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Volume 14, Issue 4: Incarnatus

Knowing is Timing

Douglas Jones

To be a treeherder; to be an Ent—Ent the earthborn, old as mountains. Tolkien depicts an Ent as "a large Man-like, almost Troll-like, figure, at least fourteen foot high, very sturdy, with a tall head, and hardly any neck." Ents live for thousands of years; they speak extremely slowly and consider others' speech quite hasty. Every aspect of their character draws attention to time.

Genesis speaks of humans with ages shy of Ent years but still unfathomable. What would it be like to live and learn for 800 years? Adam liveds to 930; Seth to 807; Enos to 905; Cain to 840; Mahalaleel to 830. Jared to 902; Methuselah to 969. Most of us can look back every five years or so and shake our heads at what fools we were "back then." If our infant lifespans can see improvement after a skinny decade, then what did these Ents of Genesis experience? Imagine the sanctification possible. Imagine how good you could get at the guitar. At jokes. At the fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps that explains why God just took Enoch at a mere 365 years old. Maybe he was just too wise and holy for God's story. Enoch probably had his kin on the verge of cell-phone networks and Elvish holiness far too early.
Time plays heavily in knowing, though we rarely focus on it. While the Christian faith rejoices in the narrative weave of time, Modernity resents it. After all, one of the main goals of the early Enlightenment was to have automatic deductive systems of truth. For them, timeless logical relations do all the work, not time. They wanted to substitute a geometry text for a dark history book—Scripture. Rationalists, like Spinoza for example, pictured the ideal of knowledge as a frozen pyramid of inferences. All you had to do was start from timeless axioms and follow their bureaucracy down the corridors; all knowledge was in principle contained in or deducible from the initial axioms. The truth is already in there, pre-packaged, complete. Time is just an annoying hurdle necessary for finite minds that can't grasp the whole system of implications at once.
What is the lure of automatic systems? Simplicity. We find Modernity's simplicity grounded in ancient philosophy, especially Parmenides. Both eras insisted on making the human mind the ultimate standard of truth. But we're not omniscient; we can't always remember correctly or fit in every arcane fact. Time is especially messy; things keep changing even after you remember them for a bit. So they dumbed down what they would count as knowledge. And time was the first feature that needed to be jettisoned. Then truth had to be limited to the most simplistic propositions or sentences alone, since they were more manipulable than the world of flesh and blood. For both ancient and modern secularists, time became an embarrassing family secret.
The Incarnation embarrassed this embarrassment beautifully. Not only did it call a person, not just a sentence, "truth," this Person lives and breathes and has His being shaped by time as time. But it's not as if the Word was timeless and then took on time. Transcendent time has always characterized the Christian Godhead. As others have noted, the historic orthodox creeds have always assumed a lively, divine category of time within the Triune Godhead—processions, begettings, sendings, livings. (Openness theology's reversal of this point is just bizarre.) And the Holy Spirit is especially associated with time in extending the work of the Incarnation throughout history.
Creaturely time is not some impersonal force or river. It is the work of the Spirit. Time is personal. Time is the wake left by the movement of the Spirit. Time is providence. The Spirit is truth, the source of truth, and the shaper of truth, and so our living of truth, our knowing, depends upon the Spirit's timing. Nothing is automatic in the Christian universe. It is all dependent upon God's unveiling. We can't just know things on our own timetable. We are dependent upon His. Time is central to epistemology.
We should not be surprised, then, that we can't know things at certain ages. Knowledge is a habit, and our bodies are not always mature enough to absorb certain realities. Sometimes we learn this by common grace and watching the world. The classical trivium, for example, reflects this sort of awareness in its recognition of stages of learning.
On a broader horizon, wisdom is staggered. We see later in life that we embrace habits of knowing that we were not ready for as twenty-year olds. Time sometimes appears to work like a series of street intersections. You have to be in the right crossing at the right time to absorb something correctly; differing flows of traffic bring people to conclusions at different times. A bus might pass several times over the decades but only "make sense" in our fifties. We were too young before to grasp it. It looked stupid "back then" and glorious now. Knowing is timing.
The whole process of persuasion is so intertwined and complicated that it's got to be the work of the Spirit. It's a miracle that any two people believe the same thing at all, let alone whole covenant communities and reformations. And this should give us awe and patience—"Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way" (Heb. 5:2). And yet, it also gives us ground for impatience. Some have stood in the right intersection time after time and have still missed it, demanding a milk truck (Heb. 5:12). The whole process of education depends upon finding the right flow and crossing at the right time, not too slowly, not too quickly, always crying out for grace. Ent the earthborn, old as mountains.
Old as mountains.

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