Who Knows Where the Time Goes?[i]

by Richard Clutterbuck.

I sometimes – tongue in cheek – describe myself as a ‘recovering existentialist’. Let me explain. Back in the 1970s, when I first fell in love with the study of  theology, existentialism, and the theology that leaned on it,  was still in vogue. I revelled in John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology[i], drank deeply from Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament[ii] and made copious notes on Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology[iii]. I devoured the novels of Dostoyevsky and I even bought a shelf-full of books by Soren Kierkegaard – though I can’t claim to have read them all. What was the appeal? Well, there was the emphasis on personal experience, belief and decision. Bultmann, for example, made a powerful case for the heart of the New Testament to be the call for a decision to follow Jesus and his kingdom here and now. And existentialist theology also seemed to offer a way out of some of the thorny problems of modern thought. Did the language of the traditional Christian creeds still make sense in the modern world? Was it still possible to read the biblical stories as historically accurate? Existentialist theologians like Paul Tillich offered a reinterpretation of traditional belief that seemed more in tune with contemporary culture.

So far, so good. You may, however, sense an impending ‘but’ – and you’d be right. As the zeitgeist moved from the modern to the postmodern, existentialism turned out to be just one worldview among many, so hitching the theological wagon to this engine did not necessarily mean we were going to reach our destination. Furthermore, existentialism was revealed to have its own blind spots. In concentrating on subjective experience, it was inadequate to deal with global issues such as conflict and injustice. In its focus on the present experience of existence, it failed to do justice to the role of time and history in Christian theology. It had a tendency to collapse narrative and history (including the biblical narratives) into existential experience and universal truths. Then, from the late 60s, a new generation of theologians, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann among them, argued that God is revealed through history and that the eschatological future is an indispensable part of Christian faith.

So, I’m no longer an existentialist, though I do have a lingering nostalgia for what it once meant for me. I’ve recently been working on the theology of one of my teachers, the Methodist theologian and ecumenist, Geoffrey Wainwright, and I think he could help us to bring together some of the positive elements in existentialist theology (the focus on the personal and the present) with the more realistic (and, to my mind, more faithfully Christian) movements that have followed. Wainwright was almost unique among twentieth century theologians in the way he combined liturgical studies with doctrinal theology and with the search for Christian unity. His most substantial work was Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life[iv], but there were several volumes of essays that emerged from his engagement with the international ecumenical movement. I’ve been especially drawn to a paper he presented to a conference in 1979. Its title is “Sacramental Time”[v] and it argues that the sacramental life of the Church gives us clues about how God relates with us through the medium of time. He develops this under the three headings of ‘Ecclesial Time’, ‘Existential Time’ and ‘Cosmic Time’.

Ecclesial time involves the affirmation that Christ’s presence in the sacraments is objectively real, and not merely subjective and psychological. In the eucharist we, as the Church,  re-present the past and anticipate the future of God’s salvation. In this present moment, where past and future meet, we are given time to proclaim and act out God’s love.

Existential time takes us to the more personal dimension. Baptism involves a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection as well as God’s gift of time for newness of life. Similarly, in the eucharist we are caught up in the tension between the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ of the kingdom.

Finally, cosmic time. Sacraments point to the way God’s redemption embraces the whole created order of space and time, including the rhythms of daily, monthly and yearly time. As we speak of sacred space, so we can speak of sacred time; time set apart for our relationship with God.

I’m still working on the implications of Wainwright’s teaching on sacramental time. I suspect it has implications for our discussions on ‘online’ communion, where sharing the time set aside for worship may be more important than sharing exactly the same space. But I can answer the question, ‘who knows where the time goes’ with the simple answer, ‘God knows’.

[i] John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (London: SCM, 1966).

[ii] Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1955).

[iii] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Combined Volume) (Welwyn, Herts: Nisbet, 1968).

[iv] Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life (new york: Oxford, 1980).

[v] The Ecumenical Moment: Crisis and Opportunity for the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983). Chapter VII,

[i] The allusion, for the benefit of non-baby-boomers, is to a song on Fairport Convention’s 1969 album, Unhalfbricking.

One thought on “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?[i]”

  1. Like you I was fascinated by existentialism, then realised it’s inadequacies – specifically that it is inward looking, about subjective experience and relies on a fixed sense of self that stands over and above the world, and other people. Unlike you, I have found the postmodern, deconstructive approach to theology deeply meaningful in that it describes the human condition as embedded and embodied in everyday life, with an emphasis on our love, our ethical concern for each other as the basis of our spirituality. I take the point that deconstruction is actually an ethical reconstruction as Simon Critchley showed in “The Ethics of Deconstruction”. So I read Levinas, Derrida, Caputo, RIchard Rohr, feminist theologians and others who question the otherworldliness of “traditional” Christian theology. Should add that I have been a Member for the past 60 years even though, in my head I am with Richard Holloway “Dancing on the Edge”!
    I have a question! Is it the case that some of us find meaning and purpose in life from introspection; being inward-looking and contemplative – and then respond to the love of God by turning outward and “loving our neighbour as we love ourselves”. And is it the case that some other people are outward-looking and, find a sense of self, a meaning and purpose in ethical relationships. If God actually is Love then I feel it makes sense to affirm with Levinas that God comes to mind in the context of our ethical concern, or love, for others.


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