ReVision

Presentism

It takes more than this to walk circumspectly.

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Ephesians 5.15, 16

Walk circumspectly
The apostle Paul reminds us that “the days are evil.” They were evil in his day, and they continue evil in ours. One reason this is so is that many contrary winds of doctrine want to blow us off course in our journey with the Lord. Many of these come at us from without, worldly winds that circle the globe continuously, looking for sails to fill and vessels to capture.

Other winds derive from within us, where concern for self above all else can creep into our thinking, unrecognized, and cause us to drift from our great salvation. Narcissism is one of these. Another is what many writers today are referring to as “presentism.” Presentism encourages us to “live for the moment,” “seize the day,” or “make the most of your time in the now.”

Paul’s word to the believers in Ephesus was to “walk circumspectly.” This meant several things. The Christian lives from a different vantage point that people who do not have faith. So, in chapter 1, Paul calls us to gaze with the eye of the heart on Jesus, exalted in glory, and filling the world with Himself. In some sense, we need to “see” Him there, to be encouraged and strengthened by looking up to our risen and reigning Lord (Eph. 1.15-23)..

But Paul also urged us to look back, to remember both what God has done for our salvation, and the promises and covenant He made with His people so long ago (Eph. 2.1-12). We must always be looking back to the fact that we are God’s image-bearers, redeemed in Christ, and working each day to lay hold on the precious and very great promises He extended so long ago, and have all been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

We also need to keep an eye on the future. Seeking the Kingdom of God, and praying that it will come on earth as it is in heaven, implies that we have some sense of the way things ought to be. Paul addresses this in chapters 4-6 of Ephesians, as he instructs the believers to press on in their discipleship, in building the Church, and in fighting the good fight of the Kingdom of God.

With these three “looks” in our purview, we can then “walk circumspectly” and “redeem the time” God gives us, wresting each moment of our lives from the grip of evil, and trimming the sails of our soul to embrace and billow with the Wind of God.

Presentism is an ill wind of doctrine that arises within us when we forsake our Christian vantage point on life and look only, like Peter, sinking into the sea, at the tumult and turbulence around us.

Presentism defined
Advocates of presentism “point to the ‘singularity’ of the present moment: the idea that the now is all we have (temporally). I will use singular, in the claim ‘The present moment is singular’, to refer to this idea of ‘being the one and only’. The ‘singularity thesis’ is the idea that the present moment is all we have – the one and only time.” So writes John Martin Fisher in “The Problem of Now,” (Aeon 8 January 2021). He explains that those who sail by the winds of presentism believe that “we should focus our full attention on the present moment precisely because of its singularity.”

 In his book, Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs argues that one way to escape the trap of presentism is to devote ourselves to reading good books from the past. He writes, “To open yourself to the past is to make yourself less vulnerable to the cruelties of descending in tweeted wrath on a young woman whose clothing you disapprove of, or firing an employee because of a tweet you didn’t take time to understand, or responding to climate change either by ignoring it or by indulging in impotent rage. You realize that you need not obey the impulses of this moment—which, it is fair to say, never tend to produce a tranquil mind.”

Dr. Jacobs wants us to become “denser” as people, and to enlarge our “temporal bandwidth” by communing with great writers and their ideas. Reading great books from the past, in other words, is a way to escape the trap of presentism, of having one’s perspective constricted to the moment, and thus to act and engage on the basis of very limited resources.

We can also become “denser” in our souls by meditating on Christ, exalted in glory; living toward the promises of God; seeking the Kingdom of God unto increased righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit; and long and eagerly anticipating the return of Jesus in glory, and the ensuing new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells.

The presentist believes that this moment, this singularity of time, is the interpretive key to everything – all that has happened before, and all that will come to pass hereafter. Presentism has no sense of history, no appreciation of heavenly mysteries, and only the vaguest, shape-shifting charts for how to navigate through life into the future.

Letting such a view fill the sails of our soul can drive our Christian journey onto rocks of despair.

Problems with presentism
When in 410 the city of Rome was sacked and burned, people throughout the Roman Empire feared it might be the end of the world. The great singularity had occurred; the empire which had lasted for centuries was in ashes; and the barbarians were wreaking havoc on every border.

Writing from North Africa, Augustine calmly, clearly, and convincingly called believers and any other readers to keep things in perspective, and not to give up hope. In City of God, Augustine rehearsed the history of Rome and all the reasons accumulating throughout that history that the city fell into the hands of barbarians. He also rehearsed the history of the divine economy, from Genesis through Revelation, to put Rome’s moment in the larger framework of divine promises and Christian hopes. We still read his book today with great encouragement.

Where presentism is the driving force in our lives, filling the sails of our soul instead of the Wind of God’s Spirit, uncertainty, despair, hopelessness, and fear are on the tiller. We become frantic, frenzied, even panicky. Our natural instinct is to think: “Survive!” We look for the most practical and pragmatic ways of alleviating fears, overcoming anxiety, and finding some peace and happiness. Presentism turns us from the image-bearers of God, who view life from the fixed vantage point of Christ, His promises, His Kingdom, and His return, into pinballs, shot into the game of life, and seeking to maximize each moment in isolation from all others, hoping to ring up enough points before we drop into the hole at the bottom of the game. Presentism forestalls the pursuit of holiness, robs us of our joy, and leaves us looking at our feet, like Peter, being swallowed by the Galilean Sea.

The antidote to presentism is to reclaim the Christian vantage point: Look up to Jesus; look back to God’s promises and works; look for the coming of the Kingdom; and look forward to the return of Christ. And do this all at once, all the time, and you’ll make the most of every opportunity for the glory of God and the blessing of the world.

For reflection
1. Why do you suppose so many people have succumbed to the allure of presentism?

2. How can we as Christians keep from being sucked into the whirlpool of presentism?

3. How would you advise a new believer to begin practicing the Christian vantage point on life?

Next steps – Preparation: Pray Psalm 90.12, 16, 17, asking God to show you how to make the most of your time today.

T. M. Moore

All the studies in this Winds of Doctrine series are available by clicking here.

At the website
You can also now listen to a weekly summary of our daily Scriptorium study. Click here for Jeremiah 50. You can also download for free all the weekly studies in this series on the book of Jeremiah by clicking here.

To learn more about the Christian vantage point on life, listen to Issue 5 in each of Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of The InVerse Theology Project. You can also download our free ReVision PDF, We Would See Jesus, by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore