Nothing but the Present: Lecture Four

In this post I offer a summary of Tanner’s fourth Gifford lecture, followed by a brief critique of her characterisation of the present moment in Christianity. Two of my New College colleagues, Jo Schonewolf and Amy Plender, will also offer responses to the material, then it’s over to you for questions and commentary. The lecture video is also now available at this link.

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In this fourth lecture, Kathryn Tanner will describe the way that finance capitalism disciplines workers, managers, and traders in such a way that they become totally absorbed in the present moment. This discipline occurs through a number of means, including the conditions of scarcity imposed by market fluctuation, but its effects differ in proportion to the resources and liquidity one has at one’s disposal. In either case, the market, through corporations, reduces life to a sequence of ‘bare’ presents, isolated from past and future. Tanner will then argue that this view of the present is in diametric opposition to that offered by Christianity, in which the present moment is urgent because of its opportunity for gracious encounter with God. Tanner will then claim that divine, eternal constancy can become one’s orienting point in the midst of continuing market volatility.

Tanner’s lecture begins by characterising the conditions of the ‘bare present’ as experienced by the worker. Picking up from her previous lecture, Tanner claims that an employee’s ‘total commitment’ has to be expressed by full attention to the present task. A sense of urgency is created by profit-maximising firms which, in their desire for maximal efficiency in response to market volatility, convey that time and resources are scarce. This has mind-focusing effects on workers, which Tanner illustrates with reference to the experience of packing for a trip with a very small suitcase: every item, and its placement, has to count!

The worker’s life, under a company’s ‘scarcity-propelled efficiency dynamics,’ is deeply anxious. With time and resources in short supply, one is afraid of being fired or demoted on the job. Relatedly, the worker, or indeed, the unemployed person, is afraid of being evicted if unable to pay the rent. Such urgent focus means that the present ‘becomes depleted of its usual temporal dimensions,’ namely, its relation to past and future. Someone bound to the fear of the present in this manner can therefore be led to ‘borrow against the future’ without the luxury of thinking through the consequences. Tanner again returns to the choice many make for payday loans, at exorbitant interest, a harrowing risk one assumes ‘without second thought.’

Workers are not the only ones who have an isolated experience of the present moment, for company executives are also constrained by market volatility. This makes long-term strategies difficult, even if they should help to develop the company’s profitability. For instance, a series of layoffs can have a favourable effect on the stock price rather than a new marketing strategy. Tanner observes that long-term measures to assure future profitability therefore ‘become almost passé.’ Meanwhile, the corporation’s strategy has to be ‘geared’ to the market’s volatility. For instance, if a bad winter cuts sales and an executive refuses to close stores or lay off workers, the company stock value may well plummet.

A key difference between the two groups, however, is that while executives can reap profits from such short-term thinking, employees often pay the cost of short-sightedness. Layoffs and plant closures are examples of this, but even the conditions of leaving the company differ. The CEO who is paid in stock options can cash out quickly, while waged employees suffer, not to mention stockholders who remain.

Alongside workers and executives, traders also experience the isolation of the moment at hand—and so the sense of life as a dispersed ‘sequence of presents’ rather than a ‘collected consciousness’ of past, present, and future. With traders, however, differences in speed become particularly significant. Tanner notes that the movement of money is ‘frictionless’ when compared with the movement of people. If a company chooses to relocate or outsource, such a ‘transaction’ requires the cost and time of training. Those who trade in the arena of finance, however, are even further removed from the ‘slow processes of making and selling actual things.’ Tanner uses the example of the ‘derivative’ contract that ‘creates its product as soon as it’s drawn up,’ linking financial assets themselves; ‘nothing but money changes hands.’

Tanner portrays traders as those who profit most from ‘short-termism,’ responding to market volatility by exploiting the possibilities of ‘the instant.’  A particularly extreme case of this is the attempt to make profit by ‘arbitrage,’ the practice of simultaneously buying in one market and selling in another. Tanner also cites the way that traders might take simultaneously long- and short-term positions in order to avoid the ‘unhedged consequences’ of either. Such transactions occur in nanoseconds, ‘too quickly to be experienced.’ The trader reacts moment-by-moment; there is no ‘timeline’ or recognisable history ‘that one might intervene within and interrupt.’

The ‘short-termism’ that is especially manifest in finance-disciplined trading is not a problem for those with plenty of liquid assets. The present is urgent for them, but this is not because it is an emergency but because the opportunity for profit-maximisation must be seized before it’s gone. Loans are discretionary rather than being caused by indigence, Tanner notes, and those who have large, liquid reserves ‘can move freely from one present to the next without suffering any harm.’

