About Time

time-piece-puzzler-ftrAppropriately enough for a Sabbatical I have been reading a couple of books about time.

The first by Jeremy Begbie, Music, Theology and Time, [1] seeks to look at how time relates to music and what that might teach us about God. In other words “What would it mean to theologise not simply about music but through music?” (Begbie, p.4)

The second is The Sabbath [2] by one of the leading Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

There are a couple of immediate insights I want to share here.

The first is that time is good. This is not obvious to the modern or indeed postmodern mind. In a chapter looking at the music of John Tavener, Begbie talks about a pathology of time where we experience awareness of the loss of what is good, are haunted by the sadness of the past we would love to forget but can’t, and either hold a fear of the future or pour into that future all kinds of hopes and expectations which may ultimately disappoint us.

But, there are number of Biblical reasons for stating that time is a gift, neither not “neutral nor inherently threatening.” (Begbie, p.97)

To start with, time is not a result of the Fall as we might suppose, but precedes it. With all the emphasis on interpretations of Genesis 1, as to whether God created the world in seven actual days and so forth and without wanting to resurrect that debate here, I wonder if we have at least partly missed the point. Which is that God created the world in time. The Hebrew word is יוֹם, yom meaning day or time.  And He did not create it in one day, but over six days, the creation of each day building on the next with the climax the creation of man on day Six. We will have more to say about that later.

Then, we see that God acts within time. Heschel has much to say about that “the Bible is more concerned with time than with space…it is more concerned with history than with geography.”

…the God of Israel was the God of events: the Redeemer from slavery, the Revealer of the Torah, manifesting himself in events of history rather than in things or places…The main themes of faith lie in the realms of time. We remember the day of the exodus from Egypt, the day when Israel stood at Sinai; and our Messianic hope is the expectation of a day, of the end of days. (Heschel, p.8)

Of course for the Christian, the day has both already come and lies still in the future. But we see that “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1) and that the whole of history, of creation, turns on 33 years of Jesus’ life, 3 years of Jesus’ ministry and 3 days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. That the God of eternity fulfilled his eternal purposes ordained before the creation of the world at a point in time, when Jesus said “It is finished.”

Karl Barth has written:

The many philosophical theories of time which deny its reality and regard it as a mere form or abstraction or figment of the imagination can only be finally abandoned when we consider that God himself once took time and treated it as something real [3]

Begbie argues from that we can use music to build on the fact that time is inherently good, and a gift. He says, “To share in music is to find a temporality in which – at least to some extent – past, present and future have been made to interweave fruitfully.” (Begbie, p.150)

Second, the Bible points us to a further insight, that time is holy. Heschel’s little book on The Sabbath has many insights, but none more rewarding I think than this:

One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word קָדוֹשׁ qadosh, holy… Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Gen 2:3)…It seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.  (Heschel, p.9)

There is much more to be said, but for now let’s conclude with this. If time is good and time is holy then I must stop longing for the past or regretting the past; or longing for the future and loading it with expectation or dreading the future. I should recognise now as a gift and seek to enjoy it and savour it as good and holy; as a gift.

[1] Begbie, J. (2000). Theology, music, and time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Heschel, A. J. (1951). The Sabbath, its meaning for modern man. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young.

[3] Barth, K. (1957). Church Dogmatics; Volume 2, the Doctrine of God, Part 1, Edited by G.W / Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. S.l.: T. & t. Clark. p.620

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