Advent Reflections on Time, Consumerism, and Liturgy

The global spread of a consumer culture is changing human perceptions of time. Traditional rituals which marked the passage of the years and linked time’s passing to production and reproduction in communities of place are declining. Instead human life is increasingly drawn into a cult of instantaneity and speed that is implicated in the increasingly ecologically destructive tendencies of a high energy, high mobility culture. Climate change and biodiversity loss are two of the ways in which a high consumption civilisation is increasingly transforming the life support systems of the planet in ways that threaten its enduring support for life. The time scale in which industrial greenhouse gas emissions provokes climate change is not however instantaneous, but instead multi-decadal. This temporal lag, while it maps poorly onto contemporary experience of time and related economic measures of human welfare, maps rather better onto the longer term life-time accounting that was common in the Christian era until the consumer age.

The phrase Ancestral Time recalls the role of the liturgical year of Christian and Jewish tradition in marking time meaningfully through each year. It also recalls the human species-specific habit of reverence for the remains of the dead. Memorials to the dead are among the oldest built structures in most cultures, including in Scotland, and often play an orienting role in the siting of places of dwelling and worship. For those who lived before the advent of the consumer society, reverence for the dead was connected with a sense of responsibility to the ancestors to live well, and to leave the earth in as good or better a condition than they left it. Reverence for ancestors therefore indicates that life is a gift and that diminishing the beauty, diversity or stability of life is to dishonour those from whom we received it. Ancestral Time therefore represents a significant cultural challenge to the dominant accounting procedures of a consumer society.