Wednesday, December 07, 2005


I made up this word a while back, during an AIM conversation with a friend. Turns out that the word exists, but I did independently come up with it. Its construction is actually quite logical and therefore it's not surprising that my creation is less than totally original.

Anyway, chronocentrism means believing the prevailing ideologies and ways of viewing the world in your present historical era are more superior and right than all other eras. Actually, it can best be applied to ideas/people who are not aware of historical ways of thinking and take their view on issues to be eternal or timeless. Very rarely is this true. I would venture to say that it never is.

It is this realization, more than anything, that has structured my intellectual transformation since I began college. This realization that the frames and lenses through which we view the world are inherently shaped by our culture and our values (and that culture and values change over time) caused me to question some of the fundamental tenants of my worldview. What seems "natural" no longer seems so. Things that appear to be "inevitable" are actually a result of a particular historical progression.

Not only are our perspectives shaped by our historical and cultural location, they are shaped by our cultural location. This awareness, that all of our knowledge is situated, leads me to the study of race and gender and class. How are our experiences shaped by these variables and how do those experiences alter our perceptions and interactions?

These issues are what I most try to impress on people when getting into discussions about broad social or religious or moral or political issues. "What we know" is not only incomplete and situated but could also be very different. Thinking inside the chronocentric box limits our thinking and our possibilities for change.


What does it mean to say that certain religious ideas are socially constructed? Sacred texts may be the word of God, heck, lets even assume that they are literally the Word of God. Even better, lets assume that English translations are still the word of God. Given those assumptions (bear with me), there's still a problem: interpretation always, always, always occurs in a social context. And the social context can change dramatically.

1850: The Bible is used to justify human slavery.
1950: The Bible is used to preach liberation for oppressed people.

Very few, even the most racist Christians, would argue that the Bible allows for slavery today. (And, I should know, I ordered the KKK starter pack just to see what all was in it, and wow, but that's a post for another day.)

But that one's easy. And doesn't challenge chronocentrism. I mean, you can still say that those wacky Southern slave holders were wrong, but finally, today, we have the One True Interpretation of scripture. Harder would be to challenge a current belief and show 1) it's constructed nature, and 2) how it could be different.

Let's take, say, homosexuality.

Ok, I am not going to get into the massive, huge, ongoing debate about what scripture actually says about homosexuality. That is beyond the scope of what I'm trying to do. But, just so it's out there, there is by no means consensus among religion scholars that the present-day interpretation of Biblical scriptures as banning homosexuality is "correct." Much of this debate centers on the original language of the works, the social context of the writing, and issues arising from translation. It is fascinating stuff.

But my point is to look at how interpretation of scripture has been altered by social context. What is the context of the scholarly debate going on and how did we get to this point in our reading of what the Bible says about homosexuality?

When I started out this post, I thought I was going to finish it. But I realize now that that would be too much of an undertaking. I need to do some more reading to present a more complete and fair analysis of homosexuality in Christianity (historically). I found some interesting stuff about how homosexuality (mostly male that I could find information on) was not only tolerated but accepted in the early church. But it didn't have sources and felt incomplete. I need to do more reading on this topic. I may start with this?

But, to illustrate my broader point, I'll choose another topic and give it a quick and dirty run-down. Abortion. Many Christians oppose it. And they say that their opposition is rooted in their faith. And I believe them. Because faith is something personal, not something historical. Faith is what you believe here and now, not what Christians have always believed. Faith is a good thing, I have faith. I'm not knocking it at all. But faith often does not come with a view of the constructed nature of its beliefs. It often takes those beliefs to be timeless and eternal. Faith can still hold after a recognition of its situatedness, but it's harder.

Anyway--back to abortion. Hebrew law says that if someone attacks a woman and kills her, the punishment is for murder. However, if someone attacks a pregnant woman, injures her, but kills the fetus, that is treated as a property crime rather than as a murder. This is similar to the Aristotelian idea of "delayed ensoulment," the idea that the soul doesn't actually enter the body of a fetus until it is well along in development.

Some in the early Christian church opposed abortion:

St. Hippolytus (circa 170-236 CE): "Reputed believes began to resort to drugs for producing Sterility and to gird themselves round, so as to expel what was conceived on account of their not wanting to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time." Refutation of all Heresies 9:7

Minicius Felix (Christian lawyer, circa 180 - 225 CE): "Some women take medicines to destroy the germ of future life in their own bodies. They commit infanticide before they have given birth to the infant."

