“What, then, is time?”


“Objects of Time.” Kevin Birth. Palgrave Macmillan.New York, NY: 2012.

As some of you know, I’ve been enjoying ESN blogger/mentor Kevin Birth‘s provocative Objects of Time: How Things Shape Temporality (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY: 2012).

Augustine of Hippo wrote, “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I do not know” (1997 [ca. 397-98], 256). The question stumps us for quite different reasons. We surround ourselves with cognitive artifacts to tell us what time is, and the time these artifacts represent is demonstrably confused in accuracy. We have hyper-accurate atomic clocks and a calendar that poorly represents the duration of the earth’s orbit. The nature of time’s existence is confused by cognitive artifacts and by the human invention of the time constructs these artifacts indicate. . . .

It is ironic that Derrida, the arch-postmodernist, choose absolute temporal uniformity, and that the physicists adopt relativity. The ideas of time important for daily life and the construction of knowledge are dependent on objects, and the presently used objects — modern calendars and clocks — are relatively recent in their form and design. Their synchronization across different contexts is still more recent. Whereas there are cognitive benefits from the precision derived from the measurement of small durations and there are also cognitive benefits in unburdening the mind from having to calculate the time, it is also the case that these devices have channeled cognition in specific ways. When not recognized, this channeling, I argue, constrains our ability to understand time across cultures and to ascertain temporal characteristics of our world not subject to the clock and calendar. By deferring cognitive processes to these objects, we run the risk of diminishing our ability to think about time, and we also run the risk as Greenhouse states for clocks, of using the objects as “a materialization of some universal time sense” (1996, 7). — pp. 30 -31.

So, “What, then, is time?” . . .

  • Have you encountered constraints on your “ability to understand time across cultures and to ascertain temporal characteristics of our world not subject to the clock and calendar. . . . ‘a materialization of some universal time sense'”? 
  • Is there something unique about a follower of Christ’s understanding of and relationship to the way in which time is “kept” as part of God’s creation?
  • More coming, as time permits 😉
  • Before I forget, “Well done Kevin! Thank-you for writing this excellent piece. Keep up the good work. It’s great to have you in the mix of ESN.”
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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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  • drandrewwalsh@gmail.com'
    Andy Walsh commented on October 13, 2012 Reply

    I think that this just about qualifies as a cultural time difference:

    I was introduced recently to the notion of manager or supervisor time vs maker or builder time.

    For people in primarily managerial or administrative roles, work is filled with many formal and informal meetings. The typical meeting won’t last more than an hour; that just seems to be a natural upper limit on how long a meeting can be productive. Thus, a manager’s schedule is carved up into hour and possibly half hour blocks to make the most of the manager’s time.

    By contrast, people who make or build things (in the context I encountered this notion, these were computer programmers, but this category is intended to cover a broad range of roles) can’t meaningfully divide their schedule into anything less than a half day. Smaller windows of time tend to be hard to use productively for their primary tasks. They may be able to accomplish smaller “to-do” items, such as administrative tasks, but if their schedule doesn’t regularly include uninterrupted half days or whole days, it becomes hard for them to make or build anything. Thus, just two 30 minute meetings in a day, if scheduled at the wrong time, can drastically reduce productivity for these folks.

    Now, clearly these are broad generalizations. But I have found them to be useful in how I manage my own time, both at work and at home, and in how I schedule things with others. And while I encountered it and have applied it in the setting of a software company, it seems like it would also apply to the academic world, where professors have lots of meetings and lots of hour long lectures but also need time to make things like papers or grant proposals, and where graduate students often need the larger blocks of time for their research or experiments.

    • Tom Grosh IV commented on October 15, 2012 Reply

      Excellent point Andy!

      I’ve found paper research/writing the most difficult transition in returning to school for a Masters in Spiritual Formation. I have the ability to place a cap on the time given to writing a blog post, but a 10, 15, or 25 page paper is much different. Short spurts of investment are difficult because I need to “re-enter” the project. I divide my days in half and try to operate in a particular world, which may be as general as ‘family time,’ ‘house work,’ ‘office work,’ ‘recreation,’ ‘research,’ ‘web/blog updates.’

      With regard to appointments I try to place them at division points of the day. I’ve especially appreciated opportunities over meals and/or close proximity to another obligation, e.g., class, meeting. I most enjoy meetings/appointments, when they are seen through the lens of continuing relationship and/or shared mission. . . . a time to come together for brainstorming/direction/encouragement/challenge and then a sending forth to work on the bigger projects. Yes, I’ve found a lot of that in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations. That’s a big part of why I’m still around.

      FYI: As you may suspect, I’ve found the cell phone helpful in keeping up with email and social media during short spaces in between obligations. Although sometimes I have to disconnect not just the phone, but the laptop wi-fi to truly listen and to accomplish focused project work 🙂

  • Kevin Birth commented on October 18, 2012 Reply

    I finally have some time to comment 🙂

    First, I want to thank Tom from drawing attention to my book. It represents a stage in a journey of thinking about time, and as time passes, the journey continues.

    With regard to Andy’s comment and Tom’s response, from my ethnographic work in Trinidad, I learned about task management as opposed to time management. Chapter 4 of the book addresses this. In short, task management is focusing on doing things at the right time in the right order–an approach much more grounded in the wisdom of Ecclesiastes than in the time budget orientation of many time management approaches. What is hard in a society so dominated by the logics of the clock and calendar is how the units of time come to be treated as containers of activity so that some activities never get to unfold at their own pace and other activities expand to chew up more time than they deserve.

    As a teacher, I know this all too well. There are topics that can easily fill the allotted class period, and then other subjects for which I have 20 or so minutes of knowledge for an 1 hour 15 minute class. In the former case, do I choose to rush and squeeze the material into the confines of the class, or do I run long, or do I take time from a future class to finish the point? In the latter case, do I choose to repeat myself and kill time while holding my students hostage, or do I move on to another topic, or do I let the class go early in violation of the college’s policies?

    As far as I can tell, neither Jesus nor Socrates were bound by the clock (or more likely for their time, a clepsydra), so maybe there are cases where time as a container as measured by the clock is an obstacle even as it allows for the illusion of a measure of how much is taught. And maybe there are activities other than teaching that suffer from the same constraints of the clock.

  • Thomas B. Grosh IV commented on October 19, 2012 Reply

    Kevin, Thank-you for the clarification and the teaching illustration. Encourages me to press onto Chapter 4!

    With regard to class time: Yesterday, my professor for “Christian Thought and Ethics in Today’s World” (Evangelical, Myerstown, PA) gave an excellent summary of our ~ 2.5 hour class discussion on “N.T. Wright’s “Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today” (HarperOne, 2011). As I was soaking it in and refraining from immediately taking notes, he looked at the clock and saw five minutes remaining.

    “Decision time” . . .

    Thankfully he shared that it was a good place to end and we could give him five minutes more in another class 🙂 I appreciated the realization that there was no need to ‘fill the time’ after the lesson had been completed, there was not time to open another topic, and how some classes could use an extra 5 minutes (or more).

    In my particular case I took the opportunity to ‘soak it in’ a little more. I wish that there was more incorporation of time for reflection/quiet, as a teaching strategy — especially in longer classes. This is something different than a snack and chat break. I’ll work on fleshing out this idea . . .

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