Time for God: the stewardship of time

By Brian Edgar

We tend to take space and time for granted, as basic categories of human existence. They exist as the framework of the world in which we live and observing the detail, the form, the structure and the significance of such basic elements is not easy.

Usually they are the means by which we analyse objects which exist in space and events which occur in time, rather than being themselves entities and events to be investigated and examined. It is easier to comprehend the objects which exist in space than the space in which the objects exist and it is a more straight forward process to analyse the movement or the change which occurs to entities than to examine the time or duration through which that change occurs.

Yet it is, obviously, of the utmost significance that to be human is to exist in time and space and to be conditioned by those realities.

The aim of this paper is to investigate the nature of time and the implications for an understanding of the stewardship of time. It has been used in various forms. The paper appeared as ‘Time for God: Christian Stewardship and the Gift of Time’ in The Evangelical Review of Theology (2003) Vol. 27, No. 2. The introduction appears below, followed by a link to a full text pdf file.

Christian Stewardship and the Gift of Time

We tend to take space and time for granted, usually they are the means by which we  analyse objects rather than being themselves entities and events to be investigated and examined. Our perceptions and experiences of time vary according to individual experiences, psychological types and age. They also vary, significantly according to culture.  In western culture there is a tremendous consciousness of time as a commodity to be used. Time is measured with an ever-increasing precision and attention. The digital watch exists as a symbol of the ordering and measuring of personal time in hours, minutes and seconds. Time is a precisely measured and commonly shared time and it has ceased to be a purely western conception as it spreads with the shrinking world. Attitudes to time change simultaneously with changes to attitudes to space. The shrinking of space through travel has led to the refinement of time measurement.

The arrival of the train in Europe heralded the beginning of a new experience of time. Previously each village or town had only been concerned with keeping time for itself and in a fairly generalised fashion. With the train there was a need for timetables, for precise time keeping and for more accurately agreed times. The advent of air travel has extended the need for and the influence of, schedules, timetables and common agreement about time. The Melanesian Christian may think nothing of arriving for a meeting several hours, or even days, after the nominated time and then interprets the impatience of the waiting westerner missionary as sinful. The western person, from his or her point of view only concerned about the ‘waste’ of precious time. In Egypt timekeeping shows social position: those of lower rank must come on time while those of equal rank arrive for an appointment an hour ‘late’ to show their independence. Western time is linear, but in much of Africa it is episodic and discontinuous, with many different sorts of time: ritual time, agricultural time, seasonal time and lunar time which relate in complex ways. In the Australian aboriginal ‘dream-time’ time does not exist as a horizontal line extending through a series of pasts but is in a vertical relationship to the present. The past underlies and is within the present, “events do not happen now, as a result of a chain of events extending back to a long past period – a “Dreamtime’ – a beginning. They exist and they happen because that Dreamtime is also here and now. It is The Dreaming, the condition or ground of existence.”[1] It is sacred-past-in-the-present. In some cultures land is more important than time. It ties people to their ancestors, heroes and gods in a way that time cannot. It is not possible to go back in time to live with the great ones but it is possible to go to the places where these events took place. It is possible to go to the place where Rama rested, where Mahatma passed by, where the enemy was defeated.  In this way the past mingles with the present and those of the present come into contact with their gods, their heroes and their forebears.[2] In this context the saving of space is more important than the saving of time which might be achieved if, for example, a road was put through the space.

GOD THE FATHER AS THE CREATOR OF TIME

Firstly, it is God who creates time and secondly, time is the context in which God reveals himself and participates in time, espcially in the incarnation. Consequently, events happen in specific times time with salvific significance. Whereas from a Buddhist point of view there are countless worlds, and innumerable aeons passing through vast cycles of expansion and contraction, life and death,[3] in Judeo-Christian thought there is one world whose history begins at one point and which moves towards an end, and God’s purposes are worked out in time, leading to a final eternity with God.

The first words in the Old Testament, “in the beginning…” are the starting point for an understanding of time because, with Augustine, it is best to take this as the beginning of time itself, rooted in the creative activity of God rather than as a description of a creation which takes place in time. Time commences and there is nothing at all in creation ‘before’ this time. Aquinas did not think that the idea of creation necessarily ruled out the possibility of an eternal world with no beginning to time. He argued that as Gods’ nature is to be eternally creative it is possible for creation to be without a beginning even though it is contingent and dependent. Nonetheless, as Genesis asserts a beginning he rejected the idea of an eternal creation.[4] Much but by no means all contemporary cosmology is consistent with this, including the expansion of the universe, the presence of cosmic microwave background and the ratio of hydrogen-helium (the results of the big bang).[5] Time is not a pre-existing framework or an attribute of God’s nature, it is God’s time, created with a beginning, and it is flowing and linear. But time is not an artificial abstraction, an independent entity; it is filled with a sequence of events with purpose, meaning, and destiny.[6] God works in time with unfathomable patience. Not only is a thousand years as a day to God (Psalm 90:4) but he has taken 15 billion years to get to the point where we are now. Clearly God is in no hurry. There is no rush. He is YHWH “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14) or, equally, “I will be who I will be”, the one who is transcendent and beyond simple, temporal determination by time. God is eternal (Deuteronomy 33:27).

The nature of God’s work in the world: through time or into time?

Our understanding of God is affected because the way the eternal God works in time can be interpreted in two ways that relate to whether the focus of attention falls upon the miraculous, initial creation ex nihilo of the world or on the amazing continuous process creatio continua. If God is primarily understood as the God who is seen at work in the first miraculous act of divine creation then it is likely that one’s understanding of God’s present action in the world will be that of a God who intervenes directly in events in order to bring about his purposes. On the other hand if someone understands God’s relationship to the world primarily in terms of God’s continuing creative purposes then they are more likely to understand God’s action in the present in a less interventionist more ‘natural’ way.

The full text of  Time for God
  can be downloaded.


[1] W.E.H.Stanner in his discussion of the interpretation of A.P.Elkin in “Some Aspects of Aboriginal Religion”  in  M. Charlesworth (ed), Religious Business: Essays on Australian Aboriginal Spirituality (Cambridge University press, 1998), 20.

[2] Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, (Grand Rapids; Baker, 1985) 133.

[3] “Suppose there was a great mountain of rocks, seven miles across and seven miles high, a solid mass without any cracks. At the end of every hundred years a man might brush it just once with a fine Benares cloth. That great mountain of rock would decay and come to an end sooner than ever the aeon. So long is an aeon. And of aeons of this length not just one has passed, not just a hundred, not just a thousand, not just a hundred thousand.” Sammyutta Nikaya ii. 1801, cited in Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, (Oxford University Press, 1998) 113.

[4] Summa Theologica Part 1, Qn 46, Art 2

[5] L. Fagg, The Becoming of Time: Integrating Physical and Religious Time (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995) 99.

[6] The linear concept of time was only robbed of its Christian character of expectation and anticipation when it become an independent, formal category of thought in Kant – an a-priori form of perception along with an apriori view of space.

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