Capturing A Moment Requires Time

There was a moment sitting in the recliner chair, that I inherited from my father, that sits centrally in my office, as I read Karl Barth’s Dogmatics In Outline, where he writes (well he didn’t properly write since Dogmatics In Outline are lectures that he delivered without notes that were written down by several students in the ruins of the lecture theatres at Bonn after the war and then pieced together into a definitive edition like some kind of latter-day Gospel) in passing that God is not outside of time since he has all the time. God has time. I am trying not to find the reference to prove a point about memory. Memories of events that happened in time accumulate a meaning in spite of their not always being accurate.

I had always thought that God was eternal. And eternity was the opposite of time. But if Jesus’ incarnation means anything, Barth argued, it means that he sits at the right hand of the Father as a temporal being. He may be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow but even to say that is to say that this is a God who is utterly in possession of time.

We know this to be true from physics. If there is not even a square inch of creation over which Christ does not claim “Mine!” then it follows that there isn’t a nanosecond either. Time is meaningless without space and vice-versa. The Lord of the Earth is by definition the Lord of Time.

This flowery speculation on the character of God is actually my way into discussing something my best friend wrote about capturing a moment and how it casts light on an aspect of that article in the Atlantic I wrote about yesterday.

In that article the author points out:

Our omnipresent new technologies lure us toward increasingly superficial connections at exactly the same moment that they make avoiding the mess of human interaction easy. The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society—the accidental revelations we make at parties, the awkward pauses, the farting and the spilled drinks and the general gaucherie of face-to-face contact. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. Everything’s so simple: status updates, pictures, your wall.

I have been thinking about that and why it is that I prefer email to every other form of communication. In part it is because I type quickly and write clearly and so obviously I prefer modes of communication that make me most effective. Fundamentally however, I love the fact that I can drop an email into your inbox without any obligation at that moment to get into a conversation. I can communicate with you, clearly, in depth, with real meaning, without ever interacting with you. When you respond, if you respond, I can leave answering the email until it suits me. Whenever I phone you, I secretly hope you can’t answer so that I can just leave a voicemail and get back to you another time. Even better, I can use it as a premise to turn the messy interaction of a phone call into the simple, reduced 160 characters permitted by text.

The superficial connection that email provides is at the very core of why I prefer it as a mode of communication.

More deeply than that, what I love about email and am starting to love about Twitter, is that it appears timeless. I drop you an email, it is timestamped but it arrives almost before it leaves, travelling instantaneously and lands silently at its destination. You get the email out of time. What matters is that I have fulfilled my obligation in sending it. What you do with it is your business. On your time. No time for me. I don’t have to worry about how long the postman will take to process it. I don’t have to worry about you being free when I call. Your temporality makes no difference to my communication.

And yet email makes for a perfect record. It has been the undoing of many political scandals because internal emails leave us an almost unassailable trail of what people said to each other. Bill Clinton sent one email in the history of his presidency. One imagines, without being uncharitable, that something about the way he did business was not conducive to the rock solid archiving that email provides. It captures the moment on one hand while evaporating the moment on the other. It is the perfectly gnostic way of communicating.

The Atlantic article talks about how we casually throw three wonderful photos from our night out up on our Facebook page but that little act of moment-capturing is actually the result of carefully selecting three from three hundred as part of an ongoing curacy of our self-representation online. Facebook saves your whole digital life for display but that digital life is a carefully selected and refined (inevitably fantastical) slice of your life. It takes time to remember time. But Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and all the other social media sites we invest in are in the business of tricking us into thinking it’s effortless. They distract us from what we’re doing by elaborating the idea that we are relating to each other. In reality, we are creating fodder for their marketing behemoths to feed on.

How does this time-consuming task of recording our time and the gnostic tendency I have towards email over modes of communication that dare to let you talk back to me relate back to God as Karl Barth describes him? Well I forget now. I didn’t take the time to record my thoughts.

No, really, what I am trying to say is that the fallibility of memory is lamentable and also worthy of celebration. While it blocks us from remembering the unlimited love poured out on us as a baby it also saves us from traumas we can no longer even recall. More fundamentally, it reminds us that we are creatures of time and space. To be dead is to no longer occupy space and time. To be dead is to have run out of time. To be dead is to be where God isn’t, for he has all the time in the world. And so we should be wary of technologies of any kind that promise timelessness, eternity or instantaneity. These things are impossible possibilities, which is one of Barth’s favourite ways of describing sin.

Your Correspondent, If only he could forget but memory’s his favourite thing