand that connection, and rather both extract, process and use the substance with and for machines. The motions of the earth - the seasons, its influence on agriculture, our sense of the cycle of life, the resulting forms of humility and gratitude that result - are all hollowed as we increasingly believe ourselves to be divorced from those slow, steady, and predictable cycles. Our new industrial economy is based upon and celebrates straight lines, not cycles: roads that are blasted through mountains and are suspended over ravines; the trajectory of the bullet and the laser; the skyscraper that pierces the sky....

On this night with my children we light a solstice fire outside to warm the sun; we talk about the movement of the planets and the cycle of the seasons; we talk with expectation about the birth of Christ and the promise of everlasting life that attended his birth - that in this season of empty trees and chilling cold, the spring awaits and even now new life gathers itself. Our linear culture ravages and destroys everywhere; where possible, we should preserve what circles and cycles that, even where attenuated, still inform our sense of time and season. The fundamental things still apply, in spite of our willful efforts to ignore or overcome them.


Scot said...

Wonderful reflection. I would quibble with your differentiation between liturgical time and "secular" time. Liturgical time is indeed cyclical but those cycles are not endless spin cycles in the cosmic washing machine. Those circles are rolling on some invisible, linear plane toward a definite end. So, like much of reality viewed through the lens of Xianity, tension exists because we move in circles in a forward motion to an end. Namely, the establishment of the New Jerusalem here on Earth. Pax.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Dr. Deneen. Our newly acquired linear view of time no doubt contributes to our "chronological snobbery" - to quote Lewis - and our low esteem for tradition. We're preached progress, but we need repentance.

The more I read here, the more I think you sound like an Agrarian. Weaver would be proud.

Anonymous said...

"ordinary time" is an innovation. Prior to the liturgical reform there were seasons of Epiphany, Septuagesima (pre-lent), and Pentecost.

The reduction of tese seasons to "ordinary time" tends to make Easter an inturruption in the accumulation of time, rather than the Master of the whole cycle of the year, with only Advent and Christmas doing their own thing.