Numbering Our Days

A friend sent me a link to an article in Aeon on the invention of linear time (the author is Paul Kosmin of Harvard). This invention is to think of time as just “there” and able to be numbered. We take it for granted. This year has the number 2019. In ten years it will be 2029; in a hundred years, 2119. Our ability to number time allows us to imagine it stretching before us indefinitely, and independently of events. No matter who is president, no matter what kind of phones we have (or if we have something that has replaced phones), no matter our own health or even whether we ourselves are alive—in ten years it will be 2029.
    Before numbering time in this way was invented, dates were given by reference to events. We see this in the Bible. Isaiah 6:1 is famous: “In the year that King Uzziah died . . .” as is Luke 2:1-2: “there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . . . this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.”
    To tie events to other events is deeply human. I find that when I read about something that happened a few decades ago, I try to connect that event with where I was living and what was going on in my life. I remember, for instance, Yeltsin, but when I read that he became president of Russia in 1991, I think: that was the third year of my rectorship in Hopewell Junction, and Richard Grein was bishop of New York, and George Bush was president, and it would be two more years before the discovery of Susan’s tumor. I could of course write it this way: “In the third year of the presidency of George Bush, Richard Grein being bishop of New York and Susan’s health still fully with her, Boris Yeltsin became president of Russia.” But we don’t write it that way; we write “in 1991.”
    To number time is clearly to gain a certain power over it. With that number “1991," for instance, we very efficiently get past our local and personal events and place them—place everything—on a “timeline” that we can construct and lay out before us without any end in sight. Every event of history, and every possible future event, comes within our grasp as we put it in its place.
    That is to say, there is a theological danger in counting time. It’s the danger of pride, close cousin to the danger of idolatry.
    In that article in Aeon, Professor Kosmin wonders if the invention of linear time (which happened about 311 B.C. with the Seleucids) is behind the warnings of, for instance, the book of Daniel (which is normally dated about one or two hundred years after that). The book of Daniel deals with the pretensions of empire, but it continually says: proud empire will not stretch indefinitely into the future. It will fall apart; it will be humbled.
    We could see the same point in the book of Revelation. Time will come to an end. The scroll of history is not meaningless and infinite; to the contrary, it is a finite scroll, and the Lamb that was slain is able to open its seals and give it its meaning.
    Psalm 90:12 (in the BCP translation) is dear to me: “So teach us to number our days * that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” Of course this means that we need to remember that the days of our life are finite, and since our lifespan is finite, we need to apply ourselves wisely, apply our hearts to God’s wisdom. But it also means there is a right way and a wrong way to number our days. “So” means, then, that we ask God to teach us to number our days in the right way: not to be tempted to think of my time as a piece of universal time stretching into the future independently of God. Time itself is in God’s hands and has its end in God.
    Out & About. Sunday, June 9, will be the next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar. Our text is the splendid The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. At Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Anyone who reads it is welcome.
    Before then is our conference on “What’s the Good of Humanity?” It would be great to see you there, if you can come: June 3-5 in Baltimore:
    What Theologians Read. Kosmin’s “A Revolution in Time” is here:


The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."