Explainer
Creed
3 min read

Real time

One Sunday time warped. Oliver Wright explores the conception of real time.

After 15 years as a lawyer in London, Oliver is currently doing a DPhil at the University of Oxford.

A sundial on a wall casts a small shadow on a painted list of numbers and symbols
The western sundial in the courtyard of the New Town Hall in Brno.
Kirk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“Time’s going really slowly today!” 

“Golly – where’s that week gone?” 

“It felt like time stood still for a moment…” 

“Sorry, I lost track of the time.”

These expressions are common enough to be cliché. I’ve used each of them in the last few weeks. But do they actually make any sense? We all know that time is in seconds, minutes, days, weeks… very reliable, very constant, very scientific. We all know that time doesn’t stand still – how can it?! We know that, don’t we?  

But us modern, scientific cultures can often forget how recent these regimental patterns are. Of course, people and cultures have been measuring time for millennia – Ancient Egyptian sundials, early Medieval monks needing to fit in seven services a day. But time, even in those examples, always said more than just ‘keeping time’… a sundial was especially meaningful in a world where it usually shone every day, and was itself held up as a God; for life in a monastery, worship was the time-keeping device, worship was the rhythm of life.  

Time, and particularly our experience of it, doesn’t easily track onto our clocks. We are constantly experiencing time quickly, slowly, forgetfully, meaningfully. Could there be another account of time, not one governed by the Greenwich Meridian, which is – somehow – more real?  

The Ancient people of Israel were some of the first to realise that there is more to life than clock-watching. It’s hard for us to imagine how revolutionary the idea of a Sabbath is. But when it became the norm for the Jews to observe the Sabbath every seventh day – to keep it holy – this wasn’t just about being religious. This was about justice and the avoidance of exploitation. In a world where slaves and workers in the field were expected to work every single day, the idea that there should be rest and restoration said something distinctive both about the nature of work, and about the nature of what it is to be human. And it also said something distinctive about hope.  

For Christians, hope and the Sabbath are forever now held together in the story of Jesus’ resurrection – the very first Easter day. There’s much that could be said about this. But for our little topic of time, it’s quite explosive. The people of Israel had believed (we think) that death would be defeated by the return of God to his people at the end of time. But here was God – in the flesh – defeating death… and time is still marching on! What are we to make of this?  

Something of the end has come in the middle. Time is now warped.

 

Well, one of many things is that, when Christians confess their belief that ‘on the third day Jesus Christ rose again from the dead’, they are saying that something of God’s ultimate future, his promise one day to be with us forever, what the Sabbath had always pointed towards like a signpost, had now happened once and for all. Something of the end has come in the middle. Time is now warped.  

One of the first signs of this ‘warping’, was another day off. The early Christians by and large slotted into the ongoing Jewish observance of Sabbath. But then – treating it as the start of their week – they observed a second day off, a day of feasting and celebrating, and marching through the towns waving banners. The Lord’s day. Resurrection day. Day one – starting all over again, starting afresh, making something new out of the old.  

A second sign was this. Time held a new power – a new potency if you like. It wasn’t that the days had somehow changed duration, or our lifespans were altered. No – Christians think that there is a new expectancy in the air. They are to live, Paul writes, as if the fixtures which hold them to this world now no longer hold the same power. ‘Time is contracted’ he goes on (not ‘shortened’ as it’s sometimes translated) – ready to pounce like a cat.  

The third sign follows from the second. The Christian experience of time is constantly pulling backwards and forwards. In celebrations and worship, Christians look back and recite God’s mighty deeds from the past. In reciting them in the present, they re-present them. But the point of ‘re-presenting’ these mighty acts was not just to bring comfort to the present; it also reinvigorated hope for the future. Christians – as the Creed goes on – ‘look for his coming again’. The experience of time for a Christian (or, even, a philosophy of history) is not governed by a flat-line Hegelian aufhebung – that every day, every hour succeeds its predecessor. Instead, the past and the future works on the present in a constant swell of recall and expectation.  

