Can I find who I am in time?

by Belinda Waterhouse

Belinda recently graduated from Stirling with a Bachelor of Theology, where she has also tutored in New Testament studies. She currently attends Dandenong Church of Christ.

Image: Sundial from 1655 on the southern exterior wall of the priory building on Domplatz #1, market town Gurk, district Sankt Veit an der Glan, Carinthia, Austria, EU. Wikimedia Commons (public domain) 

Human identity is intrinsically connected to time.  Ecclesiastes speaks of the rhythms and patterns of nature and the inescapability of humanity’s location under the sun; where identity is shaped and influenced by experiences and environment.  In various situations and life-stages, time is variously experienced as rushing, lingering, passing and dragging.  Here, we consider the connection between time and identity, and, in keeping with Qoheleth’s style, we explore humanity’s place under the sun before an explicitly christological horizon.

Time moves without ceasing.  The clock marks each moment and the sun rises and sets with predictable monotony.  My life is ordered by time—sleeping, waking, working and resting. Yet I cannot presume to control time; it seeks neither my permission nor encouragement. Time teaches, yet it also mocks.  It brings both blessing and curse, pleasure and pain. Time is a vehicle ushering me through life at a pre-determined pace.  Its presence is reliable, constant and reassuring—for while I have time, I have life. Yet time is also a prison. Unable to pause my life even briefly, I am swept along involuntarily. Every ‘now’ incessantly recedes into ‘then’ as my unknown allotted time steadily diminishes. 

So, the “sun rises and the sun sets” (Ecc. 1:5) while time carries me forward. While I am “under the sun” (Ecc. 1:14) I am compelled to participate in life as it arrives in successive moments. I cannot access the past or future. Instead I may only experience the present moment, a continual “sequence of nows” each one receding immediately to give way to the next.[1] I do not want to be restrained by time.  I do not want to await its arrival nor fear its departure. I do not want an unseen clock counting down my days under the sun. Yet, I am involuntarily obliged to the clock. For I rely on its movement and time.  While it counts for me, I am alive.  Once it ceases, so does my life. As the sun rises and sets, I am becoming. I am evolving and growing even while also degenerating and my own remaining time is decreasing. My identity unfolds and becomes in “continual formation” as each now leaves an imprint.[2] I did not choose when my time began under the sun, nor do I know when it will cease. I simply know that “time does not let itself be halted” and life is measured thus.[3]

In the midst of time and experiences, who am I?  If my identity is continually evolving and I cannot control my beginning and end, then am I just part of nature?  If the cycle is endless and “now is ever slipping away”, then why do I yearn for more even though I know that “I am not eternal or infinite”?[4], [5]  Eternity has been set in my heart (Ecc. 3:10), and I know that life under the sun will not fulfil my yearnings.  These questions pave a well-travelled path to futility and fatalism.

Looking around, I observe humanity’s scrambling to make ourselves “the centre of everything”.[6]  Many determine to know themselves, undertaking pilgrimages of discovery, self-help and knowledge.  Others pursue success; perhaps the accumulation of “wealth, possessions and honour” (Ecc. 6:2), “a hundred children” (Ecc. 6:3) or establishing a legacy through humanitarian endeavour.  Many try to stave off “a sense of inadequacy….and living a meaningless life” through tribal affiliation, seeking meaning through community belonging.[7] This incessant movement is infused with hope that we will somehow outrun the clock, or at the very least, ensure that we are not forgotten in time. Fleetingly, these pursuits offer a sense of identity and dull us through “distraction (that) passes our time”.[8] Yet we are unable to pause the clock that continues to sweep away life and shift identity.

