Philosophers from Augustine to Einstein have sought to define time; but, judging from our language, we have settled it in more no-nonsense fashion.We speak of saving time, spending time, wasting time, investing time, losing time, buying time—the metaphor buried beneath such phrases is hard to miss: time is a commodity. Like gold, wheat, and cattle, it comes in limited quantities, has relative worth, and is subject to demand, supply, and chance.
But this is no mere language game, for language does not simply paste identification labels onto objects. Rather, language reveals how we interact with the objective world in a subjective—that is, personal and meaningful—way. We do not only speak of time as a commodity. We live as though time is a commodity. Each new day deposits another twenty-four hours to our account, and from the moment we awake, it’s a race and a guess as to how to disperse those one-thousand-four-hundred-and-forty minutes most advantageously. No wonder the frenetic pace of a day resembles the Mercantile Exchange, and the weary collapse into bed a stock market crash!
Time has not always been so commodified. The story of its transformation forms a subplot of the epic of industrialization: with factories and railroads came the need for precise timekeeping, town clocks, and bell schedules. Time had to be measured in precise units, and every unit put to best use, as never before. The subsequent morphing of human awareness of time finds witnesses both in turn-of-the-century literature (think Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford in England or Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence in America) and in modern visitors who come to our cities from less industrialized communities.
We cannot, of course, change history; but we can choose either to ignore or to examine the burdens that history places on us. In the summer, when those of us on academic schedules like to think we’ll “have more time,” the pressure to make the most of each extra minute can be overwhelming. July comes, then August, and with them the feeling of missed opportunities and misused resources. But is it our management of time that irresponsible, or our perception of time that is irredeemable?
A trio of Christian writers, one ancient and two modern, suggest a vastly different perception of time—one focused more on meaning than on measurement. In fact, the measurement of time was the problem that provoked Augustine to write one of the earliest philosophical investigations on the subject around 400 AD in his Confessions. He begins with questions—“What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words? Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time?”—to which, at first, he can only reply, “Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know.” In the pages that follow, however, he puzzles over the fact that, though we speak of three kinds of time, two of them do not actually exist: by definition, the past has ceased to exist and the future has not yet come into being. Only the present, subdivided into the most infinitesimal fraction of a second, has actual existence. How then, Augustine asks, do we speak of the past and predict the future? How do we affirm and even measure these two non-existent kinds of time?
His answer: time is an activity “of the mind itself.” With the mind we attend to the present; by the mind the present is transferred to memory, which we call “the past”; and by the mind another present is expected, which we call “the future.” Whether attending to the present, remembering the past, or expecting the future, the mind holds all times at once and gives them meaning.
This realization may not, perhaps, sound remarkably earth-shattering. But hear how its implications are drawn out in the opening lines of twentieth-century poet T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
The lines sound like an incantation. But they are weighty affirmations. “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future”: what happens tomorrow is not cut off from what happened yesterday and today, but rather is made from them and so embodies both of them, as a child is made from and embodies her father and mother. “And time future contained in time past”: similarly, as in some sense a father and mother carry the potential of their children within them through many years before their birth, so the past carries the potential of the future.
All of this, as Augustine affirmed, occurs through the mind as it recognizes the familial bonds running through all to which it attends, remembers, and expects; and that fact, Eliot suggests, makes time “redeemable.” As he writes later in Four Quartets, it often “seems, as one becomes older, / That the past has another pattern”: in other words, we recognize a significance in past events that we did not see before. In earlier years, “We had the experience but missed the meaning,” but later “approach to the meaning restores the experience / in a different form.” We have all felt this: for years, the memory of some ugly family interaction can burden our hearts—and then, reconciliation happens in the present. We realize that the ugliness was a misunderstanding, or that it held some deep purpose of shaping our souls or of eventually drawing us closer than we could ever have expected—and the memory, the past, is transformed, redeemed. The disciples saw the Cross differently after the third day than before it. “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” What will Heaven be, if not the application of that statement to every earthly moment?
And so time is not a commodity, but the soil of eternity, and our lives the seed. We need not hoard up and cash out momentary time-units, with all their significance resting on the present transaction; we may instead seek to “redeem the time”—redemption always being an action that reaches into the past to transform it for the future. Yesterday’s sins and slackenings may today be met by the God of grace, Giver of life, that we may live in hope for tomorrow. We may lose time, but our Lord does not.
Such was the confidence in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned his own reflections on time. In the recognition of ten barren years behind him and the foreshadow of his arrest looming mere months ahead, he wrote in a 1942 letter to his friends in the German Resistance:
As time is the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable, the thought of any lost time troubles us whenever we look back. Time lost is time in which we have failed to live a full human life, gain experience, learn, create, enjoy, and suffer; it is time that has not been filled up, but left empty. These last years have certainly not been like that. Our losses have been great and immeasurable, but time has not been lost. It is true that the knowledge and experience that were gained, and of which one did not become conscious till later, are only abstractions of reality, of life actually lived. But just as the capacity to forget is a gift of grace, so memory, the recalling of lessons we have learnt, is also part of responsible living.
In summer days, in perfect days, in evil days, by the grace and hope of Christ, we may walk “not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time”—for time is not ultimately stored in any earthly exchange; He holds all times in His hands.