western sense of time
Friday, January 21 2000
Tonight Kim and I just sort of kicked back and did the low-energy hang out thing with Matt Rogers. We were watching My Man, a subtitled foreign film, and I was impressed and inspired by the artistic beauty of the love-making scenes. With their spiky, short hair, etc., the actors looked sort of 80s in the movie, but it was a European kind of 80s look. "The 80s weren't as bad in Europe as they were here in America," I remarked.
Then I found myself thinking about the relationship between western theological and secular cultures. There once was a time when Indo-Europeans worshipped a whole soap opera's worth of gods and goddesses. The specific gods varied from place to place, but the inherited structure of the religion was identifiably similar. There were Roman gods, Greek gods, Norse gods, and Hindu Gods. With the acceptance and promulgation of Christianity by the Romans in the waning years of the Roman Empire, Christianity, a religion with origins in the non-Indo-European semetic tradition, managed to destroy and/or subvert this polytheistic tradition throughout Europe. But Indo-European polytheism continued to flourish in India, even spreading in the form of Buddhism into decidedly non-Indo-European places like China and Indochina.
What was it like to live in Europe as thousands of years of polytheism was rooted out and replaced with Christianity, a religion stuck on a singular event in the recent past and looking ahead to drastic changes in what is always presented as the near future? It must have felt like the world itself was changing fundamentally. This is evidenced by the switch to the Christ-based year numbering system, with its inherent sense of past, present and future. People have been obsessed with the numerology of the years ever since, constantly seeing indications of change in every major rollover of the digits. From the standpoint of this year, Christian history looks like a continual wave of crisis. Throughout history it has always felt like we're entering into the future. And of course, that's exactly what we've been doing. But the entire notion of a continuous straight line leading from past to this present and on to an uncertain future is a fundamentally Christian one. Hindus, by contrast, dwell less on the layering of time (where time is a singular unifying ether for everyone), choosing to focus more on the states of an individual's enlightenment, which is largely cyclic and non-progressive.
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