This week I’d like to highlight a more well-known work of art, craft, and technology as we consider the qualities of time from a point of view that is both distinctively Christian and that keeps in mind some of the images and analogies for contemporary conceptions of the universe that we’ve been exploring. The image above is a side view of the rippled disk of gold-plated stainless steel that forms the center and visual heart of the “Chronophage,” John C. Taylor’s extraordinary clock for Corpus Christi College of Cambridge University.
This first Chronophage clock was unveiled and introduced to the world with remarks on the mystery of time by physicist Stephen Hawking on September 19, 2008, and Taylor’s own sense of mortality and the relentlessness of time’s passing away is its central message. The meaning of the clock is clear enough from the form and actions of the wonderfully horrible locust-like creature that sits atop the clock and is the literalization and externalization of the “grasshopper escapement” that makes it run. Its legs march forward, inexorably pulling the round disk of time along, while its fanged mouth snaps shut once each minute to mark another chunk of time gobbled up and gone. As if the implications weren’t clear enough, the hourly “chime” is a sound like that of a chain rattling into a coffin, and the Chronophage’s spined tail quivers as if to say “here, O death, is thy sting.”
While a second major theme of the work is the subjectivity of time as we experience it, and another post could be devoted to the way Taylor freely mixes the “relativism” (and therefore, he seems to say, the untrustworthiness) of human subjectivity with the very different “relativistic” qualities of time as it connects with matter and energy, here the emphasis will be on the irony of having this machine for symbolically devouring time bear the name of Christ (the Corpus Christi Clock), considering how radically different the understanding of time that it emphasizes is from the way time is understood with regard to the identity and work of Jesus. Yet as the image above suggests, the form of the clock itself offers (perhaps inadvertently) an alternative or counterweight to the view of time we get if we look only at the creature than sits atop it.
Taylor has identified his own fascination with Einstein’s theories of space/time as an inspiration for the clock, stating the central disk of the clock represents the flow of time outward from the Big Bang, which is its center. This is provocative imagery, for it presents a picture of time more akin to an everywhere-expanding universe than a finite and incrementally-measured line. Malcom Guite considered the Chronophage and suggested that the way God continues to “pour out” time as a gift is one alternative to the view of time being ever consumed, and that fluid metaphor is highly appropriate to the form of the clock’s pool-like face, complete with the suspended rebounding droplet.
While that image gives a more hopeful and renewal-focused perspective on the narrative, directional sense of time, it also comports beautifully with another element of a Christian sense of the cosmos, which is that time (unlike space) has a definite center from which this eternal filling occurs, not just a beginning and an end. In other words, naming Jesus as both the Alpha and Omega is not just to say he was “there” at the beginning and has now run on ahead to the end, but to say that He subsumes both, because past and future are known relative to Him in communion with the Father and Spirit. While we affirm that Jesus entered the narrative flow of history two millennia ago “in the fullness of time,” (Galatians 4:4) we must also affirm that it is He who was then and is yet doing the filling, the completing, the ordering of time—of bringing it to its ultimate “fullness.” (Ephesians 1:10)
But what help is this dual sense of the “fullness of time”—with Christ as the center of time, not just its beginning and the end—in our discussions of science and faith, or in our approaches to complicated Scriptural texts? Does this help us in any way in dealing with the first chapters of Genesis, for example, or with the fifth chapter of Romans? First and perhaps most simply, it may help us recognize that contemporary science does, indeed, provide new ways of thinking about the world that enrich historical understandings of God’s cosmos, rather than providing proofs of His existence or handiwork within it. But this space/time analogy for the centrality of Christ may, indeed, help us wrestle with scripture better, too.
It is nothing new, for instance, to mark the similarities between the books of Revelation and the creation account in Genesis: both are prophetic revelations of events that the human author/recorder did not directly see or experience, rather than eye-witness accounts. Leaving aside the well-trod area of literary genre studies other than to note that in such prophetic visions the symbolic and reportorial elements are almost inextricably intertwined, what is most interesting about this symmetry between the beginning and end of the Bible in this context is that it reminds us that Christ is the very emanating center of time, not just the middle of time.
Thinking about time as fundamentally Christ-centered rather than strictly unidirectional—as constantly infilling and renewing rather than being constantly devoured and lost—may be a useful complement to the Evangelical recovery of the narrative quality of the Gospel. For while a version of the story of God’s relationship with mankind that stresses the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Renewal sequence is useful to remind us of many of the verities of orthodox Christian faith (including the real and lasting ramifications of our decisions and actions in earthly time), it also makes it easy to think of Jesus merely as an “if a, then b” solution to the problem of human sin and the brokenness of the world, as opposed to also being the pre-and always-existing summation of the goodness, power, and mystery of the Triune God intersecting with the material cosmos of which we are a part.
With the ever-creeping Chronophage, John C. Taylor has given us a remarkable gift towards humilty—a reminder that it is good and right to contemplate the limits of our earthly, material existence. But Taylor has also given us an intimation of renewal in the still, golden center of his Corpus Christi Clock—an equally-powerful (and more beautiful) reminder that eternity is an inestimable gift, freely given, but paid for by the very Body of Christ.