On the Theological Understanding of the Problem of Time

In order to work out a framework for theological reflection on time, I shall start with Carl Heinz Ratschow's Anmerkungen zur theologischen Auffassung des Zeitproblems.1 Ratschow distinguishes among three different meanings of the word time. First, he deals with time as temporality and thus transitoriness; then, he turns to time as the ages, i.e., historical time; finally, he explores time as the experience of lack of time.

From the human perspective, temporality as transitoriness is seen as a de-mon,2 as destiny, or as an a priori concept.3 Human beings react to this understanding by postulating eternity: They "free themselves from the terror of time and jump over the via negationis to the intransitory, the unchangeable and the invariable."4 Thus, humans wish to understand temporality and transitoriness in light of the antithesis of eternity. Ratschow explains that this antithesis lends itself at best to a very rudimentary understanding of what biblical theology is about, however. Instead of understanding tran-sitoriness from the standpoint of temporality, biblical thought speaks of it from the perspective of guilt or sin. For this reason, the poles are not temporal/transitory versus eternal/intransitory, but rather world/human/sin versus God/"Last Things"/life.5 Accordingly, in those Old Testament passages in which one would expect to find mention of an eternal God, one instead finds the loyal, jealous, or angry God. An antithetical concept of absolute eternity retreats, giving way to a relation-oriented concept of a God who, in relation to guilt and faith, influences time and the world.6 We already noticed a parallel development when we were examining the hymns on pp. 37-41: The rather antithetical model "here in time—there in eternity" [hier in der Zeit—dort in der Ewigkeit] has increasingly given way to more integrated and interactive descriptive models of the relationship of time to eternity.

Even with respect to historical time, Ratschow sees a difference between antithetical thinking and a relation-oriented biblical theology. Human beings do not move in time (singular) as such, but rather they come from past times (plural), which they concretize as history, and they direct their attention towards the future. The pluraletantum time, that is, the concrete, available periods and aspects of time, then faces singularetantum eternity.7 According to this scheme, eternity is no longer perceived as invariability, but rather as infinity. The antithesis to time as the ages that have become concrete is therefore eternity as infinity.

Here, biblical thinking is again taking a different path. For historical times, it frequently uses the term days. The opposite of this, however, is not an eternity without days, but rather, above all, the darkness of night. A word pair filled with qualitative meaning is thus created, which also occurs frequently in the hymns of the Church. The end of all things is not infinity, but rather, "the coming days," the "day of Yahweh," or the "day of salvation."8 Once again, we are not dealing with the antithesis of time/eternity, but rather with relation: "Between our days, the days of primeval times, and the day of Yahweh, there is a basic connection, namely, in being a day."9

Corresponding with my findings in chapter 1, Ratschow determines that the third range of meaning of the word time, namely, the one dealing with the lack of time, lies closest to people of modernity: ". . . modern people are modern to the extent that they live with the sense of having no time."10 The having-no-time is always oriented towards a "for"; people experience that they have no time for something, with respect to something. With regard to that for which people have no time, they are closed, so that the person who has no time at all is "the completely closed human being."11 To-close-oneself therefore means a loss of time, whereas every instance of being open causes one to gain time. Behind the openness of having-time-for, the being-time-for—and thus the freedom to wait for the right time to come—becomes visible. The opposite of being free to have-time-for is the state of being-closed, which, once again, in no way means eternity.

Even here, Ratschow again proposes a relational, rather than an antithetical, solution. The time characterized as having-time-for "can be neither drawn out into permanence nor chained together to reach infinity. . . . What eternity can mean here has nothing to do with the long duration or brevity of this time, but rather with the depth of its facilitation."12 Thus, time understood as "time-for" is always accompanied by its eternity; the moment has a relationship to eternity. In biblical thought, Ratschow sees this dimension of time expressed by the terms cet and kairos.

The most interesting and potentially fruitful aspect of Ratschow's Anmerkungen zur theologischen Auffassung des Zeitproblems is his overcoming of a dualistic and antithetical way of thinking about time and eternity, which was accomplished by his presentation of relational and interactive models for the relationship of time to eternity. The filling of the formal, philosophical dualism of time and eternity with relational and dynamic content emerges as a major theological accomplishment.

I consider Ratschow's thoughts to be a good foundation for the discussion with modern natural science, a discussion in which we also will be dealing with dynamics and relationality. Before we can begin this discussion, however, theological reflection on time must first be placed in a broader context. Therefore, I will now look more closely at what the biblical texts are saying about concepts of time.

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