Where does the time go?, we frequently lament. Time is fixed for all of us yet around the world and historically there have been many different views of time, that emerge out of the worldview of the day. Best selling author and speaker Os Guinness reflects on our views of time and how a Christian worldview impacts how we view our time. Join us for this insightful conversation around his new book, Carpe Diem Redeemed.
More About Our Guest
Os Guinness is an author, social critic, and great-great-great grandson of Arthur Guinness, the Dublin brewer. Os has written or edited more than 30 books that offer valuable insight into the cultural, political, and social contexts in which we all live. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of London and his D.Phil. in the social sciences from Oriel College, Oxford.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today we have a guest who has been on our program more than any other guest, and frankly, if it was up to us, we'd have you every other week, Os Guinness, because you're so thoughtful and just so gracious with your time, so thanks for coming back on the show.
Os Guinness: Well, it's a great privilege. You two are great fun, as well as stimulating.
Sean McDowell: Well, we've had you on to talk about your book, Fool's Talk and Last Call for Liberty, but today we want to talk about your latest book, Carpe Diem Redeemed, and I'm curious for a place to start, since it's a book about time, why write this book now? Is it a factor of where you are personally, professionally, where we are culturally, or both?
Os Guinness: Well, a couple of things were in the back of my mind when I started to write it. The immediate trigger was I was home in Oxford and read a book by a popular Australian philosopher on carpe diem, and he was an atheist, and I thought my goodness, it was fun reading, but terribly limited and never discussed either the Eastern view of time, which has been so powerful in history of far more importantly, it didn't discuss the Jewish and Christian biblical view, and I thought the biblical view is far deeper than anything he had.
So I came back and wrote this little book at white hot speed. But the other reason is I think we're at a stage now where in the crisis of the church in the West, we need to carefully relay the foundations. So many people have got a very shrunken view of the gospel, and we need to lay down great Old Testament truth such as time and history, human dignity, freedom, justice, and things like that. So that we're really standing on solid ground as we move out in the culture. I thought time and history would be a good start.
Scott Rae: So Os, if we were summarizing the big idea of the book, the idea of seizing the day. How would you capture the main thrust of what you are trying to get across?
Os Guinness: Well, I begin with a strong contrast, and you know, one of the principles of a apologetics contrast is the mother of clarity. Contrasting the cyclical view, which comes from the East, Hinduism, Buddhism, the New Age movement with the covenantal view, which is the biblical one, Jews and Christians, with the chronological view, which is a one word way of saying the atheist one where you just have a succession of moments without any meaning behind them. They're three incredibly different views of time. Of course if you live in the light of them, you live in a different way depending on which one you think is right. So I think our biblical view, the Jewish and Christian view, is very, very profound.
Sean McDowell: Now you make the point that we have kind of unwittingly adopted a Judeo-Christian view of time in the West without realizing it. But now we're giving it up too quickly without realizing what we're doing. What did you mean by that?
Os Guinness: Well, when the biblical view was dominant in 2000 years, no one really bothered to defend it that well or think about it that clearly, and then suddenly it was attacked and thrown out the door. We've sort of gone along with that. Yet that's incredibly foolish because... Well, there are many places, but it's one of the many places where you see a biblical view is just simply incredible. We believe in the gospel as good news, the best news ever. That certainly includes a biblical view of time and history.
So you take, say history. In the Eastern view where everything's based on a wheel, it's going nowhere. Round and round and round and round, going nowhere. In the secularist view, history has no meaning at all. It could be a tale told by an idiot to Shakespeare [inaudible 00:04:26]. Joseph Heller says, a trash bag of coincidences blown open by the wind. You know, if you start thinking the logic of some of the alternative views, you don't have a very powerful motivation to live life every day with great meaning, but the biblical view is so different. It leaves you with wonder and praise.
Scott Rae: Now I'll ask you, you had mentioned that the cyclical view of time, which largely comes from the East, is having a significant influence in Western culture today. What the appeal of the cyclical view of time,. and how does it fall short of the biblical ideal?
