Whose Time Are We Saving Anyway?

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On this side of the empty tomb and looking for the Day to come, we are caught up in the mode of waiting, that state of existence in which lived (rather than mathematical) time retards and screeches and grows prongs and barbs. Waiting is hard. As we tumble homeward in faith, hope, and love, we learn that the virtues have much to do with using this waiting time well. And using waiting time well is, for a Christian, a rather different notion from what the modern person might expect it to be. After all, in our time-"saving" western world, using time well would seem to be all about squeezing material, economic, intellectual, or physical productivity out of every last second. And yet the Christian Faith, with its deeply ingrained rhythmic sensibilities, honors the meaningfulness of the daily cadence of sunrise and sunset, mealtimes and rest times, weekly worship in the community of saints, regular prayers and Scripture meditation. In other words, Christians believe that time is a given thing, which makes our relationship to it one of stewardship by a servant of time's Giver rather than of lordship by time's would-be master.

To this end, note the comments by Eric O. Jacobsen in The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker, 2012). The rest of this post is from Jacobsen (p. 123) who commends Colin Gunton's similar sentiment:

One of the great ironies of contemporary life is that it is the technologically advanced countries with time-saving devices and organizational efficiencies that tend to have the most harried and exhausted populations. In the less "developed" countries we find people relaxing and enjoying the passage of time. What is the reason for this strange state of affairs?

Colin Gunton thinks that part of the problem is that in the developed countries, we tend to think about time as a commodity that we can control. Our metaphors for time betray this perspective. We purchase "time-saving" devices and we seek efficiency in our use of time in the same way that we talk about fuel efficiency in our cars. Such language betrays the fact that we think of time as a tangible and malleable substance that we can "save" and "spend" at will.

But Gunton argues that time is not like a material commodity that we can gather, save up, and then use at will. Time, rather, is part of God's good creation, and it is given to us in a particular form. Time is given to us in rhythmic flows. Cultures and communities that are less enmeshed in technology tend to adjust their individual and communal practices around some of these flows, whereas more "developed" countries think that they can leverage technology to ignore the constraints imposed by the flow of time. The former are practiced in receiving time as a gift, and the latter seize time as a reward for their cleverness.