Redeeming Time

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Readers of this blog will recognize that I hold a fairly mainstream view of the transition from non-capitalist to capitalist societies. That is to say, along with the overwhelming majority of scholars today, I do not believe that there is anything peculiar to “the West” or to “Christianity” that gave rise to capitalism. Historians instead look at the relatively fragmented and weak character of western Europe to account for the rise of capitalism. Compared to China, India, Byzantium — or, for that matter, compared to the Mali or Songhai in Africa or the Mayan in the Americas — the scattered communities north and west of the Mediterranean were going nowhere; which suited them just fine.

Like communities everywhere, Europeans of course recognized temporal succession — one event after another. So, too, educated Europeans recognized that long ago a great empire, the Roman empire, had occupied the territories they now occupied. Indeed, educated Europeans were inclined to feel that they remained members of a Holy Roman Empire, which they distinguished from Byzantium, on the one hand, and the Abbasid Caliphate on the other. Yet, not until the quattrocento did Europeans come to feel not only that tomorrow would succeed today but that it would be different than today. Historians consider this change evidence not simply of a qualitatively different understanding of time, but a transformation in time itself.

To be clear, time is not simply temporal succession; time as a physical constant within E=mc2 existed since the first moments following creation. Time as a social form, by contrast, is always structured by social practice. From a critical historical vantage point, this means that time before the appearance of capitalism was as much a social construct — as much a fabrication — as time after its appearance. The issue here therefore cannot be to “redeem” a specific kind of time — time as experienced prior to the appearance of capitalism, for example — as much as redeeming time itself. Saint Paul had it right when, in his letter to the Romans, he folded time among the things that were longing for redemption:

For the earnest expectation of the creature waits for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who has subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now (Rom. 8:19-22).

Time has always been in bondage to corruption. It has always been subject to vanity. But not willingly.

In my field, economic theory, we say that efficiency can be measured in terms of the marginal efficiency of capital/labor; which is always a function of time. Marginal efficiency of capital labor equals some quantity of labor time as a function of capital (or capital as a function of labor time) divided into the value or a quantity of utilities produced by the capital/labor. In this formula time is subject to capital/labor efficiency over time.

“Time” as measured in the time it takes to read Cat in the Hat or the time to wander through a field of daisies; or the time lost out of sheer exhaustion — child next to parent on a bed in the afternoon; such time has value only because it can be measured in terms of utilities generated relative to other opportunities’ costs.

Which is to say, time is subject to vanity; it is subject to decay. It needs to be redeemed.

But what would redeeming time look like?

Let us say that time no longer weighed us down. Let us say that time bore us forward. Let us say that we “had time”  . . . to read that story, to take that walk, to plant the seed, to share the meal, to listen to the music, to write the “Thank You” note, to notice the world. Let us say that we “had time.”

Having “time,” of course, is grace. It means that time is no longer subject to vanity. It is no longer subject to decay.

I am listening to my daughter and I am not looking at my watch. I am not counting time. I am working at my vocation, at my calling. I am not counting time.

Time is bearing me forward. It is no longer constraining me. We are both fellow creatures waiting for the manifestation of the children of God.

So, now, what if we are the children of God? What if we are those for whom time is waiting? How are we realizing the expectation of time? How are we redeeming time?

In economic theory, we frequently convey this idea by talking about efficiency, about AI, about automation. We will enhance the production function. We will increase the marginal efficiency of capital/labor. But in this way of talking, time remains bound. And in this talk we remain bound to time.

Christians are called upon to redeem time.


3 thoughts on “Redeeming Time”

  1. Hi Joseph,

    Thanks for the post. I almost forgot how much I enjoyed our conversations five years ago or so.

    I agree with much of the post, but I am struck by one point, which I want to draw you out on. I am having trouble squaring this clause in Saint Paul’s letter: “but by reason of him who has subjected the same in hope” with the ideal (possibly) relationship with time: “I am listening to my daughter and I am not looking at my watch. I am not counting time. I am working at my vocation, at my calling. I am not counting time.”

    I notice that this ideal can easily be consumed by the economic logic bound to time, i.e. finally, with AI, now I have time to do other things. Yet, I understand the deeper importance of your phrase “I am not counting time,” perhaps as in: I am not bound by time, “I” am not bound at all.

    If you agree with my interpretation of your writing, by drawing that out, it perhaps cast your important call to redeem time in pretty much direct opposition to current economic thinking. This is very likely your point, which inevitably makes me wonder, since it conjures a schism (or many schisms) so massive which imperils economic pillars of universality, scientia, ceterus paribus, etc. More on your religious turf, does it not also bring up a debate between Protestantism (individualism, the importance of daily earthly action, etc.) and (idk for sure) Catholicism?

    Anyways, perhaps I have read too far into your post. I’ve been ruminating on time from a different religious perspective – Buddhism – and wondering about certain worldly implications of the teachings. I’d appreciate your thoughts nonetheless. Also, I’m on campus as a PhD in the Energy & Resources Group, perhaps I could visit during office hours or such?

    1. Yes. Definitely. Economic rationality became an insidious disease that took hold and spread opportunistically based on the weakness of western Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries. And, yes, huge implications for both economic theory and for theological reflection. Among Protestants and Catholics I am in the minority — perhaps a minority of one — that traces the rise of Protestantism to capitalism, not the reverse. This is not to say that Rome in the 13th century accurately grasped its calling; or that a more historically and socially grounded grasp of God (for which we have capitalism to thank) is not valuable. It does invite us to reflect more critically on the social and historical shape of thought.

    2. I think the question could be “in hope” of what? Subjection (or, in econo-speak, “constraints”) is a condition of existence. No constraints. No existence. Which is why I do not believe in an unconstrained deity. How constrained and to what end? Yes, this places me in opposition to some, perhaps most, current economic thinking. (But, see Amartya Sen.) Like all pre-capitalist spiritual formations (including Christianity), pre-capitalist Buddhism also displays a relationship to bodies that grants bodies the capacity to convey grace. But (see today’s blog) this should not suggest that pre-capitalist spiritual formations, including Christianity, suffer from their own weaknesses.

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