Os Guinness: Well, it starts well. In other words, if you look at nature, including human nature, there are obviously cycles. Here we are in the East coast, not you further out, but in the East coast the summer's ended. Autumn is beginning. Soon it will be winter. In other words, you can see the cycle of nature, and we ourselves in our own lives were born, we develop, we mature, we decline, and we die. There are cycles in nature. But what Hinduism has done, and Buddhism in following it, is project that cyclical view which is in nature on the very cosmos itself, and that's an unwarranted step and leads you to a very poor view of history.
There isn't any real sense of history. We're living in a world of [Maya] Illusion and history is going nowhere, and the East has never produced any powerful sense of purpose in time. Now you compare that with our biblical view. Under providence, time has meaning and history is truly going somewhere, and we are called as we come to know the Lord and discover our individual callings to become His partners in restoring the world to what it should have been, which is an incredibly powerful and purposeful view of living.
Sean McDowell: Now, one of the differences between the cyclical view and then the chronological and covenantal view is that the cyclical view, time is repetitive. There's reincarnation. There's no absolute beginning or end, so to speak. But the chronological view and the covenantal view are both linear in how they think about time. So if they have that in common, what's the core difference between the secular chronological view and the biblical covenantal view, and why do you think the chronological view fall short?
Os Guinness: Well, the secular view, the chronological view is basically the biblical view shorn of the supernatural. In other words, shorn of the Lord, shorn of Providence, and all those good things. It is the biblical view taken over, and that's why you have, say, an atheist philosopher like John Gray at London University today who says quite bluntly that much of the optimistic humanism today is a parasite on the Christian faith. In other words, the enlightenment in the 18th century, get rid of God, replace revelation with reason, replace providence with human progress and purpose, and they thought they could do it. But the 20th century with its genocides and its wars and its massacres undid all that. Today you take a book like John Rolston's Soul. Voltaire's Bastards. He shows how even someone like Kant, the greatest of the enlightenment philosophers had an extraordinary streak of antisemitism.
You can see all sorts of evils in the enlightenment thinkers if you follow them through. So the atheist view is just really the biblical views shorn of its supernatural, which means shorn of its meaning. In other words, for us, well put it another way; for the atheist, they have to succeed in history for history to have any meaning. You have people like Steven Pinker at Harvard, Enlightenment Now, who truly believes that still, but most atheist don't, and most are much nearer to people like Samuel Beckett. The history is going nowhere, and we're not powerful enough to shape it in the direction we'd like. So there's a meaninglessness to the challenge of history. Or Albert Camus' great picture of Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill, rolls back again. Rolling the stone up the hill again, rolls back down again. In other words, absolute futility. That's the secularist view of history, and it's meaningless.
Scott Rae: Os, throughout the book, you connect the view of time with the notion of purpose that history is going somewhere, and our worldview around time indicates that. But in the chronological view of time, which has, as you point out, today has a decidedly postmodern twist to it with denial of purpose from for much of anything. Why couldn't someone have the idea of seizing the day being a meaningful concept while at the same time recognizing that look, we all craft our own story? There's no overriding purpose to this. Your story sort of is what you make of it.
Os Guinness: Well, there are many people exactly living like that and whether postmodern or sort of earlier modern like say the Ayn Rand reader. Put another way, behind secularism of whatever form, is a do it yourself endeavor. When I was a student at London University, I had occasionally Bertrand Russell, and his picture was always of the Greek giant Atlas who carries the world of his own meaning on his own shoulders. That's heroic and bold if you can do it. But for the average person, suburban world, that boils down to grab it while you can. Carpe diem, grab it while you can. You don't care for the neighbor or anyone else. If you can pull it off, well then good. There are still many who apparently are pulling it off, but it leads to a miserable sort of world.
Now there are those who think they can do it. But most, you know, a pessimistic version I have in the book is Samuel Beckett's character Krapp's Last Tape, where you have a 69 year old listening to tape recordings of himself in his twenties and thirties, and time has simply reduced him to fragments. He's desiccated. He's lost any sense of continuity in identity, and time has just left him feeling totally alienated. That's equally possible within the secularist view. In fact, more possible.
Sean McDowell: Os, you offer a really interesting critique of progressivism, and that's cultural progressivism as well as religious and/or theological progressivism. Then at the end of it, you made a statement that jumped out to me. I'm wondering if you could explain this to us. You said the entire sad, shabby process starts with a distorted understanding of time. So what do you mean about how progressivism in both its cultural and theological forms are rooted the distortion in a misunderstanding of time?
Os Guinness: Well, the progressives never tells you the standard by which you're to judge you're actually making progress. So again, it goes back to the 18th century, and there was a strong belief technology would progress, and technology and science have truly progressed. But they thought then that moral progress would happen at the same time, and that simply hasn't happened. Of course there's no way of judging it. So you take a common liberal statement that the arc of justice is a long one, but the arc of moral at the universe is a long one. It bends towards justice. That sounds terrific. But what basis do they have for that? None at all. The man who quoted that so often, Martin Luther King, in the sermon in a synagogue in LA, when he did so, he pointed out that many people who quote that don't actually have a view of history that would undergo that.
Now we do as Christians. Of course in the covenantal and linear view of time, time is a story. Of course the Bible is a story of many, many stories. Our little stories weave into God's greatest story. You can see that the linear view gives you a completely different view. So progress. You remember, well, you guys too young to remember, and Khrushchev slammed his shoe on the UN podium, telling the West he was going to bury them and so on. They were outdated in history. You have people today saying you're on the wrong side of history. But they didn't have an overall view of history to show that there's a right side. All you have is power today doing whatever you can. It doesn't amount to very much. So you start to examine progress. C.S. Lewis calls it chronological snobbery or Owen Barfield does, and you can see that it's based on a series of illusions, and it leads nowhere. We should challenge it cheerfully, whether it's the religious foreman in the church or the secularist form in politics.
Scott Rae: Os, one of the things I found so helpful about the book was how much our view of time is shaped by our worldview and how much we live according to a view of time without really even being aware of it very much. I mean, so many statements in here that are so insightful. But you call the clock the mother of machines, and it's an invention so consequential for not only how we see the world, but how we live within the world. It's a good example, it seems to me, of how influential our view of time is in shaping the way we live. I think for most people today, without them even being aware of it.
Os Guinness: Well, you take something like we all talk about fast life. 24/7, 365 pressure. Where does that come from? It comes from the pressures of clock time. Now if you look at fast life and progressivism all tied together, many Christians have no way of knowing how to analyze that sort of stuff. So I often say American Christians could smell a relativist of a hundred yards, but if you're asked to show the impact of time on the, say, church, they wouldn't know how to do it. Whereas for that, you need not only the history of ideas, you need cultural analysis because fast life didn't come from any philosopher or theologian or psychologist or any ideas person at all. It came from the clocks, the watches, and so on. You need to be able to analyze the impact of cars or televisions or smartphones and really know how the things like that shape our thinking as strongly as any philosopher.
Sean McDowell: What would you say is the relationship between time and freedom, and why did you spend so much space in the book kind of discussing that dynamic?
Os Guinness: Well, you just take one example. People think of the asymmetry of time. In other words, you can shape the future, but you can't shape the past. The Jews rightly challenged that. You take the whole day of atonement in Yom Kippur, and the biblical notion of forgiveness. When someone repents, they're saying that what they did some time back, whether a minute ago or 10 years ago or whatever was actually wrong. Now they're actually changing by repentance and confession, they're changing their view of the intention. When they originally did it, they thought it was right, good, justified, or whatever.
But when you say, I sinned, I screwed up, I blew it. Or whatever we're saying about something in the past we're changing the whole view of intention and in many ways that's what draws the sting of the malice of what's evil. The evil as an act still stands, sadly. But we actually changed the intention and view it differently once we go on record against ourselves in confession. That's a simple example how the past can be free, totally. As you see in the Old Testament, it can be put as far as the East as the West from us by the Lord's forgiveness and so on. You think of something like forgiveness. You see, it gives you freedom in time. So time doesn't always land on you like a growing burden on your back.
Sean McDowell: I was reading a book about racial reconciliation by a progressive writing to progressives, and one thing she said in there is when we discover racism and a sense we've done things wrong, the response is action, work. I read it, and I thought, man, this is a works based means of solving the problem. What you're saying is, yes, we need to act, we need to work, but forgiveness has to be a piece of this or we can never experience real freedom from some of the prejudice and hurts and mistakes in the past. Is that how you would apply this idea?
