This essay was originally published, in slightly different form, in December 1967
THe coming of a new year, the arbitrary commencing each midwinter of a twelve-month period that never was before and never will happen again, gives an annual opportunity to those who like to speculate on such matters to take a new look at the problem of time.
Often, at New Year's Eve, time is seen only as the passing years which tyrannize and torment those of us caught up in finite existence. Yet the writers of the Bible knew and spoke of another kind of time - 'eth in Hebrew, kairos in Greek - that is also worth comtemplation as another year ends.
I can remember as a child first realizing with a shiver of awe which still lingers that - unlike Wednesdays or Augusts - 1942 (or 1977 for that matter) once gone never returns.
For those of us on the far side of 30 (in my case at least - others may have felt the connection set in at other ages), when the road to the future is, in the words of Leonard Woolf's memorable title, "Down hill all the way," the question of time becomes inextricably intertwined with the fact of approaching death.
The hymn writer Isaac Watts, paraphrasing Psalm 90, put it this way:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
he rise of modern, technological society, with its emphasis on the centrality of precise measurement, tended to supplant human apprehension of time with what physicists of yesteryear and "common sense" devotees of today have assumed is "real" time, the stuff that clicks away exactly on clocks and calenders.
The trouble is that Einstein's theory of relativity demonstrates with inexorable, mind-crushing logic that such "real," chronological time, devoid of human emotion though it may be, is just as dependent upon the human observer as any other kind of time.
In an Einsteinian universe how long something takes depends upon where the observer stands and how fast the observer and the observed are moving relative to one another. In such a world, if "real" time exists as an absolute at all, it exists only in the mind of God, He whom the theologians say is timeless and unmoved. Even to modern men, however, the time clocks tell is only part of the story. What might be called the time of the heart - the endless, sun-filled, silent Sunday afternoons of childhood, the days when two people in love stroll in a park and time flies by unnoticed - that too is time, though of another sort.
It was to such heart time, which some theologians label more exactly but less felicitously "existential time," that the writers of the New Testament assigned the nake kairos, distinguishing it sharply from chronos, clock time.
Because it is all of a bundle with the man who experiences it, kairos is little concerned with past or future. It is the time of this very present moment.
But it is not merely the present moment to be savored and enjoyed. It is the moment of decision, the moment of truth, the opportunity that must be seized at once or be forever lost.
Any person's life is studded with such kairoi, high points of greater or lesser significance by which one really dates oneself before linking them to the arbitrary day, month and year in which they occurred.
To Christians, constructing the stroy of what they have experienced upon the concepts of the Hebrew prophets, the kairos above all kairoi is the time of Jesus, the present moment stretching now over nearly 2000 clock years in which God has offered men and the world the opportunity to turn around from darkness into light.
This is the kind of present moment T.S. Eliot called "the still point of the turning world" where "the dance is." This, he said, is the point:
Where past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline,
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance.
And there is only the dance.