In last month’s column, I tried to address, in broad terms, the third topic of our theological enterprise built from a Latin-American perspective: the understanding of human “space”. Western contemporary societies have created an innovative and functional category of space understood as “aseptic space”, where humans are destined to just travel through it, leaving no traces of their passage and creating instead, in and with it, value, efficiency and profit. Thus these typical modern spaces (“no-places”) remain anonymous and do not hold enough significance to be regarded as real “human places”. In fact, their value is directly proportional to the absence of human memories and events. Examples of “non-places” are: motorways, hotel rooms, airports, banks, shopping malls, hospitals, schools and, increasingly also – ultramodern churches and houses. The opposite of these “aseptic-spaces” are environments where people are able to empower their identity, meet other people with whom they share social and existential references, and create meaningful relationships whose salient characteristic is the emergence of common “Feasting”. Latin-American strength resides in its capacity to “contaminate” aseptic spaces and infuse them with events, experiences, human noise, and feasting. No truly human place can ever be aseptic. Every human place is characterized by signs that make it slow, experience-laden, dis-functional, interrupted, and broken. Real “human places” will always appear unfit and unsuitable to the apparent winning strategies of order and efficacy. This is what I call the “Virtues of Feasting”. Feasting is not an exception or a gratification in life for having worked well. It is not separated from life as a “happy addition”. Feasting is synchronous with every moment in life. It’s the capacity of fully inhabiting the place we belong to. It’s the light shining on our rooted humanness. And, in today’s communities, both civil and religious – both obsessed with temporal achievements – “spatial Feasts” are a guarantor of wisdom and freedom.
The fourth topic we will address, in this reconstruction process, is the nature and function of human “temporality”. While “space” initially seemed biblically and theologically irrelevant, “time” instead appears to be a fundamental theological category. Is not the whole Bible a diversified and repeated witness to the importance of time and history? True, but which time? Which history? And, is our current and diffuse “Temporo-centrism” (obsession with time) a byproduct of biblical understanding? In order to note the contrast among various temporalities let’s consider the story “One hundred years of solitude”, written by Colombian Literature Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
This is the history of the isolated town of Macondo and of the family who founded it, the Buendías. For years, the town has had no contact with the outside world, except for gypsies who occasionally visited, peddling technologies like ice and telescopes. The family patriarch, José Arcadio Buendia, is impulsive and inquisitive. He is a deeply solitary leader, alienating himself from other men in his obsessive investigations into mysterious matters. These character traits are handed down to his descendents throughout the novel. His older child, José Arcadio, inherits his vast physical strength and impetuousness. His younger child, Aureliano, inherits his intense, enigmatic focus. Gradually the village loses its innocent, solitary state when it establishes contact with other towns in the region. Civil wars begin, bringing violence and death to peaceful Macondo, which previously had experienced neither. Aureliano becomes the leader of the Liberal rebels, achieving fame as Colonel Aureliano Buendia. The town changes from an idyllic, magical, and sheltered place to one irrevocably connected to the outside world through the notoriety of Colonel Buendía. Macondo’s governments change several times during and after the war. At one point, Arcadio, the cruelest of the Buendías, rules dictatorially and is eventually shot by a firing squad. Later, a mayor is appointed, and his reign is peaceful until another civil uprising has him killed. After his death the civil war ends with the signing of a peace treaty.
More than a century goes by over the course of the book, so most of the events that García Márquez describes are the major turning points in the lives of the Buendías: births, deaths, marriages, love affairs. All seem to be simultaneous and within a temporal perspective that breaks with our current linear understanding of time. But for the Buendía family, as for the entire village of Macondo, the centrifugal forces of modernity are devastating. Imperialist capitalism reaches Macondo as a banana plantation moves in and exploits the land and the workers. The Americans who own the plantation settle into their own fenced-in section of town. Eventually, angry at the inhumane way in which they are treated, the banana workers go on strike. Thousands are massacred by the army, which sides with the plantation owners. When the bodies have been dumped into the sea, five years of ceaseless rain begins, creating a flood that sends Macondo into its final decline. As the city, beaten down by years of violence and false progress, begins to slip away, the Buendía family also begins its process of final erasure, overcome by nostalgia for bygone days. The book ends almost as it began: the village is once again solitary, isolated. The few remaining Buendía family members turn in upon themselves incestuously, alienated from the outside world and doomed to a solitary ending. At the end of the book the last surviving Buendía translates a set of ancient prophecies and finds that all had been predicted: the village and its inhabitants have merely been living out a preordained cycle, incorporating great beauty and great, tragic sadness.
From the first sentence of the novel, the reader is guided toward considering time. The story is set somewhere between past and future, yet not quite in the present, which becomes even more complex with the introduction of memory. By placing the reader immediately in the position of a simultaneous past, present, and future, García Márquez is constructing a non-lineal temporal space. The absence of death in much of the text creates an environment in which time seems to stand still – as multiple generations exist simultaneously without the linear progression of generational succession. When death finally does occur, the illusion of continuity is maintained through giving each successive generation the same names. It would seem as though characters continually repeat themselves, forming cycles that come back again and again. For a large part of the Latin American consciousness history is not lineal. Latin America has preserved, within its social structures, whole epochs which, in the Western world, passed by in successive order. Latin-Americans still privilege the reality of simultaneity rather than succession and continuity.