Os Guinness: No, absolutely. There's an extraordinary book called A Sunflower, you may have come across, which is Simon Vizental, the great Nazi hunter, his story of a concentration camp in World War II. To cut the story short, I'm sorry, people should read it themselves. He was taken from the work detail he was in, and he thought he was being taken to be killed. In fact, he was taken into a hospital cell, where there was a dying Nazi who wanted to confess to him as a Jew about the 20 or 30 Jews that this Nazi had killed.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Os Guinness: Anyway, cut a long story short. Vizental refuses to forgive him. Brushes his hand away. But then he stops the story, and he said, "What could I have done? What should I have done? What would you have done?" He asked 50 world leaders, and it's a very, very interesting discussion because there's all sorts of confused answers. The Dalai Lama, many others. But the two clearest answer, Martin Marty, the Chicago theologian and Desmond Tutu, and I can't remember which is which. But one says forgiveness uniquely frees the past. The other says forgiveness uniquely opens up the future. So the Christian faith through forgiveness is a matter of the life of a second chance. You can see how freedom is brought into time in a very wonderful way so that the accumulation of our evils don't become an impossible guilt for us to bear.
Scott Rae: Os, I think one of the most insightful parts of the book is when you state it like this: that those who perceive themselves as victims and respond by portraying themselves as victims end up by paralyzing themselves as victims. Explain what you mean by that and how does and how this relates to the concept of time?
Os Guinness: Well, we're obviously in a world of a huge amount of evil, injustice, violence, and so on. But the real question is how we respond to it. You can see that our Jewish friends who are the most victimized people on Earth throughout history, sadly, sometimes from Christians, they refuse to be victims because by becoming victims you become passive and you paralyze yourself. The heart of the Jewish understanding is responsibility, initiative. So the Jews refuse to be victims, to their credit. But you can see a part of the progressive secular left is playing that victim card. It weaponizes injustices and evils from the past by portraying yourself... But it's counterproductive because people who see themselves as victims come and play that in real life, and they end up weak and pathetic. So it's not a Christian thing at all.
It's just one more example where the difference between a biblical view of tackling, addressing wrong and the progressive secular left way is totally different. The biblical view of prophetic challenge, confession, repentance, reconciliation, restoration, all these good things. But in the secular view, something's wrong. You have retaliation or in current language, reparations, and so on. You can see, take American history. Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, all of them are tackled slavery and racism, but from a biblical perspective, aiming for forgiveness and reconciliation. From Stokely Carmichael right down to the extremes of Black Lives Matter, you have a very different view, and the problem of race is getting worse, not better. That's an absolute tragedy and quite unnecessary.
Sean McDowell: That is a tragedy, and it's heartbreaking, like you said. One of the quotes towards the end of the book, when you start moving towards how Christians can address some of these issues we've been discussing, stood out to me and you said, never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously. Never have Christians been more irrelevant. So my question is, should we seek relevance and how do we parry that alongside faithfulness?
Os Guinness: Well, the gospel is always relevant to every person, to every generation, to every culture, you name it. The gospel is always relevant. It speaks to the point and is pertinent, so on. So no misunderstanding. Relevance is not the problem. It's relevance in a sort of progressive mode. The idea of the latest must be the greatest. You've got to keep up. You can see, I mean, I don't want to pick on this, but you can see even in the last couple of years in evangelical cycles we're turning away from the millennials. I read books, the millennials were the Copernican generation and all that sort of stuff, and now it's the disease. You can see people just fascinated with the... But biblically, the challenge is not isolating a generation. It's seeing that old generations up different pulse beats in the story of humanity, and we've got to have transmission between the generations.
Evangelicals who try and be relevant to the Zs. No longer millennials, no longer the boomers, et cetera, et cetera. They're just chasing what's the latest and greatest. Now the worst at this were liberals in theology, and you can see from Friedrich [Slimarker 00:24:15], we want to reach the cultured despisers of the gospel, and he reached them and became like them. Liberalism theologically has been lost ever since. It would be tragic if evangelicals went down the same road and were seduced by this idea of progressivism and tried to be relevant to every new thing. As Dean Inge said a long time ago, he who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower. Why? Because the spirit of the age doesn't last very long, and you can see an owl fast moving culture of fads and fashions change faster than ever, you've no sooner caught up with one, then you're irrelevant to the next one. So it's an absolute folly.