I join my voice with Qoheleth: “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecc. 1:2)  Searching for God, humanity “is completely ignorant and inescapably miserable” and Ecclesiastes voices our restlessness.[9] We sigh along with Qoheleth as each question is uneasily addressed with a shrug of resignation and we languish under the rising and setting of the sun, even while we know that we are created for more. Then I consider the rest of Scripture and remember the One who is “I Am”.  How can anyone claim “I Am” when identity is beholden to time—when I cannot grasp even one ‘now’ to prevent its departure?!  Even as I utter “I Am” the moment has receded, and I am no longer who I was a moment ago.[10] I can only say “I was” or “I will be” (which is mere speculation, for I cannot know the future).  My “identity is either elusive as continually deferred or clearly fractured” and to claim “I Am” is never possible for me, nor anyone else under the sun. [11]

Yet, here is One boldly and simply stating an identity. I Am. Despite the passing of time, and the rising and setting of the sun. I Am. Spoken now, yet this One is also in the past and the future. To claim “I Am” speaks a perpetual now of existence. It is here that meaning, true identity and happiness reside.  It is here that our hearts will relinquish their restlessness, because this is for what we have been made.[12] We reach upwards to the One who is; the Alpha who was “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1) is also the Omega (Rev: 1:8). Always present - never arriving nor departing, and never “conceived of as not existing”.[13]  How can this be? The answer is woven through Ecclesiastes - the One who perpetually is must be “beyond time” and not under the sun.[14]  With no obligation to time, the One may simply say “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex 3:14).  This is unequivocally true, for this identity is not influenced by external forces, and continues infinitely.  I Am is always a wholly true identity, for I Am is unchangeable.

I Am is outside of time and “above the sun”.[15] God speaks into time, awakening humanity to a surrounding vista where identity is established in something permanent and everything under the sun simply hosts “the brief span of my life compared with eternity before and after it”.[16] In “I Am”, we see the God of Moses mingled with “I am” statements made by Jesus Christ in the gospels.  All of this narrative occurs under the sun, yet begins from above the sun. This is engagement with the God “who is, and who was, and who is to come” (Rev 1:8); revealing a horizon beyond time—not just a linear future and past, but perpetually in every now.

So I find this; anchored in God, I am no longer buffeted by a constant flow of passing nows, rather my “singular defining identity” is in relation to “I Am” and is located in an eternal story.[17] Whether the sun rises or not, I am created and loved by God.  Whether I am successful and wealthy, or my name is completely forgotten in time, I am known by the Creator. The sun, once my captor, is now revealed as part of the creation to sustain life. Time, once bringing alternate fear and relief, is now received as gift. Success, once a material goal, is now measured by relationship with God. I am created, I am loved, I am known, I am sustained. Whoever I am is because I know I Am.

This article has been peer reviewed in line with editorial policies

[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (Great Britain: Basil Blackwell, 1962), 475.

[2] Stephen Curkpatrick, (2018) “Elasticity of Christian Identity,” Suci Iman Akademis Dan Praktis: Jurnal Teologi,7 (1), 39.

[3] Heidegger,Being and Time, 478.

[4] Stephen Curkpatrick, Ecclesiastes Lecture Notes: Session 1, 2018, 1.

[5] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, ed. Ernest Rhys (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1940), 130.

[6] Pascal, Pensees, 127.

[7] Blaise Pascal, The Mind on Fire: A Faith for the Skeptical and Indifferent, ed. James M. Houston (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1989), 73.

[8] Pascal, The Mind on Fire, 101.  

[9] Pascal, The Mind on Fire, 51.

[10] Curkpatrick, Ecclesiastes Lecture Notes, 1.

[11] Curkpatrick, Elasticity of Christian Identity, 35.

[12] Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin, 1961), 21.

[13] Leszek Kolakowski, Why is there Something rather than Nothing? Questions from Great Philosophers, trans. Agnieszka Kolakowska (London: Penguin, 2008), 133.

[14] Kolakowski,Why is there Something rather than Nothing?, 135.

[15] Hery Susanto, Ecclesiastes, lecture delivered 25 Sept 2018.

[16] Pascal, The Mind on Fire, 72.  

[17] Curkpatrick, Elasticity of Christian Identity, 39.

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