John Swinton – The Time of the Clock and the Time of the Kingdom

Time is all around us. It shapes and forms our lives, gives substance to the rhythm of our intentions and provides us with the boundaries within which we live, love, care and die. Time is all around us and yet it is often quite invisible until you begin to notice it. As I sit to write this blog post, I have encountered at least six clocks since wandering out of bed this morning:

  1. my alarm clock,
  2. my iPad,
  3. my phone,
  4. my watch,
  5. the kitchen clock,
  6. the clock in my car

And that is even before I reach my office which contains another three clocks:

  1. my office computer,
  2. a wall clock at the back of my office,
  3. a chiming clock within the clock tower that stares into my office window.

Time is all around me, yet, it is not until I bring time to the fore that I begin to realise its power over me. Most of the time it lurks silently beneath the surface of my busy day, ruling me, telling me what to do and when to do it, but rarely revealing itself to my consciousness. Time is powerful, but the power of time is often hidden from our view. As David Bowie once put it: “Time may change me. But I can’t trace time.”

Image provided by John Swinton. Used with permission.

The Time of the Clock

For many of us within western cultures, and those cultures influenced by the West, one kind of time has been particularly influential and formative of perceptions of time: the time of the clock (o’clock). The time of the clock has quite distinct features. It is assumed to be linear, dynamic, and forward facing (constantly moving forward), measurable (observable and open to quantification), and controllable (open to commodification, manipulation, and management). Time is assumed to be something that can be broken down into small, practical components that can then be used as currency within the various “marketplaces,” we all inhabit, be they economic, political, relational, psychological, or spiritual. Time is perceived as fragmented, commodifiable, scheduled, and above all, instrumental. It is interesting to notice that those of us who find ourselves caught up in such time also become fragmented, commodifiable, scheduled and instrumental. We have family time, leisure time, work time, market time, study time, prayer time, quiet time, devotional time. Time, and the nature and goal of spirituality and humanness seems to be inexorably interconnected.

God’s Time

Whilst the time of the clock shapes and forms our worldview, if we think theologically about time, a different mode of time begins to emerge which includes but is not determined by the time of the clock. One of the first things we notice about God’s time is that God seems not to be in any kind of rush! Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama puts it in this way: “Forty years in the wilderness is God’s basic educational policy![1]” God is taking time to redeem the world. But it is a certain kind of time.  God is not apart from the sequential time of the clock. Nevertheless, God’s apprehension of time is not limited to the timefull sequences that rule our lives. For God the sequences of time that we experience are seen by God as simultaneous. This is why for God a thousand years is like one day: “But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day” (2 Pet 3:8). Peter’s point is not that a thousand years feels like a day. A thousand years is like a day.

The New Testament is full of odd language about the simultaneous nature of God’s time. In Ephesians 1 Paul talks about how we are elected “from before the foundation of the world” (v. 4; the same phrase is found in Matt 25:34). In Revelation 13:8 we find the rather startlingly enigmatic sentence, “The lamb was slain before the foundations of the world.” Again in Second Corinthians 5:14, Paul states, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” God’s time is not linear in the way that we are used understanding linearity. It contains linearity, but it is not defined or constrained by linearity. God’s time is neither progressive nor static. Paradoxically, it is both. God’s time mediates the fullness of God’s kingdom “in the now” and yet contains within it the knowledge that the fullness of that kingdom is still to come. “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty’” (Rev 1:8). This kind of language indicates that time is much more flexible and nonlinear than it often appears to be. It also and vitally indicates that somehow we are included in the death and the resurrection of Jesus. The simultaneity of God’s time is revealed paradigmatically in the incarnation of Jesus. In Ephesians 4:4 the apostle Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law.” The fullness of time is the moment when in the power of the Spirit God invades the present and fills it with God’s presence.  In Jesus the fallenness of time begins to encounter its redemption. When we become disciples of the God of time, we enter into a new mode of time: God’s time; the time of Jesus.

Living into God’s Time: The Three Mile an Hour God

When we begin to think in these ways, what we do with our time becomes vital, challenging and pretty startling! Kosuke Koyama in a wonderful little essay titled ‘The three mile an hour God[2],’ observes that in Jesus, God takes time to redeem the world. In redeeming the world God redeems time and puts it to its proper purposes: to bring glory to God. This kind of redeemed time is quite different from clock time. To begin with, redeemed time is slow time.  Koyama points out that the average speed that a human being walks is three miles per hour. Jesus who is God walked at three miles an hour. “Love has a speed.” Love moves slowly and treats time with reverence, acknowledging its giftedness and realising that time is to be lived into with redemptive love, and not simply bought, spent, wasted, lost or gained as if it were simply another commodity in the world of meaningless commodities. The time of the clock is linear, forward moving and relentlessly progressive.  God’s time is much slower, much more focused on love than speed. God’s time includes clock time, but offers it a broader and more faithful context.

If we begin to think of time as a gift to be cherished; a mode of participation in God’s redemptive movement within creation, then we begin to see that taking time for one another is a profound act of faithfulness. My book Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Tunefulness and Gentle Discipleship I look at the ways in which this understanding of time impacts upon people living with neurological disorders, but of course God’s time applies to us all[3] As we gift one another the gift of time, so we learn what it means to inhabit God’s time; to become timefull people who see the purpose of time in terms of faithful participation that moves towards a goal which is already here but still to come. As we learn to live in God’s time, we discover that we are living into Jesus. When we learn to slow down, we begin to see the world as God sees it. When we learn to see the world as God sees it, we begin to understand what it means to be a friend of time. Friends of time are friends of Jesus; Friends of Jesus are friends of peace; friends with love. In a time where peace, love and timefullness are in in short supply, thinking through what we do with our time might be just the radical move that shifts us towards peacefulness.

[1] Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God: Biblical Reflections (New York: Orbis, 1979), 6–7

[2] Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God: Biblical Reflections (New York: Orbis, 1979), 6–7

[3]John Swinon Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefulness and Gentle Discipleship Waco: Baylor Press

John Swinton – Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy, University of Aberdeen

John’s book Becoming Friends of Time is not a book you can read quickly. Almost very page caused me to pause and look pensively into the mid-distance. It deeply challenges our perception of time, and the degree to which it shapes [often unhelpfully] our lives. The book goes on to look at people living with disabilities, and how their perception of time is often very different from able-bodied people. This discussion also deeply challenges how we understand time, and indeed, what it means to be human. It really is a cracking read. We’re hoping to interview John later this year. Tim

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