Scott Rae: Os, let me go back to the title of your book. Carpe Diem Redeemed. The notion of seizing the day. How would you encourage somebody who is operating within a covenantal view of time to seize the day effectively and faithfully?
Os Guinness: Well, I've got chapters in that, and I think we begin with the Lord's challenge to Abraham, walk before me. If people think that seizing the day is sort of acts of random spontaneity. No, if you take jazz or football or piano playing. You've got a master a technique first to be able to innovate and improvise well. Mastering life is to walk before the Lord. The long obedience in the same direction. But then build on that, whatever the Bible means by reading the signs of the time.
You remember our Lord says you can tell the weather, but you don't read the signs of the times. You're missing them. You're not getting it. Now in many ways since our Lord, weather forecasting is easier than ever with modern science and technology, but reading the signs of the times is as hard as ever. We've got to get into what that means. That leads thirdly, as I argue, to whatever Paul meant when he describes King David as someone who served God's purpose in his generation. So seizing the day, you know all the cryonics and life extension dreamers, they're saying we might live for a thousand years. Well, it's interesting. People speculate. If you had a thousand years, there might be a huge increase in procrastination. Why do today what I can easily leave for a hundred years time?
The fact is I'm mortality, three score years, give or take a few, is like a framework that gives us that sense of urgency. As the Bible says, to redeem the time, but to serve God's purpose in our generation and then move on. My generation's nearing the end of its time on the stage. Yours is right bang in the middle. You know, but those who are children now will be edging you out one day, just as you'll be where I am one day and so on. We need to see that we're all in this succession of time, and we've got to use our time well redeeming that time, and that's where carpe diem comes in. If you put it in a Christian framework rather than the secularist one, which usually boils down just to grab it while you can.
Scott Rae: Let me just have you speak to an application of this. I was commenting to a close friend of mine about, oh, a year or so ago, that I had just checked off an item on my bucket list. I'd actually seen a match at center court Wimbledon, which is something I've always wanted to do. He made a really interesting comment. He said, "I don't have a bucket list. My bucket list is doing what God wants me to do." I thought, I wondered, if the concept of a bucket list is somehow a defective view of time that we actually ought to be challenging rather than what I was doing was actually commenting that I had checked another item off of it.
Os Guinness: No, I'm actually with you. If you look at human nature, part of our difference than the animals, we can think of a long past through memory and history. We can imagine the long future through vision and dreaming and so on. So we have the capacity to exercise our wills with a sense of strategic planning. So I'm with you now. We've got to add though, [inaudible] strong on this. The Jews are strong on this. Often life has an incompleteness.
So Moses; calling is to take the people, freedom from Egypt, take them to the promised land. He doesn't make it. As the Jews point out and Eva points, often in life there's a river we won't cross. There's a task we won't complete. There will be a sense of incompleteness overall, but that doesn't mean our lives are in vain. No, no. Everything we do in the Lord, whether we live for six months or 106 years, it all has purpose under Him. But I'm with you. We're free to plan, think. But that doesn't mean we have the right or the presumption that we're going to achieve all the things we'd like to. We can try them, but there's often a sense of incompleteness, and we rest with that.
Sean McDowell: Os, this has been so rich, once again. We really appreciate you taking the time to come back on and join us. I really hope all of our listeners will go out and get a copy of this book and think about it, read it. I read it on the plane over the weekend, and then I was putting it in my bag, and I pulled it out and I read it a second time because I just wanted to absorb so much what's in it. I recommended it to a friend who teaches high school history. I said, here's a way to think about history and time Christianly. I have a friend who's a coach texted me. He goes, "Hey, what are you reading?" I said, "You got to check out this book." I mention that because you're an excellent writer, but this is one I really hope that our audience will just go get a copy right now and reflect on. I think it can be a game changer for them. So thanks for writing the book, and thanks again for coming back and joining us.
Os Guinness: Well, thank you, Sean. Thank you, Scott. It's always a delight to be on with you. May you flourish for a long time.
Scott Rae: Thanks.
Sean McDowell: Thank you. This has been an episode of the podcast think Biblically: conversations on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest Os Guinness and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/think biblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and please share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.