1. The acceleration of Time. Time as an arrow.
We live today in a radically “future oriented paradigm”. Time is no longer cyclical, as it was for Garcia Marquez’s Macondo. It has become an “arrow”, pointing unfailing towards the future. Here the past is not to be reproduced but rather to be overcome. Tradition is not a resource but an obstacle. In fact, in our modern society, things very soon and very easily become old and outdated. The origin of this paradigm can be found in Hebrew thinking. With the Old Testament the circle of time becomes a line. Dissimilar to all others, every event is unique. One of the best examples of this is incarnated in Abraham’s life and call. He is asked to leave his country and go forward. His life cannot and must not be a repetition. There is no other direction to follow, no other way to go, but into the future. He faces a starting point to leave and an arrival point to reach. Only by following this line forward can he find meaning and fulfillment. But, while Hebrew eschatology still implies true openness and trust in a non-manipulable Messiah-oriented future, Christian eschatology instead introduces an unknown certainty expressed in a paradox. At least in part, the future is already here in Jesus. Doubt and perplexity about the future are overcome. The future is certain.
Modern Western culture and society went a step further. After taking this fundamental view of the future from Christianity, it introduced a shift. The certain future that Christianity based on God, modernity based exclusively in itself.The “time-line-perspective” therefore suffered a second radicalization. It became more direct, more automatic and more predictable.This was, in fact, the spirit of emerging modernity: the unshakeable certainty of its own bright future that doesn’t depend any more on God, but on ourselves. Modernity secularizes Christian eschatology and gives it a socio-political form. The Enlightenment and Positivism, among others, were the first typical examples of this modern ideology. This movement didn’t stop there, however. It enlarged, expanded and refined itself in various experiments and sophisticated updates, until it became really democratic, universal and trans-cultural. It succeeded in modeling the worldview of common people and single 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 the majority of us today.
2. The anthropological effects. Exhausted and fatigued individuals.
Previously people lived less intensive lives, following their internal clock more closely. In recent decades the pace of life has accelerated dramatically and most of us experience our days as emergency situations, which require continuous action and no rest. Without time for leisure we move more and more away from ourselves, becoming more and more stressed.
This is Korean-German philosopher Bjung Chul Han’s anthropological thesis on the effects of an unbalanced and pernicious understanding of time as an “arrow”. He labels our society as a Leistungsgesellschaft (achievement society). “Yes We Can” sounds like an empowering slogan, indicating our freedom and limitless potential. But, according to Han, this is an illusory freedom because the message enclosed within “Yes We Can” is “Yes We Should”. Instead of living in a Disziplinargesellschaft (disciplinary society) of the past where our behavior was clearly regulated by societal prohibitions and commandments, we now live in a Leistungsgesellschaft in which we voluntarily succumb to the pressure of achieving. The Leistungsgesellschaft is no less restrictive than the Disziplinargesellschaft. We may no longer be subject to exogenous prohibitions but we have internalized the mandates of achievement, always striving to do more. We have become slaves to the culture of positivity, subjugated by the imperative “Yes, We Should”. Instead of carefully contemplating whether or not to pursue a goal, the mere knowledge that we could achieve it impells us to strive towards that goal. Buying into the “Yes We Can” culture chains us to a life of self-exploitation, and we are blinded by passion and determination, until we collapse. Han uses the sad German alliteration “Erschöpfung, Ermüdung und Erstickung” (“exhaustion, fatigue and suffocation”) to describe the impact that an excess of positivity has once we forgo our ability to say “No!” to the demands of the achievement society. We keep on going until our minds and bodies shut down and this is why we live in a continuous state of exhaustion and fatigue. Han does not view multitasking as a sign of civilizational progress. Multitasking is an indicator of regression because it results in a broad but rather superficial state of attention, thus preventing true contemplation.
And, an additional problem is that this leistungsgesellschaft has been endorsed biblically and theologically by absolutizing and idolizing linear time, future and history.
3. Latin American New Evangelization: “The Time which is here”
In this context “Laziness” becomes a virtue because it expresses a wise human refusal of being swallowed by this modern Magog of linear time. It represents the awareness that meaning in life is not a conquest but a gift – even when we are asked to be and become proactive and responsible. “Laziness” reminds us that our destiny and salvation is not always found in walking, moving or changing. All these can easily become destructive compulsions, idolatrous obsessions. Existential and spiritual pilgrimage often is expressed in the capacity of stopping and rest. Time left alone easily becomes a tyrant. Space and time must learn to go together. None of them is sacred and absolute. Not even the Sabbath alone. Sabbath itself is a bimodal and complex spatio-temporal category.
This is what I call the “Virtue of Laziness” i.e. the capacity to act without a compulsion moved by the wisdom to remain. The inability to inhabit one's own place makes our goal an escape, a forward compulsion. The tree rooted in abundant waters (Psalm 1: 3) flourishes even if it does not move and never runs, because it has learned to inhabit its own space and, in this, it flowers and bears fruit for the benefit of others, for the blessing of passersby.
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/authors/hanz-gutierrez
Image Credit: By Salah dastirax - Own work, Wikimedia Commons
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