In contrast, those who do not have resources in liquid capital feel the fluctuations of the present as a threat. This leads to a paralysing sense of indecision: insofar as their life constantly feels like a risk, they can hardly become ‘risk-taking’—and so the kind of daring entrepreneur who can turn a profit. Tanner observes the way in which one’s affective relation to the present becomes compromised, with little room for hope. Even if one is only holding on to a difficult part-time job at low pay, one becomes resigned to the way things are.

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True to form, Tanner turns from a discussion of the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ to the ‘subjectivity’ framed by Christianity. Tanner claims that Christianity also shows a ‘preoccupation with the present,’ even if the effects of such a focus are ‘diametrically opposed’ to the dynamics of finance-disciplined capitalism. In light of the ‘overlap in temporal sensibility,’ however, Christianity can ‘infiltrate’ the bare present of contemporary capitalism in order to disrupt its constraints. Christianity does so by posing the continual demand for conversion to God through Christ, a gracious opportunity available every moment.

The Christian’s encounter with the present is not urgent because of a sense of scarcity. Rather, Tanner argues that it is the ‘fulsomeness’ of God’s provision that make the present so crucial: the time for action is now and has never been better. The grace of Christ is constantly on offer, so the reason one would want to seize it immediately, she continues, ‘is not the fear of missed opportunity, but the immediate, overwhelming attractiveness of the offer.’

The urgency of the present moment in Christianity is also distinct because it carries the assurance of forgiveness. In contrast with the lessening of ‘slack’ in profit-maximising corporations, the decision for Christ involves the grace to cover one’s missteps. Tanner claims that failure ‘cannot disrupt the efficacy of a grace designed to save sinners.’ Unlike the obligation of debt, to a payday loan company, for instance, one’s ongoing sinfulness does not have the power ‘to deplete the resources needed for future demands.’ There is no longer any need to borrow ‘against’ the future.

Tanner contrasts her depiction of the Christian view of the present with that of Stoicism. Keep in mind that she is not drawing a direct comparison with the ancient philosophical school but rather, in light of her ongoing engagement with Foucault, treating the ‘Stoic-influenced temporal sensibility of financial operators.’ Whereas the present-day Stoic seeks to collect oneself in the midst of volatile markets by seeking to unify the will, the Christian looks to God as object. As Tanner elaborated in a previous lecture, ‘one’s self-project and its object’ are two aspects that are not ‘convertible’ in Christianity as they are in Stoicism. God is the unwavering object of one’s attention, even as one’s self-project is not thereby subsumed.

Indeed, turning to God every day, ‘as if from scratch,’ provides an expansive horizon to one’s life-project. Tanner contrasts the ‘short-term horizons of profiteering’ with the wider temporal sense that comes from envisioning the future judgement seat as well as the company of all the ‘blessed dead.’ One’s consciousness can become recollected as one ‘participates in the present in God’s own awareness of time,’ she continues, ‘to form a simultaneous whole, the entirety of such past, present, and future efforts to direct thanks and praise to God.’ Even if the present moment seems to ‘fly by,’ it contains the whole of time, even the whole presence of God.

Tanner claims that the Christian view of the present, as encounter with the eternal God, is crucial for the subject disciplined by finance capitalism. The market leaves people in a state of disconnected presents, as most clearly seen when one rapidly goes from a well-paying job to unemployment. However different the circumstances, one is always invited to gracious encounter with God. The constancy of the divine life is the ‘unusual character of the object of one’s attention,’ Tanner notes, alluding to her contrast with Stoic attention to the self.  As a result, she states that ‘one is looking through every present moment, so to speak, to something that is not itself part of the same ever-changing, unpredictably volatile mix.’ God does not have the volatility of monetary profit, remaining an absolute value.

Tanner has been invoking Augustine, particularly his work Confessions, throughout her characterisation of a Christian view of the present as the intersection of time and eternity. She concludes that it is this relationship that provides the cure for one’s ‘disorienting dispersal,’ particularly acute in finance-dominated markets, as well as one’s ‘simple temporal distention,’ that is, the ordinary sense of the constant passing of time. Different moments, Tanner claims, are not held merely in reference to one another, but by ‘reference they all share to the same, invariably present God.’

