Sunday, December 07, 2008

Time, like an ever-rolling stream

For some reason, when men think about time, they find it only natural to reach for metaphors of motion: the proverbial “passage” of time. We use ourselves as the proximate point of reference. We see ourselves moving into the future, with the present moving by us, while the past lies behind us.

It’s the metaphor of a journey. Life as a journey. Maybe God has programmed us to perceive time in that fashion. That’s a morally and spiritually freighted metaphor.

The apparent passage of time generates its own paradox. As one philosopher puts it:

“On the one hand, what we perceive, we perceive as present. But on the other, we perceive succession, and so different states that cannot be viewed as present together, for then they would be perceived as simultaneous. Howe, then, we can perceive succession?…Presentness and the passage of time are projected on to the world, rather than being passively perceived. The view is parallel to projectivism about colour,” R. Le Poidevin, The Images of Time: An Essay on Temporal Representation (Oxford 2007), 10.

“I am looking at the clock on the mantelpiece, and note that both hands are pointing to twelve. Here, surely, is a straightforward case of veridical perception. There is the clock, and I am looking at it in near-ideal conditions. Without question, I see the clock, and the position of the hands, and at least a case can be made that I do so in an apparently unmediated way. The direct theory of perception is, if applicable to any case applicable to this one,” ibid. 97.

“But now the clock strikes noon, and I perceive a host of other things: not merely a series of sounds, but one chime as following on from another, the interval between chimes, and that interval as remaining the same in each pair of chimes. All these are instances of time perception, in that the content of the perception seems irreducibly temporal. But perceiving time in this way, and perceiving the clock, seem very different kinds of experience,” ibid. 97.

As Solomon observed long ago, in Ecclesiastes, the phenomenology of time is cyclical. That’s because nature is cyclical. And that includes the human lifecycle. Nature repeats itself.

As Solomon also pointed out, that can be depressing. It looks like repetition for the sake of repetition. No overarching goal.

But nature is not the only thing that affects our perception of time. Israel had a religious calendar. The weekly Sabbath. The annual holidays. This imposed a certain structure on time. Gave it a reflective rhythm.

Then there was the Day of the Lord. This gave time a telos. A forward-looking, goal-oriented perspective.

And that also made the past more meaningful. The past wasn’t merely something that had happened. The cumulative repository of various happenings. Rather, the past was like an unfinished story, with a beginning and a middle. This lent human existence a significance it would otherwise lack.

The OT perspective is refined by the NT perspective. There is the time leading up to the first advent of Christ. Not just an interval of time. But a providential arrangement of circumstances. There’s the interadventual age, which is fraught with anticipation. And then there’s the second advent of Christ, when the fallen world will come to an end, and a new, everlasting phase of history will commence.

Aristotle had a philosophy of time, but no philosophy of history—while the Bible has a philosophy of history, but no philosophy of time. And a philosophy of history is far more significant to human existence than a philosophy of time. A philosophy of time is fairly abstract and impersonal. But the Biblical philosophy of history has a narrative outline. Time as God’s story.

Later theologians like Augustine and Bonaventura tried to work out a Christian philosophy of time. The monastic life regimented time to a high degree. And debates about the Millennium also involve a philosophy of history.

I wonder if modern men are more or less aware of time than their forebears. On the one hand, modern recording technologies preserve an accurate record of the past. You can see people age and places change.

I can buy a DVD set of a TV show that I originally saw as a kid, 40 years ago. Some of the actors have long since died. I myself am older that some of the actors were when they starred in the show. That sort of thing might make you more aware of time’s passage.

We also live in a very mobile society. Many people don’t live and die where they were born and raised. Does that make you more or less aware of time?

Of course, even if you stay in the same place, the place around you may change due to urbanization and suburban sprawl. Businesses go out of business. Buildings are torn down. New buildings take their place—to be torn down a few years later. All that fosters a sense of transience.

In the past, it was common for people to live in the same place. And the place underwent little change over the years, or centuries, or even millennia.

You watched your age-mates age. You had the same set of childhood friends from the cradle to the grave (except for those who died of illness). That would foster a sense of constancy and continuity.

But it would also present change in a different perspective. You would go through the entire lifecycle in the same place, as would your parents and grandparents and your lifelong friends. Cyclical change.

People often comment on the inordinate length of Puritan church services. I expect one reason for their duration was the fact that, in the past, the service couldn’t begin at any precise time. You had to walk to church or ride a horse to church. Road were bad. You had no clocks or watches on the farm. So the congregation was a bunch of stragglers.

In the past, mortality was high. Families were large. And most folks died at home. Parents and Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Brothers and sisters. In that respect, our forebears were more conscious of time’s passage that most moderns are. You saw a steady turnover, up close and personal. And very wrenching that would be.

The paradox of secular modernity is that while modern man can calculate and measure time with minute accuracy, he has lost the significance of the thing he measures. Our Christian forebears had a crude sense of time’s measurement, but a keen sense of time’s significance.

I’ll close with some observations by a noted historian of time:

“If, like the vast majority of the world’s people, he lives in a rural society, his time is measured for him by natural events: daybreak, sunrise, high noon, sunset, darkness. He needs no more accurate division, for these are the events that demarcate his round of waking, working, eating, sleeping. The sequence of tasks fills the day, and when night falls and the animals are cooped or stabled, parents and children eat their evening meal and go tired to bed, to wake the next morning with the birds and beasts and start another day,” D. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Belknap 1983), 1.

“City dwellers measure time by the clock. Animals do not wake them; an alarm does. Their activities are punctuated by points on an abstract continuum, points designated as hours and minutes. If they have a job or class that starts, say, at nine o’clock, they try to get there on time. They have appointments, and these are fixed by points on the time scale,” ibid. 1-2.

