Those of you old and hip enough to remember the band Chicago will understand the title of this column as being one of their more enigmatic hits. On the surface the question seems rather foolish. Of course we know what time it is because our cell phone tells us so.
The question about time is really a statement made by postmodernists in their critique of the modern way of understanding life. In fact, of all the philosophical movements of our time, post-modernism may be the most dangerous for the simple fact that it is also very helpful. Here's why. Postmodernism asks all the right questions of modernity, and perceptively uncovers its greatest errors, allowing us to see how it unfairly shaped our view of things. But the corrections postmodernity suggests for those errors are actually the causes of far great problems. And Chicago's question about time provides a starting point.
Modernity was a philosophy of certainty, and that certainty was based on the trust we placed in the major institutions of society and their ability to keep their promises. Remember back when the institutions of science promised an easier, better life through technology? when medicine promised better health through research and drugs? when politics and government promised peace, and education promised to end poverty and man's inhumanity to man? And remember when the church promised that you'd be healthy, happy, and rich? I remember when medical doctors were always right, and second opinions were never considered. We were giddy about the promises these major societal institutions were making. After all, we'd landed a man on the moon! How hard could our other problems be to solve?
I'm not positive, but I think it may have been the disillusionment associated with the Vietnam War that was the tipping point leading to the major erosion in our confidence that the institutions of science, government, medicine, education, and religion really had the truth, and could be trusted. Besides the war, we now had diseases never before known, more complex lives and worse relationship despite all the gadgets and wealth, and even a casual look around the world revealed that hatred and prejudice were alive and well, as was injustice, poverty, and despair. This all opened the door for the postmodern critique, with its essential belief that no one ever really could know the truth, and anyone or any institution that declared how you should think or live was really just trying to dominate you for their gain. In the mind of postmodernism there is no such thing as absolute truth simply because no one could ever know everything perfectly. Thus, the postmodern maxim was born: If you can't know anything perfectly, you can't know anything certainly ... including what time it is. And anyone who tried to promise you something, or declare the right way, was really just trying to take you captive.
But these days we are increasingly seeing through the postmodern mask to the absurdity of their assumptions. How can you declare absolutely that there is no such thing as absolute truth without your brain exploding? And unless you really want to live in a theoretical world rather than this one, you'll have to admit that it is a logical fallacy to believe that complete knowledge is a prerequisite to certain knowledge. The fact that you and I do know things, and yet know none of them infinitely is as clear as the fact that you must know how to read to be involved in this column right now.
So where does that leave us? If the modern worldview, with its dogmatism and institutional bravado has largely been found to have overreached and overstated its importance, and the postmodern critique has fallen under the weight of its own absurdity, where do we turn? At the risk of oversimplifying the situation, I propose that the problems with modernity, so clear to the postmodern eye, are actually best addressed by premodern answers. No, I'm not for throwing out the advantages progress has given us. What I am for is a reconsideration of the truth that who a person is, is considerably more important that what he or she has accomplished. What I am for is a return to ancient themes that provided stability and strength in cultures where nobility and integrity were considered of more value than possessions and power. Where community meant more than merely living in proximity; it meant dwelling as mutually beneficial partners in the maintenance of peace, the raising of the next generation, and the betterment of all concerned. Where virtue and courage and perseverance and patience and host of other personal characteristics were the prerequisites for leadership rather than wealth, good looks, business success, and the ability to turn a phrase. For me this means building life's foundation on God's Word, the Bible, and realizing that since He is eternal, His words are eternally relevant.
I grew up loving the music of Chicago, and over the years I have reflected on much of the pop wisdom they and other songsters promoted through their melodies. And I can confidently now answer the question: Yes, I do know what time it is. It's time for people to get back to caring about people, and about what kind of people we are, and what kind of people we're raising to lead when we're gone. I think Chicago would agree.