Does Anybody Really Know What Time Is?

I have at least one clock in the five main rooms of my house—for a total of eight if I count my computer, cell phone and wristwatch. Today, when I opened my eyes, the first thing I did was look at my clock: it was 6:36 am. After drinking my morning coffee and reading the online news, I fixed my breakfast and read my morning devotions and daily bible passages. About two hours later, I took a shower, dressed and gave my brother a ride to work. He was early, because I had to drop him off on my way to church. I too was early, getting there about twenty minutes before the 10:30 am service. There was time for another cup of coffee.

My life is very time-oriented. Even the counseling I do typically has a time-orientation: sessions are scheduled for an hour. Focusing on the “objective” passing of time as shown by a clock is what Vern Poythress described in Redeeming Science as a clock orientation. Another, more subjective experience of time focuses on the rhythms of human events. Here, we interact with one another or with created things (like now with my computer). These interactions have natural groupings of beginnings, middles and ends; and they end when they are over. Poythress called this an “interactive orientation.”

All human beings are aware of both kinds of time orientation. We can have interactive experiences of time in which we “lose track of time” and then realize it is later than we thought. I have been in counseling sessions where I lost track of time and felt I had to apologize to the next scheduled person who I kept waiting 10 or 15 minutes. Poythress said this is a consequence of our postindustrial American culture, which has a strong clock orientation.

Preindustrial societies have an interactive time orientation. Meetings start when everyone is there and end when the participants are “finished.” There isn’t an overt or implicit attention to objective time. Robert Levine commented in his book A Geography of Time that “life on the clock is clearly out of line with virtually all of recorded history.” Poythress said in Redeeming Science:

Clock time is more merciless than nature’s obvious rhythms. In the ancient world before the arrival of mechanical clocks, you experienced the rhythm of the seasons and the rhythm of day and night, but not the mechanical rhythm of the ticking clock.

Parallel with the progress of science and technology, a clock orientation has increasingly become an integral part of how we view the world and even how we read our bibles.

Poythress noted that if you went to Genesis 1 with a clock orientation, your focus would be on how long (according to a clock) it took to complete the creation account. But if you approached Genesis 1 with an interactive orientation, you’d ask what important events took place, and what their meaning could be. Remember that humans don’t appear until day six. But God was present “working with a rhythm like that of human work.” Immediately he’d know that it took six days; “six human-like cycles of work and rest, followed by a seventh day of longer rest.”

The pattern that would strike him would be the rhythm of work and not the rhythm of the ticking clock. And the days are truly days because of their correspondence to the human rhythm of the workday: “And there was evening and there was morning …” How long the days took as measured by a clock was a secondary issue.

Americans, because of their strong clock orientation, have a tendency to press the “question of clock ticks” since it is so much a factor in American culture. So when someone is asserting that the days of Genesis 1 were “ordinary days,” the person “is claiming the days were ordinary by clock time.” A person with an interactive time orientation would never call them “ordinary.” In terms of what took place within them, “they were among the most extraordinary days in all of history!”

Poythress suggested that when insisting upon a strict 24-hour-day viewpoint for Genesis 1, its proponents had adopted a clock orientation of time and perhaps “unconsciously given in to the philosophical primacy of a modern scientific orientation toward precise, quantitative measurement of time.”

Placing the 24-hour-day view of Genesis 1 as a cornerstone doctrine for conservative Christians has never sat right with me. So when I read the discussion of a distinction between clock orientation and interactive orientation by Vern Poythress in Redeeming Science, I wanted to make it available to a wider audience.

There can be a lack of grace and narrow-minded critique of individuals who disagree with a young earth creationist, 24-hour-day view of the Genesis days of creation. I see this in what Ken Ham wrote in his blog post about Hugh Ross, who has a day-age-view of the days in Genesis. Ken Ham is the president of Answers in Genesis, a self-described apologetics ministry with a young earth creation view. I think Deborah Haarsma, the President of the Biologos Foundation, has the right response, in her blog: have a gracious dialogue with those who differ on this view; it’s a disagreement among believers.

Vern Poythress noted how the Genesis account of creation and the Fall in Genesis chapters 1-3 provides a foundation for the doctrines of God, nature, humanity, sin and the Sabbath. And in terms of basic theology, the principal approaches to interpreting the Genesis creation account have the same outcome. They all affirm the same theological truths. And the exact amount of time that it took to accomplish creation makes no theological difference to these basic truths.

The theology of creation, and the theology of God’s control and goodness displayed in creation, remain fundamentally the same, however short or long the timing for the various acts of creation (Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science, 114).


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