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What Time is it? ∆ν (Part I)

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

The other day a friend and I were trying to figure out a good time to zoom. I asked her what days worked, and she reminded me that she’d already thrown out some times in a previous email. I apologized and told her I was operating more in Kairos than Kronos time these days and it was apparently affecting my ability to process people’s schedules – and emails.

For those of you not aware of the difference between the two, Kronos (or, more accurately, Chronos) time is measured time, time we have some control of because we can measure it; it’s where we get chronological, etc. It’s what we live in and around and, or so we think, through. Trouble is, Kronos doesn’t actually exist. It’s literally a figment of our imagination. A second, turns out, is only what we decide it is. Well, okay, so it’s not quite that simple, but almost. The official definition of a second was actually updated in 2019, and it’s this:

The second is defined by taking the fixed numerical value of the caesium frequency ∆ν, the unperturbed ground-state hyperfine transition frequency of the caesium 133 atom, to be 9 192 631 770 when expressed in the unit Hz, which is equal to s−1.

What’s interesting about this definition is that the time-keepers of the world have conceded to the natural world in determining and measuring the parameters of Kronos:

… base units are now defined in terms of constants that describe the natural world, which are the most stable references available for us to use.

In other words, they use the natural world to define itself. So when I said that Kronos doesn’t actually exist, well... it does and doesn’t, but as the timekeepers at England’s National Physical Laboratory say, “Time doesn't run at the same rate everywhere.” So a second isn’t a second always and everywhere, turns out. It’s like we looked around to find some energy transfer of electromagnetic radiation that fit closest to the definition we already had, then said, “Wala! There’s a second!

But that’s Kronos. It bores me. It’s all numbers. It’s a math problem. I want to talk about Kairos time. What is Kairos? The simple definition from the Oxford dictionary is, “a propitious moment for decision or action.” But that’s too British. And too simple. It’s a little more complicated than that. I get this following definition from Kairos Canada:

Mark 1:14-15 — Kairos is a time that requires a conversion from people. ... Romans 13:11-13 — Kairos time is here. It calls for action, conversion and transformation—a change of life. 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 — Kairos is not just crisis but opportunity and favour. God assists us in discerning the kairos—a moment of grace.

Throw down the mic.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been preoccupied/obsessed with time, and specifically, the whole concept of eternity. As my parents (and likely my older brother) can attest to, I would be terrified with the prospect of living forever – and, for that matter, of being dead forever. And by “terrified,” I mean legitimately panic-stricken with the whole concept of eternity, to the point that I’d wake up in a panic as a little kid and my folks would have to come in to calm me down. It took me years to get to a place where I could even think about it for more than a few seconds. It wasn’t until my father convinced me sometime around high school (or maybe college) that this is a matter of trusting God’s goodness and that he’d never plan something for us that wasn’t, in the end, beyond anything we could plan for ourselves. He’d also add that there are just some things we aren’t meant to understand.

Years later, when I was at Princeton Seminary, I struck up a close friendship with a professor and mentor of mine, James Loder, a child prodigy who went on to study at Princeton Seminary and Harvard University and who was one of the most gifted intellects I've ever known. We would meet every few weeks in his study on the 1st floor of Tennent Hall over the course of a few years, where we would talk about ideas and insights. I’ll never forget a question he once asked me, a question no one had asked me before: “What is one thing that is truly yours? Not something you inherited, but something that is completely yours, that you can’t attribute to or tie to anyone else.” My answer, and how quickly I came up with it, surprised me almost as much as his question: “My fear of eternity.” Jim’s question and my answer served as fodder for most of the rest of our meetings together those few years.

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said in his Tracitus that the solution to the problem of time and space must come from outside of time and space. Loder believed a similar thing, saying that our confrontation with death, with what he referred to in his writings as the Void, which was the drift of existence toward nothingness, was created out of the existential despair that comes (and now I’m quoting Dana Wright, one of his former students) “from the shocking awareness of how empty and meaningless the social construction of reality really is when its true destiny is exposed.” In other words, when we believe that life ultimately leads to nothing, then life itself is meaningless, except for the meaning we ourselves give to it – like the definition of a second is the definition we give to it. It only exists in our mind. Which is to say that life, when it’s understood as nothing beyond itself, becomes ephemeral, evanescent, fugitive, vanishing… or as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, “Poof!” If death is a collapse into the Void, then life is nothing but “Poof!” Vanity of vanities. Or as William Shakespeare puts it in Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;*

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.


Which brings us back to the difference between Kronos and Kairos, between measured time and true time, between a fictionalized rendering of existence and its true essence, between “the fixed numerical value of the Caesium frequency ∆ν (delta nu)” and “a moment of grace” (2 Cor).

With Kronos time, the more distracted we become with it, the more we depend on it and run our lives by it, the more it seems to vanish in front of our eyes, and the more meaningless it becomes. And from my vantage point, meaninglessness is just another word for death, morbidity, chaos insanity, despair. It’s the difference between paying close attention to your life (your dog, your kids, your spouse, your surroundings, your God) and being endlessly distracted by screens (on your phone, your laptop, your i-Pad, your computer). Notice the difference between the two different kinds of objects of your attention… living, breathing souls who need your love vs. inanimate machines that don’t know you exist.

If there is no meaning, there is no point. If there are no rules, there is no game. If life is just an accident, then death is a rescue, a kind of ultimate relief, in which case, the so-called wisdom of Silenus, at least from Nietzsche’s point of view, makes morbid sense: “The very best thing is… not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. …the second best thing for you is to die soon.” Silenus is the patron saint of all suicides… and a dark, dark saint at that.

What time is it? Time to live (Kairos) or time to die (Kronos)? I’ll take Kairos for… oh, I don’t know… $5 bajillion dollars?

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Thank you for not trying to wrap up the journey into a neat package. As always, you've left us w/ much to ponder and a insatiable desire to learn more.

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