Lent is almost over and I am just now digging into the stack of books I got for Christmas. The one on the top of the heap was About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang by Adam Frank. Ginger gave it to me because she knows how fascinated I am with time and how deeply tied it is to theology for me. Her gift was a true act of love because I don’t have to talk about time for very long before her eyes start to roll back in her head; my interest is not shared. Appreciated, but not shared.
The book fits in well to my life these days because I have to be keenly conscious of time and how I spend it. I am working two jobs, trying to keep up with lesson plans (I’ve never kept up with grading), finish a book manuscript due in a few weeks, stay true to my Lenten practice of writing this blog daily, do more than merely smile at Ginger as I pass by, do my due diligence with the Schnauzers, keep up with the cooking, try to stay familiar to at least some of my friends, and hope to get at least six hours of sleep a night. As I said, I am keenly conscious of time. Tick, tick, tick.
In the two years I have been teaching at my little school, I have never had a wall clock that worked. There has been a blank space where a clock was supposed to be or a clock that neither keeps nor tells time has been hanging next to the door, as is currently the case. Every so often, one of my students awakens to the reality that the reported hour has nothing to do with our time zone; today was such a day.
“Mr. B-C,” she said, “why don’t you just take it down?”
“Because,” I answered, “I’ve decided to view it more existentially – as a work of art. I mean, do any of us actually have any sense of what time it is? We make our own time.” She rolled her eyes in a move vaguely reminiscent to Ginger. I chuckled to myself and by myself as they humored me. Yet, if the clock were “correct” it would only be so because I set it to what time we have collectively decided it should be so we can be on time, know when to expect one another to show, or rush outside to meet the carpool at the end of the school day.
It has not always been so. The word timekeeper first appeared in 1686.
Frank builds his argument on the premise that cosmological time (how we think about the universe) and human time (how we think about our lives) have “always been intertwined, and there was never an age when they could be closely separated.” However, in these days we are living “the time we imagine for the cosmos and the time we imagined into human experience turn out to be woven so tightly together that we have lost the ability to see each of them for what it is.” (xv)
As I read those words, I thought of Psalm 8:
when I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made—
the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?
When I read those verses, two things happen. First, I hear the Chapel Choir from University Baptist Church singing “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name,” an anthem based on the psalm and one of my favorite choral pieces. Second, I lament I was born in a time of human history when gazing into the night sky doesn’t offer the chance to be put in my place that it once did. And so I live caught between the stars and the Bull City, if you will, trying to find the rhythm of my life. As I try to come to terms with the differences in the meaning of time for the Psalmist and me, I learn from my Christmas gift:
Changes in material engagement redefine culture by altering what are called its institutional facts. Institutional facts define the human world into which we are each born. . . . With the advance of material engagement came new ways of experiencing time. . . . Just as each invention made new forms of culture possible, cultural imagination also developed alongside the technology. Because time always exists at the interface between the physical and the imagination, it would be closely tied to material engagement and the changes it drove in culture. (20)
I can feel the eyes beginning to roll back – and not just Ginger’s. But don’t bail on me just yet. Give me just a little more, well, time. Another of my students is obsessed with time. He has Aspergers and a strong need for order; knowing the exact time matters because, it appears, he worries about being able to get finished with his work on time. Part of my job is to offer grace the clock cannot. When he asks for the time, I look at my smart phone. I used to carry a pocket watch, but that has given way to the phone which is sent the time from a satellite somewhere, as are all the phones and computers in the school; we all agree down to the minute. Our schedules thrive on the specificity. Second period ends at 10:25. The day is over at 3:15. I have to be at the computer store at 5 o’clock. Tick, tick, tick.
Changes in our material engagement make it difficult for us to see beyond the immediate. The exactness of our timekeeping puts the dead in deadline. We are scheduled down to the minute because we can be. And we are still figuring out what it means to our humanity. Or perhaps I’m just figuring out what it means for me. I started by saying time has theological implications. That’s the place where I find Frank’s words compelling because if every material engagement changes what it means to be human then it also changes how we see God. The Psalmist could gaze into a night sky devoid of ambient light and see layers of light; I can see street lights, hear sirens, a catch a couple of stars. Seasons like Lent and Advent have become more crucial for me because they set my heart to a different beat and lift my eyes to see beyond the curse of the second hand to remember to sing along.
Who am I that you are mindful of me? Alleluia.
P. S. — Here’s one of my favorite time songs for good measure.