Moving from summary to critique, I want to question the lack of differentiation in Tanner’s account of time. In her discussion of Christianity, every moment appears to hold the same opportunity as any other. This is clearly attractive as a way of showing that the entirety of life is open to ‘conversion.’ Nevertheless, it does not convey how the Christian calendar has oriented the dispersal of one’s ordinary days in light of specific occurrences of ‘gathered time.’

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor coins the term ‘kairotic knots’ to indicate times that are particularly suited to reversals and, indeed, divine presence. He is playing on a distinction between the Greek terms kairos, which means an appointed or especially full time, and chronos, which suggests ordinary passage. Taylor notes that even our contemporary histories suggest the distinction: revolutions are often narrated in this way. The earlier social practice of ‘carnival,’ in which political roles were flattened or reversed, also points in this direction.

Taylor uses these broader social understandings to highlight the Christian view in which ‘ordinary time’ is ordered around ‘higher time.’ He suggests that particular seasons and festivals (he names Shrove Tuesday, Lent, and Easter) are attuned to the kind of conversion Tanner describes in ways that other times are not. The relation of time and eternity here is such that, to adapt Taylor’s example, Good Friday 2016 is ‘closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion’ than the day on which Jeremy Waldron opened the 2015 Gifford lectures. Taylor goes on to discuss Augustine’s view of ‘gathered time’ in this context, noting that the event of ‘rising to participate in God’s instant’ is contrasted with ordinary time as dispersal, a loss of unity.

The critique that I am posing, with reference to a Catholic philosopher, is that Tanner’s Protestant ethic of the present lacks important distinctions between times. The risk she runs is that, if every moment is replete with God’s presence, the historically-oriented rituals that constitute Christianity seem relatively inconsequential. Moreover, Tanner’s call to conversion seems to leave little time for anticipation or denouement.

10 thoughts on “Nothing but the Present: Lecture Four

  1. Thanks again for this summary- as with the other lectures thus far, there were many ideas brought into conversation and it’s so helpful to be able to read back through them again.

    On the face of it, finance capitalism is subject to many folk Christian critiques: love of money is the root of all evil, for a clear starter, along with the biblically-based idea to lay up your treasures in heaven, not on earth where moth and rust can eat away. As Professor Tanner has also pointed out, finance capitalism doesn’t concern itself much with the poor, especially the working poor whose debt keeps them in poverty day in and day out, a far cry from Jesus’ call to care for the poor who we will always have with us. It’s been fascinating, then, to hear in lecture after lecture a critique of finance capitalism from a systematic theologian’s perspective.

    In this lecture, Professor Tanner focused on how finance capitalism keeps us in the present, to the exclusion of the past and the future. She brought out these themes in her introductory lecture: even though past debts keep low-income workers in a cycle of poverty, for those in the market, the present and short-term gains dominate. As someone who has worked with students who come from these low-income backgrounds, whose families struggle to pay the rent, much less provide opportunities for their kids, I often found myself nodding at her description of how a market divorced from the larger economy lays a disproportionate burden on the working poor. As Tanner brought this lecture back to Christian theology, she shifted the focus from finance capitalism’s presentist focus on profit to Christianity’s presentist focus on salvation and turning every moment back to God.

    There was much more to the lecture, but the takeaway for me was that the Christian needs to put God back in God’s place. The parallel seems clear to me; in every moment, those playing the finance capitalist game are tweaking their actions to acquire the most money and, as Christians, we are perpetually changing our actions to make them more in line with the standards set by God. It’s admirable in this way— we, as Christians, are called to a different standard that cares for each human person and is meant to question the systems the pull people down. But perhaps there’s a benefit to making this critique more specific in Professor Tanner’s lectures? Or maybe it’s up to the listener to work out how to apply broader truths to their individual lives.

    What does everyone else think? Is there a clear way to make these lectures more concrete in terms of the actions Christians are called to take in the present in which we live? And, looking forward to the next lecture, is there a way in which the future can drive our present actions?

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  2. The difference between FDC’s idea of the present moment and Christianity’s was too subtle for me. Different goals perhaps but still living for the moment. The problem is that we deal with what is immediately presented to us instead of prioritizing what is important to our lives in concordance with God’s will. We live in an age where instant gratification of our wants is the order of to-day. There is no past, no future; only the present.

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    • There is a difference, I would say, between living for the moment, which is what finance-disciplined capitalism forces, and living in the moment, which is what we are called to as Christians. It’s a difference of intention and focus: profit and survival versus God and salvation.

