A Spatial Theology of the Sabbath: Temporal Alienation (Part 3)

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October 10, 2019

We considered, in last month’s article, that Western culture and societies have introduced and supported a new phenomenon I described as the “Disenchantment of Place”. This process is not peripheral, as we commonly used to believe, but rather represents the very essence of modernity. It influences every aspect of our life today and appeared very early in the evolution of the Western world-view. Everything we do presupposes this process. The secularization process, typically characteristic of contemporary life, and now diffused all over the world, doesn’t start with the secularization of religion. It starts with the “Secularization of Place”. The Secularization of Place, or its equivalent the Disenchantment of Place, was the pre-condition to other kinds of secularization which came later and have thoroughly transformed our way of living. Before experiencing the impact of the secularization of faith and the religious experience, we were already fully modern through a new understanding and relationship to “Space”.

I also considered that the typical modern dynamism, in creating new conditions of life, is not ethically and culturally neutral. It always presupposed this depreciation of Space. And the double attitude: on one side overrating the rational individual, and the other side depreciating Place, are simply two sides of the same coin. Today’s cities, schools and hospitals, as well as our homes and churches, are “disenchanted places”. They are chosen, organized and decorated with almost exclusively functional, pragmatic and rational criteria of efficiency and management. Both secular and religious people work and live presupposing the validity of the Disenchantment of Place.

All this has also had an enormous impact on the modern understanding of the Sabbath. The greatest threat for the Sabbath doesn’t come from those who defend Sunday as the day of worship, but rather from those who have a pragmatic understanding of it. The Sabbath can’t be uplifted today if it remains trapped and improperly contaminated by this diffuse process of Disenchantment of Place. For this reason a modern defense of the Sabbath, against Sunday or any other day, doesn’t necessarily qualitatively increase the value of the Sabbath if it doesn’t also critically address one of Modernity’s dogmas – Disenchantment of Place. And in order to achieve this it’s necessary to understand the Sabbath not only as a temporal category, as Adventists keep doing today, but also as a strong spatial category that offers a new understanding of what Space and Time really are.

All pre-modern cultures, in varying degrees, presupposed the Enchantment of Place. In this sense they were “cosmo-centric” cultures that privileged the stability of the cosmos incarnated in daily life. Even the medieval Christian community, or the Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Christian communities, privileged the stability of the cosmos. So, what particular circumstances or ingredients triggered affirmation of the “rational subject” as world sovereign, and accelerated depreciation of Place? My hypothesis is that the determining element in affirming rational control over nature and space has been – the linear understanding of time.

The Western world has radically privileged the category of Time in recent history. And Christian theology, which should have re-oriented and corrected this cultural trend as it progressively emerged, has simply validated it with biblical justification found in the pivotal category of History. This unbalanced attention toward linear time has led the Western world and religion to build up a “historicentric” and “spaceless” worldview, which certainly is the main guarantor of today’s well-being and progress, but also the main cause of a diffuse feeling of meaninglessness and rootlessness.

The predominance of Time over Space has lead our contemporary world to build a new kind of dualism. A temporal dualism, in which Time appears as the only dimension where meaning can be reached; against a devaluated Space, which must necessarily be overcome because it is unable to offer any possible chance for meaning. And the modern Sabbath, amputated of its inborn spatial component, simply seems to have been swallowed by this perspective, and has lost its power of renewal. The temporal Sabbath of our days, secularly understood as week-end or religiously as worship-day, seems to have become, not part of the solution, but rather part of today’s temporal problem. Let’s describe four historical stages of affirming linear time, as it initially emerged from the biblical perspective until its radicalization in modern and post-modern times, with its degeneration into today’s “Temporal Alienation”.

1. A balanced, open Linear-Time (Hebrews)

Linear-Time was born with the Old Testament. In Israel, if we compare it with the surrounding cultures and religions, the time perspective drastically changed because the future was no longer a mere copy of the past. It brought something new. The promised future engraved things, persons, groups and events with a tension they could not avoid. It represented the essence of their identity. It was the positive tension toward the future. This future was the center because redemption must be, if eschatological, for everybody and visible, i.e. political. And these two conditions, universality and visibility, would be guaranteed only by the true Messiah. Jews, somewhat reasonably, question the veracity of the Christian Jesus, and even more of his followers, whom they see very much stuck in a mistaken understanding of salvation. A salvation which looks too exclusive and too spiritual. But Hebrews in the Old Testament lived in a balanced understanding of Time because Time for them was “Linear” in Salvation but still “Cyclical” in common life. For the common aspects of living, eating, working or being together, they were very much as cyclical as their pagan neighbors.

