Lewis Mumford wrote in his 1934 classic Technics and Civilization that “the clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age.” Due to the mechanical clock, “time-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing.” Mumford explains that, “as this took place, Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions.” Humanity’s relationship to time was forever changed as “abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions themselves were regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it.” Mumford was putting his finger on something important: the shift from a natural, narrative, and organic view of time to a mechanized, segmented, and abstract view of time. The Greek language captures these two very different approaches to time with the words kairos and chronos respectively. In today’s world, driven almost exclusively by chronos, finding ways to allow kairos to punctuate and permeate our lives can reorient us towards permanent things and higher goods.
From Kairos to Chronos
In his book Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News, Jeffrey Bilbro provides an excellent treatment of the different orientation towards life brought about by kairos and chronos time. When I interviewed him about the book, he summarized:
Chronos just refers to time as duration or sequence, and kairos names a seasonal, cyclic kind of time: it’s the right time to plant tomatoes or to make dinner or to go to war. For much of human history, kairos provided the dominant frame of reference; it’s only been in the last 1500 years or so that most people even had a commonly agreed upon system of naming the date. For a variety of reasons—both technological and philosophical—we now inhabit a world dominated by chronos.…Christians need to cultivate the ability to interpret the events of chronos in reference to the drama of God’s action in history—creation, fall, redemption, restoration—a drama that takes place in kairos time.
To put it another way, kairos is three-dimensional, including time, space and meaning; time as story. Chronos, however, is flat, referencing only time and space. As an example, consider life before mechanized time. Prior to mechanical clocks (which offer a very sequential chronos-form of time) it was easier to experience the kairos dimension of time as the natural ebbs-and-flows of time followed the movement of the sun, cycles of the moon, and rhythms of the seasons—all in relation to a specific locale. The structure of time and one’s life were woven together with myths, stories, and rituals—whether seasonal, secular, or sacred. Another example could be the birth of a child. While there certainly is a chronos dimension to the birth of a child—that my first daughter was born at such and such a chronological date and time—the event is most fully understood as a life-changing event of becoming a parent; a kairos moment.
Ironically, according to Mumford’s telling, it was the desire of medieval Christian monks to more accurately coordinate their praying of the liturgical hours that first spurred the invention of the mechanical clock. In a sense then, this Christian longing to unite kairos time and chronos time many centuries ago, unintentionally set in motion a trajectory that has come to overshadow kairos with nothing but chronos in our daily lives. Now, the seconds click away, and the latest atomic clocks are so precise that “over the entire age of the universe, the clocks would be less than 100 milliseconds off.” The monks would be shocked. Chronos time reigns. International time zones keep things moving on precise schedules, and social media feeds and news cycle madness keep us on the endless march of isolated moments to nowhere. But this chronos view of time fails to give deep meaning to our lives. Reuniting kairos and chronos is needed now more than ever.
Uniting Kairos and Chronos
While in Technics and Civilization Mumford connects the rise of chronos to the monks’ mechanical clock, liturgical practices and Christian rituals like praying the hours have histories that long predate the clock and are best understood not as practices to be subsumed under chronos time, but as the in-breaking of kairos time, connecting daily life to the kairos moment of the Christ event, which reorients all of time around his life, death, and resurrection. Christ’s coming in the fullness of time (kairos in Greek) ties together chronos and kairos. We see this understanding of time on full display throughout the New Testament, but especially in the Pauline epistles.
St. Paul writes to the church at Ephesus, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:7-10). The heavenly and earthly realms overlap in Christ as the events of redemption established before the foundations of the world enter chronos in real time-and-space history in the mystery of the incarnation. This great mystery is understood in relation to kairos as well.
The mystery of Christ, “which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel…so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:5-10).
The mystery that was “hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27-28).
The kairotic mystery of the ages is not some unsolved crime, gnostic secret, or Eastern revelation, but is something revealed to us in actual reality in real time and space through the inbreaking of God in his Son Jesus. The transcendent has entered history. And that changes everything.
The Pauline language of the “new age” and the “end of the age” also bespeaks a kairotic view of time. In I Corinthians 10, after some stunning Christological interpretations of Old Testament salvific events like the Red Sea crossing and the water from the Rock (which, Paul says, was Christ), we read in verse 11, “now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” The events of Old Testament history weren’t primarily important to remember as events that occurred on such and such a date in history, but for their kairotic import, as they are folded into Christ himself and understood and reinterpreted in their fullest sense in him.
Now, making all of this real in our lives is hard. Living by kairos time in a chronos world does not come easily, for chronos is a strong and jealous god. Thus, it requires thick practices that are embodied, authentic, communal, frequent, and ritualized to dethrone him. Small acts of resistance chip away at chronos’ power bit by bit. Here are some possible ways to give kairos room to flourish in our lives.
Bringing Kairos to Life: Baptism, Eucharist, Sabbath, and Seasons
Throughout life, we should be weaving in and out of kairos and chronos seamlessly. As a primary example, consider the historic church’s framing of time. The church’s life doesn’t do away with chronos; it properly orders and situates chronos in relation to kairos. Heaven is breaking in, seeping in to our world as the interpenetrating realities of space and time, heaven and earth, mind and matter all converge and unite around Christ who is made manifest in Word and Sacrament. The unfolding of sacramental and liturgical life helps bring kairos to life.
Daily life in Christ takes on a cruciform and baptismal shape (Romans 6:1-14) as we daily drown our sins and rise to new life and are strengthened in our true identity. As Luther’s Small Catechism explains, “the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” In this sense, baptism is not a human work done solely in chronos time, but a gift of cosmic proportions that connects chronos and kairos through the tangible, physical means of water through the power of the Word. We remember our baptism and its specific chronological date and celebrate it each year with gratitude because it is a kairos moment; that is, is a moment in which God enters into chronos redemptively. Kairos and chronos touch in the waters of our baptism as the Word of God is proclaimed, making things new, making alive what was once dead.
Reconnecting to the creational rhythm of sabbath rest also brings us further into kairos. As the Heidelberg Catechism states, “especially on the festive day of rest” we are to “diligently attend the assembly of God’s people, to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor….and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.” The weekly pattern of receiving Word and Supper is just the type of restful reception of pure gift that sabbath rest first pointed towards. We are ushered into a foretaste of the eternal sabbath rest in the sacramental eating of Christ, which is another point where kairos and chronos touch—and no coincidence that it too, like baptism, involves physical means and the Word of God.
So too, life in the home joins us more deeply to kairos when we incorporate daily devotions, prayers, and hymns that connect to the seasons and events recounted in the church year. This applies beyond sacred seasons to natural seasons as well. Connecting to nature’s rhythms of planting and harvest and seasonal eating helps overcome chronos’ endless tyranny of the same.
Kairos is the deepest and truest form of time. Understanding that is the first step. But then actions, habits, and practices are necessary to actually reorder and reorient our lives in accord with this deepest reality. Though the jealous god of chronos demands our time, down to the milliseconds measured by the newest atomic clock, we have a God who has dethroned chronos and returned him to his proper place in service to kairos, which makes time a gift. God’s divine self-giving through speech and act in real history—from creation and the exodus, to the law and the prophets; from the incarnation and resurrection, to baptism and eucharist—all of these imbue time with a sacred residue which will be fully realized in the eschaton when all the events of chronos will be folded into kairos, at the feet of the one who “is before all things, and in him all things hold together;” at the feet of the one who “is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead;” at the feet of the one who reconciles “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Colossians 1:18-20). At the feet of the one who came in the fullness of time, Jesus, the Christ.