Epistles of Thomas

January 14, 2015

Time as History by George Grant

Grant, George. Time as History. Edited by William Christian. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.grant
This can also be listened to online in its original Massey lecture format on the CBC.

This book is comprised of five lectures given in 1969 for CBC radio and is presented here with a long introduction by William Christian. He also rearranged the text quite a bit so if you are listening along with the lectures you will need to flip around to find the right place. It also includes a short dialogue at the end with Charles Malik. This is, quite frankly, the highlight of the book. The lectures focuses on Nietzsche and Grant’s agreement and challenge to the same.

Time as History is the theme and it is important to know what he means by this. For that reason the book actually begins with what did not appear until about the 20 minute mark of the original lecture. It would have been very difficult to follow Grant on the radio. With regard to history he says: “However these two sides of the modern project may be put together [history and the study of history], my purpose is to write about the word history as it is used about existence in time, not as it is used to describe a particular academic study….I am concerned with what it means to conceive the world as an historical process, to conceive time as history and man as an historical being” (13). For Grant there is no more purpose to history than the passage of time and our acting within it. This follows from Nietzsche although he does put some of his own spin on it.

History is future oriented in that we have a goal towards which we are focussed and the study of the past is what allows us to formulate and accomplish that goal. We speak of the present with a view to the future; “we are trying to gather the intricacies of the present so that we can calculate what we must be resolute in doing to bring about the future we desire” (16). To unpack the concept of time as history we need to “think our orientation to the future together with the will to mastery” (17). The ability and will to change things combines our future orientation with action, something that is unique to our civilization at this time. Along with future orientation is this idea of the willing. We are Creators: “It is our destiny to bring about something novel; to conquer an indifferent nature and make it good for us” (24) “Time is a developing history of meaning that we make” (24). History has makers – those who strive to bring forth something of their own creation. This reflects our future orientation. “…meaning is not found in what is actually now present for us, but in that which we can yet bring to be” (27).

He spends much time on Nietzsche’s rejection of the idea that there is purpose to be found within history. God is dead is the famous affirmation and now there are no absolutes to give shape and purpose to our world. Those who have left religion behind still find purpose in the very “unfolding of rationality among the species, man” (38). Nietzsche rejects this as well, seeing it as a vestige left over from Christian days. ‘Horizon’ is used to delineate the context within which everything appears within its limits. The historical sense shows us that these horizons are our own creation. “They are man-made perspectives by which the charismatic impose their will to power.” The horizons are not the nature of things out there, but rather “they express the values which our tortured instincts will to create” (40). Horizons are analogous to narratives in the meta-narrative – narrative distinction. Of course if we create them they have no meaning beyond ourselves.

Nietzsche found his only solace in the doctrine of amor fati (love of fate). By embracing an undecided fate one could find peace and “begin to will novelty in joy” (56). Grant seeks to move beyond this by speaking of remembrance and from that loving and thinking. Love of fate is not fatalism – the acceptance of whatever might be, but rather it requires action. “Nietzsche’s love of fate is not passive, but a call to dynamic political doing” (59) Those who have moved beyond the previous view of history are beyond the vices of that age. They are now free to practice dynamic willing without revenge. There are three facets to history: past, present, future which correspond to remembering, loving and thinking.
Remembering – the handing over of tradition is surrendering. To live within a remembered reverence. He gives the example of his dying Christian friend who rejected the thought of Nietzsche. That friend lived within the tradition handed down to him, Christianity, and was quite content with the meaning he found there.
Loving and Thinking are the means by which we appropriate from tradition and form the future.
The question is not who deserves to serve as masters of the earth but of mastery itself. Those who cannot live with the simple fact of time as history are called to utilize loving and thinking to create a better world. This is the task of great thinkers and saints. In the face of Nietzsche’s two options: last men and nihilists Grant seeks to articulate a third possibility in which we find meaning by looking to the past and appropriating meaning for ourselves. There can be nothing universal about this meaning but we can find solace in it. In other words we may unashamedly live within the tradition handed down to us (e.g. Christianity) while not claiming any kind of universal truth for it.

As a Christian, I obviously must be challenged by this concept as it seeks to undermine my understanding of history and my place in it. Specifically, Grant says that humans seek permanence rather than face the reality that all is in continuous change: “The desire to assert some permanence is particularly pressing among those who have begun to be aware of the abysmal void of its absence, and who wish to turn away from such a cause of fright” (37). As a Christian I find this unacceptable because I believe that there is permanence in many things, especially regarding the metaphysical, such as the soul. It would seem that one can only see the absence and face the fright if one has already rejected one’s solid Christian belief. If that is the case is he suggesting that we return to our belief in order to escape this newly found knowledge? What of those who have grown up with it and who have never stepped outside it? What of those who grew up without it and have converted to a world defined by the mind of God rather than their own creating. Surely not everyone, down to the ‘semi-literate,’ can be the relativists he believes us to be, given the high degree of religion in our society of one kind or another.

I was just reading an article about Islamic State and the aftermath of the Paris attacks. It claimed that IS is feeling the brunt of western air attacks and it is certainly only a matter of time until they are eliminated. Perhaps this is what Grant meant when he talked about our civilization destroying so many others. Nevertheless, it is not ideological superiority that seeks to defeat IS but modernity’s technological superiority. The grandchildren of the superior fire power that tried to bomb North Vietnam into oblivion. I would dare to suggest that there are far more Christians in Vietnam today that read the Bible daily than there are people who have ever read Grant or Nietzsche. The belief that our civilization is superior to all others was what led us to Vietnam and it failed. Where that failed the Church has been victorious. Dare I suggest that it will not be western humanistic, liberal, postmodern, time as history process that wins over the people of the Middle East but rather the love of Jesus Christ. A love so great that it expressed itself in death for an enemy.

I think this idea that time is merely history has had an impact on our world. There are many today in leadership, government and otherwise, who seek to remold the world according to their image, with no regard for the Great Ideas of God or Ideal or righteousness. Today in Canada, society seeks to redefine marriage with no regard to our past understanding. However, I do believe that those change-agents still believe that they have a greater purpose on their side. They will say things like those who disagree with us “are on the wrong side of history” as though historical progress will vindicate their position. This may be true in the short term but I do not see it happening in the long run. Those who seek to create our story through time are merely workmen for Ozymandias. History will pass and they will pass away forgotten while only the name of their king will be remembered in dusty history books.

In conclusion, I cannot agree with his premise because it does not fit our context. It no doubt fit his 1960s context but today around the world people are not pessimistic about the possibility of a better future because of an understanding of time as history, nor are they attempting to create a future by appropriating the past through love and thinking. Instead, from Africa to Asia to the Middle East billions believe that we live within His Story and that we are agents working on his behalf to bring about his will on earth as it is in heaven.


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