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Kierkegaard's Critique of Secular Time

The following paper was presented at the Eighth Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–16, 2014, in New York City.

Kierkegaard is the first to call modern Christians “pagans.” If Augustine’s critique of the Physicalists in the City of God was the last critique of ancient pagan time, Kierkegaard’s critique of our present “abstract infinity” is the first critique of modern pagan time. Augustine and Kierkegaard are like bookends on the complex sacred time of the Middle Ages.

From 1844 onwards, Kierkegaard argued that a particular internal time-consciousness as essential to Christianity. Christianity’s fundamental break with pagan culture is its consciousness of time:

The pivotal concept in Christianity, that which made all things new, is the fullness of time, but the fullness of time is the moment as the eternal, and yet this eternal is also the future and past. If attention is not paid to this, not a single concept can be saved from a heretical and treasonable admixture that annihilates the concept.[1]

This “pivotal concept” is the first formulation of Kierkegaard’s Absolute Paradox, the idea that Christ represents the temporalization of the eternal. This paradox is the cardinal feature of Christianity, the paradox religion of what Kierkegaard calls Religiousness B, and opposes to the religion of immanence, Religiousness A. In these concepts, we glimpse the conceptual grid underneath Kierkegaard’s deep sympathies with the monastic communities of the Middle Ages, which dwelt in the paradoxes of complex time.

In A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor writes eloquently about the complex time consciousness of the Middle Ages. Sacred time (nunc stans, aeternum) supervened secular time (the saeculum), and these two levels of time were mediated by a liturgical “time of origins” (aevum). Taylor:

time was understood as complex. As well as secular time, the time of ordinary “temporal” existence, in which things happen one after another in an even rhythm, there were higher times, modes of eternity. . . . There was the eternity of God, where he stands contemporary with the whole flow of history, the time of nunc stans. And there was also the time of origins, a higher time of original founding events, which we can periodically re-approach at certain high moments. . . . The Easter Vigil, for instance, brings us back in the vicinity of the original Easter, closer than last year’s summer day. . . . The original Passover, in Egypt, and the last supper, are brought into close proximity by typology, although they are aeons apart. And so on.[2]

In its “high moments,” medieval liturgies accessed the time of origins and brought one’s internal-time consciousness “close to” sacred events.

Taylor deserves praise for his careful attention to method. The immanent frame is not a concept with a genealogy in intellectual history. It is a social imaginary. Social imaginaries are packages of ideas linked by “economic, political, or ideal motivations.”[3] The immanent frame is the way ordinary people imagine their social surroundings. Having said that much in praise of Taylor’s methodology, it is remarkable that in his nearly 900-page book on the emergence of the immanent frame in the late Middle Ages, we never hear about the invention of the clock.[4]

In 1367 in the northern French town of Thérouanne, workers battled against the clergy and bourgeoisie for control of the clock. It was a scene typical of the years following the Black Death, when the decimation of the labor force improved the bargaining position of the unskilled worker: “the dean and chapter promises ‘workers, fullers, and other mechanics’ to silence ‘forever the workers’ bell in order that no scandal or conflict be born in a city as a result of the ringing of a bell of this type.”[5] All over Europe, the eminent medieval historian Jacques Le Goff explains how the earliest proletarians

turned the very bells that bound them into the tocsins of revolt. The decrees of these years make it clear what was at stake: the heaviest penalties were reserved for such lèse-majesté. At Commines the fine was sixty pounds (an enormous sum) for anyone ringing the bell to call an assembly; and for sounding a call to revolt, the punishment was death.[6]

By the fourteenth century, merchant’s time was replacing the church’s time. In the textile producing regions of Ghent and Flanders, in cities like Amiens and Florence, bourgeois aldermen successfully petitioned kings and bishops to have belfry clocks “ring a bell . . . when the workers of the . . . city and its suburbs should go each morning to work, when they should eat, and when they should return to work after eating; and also, in the evening, when they should quit work for the day.”[7] Under these concordats, secular time driven by economic concerns replaced liturgical time.

The measurement of time rolled out a new relationship of power that would define the modern political economy. Workers were now conscious of their measureable productivity, and not simply their busyness at any given time. For sociologists like Charles Taylor, discipline is the cardinal feature of the modern social imaginary.

