What Is “Temporal Bandwidth” And Why Should A Christian Care?



I came across a really interesting idea in a post from the New York Review of Books. *

The idea is called ‘Temporal Bandwidth”. Now before clicking ‘off’, have a listen to this.

Bandwidth is an idea that we are used to. It has to do with the rate at which our computers can receive information. But the idea of ‘Temporal Bandwidth’ describes just how ‘wide’ our sense of ‘now’ is.


People make jokes about people in beauty quests, who, with the memory of a gold fish turn their heads left and right, as if watching a goldfish swim back and forth across its bowl. When asked about their goals they say ‘Meet new people…world peace….meet new people…world peace…meet new people…world peace.” This is a graphic image of a very narrow ‘temporal bandwidth’ because it describes someone whose sense of ‘now’ is very narrow.


The second part of the argument goes that the narrower your ‘temporal bandwidth’ is, the more tenuous a person is. This means that the narrower one’s temporal bandwidth is, more susceptible a person is to being manipulated, and the more fragile a person’s sense of ‘self’ is.


The other side of this coin is to have a wider ‘temporal band width’. This means that a person can reach back into history a long way, in order to ‘locate’ their present. As well, this gives a person the capacity to commit to longer term futures as well. Having a broad ‘temporal bandwidth’ means according to the article having a ‘denser’ (more solid) sense of self.


So on the one side, there is the idea of a self with a narrow sense of ‘now’ but this self is fragile and tenuous. On the other hand, there is a self with a wider sense of ‘now’ which is more solid. As the author concludes “ You cannot reduce your engagement with the past and the future without diminishing yourself.” This idea has a lot to say about, and to Christians I think.


First of all, the very existence of an historic Christian faith gives us a temporal bandwidth that stretches back into the past. Our story is the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and of Jesus and on it goes. Our ‘selves’ are ‘located’ within a very long, and alternative story to that of the modern world. The very fact of having an alternative story gives Christians a way of looking at their present with a relatively wide ‘band width’ and hence ‘solid’ selves.


Of course, this does not always mean that Christians will apply their own stories to their lives. It is clear that in Germany, in the 1930s most Christian people applied German Nationalism and the Teutonic history to their situation. It was only a few who saw that National Socialism was incompatible with Christian ‘internationalism’, and who stood up against it.


These days, the success of Donald Trump may be seen as the success of people who, having been pushed around by the success of the ‘neo liberal’ agenda of the last thirty years, and have no tools to think through, historically how this has come about, are going to be ripe for the manipulation of people who offer a ‘quick fix.’


The Church, since its answer to Communism in the 1891 document ‘Rerum Novarum’, has always argued for human and social conditions for workers, and for a tendency toward equality, rather than toward inequality of incomes. Knowing about this gives Christians ‘more solid’ selves.’


The same kind of argument is true about the current debate about the UK and the European Union. It has been rare in this debate to hear about the more than 70 years of peace that the EU has brought to a war torn Europe. In the immigration debate, there is little mention of the millions of deaths that occurred because there was no where for the Jews to go.


Much of the argument is about the ‘now’: migrants taking our jobs, with no historical sense as to how his anxiety about jobs came about. On it goes. This debate is beset with a terrible sense of ‘no history’. The selves that are debating have no genuine story in which to locate themselves.


The Epistle to the Ephesians (4:12 – 14) describes in biblical terms what ‘broad temporal bandwidth’ means. It says “[The Church has Apostles and Prophets and Teachers,] to equip God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”


That is what this reflection is trying to do!


The other side of the coin is also true. Christians hope for the future. The ‘Heavenly Jerusalem’ ha been established (in principle) by Jesus’ resurrection. The pattern of the world is set by the reality of this future Reign. We are able to make promises because we have a future, and we are able to keep them into the future because our selves are ‘solid’, based on our being grounded in our Christian story. Christians in general are not the kinds of people who look out for the best invitation, and then accept it at the last minute!


In the Eucharist this reaching back celebrating in the present, and looking forward are all present. They are summed up in the Acclamation “Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!”


I want to affirm the sense of solidity of self that comes from being a Christian.


But that other side of things has to do with flexibility and change. Those who are ‘fragile selves’ are likely to be convinced by the ‘a-historical’ arguments of those who offer a ‘quick fix’ but they are also likely to be unable to change, because of the same insecurity of self.


But having an alternative future, gives us a sense in which the direction of change is to go. We have an image of the reign of God that is set before us, and it is our task as Christians to be ‘changed from glory into glory till in heaven we take our place.’ Transformation and renewal are at the centre of Christian life. As Sallie McFague ** speaks of conversion, not as a shift from one fixed world view to another, but as a “radical vulnerability to transcendence”. So the solidity of our selves lies not in resisting any change at all, but in being open to the process of continuing engagement with God in Christ, to allow Him to make us holier, and continual engagement with the world for the sake of offering a process of ongoing conversion, whereby selves, which are grounded in God, can be made. This is a powerful message, and a great gift that Christians have to offer the world.


So I am glad for the wide ‘temporal bandwidth’ that being a Christian gives me. I pray for the grace to continue to be a pilgrim: putting one foot in front of the other in the direction of the heavenly Jerusalem.




McFague, S. (1978). “Conversion: Life on the Edge of the Raft.” Interpretation 32: 255 – 268.




About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
This entry was posted in Engagement, Eucharist, Living Before the Face of God, Religion and Society, Uncategorized, Weekly Reflections at St. John's Montreux and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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