Raymond Tallis begins Of Time and Lamentation with a poignant description of his experience of time. Waking in the morning, he’s “less likely to reflect that a new day has arrived than that yet another day has departed.” That’s partly a function of age. Tallis is in his seventies, and, standing “somewhere between supper-time and midnight in my life’s day,” he knows “the period in which I may be capable, in particular capable of thought, will most probably be much shorter than the quantity of time that remains to me.” Yesterday glows with promise because it owned “more of the future than does this present day.”
In moments of clarity, we realize we’re contingent as well as temporal. We didn’t need to be here. The universe would have been perfectly content, and almost entirely the same, had we never existed. And we’re dependent—on the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, on the unimaginably complex bodily processes that operate entirely outside the scope of conscious thought, on friendship and love. We don’t know everything there is to know. Some things we cannot know, some we don’t know yet; some are known by others, but not by us. We resent our weakness and ignorance. Finitude frustrates.
Tallis makes it more melancholy by conflating realities Christianity distinguishes. For Tallis, to live in time is to live toward death. Christians, by contrast, believe death intruded into the world, following on the heels of sin (Rom 5:12–21). But Christians sometimes regard finitude as a tragic condition. We tick off things that irritate us, and conclude they all must result from the Fall. If we weren’t fallen, we’re tempted to think, we wouldn’t be time-bound, ignorant, dependent. If we weren’t fallen, we wouldn’t be finite. Christians slip into unthinking “gnosticism,” equating createdness with fallenness.
From its first pages, Scripture treats finitude as part of the creation God calls “very good.” On the first day of the creation week, God summons light into existence. Light dispels the original darkness, but God doesn’t eliminate darkness—not yet. Instead, he sets light and darkness in a rhythmic dance of day and night, which forms the evenings and mornings of every day since. That temporal rhythm is good, and when God delegates governance of day and night to the heavenly lights, he says that’s “good” too (Gen 1:14–16).
Tallis writes that time is “inflationary.” Time seems to quicken as the years pass because of “the diminishing significance or novelty of the events that fill our hours.” As moments pile up, the value of each moment diminishes. But time would have this inflationary quality even for an immortal person. Methuselah had seen it all, no doubt, and he would have seen even more if his life went on for millennia instead of a measly 969 years. Even without death, moments would accumulate and time would inflate. Time inflation is hardwired into finite existence. Yet God says, “It’s all very good.”
To live, we must eat, turning world into self. According to Genesis 1, it’s always been so. Before Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit, God offered every seeding plant and fruit-bearing tree for food (Gen 1:29–30). Adam and Eve couldn’t fulfill their commission to be fruitful and multiply without each other. Sexual difference and dependence is a design feature, not a bug. Humans didn’t become dependent after the Fall. We were created dependent. And God says, “all very good.”
The original human condition is one of temporality, contingency, dependence, ignorance. It’s a tragic condition only if we’re supposed to be as eternal, independent, omniscient, and omnipotent as God. We’re not. We’re creatures, and our limits are part of the “very good” creation. If finitude is frustrating, it’s an original frustration, a frustration built into creation. And that means it cannot really be a frustration. Finitude is rather a glory, a gift from the God who declares “all very good.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.