2. A Certain Linear-Time (Christianity)

This new understanding of the future, introduced by the Hebrews, was not substantively changed with the arrival of Christianity. Christianity confirmed it, but at the same time introduced a first radicalization. The time-line perspective remained, even though as Oscar Cullmann reminds us, a new tension emerged that the Hebrews didn’t know before: between the “already” and the “not yet.” This new tension bound the Christian community as much to the past as the future, because the central event – Jesus’ life and victory over sin and death – is now behind us as something completed. The future and linear-lime are no longer contingent, but have become certain. This represents a conceptual contortion of the Hebrew’s understanding of the future as an open reality. If the certainty of future events depends on the certainty of the main event that has already happened, i.e. Jesus’ full victory, then the announced future is as certain as what happened in the past. Doubt and perplexity about the future are overcome. Certainty and assurance fill the heart of a victorious Christian. The promised future will surely arrive as announced. Paradoxically, with Christianity the future is partially deformed by an excess of certainty. Linear-time becomes more linear, more automatic and more certain.

3. A Radical Linear-Time (Western Modern Culture)

Modern Western culture and society went a step further. They did abandon the Christian God but not Christian Eschatology and Christian Linear-Time. They just secularized it (Karl Löwith / Giacomo Marramao). After picking up this fundamental orientation about the future from Christianity, they introduced a shift. Future-certainty,  that in Christianity was still based on God, Western culture based exclusively in itself, in humanity. The future became Progress humanity could build up with its own hands. This represents a second radicalization of Linear-Time. The future becomes more direct, more automatic and more predictable. This was, in fact, the spirit of emerging modernity: the unshakeable certainty of its own bright future.

The Enlightenment and Positivism were the first significant examples of this modern ideology. But the movement didn’t stop there. It expanded and refined itself in various experiments and sophisticated updates until it became really trans-cultural. It succeeded in modeling the worldview of common individuals and organizations. “The future is sure; you only need to introduce order, discipline, coherence, hard work and accurate planning.” This could be life’s maxim for many of us today.

4. An Alienated and Alienating Linear-Time (Western Post-Modern Culture)

But here a paradox emerges. The temporal paradigm of “cyclical time”, typical of non-biblical religions and cultures, ended up domesticating and finally deforming the true future. Christian linear time, born as a critic and reaction to the previous cyclical paradigm, has become an “arrow”, and paradoxically has ended up causing the same results of cyclical time: domesticating and deforming the true future by making it too predictable and inoffensive. A too certain future is no more a future. The only difference is that, in ancient cyclical cultures, the future was reduced to expressing the pre-existing cosmological and divine eternal stability, while in our days the neutralized future is “man-made”.

The future, detached from God and from others, has easily become an ungovernable arrow. Left to itself without balancing  elements, it has become an automatic, compulsive and blind push forward mechanism. Hartmut Rosa rightly speaks of the transformation of modern alienation that, from social, political or economic roots, has today become predominantly a “temporal alienation”. This form of alienation is even more perverse because it affects everyone and everything transversely. This compulsion for the future has destroyed the passion for the future. Our future does not create hope any more. It has become a necrophiliac future that gives birth only to things that are technically new but incapable of creating existential meaning and hope. The future in this late-modernity, according to Reinhart Koselleck, is already old at its birth. It is "Vergangene Zukunft" – a "past future". And it is a cynical future because it creates in us short expectations that needs constant innovation in order to survive, thus creating a sterile and future-dependent addiction mechanism.

The Adventist Sabbath is then contaminated by a perverse double-cultural mechanism. On one side it implies in itself the “Depreciation of Place” typical of our time. And on the other side it has reduced itself to another form of today’s typical alienating and radical Linear-Time. And this double dysfunction is visible in the almost exclusively quantitative understanding of the Sabbath we Adventists promote, and thus what really matters is chronological Sabbath observance as the seventh day of the week – above all the other qualitative components like relational, ecumenical, symbolic, ethnic, political, economic or ecological. The strong ecclesio-centric understanding of our Sabbath denotes this double anomaly. It has ceased to be inclusive and has become the prototype of an exclusionary and foreclosing religiosity, and our prophetic and eschatological perspective of End-Times events. Instead of correcting these anomalies this actually make the situation even worse.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez

Image Credit: Unsplash.com


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