Christians see their lives held by God’s time. They’re not a clock-watching, ‘progress-reliant’ people. In the resurrection, Christians believe that God has changed the way we view time once and for all. On that, all their hope is founded.  

That’s real time.  

Article
Creed
4 min read

No mercy on the Megabus

Why is sin such a sickly, sticky thing in the human heart?

Jenny is training to be a priest in the Church of England. She holds a PhD in law and previously researched human rights issues in extractive industries.

An upset man holds his hands on his head as he misses a bus.
Nick Jones/Midjourney.ai

“I’m begging you, I’m begging you,” pleaded the passenger. His two large suitcases lying around him, the Nigerian man knelt on the pavement outside the Megabus station. The bus driver stood surly-faced, arms crossed. The passenger’s jacket was ripped where the driver had shoved him off the bus. The passenger had one too many bags; he had not read the Terms and Conditions on his ticket.  

The man groaned – “I must get to Heathrow, I have a flight to catch! I’m willing to do anything – to pay for an extra ticket, to pay the extra bag fee, I have money, see?” He showed the driver his wallet pleadingly, demonstrating his possession of several bank cards.  

A few concerned passengers stepped off the bus. “We don’t have a bag in the hold; we’re happy for this man to have our space.” Another person said, “I booked a ticket but my friend didn’t come – there’s a whole seat’s worth of luggage space available in the hold.” Yet the bus driver would not budge. Even though Megabus has an excess baggage policy, it was down to the driver’s discretion. The driver alone had the power of life and death, to say “yay” or “nay” – to restore a man’s dignity or completely ruin it, along with his jacket.  

As the minutes ticked on, other passengers began to get irate with the Nigerian man – “just buzz off mate, you’re making us late!” “You should have read the rules!” “You’re making the bairns on the bus cry!” Stony faces pressed against the window as the man knelt on the pavement. Even those who had tried to help him left him in the harsh hands of the bus driver and his colleagues, tiny kings in a kangaroo court For the bus driver, there was no backing down – he was pacing, sweating and red-faced, repeating over and over again to himself his side of the story. And in the end, we left the Nigerian passenger in the heartless hands of bus bureaucracy, wiping our hands of the injury done to him – “we tried.”  

How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The whole experience on the Megabus that day left me feeling sick. We all like to think of ourselves as decent folks, as long as we do our “bit”. But on that bus I realized the difficulty: what is “my bit”? Who decides what is “enough”? How quickly a petty issue of baggage can descend into a power play. How quickly do ordinary nice people become a mob when they are outraged or inconvenienced. How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The only word that feels strong enough to me to describe this condition is “sin”. This word may sound like a relic of a bygone Britain, but I think it’s as relevant as ever. It’s a serious word, loaded with a sense that the things we do mean more than we know. Sin suggests that I am accountable for how I treat people – not just to my own perception but some higher standard that safeguards the dignity of all human beings. Christians believe that it is God who safeguards our humanity, who sets the standard for how we should and should not treat others. We are accountable “vertically” – to God – as well as “horizontally” to each other.  

It seems to me that “sin” is not a laundry-list of rules but more like a tangled knot of slippery threads – I can’t see where it begins and where it ends, in my own heart or in the world at large. The Christian Eastern Orthodox tradition often likens sin to sickness or a dis-ease of the soul; it infects our reasoning, our emotions and our actions. And that’s why the hurt and pain we cause each other is so “sticky” – no one is left untouched by the effects of the damage we cause each other.  

It was quite clear to me that there were some “sins of deliberate fault” on the Megabus that day – the bus driver’s behaviour was patently unfair and verging on abuse. But I would say sin also flourished in the self-defending logic of the passengers who just wanted to stay in their lane, and for the Nigerian chap to stay in his. Don’t bother me, with your problems. I look after me, you look after you. There were sins of ignorance too – I felt this sick sense in my stomach as the bus pulled out of the station that there was more I could have done, but I didn’t quite know what. All I know is that every person needed mercy on that Megabus, whether we knew it or not. Ironically, the Nigerian man was the most innocent of all.