St. Augustine (354-430 CE) reversed ideas about abortion, returning Christian theology to a "delayed ensoulment" kind of philosophy. The consequences of this are that abortion early in a pregnancy is not murder, as the fetus is not seen to have a soul.

Some Christian leaders, however, did not totally buy into Augustine and still punished abortion. However (and this, to me, is a big however), it was generally grouped with sins that prevented conception such as practicing coitus interruptus or through consuming products intended to induce sterility. It was also grouped with sins meant to regulate sexuality, such as oral sex.* However, in comparison with these other sins, abortion was actually considered a less serious offense, with punishment requiring 120 days of penance and the punishment for oral sex lasting from 7 years to a lifetime.

Several Popes (Steven V, Innocent III) then took the view that abortion is not murder until quickening, the point at which movement by the child is first felt. St. Thomas Aquinas did not consider abortion murder until quickening, when the fetus was "animated."

Sorry, this is going on far far longer than I thought it would. Needless to say, there are many switches, but the quickening doctrine was pretty stable in theology and in law. In America, we begin to see the first abortion laws in the 1820s, which forbid abortion after the fourth month of pregnancy. By 1965, all states had some abortion bans, though they varied widely from state to state. Most of these bans can be attributed to the rise of physicians as a profession, and gynecology as a speciality. You see, midwives were the primary providers of abortion services to women. They were huge competitors with doctors. The AMA was really influential in getting state-wide bans. In 1973, when many of these bans were overturned by the US Supreme Court, we began to see the rise of abortion as a religious issue. I, of course, am opposed to abortion. But I like to think that I am reflexive about why, and I recognize the sociohistorical context in which ideas about "life" are salient as religious ideas.

I guess that my overarching point in this is that people who are socialized to view abortion as a religious issue aren't wrong--but they are acting within a social context that has given them a particular "knowledge" about certain issues and urges them to think about them in a particular way. If they had been born in a different time, they would not see abortion as a religious issue. Is their view of Christianity and abortion "wrong"? That's their call. What I am calling for is a recognition of the history. We need to get away from the chronocentrism and the arrogance that suggests that our philosophy, that our teachings, that our interpretations of scripture are the only ones or the best ones.

Another example: conservative religion + conservative politics. Not natural bedfellows, really. But I know several conservative Christians who would say that conservative politics (tax cuts for wealthy, supply side economics, minimal welfare state, etc) goes hand in hand with their faith. Well, um, no. I mean, it does in our present culture. But it's by no means fundamental. Look at fundamentalist and evangelical populist and socialist movements back in the day. Our present religio-political climate encourages the linking of political and religious "knowledges" and thus what seems "natural" is in fact highly strategic and engineered. There are several books on this subject and histories of how the two came to be linked. I'm not passing judgement on this link, but what I am saying is that it is not natural or inevitable.

Another quick example: Baptism as "outward sign" and "Sinner's prayers" as leading to salvation. While these are not by any means the only Christian views on the subject, they are certainly hegemonic within modern day Christianity (here are examples of people who reject those particular doctrines). But they are new. It has not always been the case that Baptism was an outward reflection of an inward change. The idea of praying your way into salvation is also a relatively new one, theologically speaking. Are these ideas wrong? Again, not for me to decide. But--people who believe these should confront their chronocentrism and realize the historical nature of their beliefs. Those weren't the beliefs of, say, the early church or the medieval church. And that's ok. But, they were constructed.

And the realization that all of what we believe (not just religion) is constructed is important in order to be able to challenge our accepted notions and assumptions about how the world works. Thomas Kuhn argued that the biggest revolutions in physics have come, not from physicists, but, rather, from people outside of that field. Disciplines socialize people into how to think about issues. That's a good thing, because it gives us focus and a theoretical framework. But it also gives us blinders. That why people trained in a different field, such as mathematics, were able to look at a problem confounding physicists in an entirely new and different way. They didn't share the same limiting assumptions.

This ability (or at least the potential ability) to question my assumptions, to always look at the history of ideas, to understand the ways in which ideas have been constructed, has revolutionized how I think about the world and how I relate to it. Central to this has been overcoming chronocentrism.

So, yeah, the point of this post: go forth and use the word "chronocentrism." If I ever read it anywhere, I will assume that I started it, even though a google search reveals otherwise.

