Being in time

Being in time

Hier ein weiterer Auszug aus „Blessings of Scarcity, Hope of Abundance“, einer längeren Arbeit für das Lithuanian Free Market Institute (Lietuvos laisvos rinkos institutas) und dessen Forschungsprojekt zum Thema Knappheit („Scarcity, Morality and Public Policy“). Der ganze litauisch-englische Sammelband mit den von zahlreiche Experten verfassten Beiträgen wurde im Herbst 2016 veröffentlichtStokos reiškinys: būtis, žmogus ir bendruomenė / The Phenomenon of Scarcity: Being, Man and Society

The creation of time

God exists eternally outside the confines of time. The Bible nowhere says that God had a beginning. Rather he lives eternally, he is God from eternity to eternity (Ps 90:2; 93:2), the everlasting God (Isa 40: 28; Rom 16:26). Christ is the “Alpha and Omega… who is, and who was, and who is to come” (Rev 1:8).

When God began to create the universe, time – as we experience it – was initiated and the succession of moments and events commenced. Everything created had a beginning, thus the cosmos and material things are not eternal. Therefore, a world apart from time is unconceivable. Augustine stated that the world was not made in time but along with time. Time, says Bavinck, “is the necessary form of the existence of the finite. It is not separate creation but something automatically given with the world, co-created with it like space”. (Reformed Dogmatics Vol. II)

Time is a linear process with a preordained end. God knows this end, and he has revealed to us that there will be an end of this earthly time. But until then time will flow, and we as humans in rare cases exactly know what our future will bring.

Linear or cyclical time?

This linear concept of time is part of our Western heritage, but we must not take it for granted. The cyclical concept of time, common to all pagan and Eastern religions, is absolutely different. Methodist theologian John N. Oswalt comments on the ancient religions:

“Since all things recur endlessly, there is no future different from the present, and there is no past from which the present differs. In such a circumstance, study of the past for the sake of improvement of the present and the future makes no sense. One can only hope to discover a pattern of recurrences in the past […].” (The Bible among the Myths)

In this mythical worldview, says Oswalt, “the idea that the past might be transcended and that hitherto unknown events could occur is not within the mythmaker‘s concept of reality. The shape of reality is determined by ‘now’, and ‘now’ is going nowhere.” The idea that in the future things will not be as they are now does not makes sense in the myths. Time has always rolled and it always will, but it is moving in a circle. There is no real progress, nothing fundamentally new. What is left is the “actualization of the timeless reality”.

In contrast to that, “the biblical characters are not depicted as semi-divine, representative beings. They are clearly presented to us as unique individuals, firmly rooted in time and space.” The whole Bible stresses “that it is human choices that shape the direction of events on earth”.

We must not underestimate this very important point. Thomas Cahill brilliantly elaborates on this basic contrast of worldviews in his The Gift of the Jews. Generally in the ancient world human life was regarded as a reflection of the life in the heavenly realm, controlled by the forces of destiny. The gods were supposed to decide everything. The examples, patterns, paradigms are in heaven, written in the stars. Task of human beings is to repeat these, to act in accord with them: “In the revolving drama of the heavens, primitive peoples saw an immortal, wheel-like pattern that was predictive of mortal life. At the centre of this Wheel of Life they found the Hub of Death… The spiral, ever turning, ever beginning again, is the image of the cyclical nature of reality […].”

The biblical concept is not cyclical but linear. The stars are no gods, and human beings are really free (though not absolutely free). Their thinking, feeling and acting have meaning and potential for creating something new. In Genesis 12 we meet Abram/Abraham – an individual, stepping into an unknown future. He is not repeating a pattern, God is making history with him.

If time is no longer cyclical but one-way and irreversible, “personal history is now possible and an individual life can have value… And without the individual, neither time nor history is possible.” Hence in the Bible we see, again and again, unique individuals – often bizarre, surprising; people who do not fit into any given pattern; real persons who impact history and change their course of life. All this makes perfect sense since linear time implies that the new is worth looking for.

Limitations of time

Abraham lived in time, and so did Adam. Of course, there is an important difference. Abraham knew that one day he would taste death; in the beginning, Adam and Eve did not have to die. Nevertheless, the first couple was called to live within a confined temporal position. They were created upright, but put to a test. This probation itself assumes being in time. Every moment is important, because it has ethical relevance. Thus Adam and Eve did not have to hurry as we might have to; their life was originally not restricted by a lifespan of 70–120 years. They did not suffer from a frightful shortage of time. But they had to deal with temporal limitations and could not fulfil every duty, laid upon them, once at a time.

We have to remember that they could find themselves put before several tasks: being fruitful, subduing or cultivating the earth (Gen 1:28), the last comprising many separate responsibilities. Yet already for them before the fall time was scarce, that is to say limited, and therefore they very often faced a kind of collision of duties: due to linear time they could not perform them all at the same moment.

God established several institutions, creation ordinances, for human beings to live in, and they all compete for our scarce time. German ethicist Thomas Schirrmacher:

“Every single day every individual has to weigh up which obligations he or she will fulfil and in which order this will be done… When I get up in the morning, I have to decide how I am going to fulfil my obligations as a husband and father, pastor, employer and citizen. Most of the time I cannot fulfil all the obligations simultaneously, and yet all of them are mandates received from God. I am therefore continually conducting a balancing of interests.” (Leadership and Ethical Responsibility: The Three Aspects of Every Decision)

Of course, Schirrmacher has in mind our daily experience today where this conflict of duties is often very difficult and painful. But even in a world without sin different and legitimate interests had to be reconciled with each other. Adam and Eve were facing the task of conscious deliberation, or simply put: What to do next?

Scarcity of time underlines the importance of choice. Samuel Gregg: “The need to choose implies the need to sacrifice. The very act of choice implies that, while one thing is chosen, another is left behind.” This is due to the “self-evident” fact of scarcity, yet “many people fail to acknowledge this fundamental reality. But recognizing the inherent cost of every human decision should not carry a negative connotation.” We have to evaluate our priorities, and this “encourages us to be wise in our choices and this, indirectly, encourages us to actualize the first of the cardinal virtues: prudence.” (Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded) In this way, says Michael Novak, “time imposes disciplines and obligations”; it “imposes its own spirituality. Consider the daily regimen adopted by Benjamin Franklin”, who said, “Lose no time: Be always employ‘d in something useful: cut off all unnecessary Action.” (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism)

Foto o.: Matthias Müller,