“Picture an immensely complicated and uneven but often densely trafficked marshalling yard, with components shifting and shunting about in all directions; only instead of trains and directed from without, we have people, sometimes directed but more often self-steering. That is the world of social and personal interaction, which works only because the member units have learned a common language of time measurement. Without this language and without general access to instruments accurate enough to provide uniform indications of location in time, urban life and civilization as we know it would be impossible. Just about everything we do depends in some way on going and coming, meeting and parting,” ibid. 2.

“One of the most powerful notions to shape a child’s consciousness is that of being late or of missing (the two notions are sometimes equated, which says something about the price of lateness)—missing a program, missing a plane, missing a meal, missing a religious service, missing a ball game, missing a party. Most people operate within a margin of plus or minus several minutes. If they have to a train to catch, they get to this station a few minutes early; likewise for appointments,” ibid. 2.

“The question to ask is: Why clocks? Who needs them? After all, nature is the great time-giver (Zeitgeber), and all of us, without exception, live by nature’s clock. Night follows day; day, night; and each year brings its succession of seasons. These cycles are imprinted on just about every living thing in what are called circadian (‘about a day’) and circannual biological rhythms. They are stamped in our flesh and blood; they persist even when we are cut off from time cues; they mark us as earthlings,” ibid. 15.

“These biological rhythms are matched by societal work patterns: day is for labor, night for repose, and the round of seasons is a sequence of warmth and cold, planting and harvest, life and death. Into this natural cycle, which all peoples have experience as a divine providence, the artificial clock enters as an intruder,” ibid. 15.

“The clock did not create an interest in time measurement; the interest in time measurement led to the invention of the clock. Where did this demand come form? Not from the mass of the population. Nine out of ten Europeans lived on the land…But urban centers developed late in the Middle Ages, from about the eleventh century on, and already before that there was an important timekeeping constituency. That was the Christian church, in particular the Roman branch,” ibid. 58-59.

“It is worth pausing a moment to consider this temporal discipline of Christianity, especially of Western Christianity, which distinguishes it sharply from the other monotheistic religions…In Judaism the worshiper is obliged to pray three times a day, but not at set times: in the morning (after daybreak), afternoon (before sunset), and evening (after dark)…In ancient and medieval times, nature gave the signals,” ibid. 59.

“Nocturnal devotions, then, appropriately called vigils, were a spiritual watch for the second coming (the parousia) of the Lord…It was in the West, in the Rule of Saint Benedict, that the new order of the offices found its first complete and detailed realization: six (later seven) daytime services (lauds, prime, tierce, sext, none, vespers, and compline) and one at night (vigils, later matins)…hence the very term ‘canonical hour’,” ibid. 61.

“In large part this progress reflects the church’s continuing concern to solve and systematize the dating of Easter and the other so-called movable feasts…This combination of measurement and calculation made possible the construction of horologia giving night and day for every day in the year,” ibid. 64-65.

“We have already noted the contrast between the ‘natural’ day of the peasant, marked and punctuated by the given sequence of agricultural tasks, and the man-made day of the townsman…The two environments differed radically in their temporal consciousness. This difference was growing. (It was not to contract until the nineteenth century, with the coming of the railroad and the penetration of the country by the rhythms and servitudes of the city),” ibid. 72.

“Every locality continued to have its own ‘true time’ as marked by the sun. It was not until the coming of the railway in the nineteenth century that a faster, denser traffic compelled the establishment of regional and national time zones; and not until the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth that international agreements reduced these to a global system,” ibid. 94.

“The repugnance for city life in an age of urbanization…was reinforced by the intense awareness of the brevity of life and the imminence of death. This was a society that had experienced and could not forget the great pandemic knows as the Black Death (1347-1350)…The Europeans of these centuries saw death as standing close by, ever ready to take them—who knew when?” ibid. 90.

“This emphasis on time thrift, on diligence in prayer and virtue, was a favorite theme of sermonizers because it was a potent one. It is hard for the skeptics and doubters of our secular and secularist age to appreciate the dread that then gripped small and great people alike, but we must believe them when they talk to us,” ibid. 91.


  1. Living Time by Maurice Nicoll. If you can find it.

  2. Very interesting article. I find it especially interesting because I've been working rotating 12-hour shifts for almost a year now and I've noticed that any pre-existing notions of time almost become meaningless. Sometimes you sleep while the sun is blazing outside. Sometimes you're taking your lunch at 4:00 in the morning. You can go to work during the day on Wednesday like everyone else but on Friday work through the night when everyone else is asleep. Not to mention the effect of spending 12 hours in a place with no windows. It's really kind of mind-bending.

    Granted, I'm not complaining...I'm glad God has given me a job at all, but our era of 24/7 operations can have a very interesting effect on one's perception of time. The philosophy seems to be that since our machines can run all the time, so can our people. It almost feels like we live to serve machines sometimes.

    I guess it's also a good thing that I'm not a sabbatarian, else I'd be in quite a quandary every few weeks!

  3. Mathetes,

    Sounds almost like you have my job...

    The whole "Getting up before the sun rises and getting home after its set" thing during the winter is annoying too. Wouldn't have happened without electricity. There are days where I see less than 15 minutes of sunlight. Our ancestors (even just 100 years ago) wouldn't have had to do that sort of thing.

    Of course, they'd have been on a farm getting up before the sun and getting to bed after it set...but at least they would have SEEN the sun during the day!!!

  4. I thought at first you were going to get into the way our perception of time distorts our understanding of God's timelessness, but you went in another very interesting direction.

    Those of us who do mission work in cultures where strict schedule-keeping is not a high priority are made keenly aware of this Euro-American phenomenon. I can testify of the church in Venezuela where services, Sunday school, or Bible study may not begin and end with predictable precision the people place greater value on the time they spend together. Great post!

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