*I argue that the current pro-life crowd, at least the leadership, is less concerned with "life" per se and more concerned with the regulation of sexuality, particularly womens' sexuality. I will post about this later if I think about it. NB: I am not the only one (by far) to take this view, but, coming from my background, it was a big step to take and I came to it independently.


Jennifer said...

Hey, thanks for replying :-)

Yeah, I've found that thinking that today, right here, right now we have the newest/best ways of thinking and analyzing the world knows no political bounds. On the left and on the right, I think we fall into the chronocentric fallacy, that our thinking today is finally ultimate truth, with no consideration that people in the future may critique our own beliefs/views.

That being said, you just wrote: "I argue that even if society's view on truth changes and we should not get caught in judging the past from a presentist point of view, there are universal/absolute truths that exist. That would explain why those who used the Bible to justify slavery/discrimination were wrong."

How do we determine those absolute truths that you refer to? You say that people who used the Bible to defend slavery were wrong and that your present interpretation of scripture is right. Why? Why have you, today, here and now, discovered The Ultimate Interpretation? I don't know your views on, say, gay marriage, but I know many people who use the Bible as a way to argue against it. Now, regardless of the fact that it's hard to argue that any Biblical authors intended to convey the idea of homosexuality (because homosexuality as an identity didn't exist until the late 19th century!!), why is your (their?) interpretation any better than that which will be done by scholars/believers 50 years from now (where homosexuality will probably not be condemned). Is there interpretation more right than yours? They will probably think so, and that has less to do with their personal theology and more to do with their social context. Scripture is always interpreted in a social context, and that context leads adherents to believe that they (finally!) have it "right." They will regard people in the 20th c. who used the Bible to condemn gays in the same way that we today look at the ppl who used the Bible to support slavery and condemn interracial marriage.

I'm not making a value judgement here, nor saying who is right or wrong. Rather, I'm questioning your belief that there are "absolute/universal truths" that can be gleaned through interpretation. Note, I'm not arguing that there are NO universal truths. I'm arguing that it's a bit iffy to call certain things universal truths that every era has a different interpretation on. Those aren't universal, and when they are called that, that's engaging in chronocentric reasoning ("these are universal ideas, because WE, today have FINALLY come up with them!")

Anyway, thanks for replying, and debating is fun, so feel free to reply!


Jason Beavers said...

[note from jennifer: this comment was originally first, but I think I accidentally deleted it, so I'm reposting. My comment up there is a reply to this.]

I came across this blog while trying to find out a definition for the word "chronocentricism." My name is Jason. I graduated from Ohio State and currently teach history. I was interested in the word "chronocentric" because my "liberal" professors seemed to buy into it, unconsciously. It seems as if people of a more leftist view interpret the past with with a nose held high in the air. These types of people use what C.S. Lewis called "chronoligical snobbery"--basically saying that people in the past were stupid, look at how smart we are today. The problem is that increase volumes of knowledge and access to it do not mean more intelligence. So I have "liberal" professors telling me that we can't believe that the Bible is the word of God because look at all our new ways to interpret texts, etc. My students look at the environmentalist view of days of western expansion and say that they "did not know how to take care of nature"--when all along they did, they just had a different view, that nature should be tamed, not protected. I say all this to state that basically I took chronocentrism to be a advocation of more conservative views. You seem to take more liberal views, revisionist views. I find great irony in that, because not many people would have agreed with your form criticism in the Middle Ages, but now since we are so much "smarter," people will buy into what you are saying. I argue that even if society's view on truth changes and we should not get caught in judging the past from a presentist point of view, there are universal/absolute truths that exist. That would explain why those who used the Bible to justify slavery/discrimination were wrong. They looked at the Holy Text from their point of view, misinterpreting the entire context of the passages. This does not take away the Bible's validity. A person's misinterpretation does not prove the actual text's uninspiration--it just proves a person's ignorance. If we want to find absolute truth, we have to study the Bible from the context in which it was written, and then apply that to today. If we did so, in any culture, in any generation of human history, we would all find this: that we all need a Savior, that He came, and that we all need to recognize Him or things will be worse here and in the afterlife. Now, having said that, I must admit that I did not read your entire post, so if you made these same points, I apologize. I did write this rather hastily, but I am in one of those debating moods. If you would like to continue this, e-mail me at