The Single Man and the Arc of Life

A Time to KeepLast month I started a slow articulation of my current disposition towards church and the Christian life.  It started with thoughts about friendship or community through the lens of a Rod Dreher post.  From there I moved to a reflection via Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer on the search for a God that so many have, statistically, already found.  Then I landed on thoughts from C. S. Lewis via his discussion of “nice” and “nasty” people and his thoughts on “membership” in the context of restoration and “the collective versus community.”  I understand that this articulation has been slow and scattershot at best (with lots of music and movie clips in between).  That’s been a matter of time and timing as much as anything else.  I’m hoping to use these next few days of spring break as an opportunity to move the articulation forward, mostly through Ephraim Radner’s A Time to Keep, a book I’ve mentioned here once or twice before but only in the hopes of getting back around to his thinking.  Maybe the time for that is now.

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A Time to Keep is Ephraim Radner’s attempt at articulating a big picture theology of life and the human lifespan in light of what he calls the “the Great Transition.”  Through means medical, social, and economic, this “Great Transition” has moved humanity from a place of relative stability in our understanding of a life’s span (live in one place, have one family, work at one job, live 80 years if all goes well) to something that has unmoored us from what he calls “the arc of life” (seen in the wisdom of experience and literature).   Radner’s argument is abstract and inductive (at least for me), but when it starts to get more solid (almost 100 pages in), clarity and Christian wisdom are found (after all, “we cannot pry apart the concrete realities of our life spans from the redemptive claims made about our beings in the gospel”).

Early in the book, Radner points to five areas of life most affected by the Great Transition: the shape of the family and relationships, maturation and its meaning, gender roles, the meaning of work, and the meaning of the body.  These areas are, of course, ultimately inter-related, drawing from and then leading back into one another often.  By the time you get to page 96 in the book, these themes are inseparable.  And they all speak to something I’ve struggled with and for for some time: some way of life, some rule of life, to help me navigate the current moment and its extension through my life.  What I need, of course, is a kind of wisdom, a wisdom that takes hold of the entire biblical account that crescendoes in Jesus and the sending of the Spirit and shapes what it means for me to be a single guy traversing the arc of life.  Part of my frustration with the Christian life as it is often articulated today is that limited or no help can be found for this.

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And so, based on Radner’s approach, the question is “where does one find oneself on the arc of life?” assuming that the individual is allowed a regular lifespan not cut short by tragedy.

Radner asserts that the New Testament writers present “an array of ‘ages’ through which Jesus passes: birth, infancy and circumcision, infancy and flight with family, family, adolescence in the temple, adult with family, adult, new family at the cross, and [beyond the New Testament] old man.  Beyond that, he asserts that something more broadly Greek is evident throughout the rest of the New Testament:

The New Testament, in any case, seems to have made use of the categories of the Greek “seven ages,” using terms that fit realistically into significant age groups, distinguishing infants, children, youths, adults, mature adults, and the very elderly by their normal Greek terms.

But what if the Great Transition has obscured this assumed “arc of life”?  What does finding a way, finding wisdom, look like?  Radner continues:

The deepest challenge here lies in the form of wisdom that can thereby be learned . . . In many modern post-Transition societies, the loss of a sense of and commitment to the ordering of our lives in this way let alone their right ordering, has seriously undercut our ability to love in a way coherent with our creaturely condition.  We may still have tools to make the world a “better place” in certain material ways; but we can no longer apprehend the truth of who we are as creatures of God made in love and for love.

And so we have what could be considered a broken system relying on a broken timeline. How do you find and live in a meaningful life in such a context?

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If this “Great Transition” has caused something of a shipwreck for everyone (and perhaps even more-so for those for whom marriage and children are not real options on the table), then the writers and artists I have found have been good and necessary life preservers.  People like N. T. Wright and Kevin Vanhoozer have helped me recover the biblical story.  Tolkien and Lewis and Chesterton (and to some extent Claremont and Waid and Simonson) have given me the stories of others.  Buechner and Miller, Crabb and Nouwen, Mullins and Peterson, have helped me recover the thread of my own life’s story.  And all of this in the context of a nurturing but 4,330-miles-away family, a short list of churches that haven’t always quite known what to do with me, and a vocation and job that has pushed and stretched me in great ways.  For all of these things and people, I am grateful.

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All of this is prelude, groundwork, for the next few text-heavy posts.  These posts will rely heavily on Radner’s view on “the vocation of singleness” and the extension of that vocation into the broader Christian/church community.  I hope you’ll read along.

(image from amazon.com, of course)

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