Posted by: rogermitchell | January 21, 2010

Thinking about time

As a result of comments on time and culture on Martin Scott’s perspectives blog I posted a response there. I would love to encourage some wider discussion on the topic of time and so I decided to post the substance of my comments here too, and I will attempt to take it further over the coming days with the help of blog clickers comments!

The coincidence of culture and time is huge. I find it highly significant that the subject has come up at this point as I have spent the last few weeks struggling with it in my theological research. I suggest that this may prove to be one of the biggest mindset changes that the end of the Roman is bringing about and that it is vital to the repositioning of the people of God. I am only offering a few thoughts here as I am right now writing up my work on this and want to get it clearer before putting it out there!

There appear to be two main referents for time. These are what might be called a general use and a specific practical use. The general use is to signify temporality; that the universe and living things are subject to inception, change and decay within an enduring eternal context of either the interface of matter and energy [for the atheist], or the ongoing existence of a creator or initiator [for the believer]. The practical use of time is as a means to separate specific periods off from each other for measuring purposes, and using our experience of day and night to do so. For example how long a journey might take, how old something or someone might be. This usage can be either releasing or controlling dependent on the cultural and political situation in which it is being used. This is where empire comes in of course, as the context where the practical application of time is subjected to the domination of the many by the few, or in modern times, the rights of as many people as possible to dominate the environment and as many other people as possible without the super powerful few losing out. In this situation, time becomes a tool of domination at almost every level. Time is no longer a releasing gift in which to enjoy God’s goodness and pass it on to others, but a means to seize the day and impose our will on the creation and our fellow humans. The introduction of those obtrusive [usually church] clock towers which chime out the hours by day and night coincided with the employment of the population in the agricultural and industrial cause of the emerging nation state form of empire. The famous dates of history taught in school often mark the subjection of history itself to an imperial worldview. This is why the gospel narratives were generally regarded as unhistorical by modern rational thinkers. Not because they were unreliable texts but because their content ran counter to the use of history to impose an imperial worldview. This makes eschatology so utterly important right now. For if eschatology is understood as simply being about future time in the practical sense, we have to be careful that we are not reading an imperial use of time back onto God, who, like Jesus, doesn’t enforce his will, but gives it as gift. So the popular eschatologies in which God no longer loves his enemies, where retribution triumphs over forgiveness and Jesus returns as a military general, need revealing as justifications for empire that are the opposite of the kingdom of God. But if eschatology refers us beyond the practical application of time to its source in eternity, to the breakthrough of the eternal context, then it offers us a vital key to subverting the captivity to time that is characteristic of the contemporary western cultures. Our good news is that the eternal God has entered into the time frame which he began with the creation and shown us in Jesus what he is like, a loving giving God. So eschatology is, it seems to me, primarily about the breakthrough of eternity and refers to those moments in time when time and eternity intersect.

This is where the issue of whether there is a distinctly Christian culture with respect to time comes in. It suggests the purpose of time is precisely this intersection. That God did not create a temporal universe to separate us off from him, but as the means to relate with us. That time exists as the gift of eternity. That Jesus came at the fulness of time so that now all time can download eternity, that every and any situation where time is being segmented and controlled for the abuse of the earth and its inhabitants becomes the opportunity for its expansion and broadening out and reconnecting with all the breakthrough moments of the past and made eternally present. This is surely the fruit of the resurrection when Jesus overcame death which is the abuse or destruction of time, with eternity. I sense that we all need to help one another with this in every way we can because I believe that a lot of the ways in which we have experienced, understood and explained the gospel are infiltrated and deformed by the misconception of time. As we reconfigure the gospel more eschatologically as some contemporary theologians are helping us to do, then we will be able to readdress our postmodern world with good news that they can understand and see embodied in our counter cultural apprehension of time.



  1. Well, you’ve definitely upped the ante here Rog! Difficult to know where to begin, but I’ll start in the shallow end 🙂

    I certainly get the idea that time as is generally constituted and talked about is complicit in domination. It seems to me that if ‘death’ is our ultimate (temporal) referent then time is always the ever-decreasing (depressing!) space between here and the end. Moreover, if death is our ultimate referent AND we cannot say WHEN that will occur, then we are apparently entirely at its ‘mercy’. The system in that context is one of either seeking to mitigate the power of death or of using death to our advantage etc. This must all be the antithesis of the kingdom of God.

    So for sure you are bang on with the resurrection thing. If death is removed as our referent, time takes on a different complexion where its referents are not ‘the past’ and ‘death’ but the beginning and the eschaton – a story in which we are absolutely a part. It is so desperately important that we finally get the idea that resurrection is not a personal prize but the ultimate end of the captivity to the system of death.

    I resist the idea that God is outside time in the sense that he does not experience it with us. As you say, he does relate with us in it. Indeed, to view things otherwise would pretty much put those of us who dabble in understanding the times and seasons prophetically out of business. And I reckon that thinking about that stuff is a useful way to get some of this. What are we doing when we discern the story and pattern of God in time? What is prophecy doing when it speaks of the future? Is God taking control of time?

    For sure, with Jesus standing in and through the creation in all times and also at the eschaton, his body is at the centre of the movement to align the here and now with his fulfilment. The prophetic then is much more – considerably more – than merely a nice gift to the people of God to make sure we hear God’s voice (as incredible as that is!). It is part of the work of God to redeem and disciple time and the way that we use it and are used by it. It makes/reveals intersections with eschatological fullness.

    Interestingly, when we are freed from the fear of death, we are not afraid of the emptiness of time… time which is without form and void. It seems to me that that is the kind of time God can do stuff with.

    I need to mull some more.

    • Thanks for this Stephen, I have not been ignoring it but waiting for more responses to this and the following post in order to get the direction that it will be most useful to pursue. I think, following Dave’s comment today that the issue of whether God is in or outside time is probably the way to go and I will offer some further thoughts on this later today. This is by no means a theoretical matter and I am emphatically not saying that God is outside time. But for sure he is not confined by what I am calling imperial time.

      • Cool. To be clear… I didn’t think *you* were saying God was outside time. He just is (ie has no) beginning and end.

  2. Like Stephen I resist the idea that God is outside of time – at least in one sense.

    Time seems to me to be a complicated thing. We have to distinguish between time interval and time epoch, or Chronos time and Kairos time. I am, like many others I guess, not comfortable with the notion that God is remote from us. The incarnation, the Gift of Holy Spirit, Acts 17: 26-28 and our experience surely testify otherwise. However, the phrase ‘God is outside of time’ might convey a remote, impersonal God to some folk …

    Surely Einstein, and the subsequent work of others, showed that space and time in this universe are linked together in an entity called ‘space-time’. [Remember the ‘Back to the Future’ series of films.] Therefore, it seems to me that one consequence of God’s omnipresence is that He is present with us throughout time – as well as space!

    In other words all temporal times are present to Him, but time does not imprison Him. After all He existed before temporal time existed!

    • Thanks for this Dave. The point you raise is probably the central one so I will make a separate post on this later today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: