Ruts, Expectation, and the Word from Beyond: Thoughts on Christian Time

We all know the feeling of being in a rut: repetition temporarily dominates variation, and […]

Will McDavid / 5.15.14

We all know the feeling of being in a rut: repetition temporarily dominates variation, and we’re going in circles, with routine and mundanity showing no signs of breaking. Most recently, Rust Cohle on True Detective comes to mind. His quote that “time is a flat circle” emphasizes repetitiveness, lack of progress, everything repeating and repeating – “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow / Creeps in this petty pace”, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth puts it. What lent the air of futility to Macbeth’s time? He had a goal, a telos, or end, earlier: to become king. Once his ambition is fulfilled, there is no more movement toward his goal; the purpose and allure of ambition has ceased, and only a bare bleak “tomorrow” drags in its stead. He has followed his selfhood to its strongest desire – kingship – but in so doing, he has closed himself off from anything beyond his ambition. His closed-off self stagnates until every “tomorrow” becomes merely a reminder of endless vanity.


The Greeks distinguished between two words denoting time: chronos, meaning the day-to-day movement which Macbeth describes, and kairos, signifying an irruption in time, a discontinuity, a fulfillment or crisis – literally, something like “critical time or moment”. The distinction can be felt, among other places, in Handel’s overture to the Messiah: bleak, repetitious and wandering violin musings, which tease a whimpering close before a new, joyous movement abruptly breaks in. It feels like Incarnation.

As the seconds tick past, we find meaning in time as it leads us toward some realization in the future; expectation lends time its sense of progression and, therefore, meaning – one reason why Macbeth was happier striving than he would be in repose. Our goals, or “ends” (implying both senses) can be measured by whether their attainment brings true completion and rest, or whether they merely recede and dissolve into continued process – like Nick Saban being interviewed after a National Championship, focused only on next year – pure process.

So there are ends, in the real sense of termination, and pseudo-ends, which only fade into a demand for further movement. I think of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, taking its title from the Shakespeare passage above, a profound reflection on time. The stale virtue of an aristocratic family in decline – decline which it cannot accept – is concentrated, symbolically, in the virginity of its daughter, Caddy. One of her brothers, Quentin, idolizes her more than the others. His virtue, his pseudo-telos, rests in the purity of his sister, so he becomes stuck in a paradox: the only kairos to which he is oriented is that of unceasing chronos – his end is end-less process. He cannot admit of change, the basis of time, so he becomes imprisoned in a lifeless world. His father observes as much to him:

…you are still blind to what is in yourself to that part of part of general truth the sequence of natural events and their causes which shadows every mans brow… you are not thinking of finitude [time which may be ‘finished’, end-ed] you are contemplating an apotheosis [culmination] in which a temporary state of mind will become symmetrical above the flesh and aware both of itself and the flesh…

Quentin’s retreat from change, and thus retreat from time, unfolds into just that: a retreat from the world, from life. He projects his temporary state of mind far into the future, holding onto the current self at all costs, but a self without change is barren. It may be impregnable – or seemingly so – against time’s vicissitudes, but such a state of time without end becomes absolutely vulnerable to the questions of vanity – I exist, but is existence worth it? Again, our ends imbue life with meaning and purpose.


Whenever our expectations of the future are the naive projections of the self-justifying, self-perpetuating human being, resistant to time and change, we risk the temporal calcification of Quentin, of Macbeth. Macbeth’s ambitions succeeded while Quentin’s failed, but both ended in the same futility. Both had expectations (and thus concepts of time) which were merely temporal extensions of the self. No true ec-stasis, or going-out from the self, but instead a curved-in self deepening in its desires.

What happens if these self-absorbed ambitions are renounced? Quentin’s father renounces them, accepting the natural change of the world. But for him this change is all there is, growth and death and decay. Quentin’s rebellion against his father’s defeatism led him into an atemporal idealism, culminating in suicide, his final retreat from time. But his father’s brute realism led him to drink himself to death – an honest answer to the harsh facts of suffering and change. He advises his son to “go up into Maine for a month you can afford it if you are careful it might be good thing watching pennies has healed more scars than jesus.” The stalwart resolve to persist amidst life’s difficulties, observable in the father’s stoicism, is its own form of calcified individualism. He has his own form of process without end, enduring chronos without asking for anything more.

A truly Christian understanding of time, by contrast, offers not projection into the future, but rather a radical open-end-edness: in a word, a posture of faith. The narrow line between Quentin and his father is nearly-untraceable, a mode of living which gives way neither to projections of the self – naive hope – nor a calcified virtue of endurance. Such a path would be characterized by a truly outward-facing self, a self barren of meaning, subject to vanity, if it weren’t for the possibility of love from beyond conferring meaning and assurance. Jean-Luc Marion, a Catholic phenomenologist, sketches this mode of expectation in his work on The Erotic Phenomenon:

Let us enter into the erotic reduction, where the event from elsewhere reigns. According to what moment of time does this elsewhere temporalize itself, and according to what ecstasy of time? It is temporalized in its coming about as event. Now it is proper to the event not to be foreseeable, or to be produced or even less to be reproduced at will. The event thus compels me to await it, subject to its initiative… Elsewhere, as event, compels me to the posture of expectation. The temporality of such an expectation remains to be determined… for as long as I wait, time does not pass. Erotic time does not pass as long as I wait, for a very clear reason: while I am waiting, still nothing happens; I am waiting precisely because still nothing happens, and, precisely, I am waiting for something finally to happen. The time of expectation does not pass, for nothing is happening.

[T]ime essentially unfolds itself according to the mode of an event, like the unpredictable arrival of an elsewhere, of which no one knows the day nor the hour, and of which the present can only be given as an unexpected and unmerited gift… When I am expecting, I inhabit that which can come upon me from elsewhere and without which no present or past would matter to me.

It’s worth noting how nimbly Marion moves in the analogical scale, from human infatuation (waiting for a text back from that special girl/guy, waiting for a new pair of sunglasses in the mail) up to the Eschaton itself (“the day nor the hour…”). That pathetic state to which we are reduced when waiting for something (messages, glasses, books, interview results, child’s college acceptances), which renders time meaningful only as proceeding toward that fulfillment, is a natural state for Marion, the natural form of human erotic desire. In almost scholastic fashion, we could say that our ends both reveal and shape us. In waiting for love, a true waiting devoid of Quentin’s or his father’s projections, we act out a right posture of creatureliness. And the highest ends of this love are, of course, forgiveness and total acceptance, followed, eventually, by our glorification when “know fully” even as we have been “fully known”. Marion’s eschatological reference seems far from coincidental.


If time drags on in desperate expectation of divine love, perhaps Marion’s passage above would imply a word of comfort – that such waiting is a normal, natural disposition of humanity. To say that real assurance must come from the outside, and must be truly unexpected and unmerited, is tantamount to saying that the expectant lover is, temporally, dead. Purely receptive, the lover does have activity, but activity mainly in the modes of longing and anticipation. A temporal desolation (in Lutheran terms, death) comes in recognizing our end as completely outside of ourselves, and a temporal consolation (resurrection) occurs when the self is truly given over to that which lays claim to it, which promises to deliver it.

Christianity at once dismantles naive human expectations, like those of Quentin for his sister, and affirms true expectation – the virtue of hope, what philosopher Glenn Tinder defines as “the willingness to entrust ourselves to time.” Something extratemporal has broken in during the first century CE, and our history is at once oriented backward to it – the death of human ambition and power and righteousness – and forward to its consummation.

Plato, in his Meno, suggested time is used to dis-cover, or recollect, eternal truths about humans, the world, virtue, and wisdom – opportunity to discover higher, always-existing truth and to actualize an always-present, though latent, potential for human goodness. Quentin fought time, encasing and preserving his wrongheaded notion of purity as in formaldehyde, at once pristine and moribund. His father tried to weather it, preserving himself in his mulish endurance. Time is the measure of change, and the only embrace of time is the giving-up of one’s static ego, which happens both by the death of naive hopes and by the promise that our expectation, our living into the future, is not vain.

In some sense, Christianity has embraced time more profoundly than any other system of thought, precisely because it is first a mode of living. The Fall, the Incarnation, the Eschaton – all are inscribed in a historical-redemptive arc which posits real, unavoidable decline and real, absolutely compelling hope. This redemption in time finds its central expression in the time from Good Friday to Easter Sunday: naive hope dies, we grieve its absence, and then, when we go to mourn God’s absence, we hear Marion’s unexpected and unmerited voice from beyond:

“Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” (John 20:15)

And then a name called, penetrating and personal, “Mary” – calling the dead, hopeless Adam out of the world of vanity and into that of assurance, dependence, and renewed expectation with God himself as its content. The persistent human ego is destroyed, and replaced with one calling our name, a love which answers our deepest need of love and assures us of our lovability and value, effects it by uniting us with himself. Love, as the fulfillment of ultimate human expectation – its end – brings about the fulfillment of time.


Near the end of his book, Marion makes explicit the transition from human love and expectation to divine love:

When God loves (and indeed he never ceases to love), he simply loves infinitely better than do we. He loves to perfection, without a fault, without an error, from beginning to end. He loves first and last. He loves like no one else. In the end, I not only discover that another was loving me before I loved, and thus that this other already played the lover before me, but above all I discover that this first lover, from the very beginning, is named God. God’s highest transcendence, the only one that does not dishonor him, belongs not to power, nor to wisdom, nor even to infinity, but to love. For love alone is enough to put all infinity, all wisdom, all power, to work.

For Marion, time becomes meaningful once we recognize our need for this love, our dependence upon the arrival of erotic “elsewheres” and, ultimately, the divine “elsewhere”. The expectation and need for a love beyond ourselves, even the anticipation of it, takes no creation or engendering or drumming-up on our part. It’s already there, and in some sense the only task, at once the easiest and most difficult, is to recognize the need and dependence which irrupt in our lives at every turn. Such dependence points beyond itself, and our own powerlessness and fallenness, inasmuch as they direct us beyond the exhausting ego. Not faith despite change, but, as Christian Wiman said, faith in change. It is often when desire and vanity work the ego to a state of destitution that we hear the voice of redeeming love intrude, calling our name.

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2 responses to “Ruts, Expectation, and the Word from Beyond: Thoughts on Christian Time”

  1. Todd Brewer says:

    Indeed. Great stuff! The B-mann would be proud.

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