What Is Time?

So often in funerals I hear proclaimed the familiar lines from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which speaks to the great mystery we call time; more on its text, in a moment.

If I were to ask you to define time, could you do it in a way that really satisfies? For example, some have defined as “the measure of change.” Well, OK, but that doesn’t satisfy, does it? Ultimately time is deeply mysterious; our attempts to nail it down in words betray its depths more so than reveal it.

The ancient Greeks had at least three different words for time:

Chronos is close to what we call “clock time.” It answers the question of where we are on the scale used to note sequential time. For example, 3:00 PM refers to an agreed point in the middle of the afternoon.

Kairos is related to our concept of something being “timely.” There is often a particularly fitting or opportune moment for something. We might say “It was time to move on,” or “It was time to retire.”

Aeon refers to the fullness of time or to “the ages.” It is akin to our notion of eternity, not as an inordinately long time but as a comprehensive experience of all time summed up as one. Only God experiences this fully, but we can grasp aspects of it. For example, we can look back on our life as a whole and see how many different things worked to get us to where we are now. In so doing, we can come up with a comprehensive meaning to the events of the past. Although the future is hidden from us, we can still conceive of it and steer our lives intelligently toward it. God sees the past, present, and future all at once. Thus, God alone has aeon in its full and perfect sense.

 The book of Ecclesiastes speaks beautifully to both kairos and aeon. In its most familiar lines it expresses the kairos notion that there is a fitting time for all things:

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

…I have seen the business that God has given to mortals to be busied about. God has made everything appropriate to its time … (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11a).

We can all sense the truth of these lines; certain things are fitting certain times. We are startled, grieved, and even offended when things take place outside of our expectations. That we all have this sense is clear, but where it comes from is less so.

Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes continues on to describe the much more mysterious concept of aeon, the fullness of time:

God has made everything appropriate to its time but has put the timeless into our hearts so they cannot find out, from beginning to end, the work which God has done. … I recognize that whatever God does will endure forever; there is no adding to it or taking from it. Thus has God done that he may be revered. What now is, has already been; what is to be, already is: God retrieves what has gone by (Ecclesiastes 3:11-15).

Somewhere in our hearts is something that the world cannot and did not give us. It is something that is nowhere evident in the world, yet though cannot perceiving it, we still know it. This passage from Ecclesiastes calls it “the timeless.” We also refer to it as eternity, or even infinity.

Perhaps most mysterious is this line: what is to be, already is. God is not waiting for my tomorrow. My tomorrow, even my whole future, has always been present and known to God. Scripture says,

Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. … All of my days were written in your book before one of them every came to be (Psalm 139:4,16). Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you (Jeremiah 1:5).

Indeed, God is not waiting for time to pass. For him, everything just is; all is eternally present to Him in a comprehensive “now.”

Where did this notion of the timeless come from? In speaking to it, God is appealing to something we somehow “know,” even if subconsciously. Our world is finite; time on this earth is serial. Things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We do not experience anything here of the timeless. Rather, everything is governed by the steady, unrelenting ticking of the clock (chronos). Every verb we us is time-based, rooted at some point in time and never able to break free from it. Everything is rooted in chronological time, but somewhere in our heart we can grasp “the timeless.” It is hard to put into words because we know it at a very deep level, but we do know it.

So, the experience of “forever” does not exist in this world or from it, but it is in our mind and heart! There is no way for us to engage in time travel here in this world, yet instinctively we know that we can somehow! Science fiction and fantasy often feature going back to the past or forward into the future. The world could not possibly teach us this because we are locked in the present and have never actually traveled in time, but somehow we know that we can do it.

Yes, we can paint a picture of eternity even if we have never experienced it. Look at the dot in the center of your analog watch or clock. Let’s suppose that the current time is 2:00 PM, meaning that 10:00 AM is in the past while 6:00 PM is in the future. Yet, at the center dot, they are all the same. This is aeon; this is eternity, the fullness of time; this is a picture of timelessness, of all time equally present. This is where God lives and where, to some degree, we will one day dwell.

Where did we get it from? The world cannot give it, for the world does not have it. The world is finite, limited; it is time-bound, not timeless. Where did we get it?

Maybe it’s from God. The mystery of time is caught up in the mystery of God.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Is Time?