When students ask me, “Mr. Dalbey, what time is it?” I usually respond, “Time doesn’t exist. It’s a construct of your mind. Therefore, your question is meaningless.” I’m joking of course–it’s my way of responding to students who are wondering about the time because they’re trying to avoid the assignments staring them in the face.
The other day I received L.M. Sacasas’s newsletter in my inbox and I was reminded that my joke isn’t too far off the mark:
…for example, we don’t experience time in some direct, unmediated fashion; we experience time as a product of technological mediation. In modern societies, this ordinarily means the experience of what we might call clock time. Of course, because clock time has been the dominant mode of experiencing time for us, it probably appears to most people as the natural way of experiencing time. Clock time simply is time. But, of course, one only needs to be spatially or chronologically displaced from modern clock time societies in order to realize that clock time does not simply equal time. We may imagine, for example, how time might be kept and thereby experienced before the invention of the clock, or we might visit places, fewer and farther between, where clock time has not yet colonized the experience of time.
As Sacasas points out, the mediation of time by way of clocks is a relatively new phenomenon. I’ve sometimes wondered how people experienced time in their daily lives before they could look at a watch, much less a phone. Heck, how did people wake up at a particular hour/time of day before alarm clocks?
Clocks, Sacasas points out, impose a default experience of time: one that is measured in linear and discrete units. The power of such mediation is that it sublimates the experience, and then transforms it into an unquestionable fact. “Time,” my students will argue in response to my joke, “is the measurable progression of one event to another!” But how do you measure a sequence of events? We don’t reference a magical ruler floating in the sky when we want to know “how long” it took for something to occur. If I can’t touch, smell, see, hear, or taste time, how can I measure it?
The idea that time is measurable, or that it is a thing by which human events are measured, raises all sorts of questions: e.g., What exactly are we measuring when we measure movement of time? What is the tool, and what makes it a reliable implement for measuring?
Understanding time is a tricky business. Thinking about the nature of time inevitably reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s famous opening lines to the Four Quartets:
Time present and time past
are both perhaps present in time future
and time future contained in time past.
Eliot’s notion that past, present, and future time intermingle with one another adds to the confusion. If we think of time in a strictly linear sense, then we lose a proper understanding of all three tenses. In the next two sentences, Eliot points out the problem of linear time:
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
(I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly what Eliot means here. The following analysis is one of many I’ve attempted in discussions about Eliot’s poem. Proceed with caution.)
Eliot’s description of the present and the future (“what might have been”) is a logical conclusion of a linear view of time: the present is the only thing that exists, but it’s so fleeting that no one can harness it in any meaningful way; it always slips into the past, unchangeable and permanent.The future, by contrast, remains a mere abstract construct of the mind. If this is true of a linear-bound view of time, then existence is slavish and meaningless.
(The one hesitation I have with this analysis is Eliot’s use of the word “eternally.” The word “eternal” evokes a whole different set of meanings and connotations, most of which are related to God’s relationship to time which is not linear. Maybe Eliot means something different by “eternally” here…or maybe he’s setting us up for how he’ll redefine and reuse the word throughout the rest of his poetry…?)
So what’s the solution? I think it’s contained in the next sentence:
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
The reality of the future–even as an abstract concept–and the un-changeability of the past (“what has been”) must exist somewhere. It would be silly to assume the non-existence of either given the almost universally shared human experience of both. But if past and future exist somewhere, then that somewhere might as well be called the Present (capital “P” intentional) because they would both occupy the same “space” (…for lack of a better word).
But I have theological reasons for being interested in the nature of time as well. The western church has recently entered its Easter season, and that alone has prompted questions about the nature of Christ’s death and resurrection as an act that influenced both the past and the future. Christ died once, in a particular place, at a particular time–i.e., in a present moment. But his death is efficacious for all time. How can this be? I don’t think this would be possible if time by its nature is merely linear, since linear time maintains hard and fast boundaries between past, present, and future. The passion of Christ, his death and resurrection, and Christ himself are always present to us. Christians do not simply commemorate Christ’s victory over death. They live it. Fr. Stephen Freeman says it better than I can:
The liturgical life of the Church is not a rationalizing activity. It is a sacramental presentation of the whole universe in the presence of God. All things are there as are all times. The actions of Holy Week are not required as an exercise in historical memory. They allow us to be present to the fullness of time. We do not merely think about the events of that week – we walk in their midst and take a share in their reality. All of those things are “for our sake.” St. Paul can say, “I am crucified with Christ,” because he is utterly present to that day, just as that day is utterly present to and in him.
From the perspective of our limited human experience, it’s possible to say that there was a point when Christ had died and saved us from our sins. But after that moment, when Christ was raised from the dead, all time was transformed. All time has been redeemed in the eternal present of God in which both time past and time future are contained.
Happy Easter to my western friends! And a blessed holy week to my friends in the eastern church.