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  3. Thanks, David, for your insight and constructive commentary. I also appreciated Tanner’s rejection of the secular present as simply “one thing after another”. Tanner’s mention of past and future economies as less urgent than its present state reminded me of the wise and foolish virgins with their oil lamps (Matthew 25). Similarly, I felt her implicit criticisms of decisions made by institutions favouring short-term financial gain (such as workplace lay-offs) over long-term strategy (e.g. adjusting marketing plans), was appropriate, given that she also pointed out that “those without money are most vulnerable to the effects of ‘quick’ economy”. The least of these are as valid as the greatest.

    However, I found her treatment of the present – surely her most salient point – frustrating. She noted the urgency of accepting the grace of Christ, not due to the chance of losing it, but because of its attraction. Yet her argument that “the whole of time becomes ours in the present”, to my mind, fell short. Such a statement could entail a soaring metaphysical discussion – I realise this might not be Tanner’s style, but a brief explanation of so enigmatic a point was needed. It seems counter-intuitive, if not incorrect, to say that all of time becomes ours in God. Christ is the Alpha and Omega, not the Church.

    Jo ended with a helpful point for discussion; how to extrapolate concrete actions from these lectures and apply them to the Christian life. I didn’t feel there was much to go on from the lecture itself, but the image of carefully packing a small suitcase seems useful. The “eat, drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15.32) mentality is especially dangerous for its effect on the most vulnerable of society. So perhaps a more patient, considerate approach to economy is needed – if such a thing exists! I confess I found this aspect of Tanner’s lecture rather depressing. What I think she is calling for – a robust, Christian approach to economics – seems fated to failure. There are numerous ways for individuals and churches to serve the poor; I don’t see the big corporations, with their workplace lay-offs over marketing plan adjustments, adapting any time soon. Can anyone else enlighten me here?

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    • It seems to me that “the whole of time becomes ours in the present” precisely as we are the Church–sacramentally, metaphysically one with Christ, who is the “Alpha and Omega.” Tanner may be suggesting that we may trust Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” for us was answered, is being answered and will be answered affirmatively by God, i.e., we are one in Christ as Christ and the Father are one, and we are one in them.

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    • Along with what mthrbarbara1 has said, ‘the whole of time becomes ours in the present’ may also be derivative from Plotinus, Boethius or Pannenberg (who himself resourced Plotinus in his view that every moment of history even now is simultaneously present to God so that the eschaton is something of a ‘timefulness’ rather than a ‘timelessness’). With such a line of thinking in the backdrop, it may be more comprehensible to suggest what Tanner is suggesting (though just because something is comprehensible, of course, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true). That said, I can sympathize with Tanner on this, but I’m not sure what the fruit of such a perspective would actually be in practice.

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    • I’m fascinated by Prof Tanner’s repeated use of “one thing after another” because, at the Scottish Episcopal Institute residential weekend we just had, Fr Ian Paton from Old St Paul’s emphasised several times that we must be careful to ensure that liturgy does end up being “one thing after another” but has flow and narrative. Could that mean that liturgy so conceived, although it doesn’t reform or disrupt the finance-disciplined capitalist system per se, might at least begin to build a space in which the temporal dimensions stripped away by the system are in some degree restored to the worshippers? In this sense, liturgy could be “public work” (the root meaning of “liturgy” ) in the sense of a public service. It is, in fact, one way in which “worship and liturgy care for us”, as Robin Green says in Only Connect (1982).

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    • I’m also wondering whether there is something in this lecture to help guide how the churches respond to debates such as those on the EU referendum and the constitutional question in Scotland, not in the sense of pointing towards a corporate Yes or No — that would not be appropriate — but in enabling us to lift our sights above the narrowly economic and finance-disciplined parameters of the usual debate. (To be fair, the 2014 independence debate had some of those characteristics, and not only among Christians by any means, although those outside Scotland could be forgiven for not knowing that, as the media didn’t cover that element very well.)

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  4. Around the 18-20 min mark, Professor Tanner addresses the interest of FDC in rapid turnover to realize profit, and “because it’s not dependent on the slow processes of making and selling actual things, [this] allows such turnover-time to be nearly instantaneous.”

    This put me in mind of a TED talk I heard a few years ago which provides context and contours for this remark — Kevin Slavin: “How algorithms shape our world”. While this talk needs to be seen from the beginning to make sense of the ending, the situation recounted beginning at 10m30s illustrates Tanner’s “nearly instantaneous” observation quite sharply.

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