Becoming conscious of time to the hour, or even the minute, profoundly changes one’s social imaginary. There is what sociologists call the social acceleration of time. (I become anxious about being “on time.” My heart rate quickens, so I perceive a faster rate of change “in time.”) The farmer’s ability to tell time by the season, a cyclical calendar loaded with liturgical referents, was replaced by the urban worker’s linear progress of minute, hour, week, month, year.

Beyond the social acceleration of time, this new social imaginary had a different sense of political legitimacy. While medieval coronation ceremonies certified the king with reference to God’s eternal laws, modern political time would have a future-oriented directionality. In Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time (2004), William Scheuerman asks us to:

Recall that the liberal democratic notion of legislation builds on a radical break with older notions of political decision making, according to which lawmaking bodies merely applied pre-given customary law, typically conceived in terms of an eternal “good old law” that was fundamentally static and unchanging in nature.[8]

Now, to determine the legitimacy of a political decision, the democratic public waits to see its outcome. The entire people is reimagined as a deliberative public, a democratic tradition of social contracts first drawn up in a state of nature. The people looks forward with democratic hope to a future of betterment.

The transcendent frame of our religious predecessor culture has obvious disciplinary mechanisms familiar to many of us: courts of Inquisition, Crusades, dreams of an afterlife-paradise that functioned as an “opiate of the masses”. But we should be aware of the disciplinary mechanisms of the immanent frame as well. For we reside here, in democratic time, cut off from the past. Critical theorists, in the tradition of Walter Benjamin, make the buffer between the past and the present a salient feature of modern democratic time. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), Benjamin criticizes the historicism that projects an “eternal image of the past” that is rendered inaccessible. The closure of the past robs the modern proletariat, for example, of a powerful source of political motivation: a “revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.”[9] Wendy Brown explains that Benjamin’s essay “makes the project of critical theory into [the] reconfiguration of time in order to open the present, literally to let light into dark times.”[10]

Kierkegaard witnessed the revolutions of 1848, where he saw the immanent frame of the new public sphere displace Christian culture. Kierkegaard recognized this dawning public sphere as an “abstract infinity.”[11] Citizens get caught up in public discourse intent upon making the earth gradually more just—but this democratic faith is a dangerous distraction from the paradox-religion. Kierkegaard, aghast that politics had parodied religion, decrying “a modern mentality [that] can be reduced to that damned caricature of religion, which is represented by politics.”[12]

Secular time erases its horizons, and appears infinite. Caught up in the apparent immanence of time, moderns do not conceptualize eternity. This occludes original sin, the paradoxical possibility that temporal individuals are eternally guilty.[13] Inside the immanent frame, there are only anxieties about time. Without anxiety about one’s potential eternal fate, the decision to “leap to faith” cannot appear. Kierkegaard explains the conundrum, and how one possible resolution risks backsliding into ancient paganism:

A human being is potentially eternal and becomes conscious of this in time: this is the contradiction within immanence. But that something is by nature eternal and comes about in time, is born, grows up, and dies, is a breach with all thinking. If, however, the eternal’s coming about in time is to be an eternal coming about, then religiousness B is done away with, “all theology is anthropology.”[14]


1. Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Reidar Thomte (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 90.

2. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 96.

3. Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), pp. 31-33.

4. Taylor recognizes that, “Our lives are shaped by accurate clock-readings, without which we couldn’t function as we do.” Still, the clock plays no major role his narrative. Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 542.

5. Jacques Le Goff, “Labor Time in the ‘Crisis’ of the Fourteenth Century,” in Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 46.

6. David Landes, A Revolution in Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 74.

7. Le Goff, “Labor Time in the ‘Crisis’ of the Fourteenth Century,” p. 45.

8. Willaim E. Scheuerman, Liberal Democracy and the Social Acceleration of Time, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 31.

9. Ibid., p. 263.

10. Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 14.

11. Kierkegaard, Two Ages, p. 108.

12. Søren Kierkegaards Papirer, ed. by P.A. Heiberg, V. Kuhr, and E. Torsting, 16 vols in 25 tomes, 2nd ed., ed. by N. Thurstup, with an Index by N. J. Cappelørn (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1968-78), X 4 A 84.

13. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. Alastair Hannay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 175.

14. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 486.

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