Personally, I have great difficulty thinking of time other than in the seeming watertight compartments of past, present, and future; time passing by minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years etc. Kronos is the Greek word we have adopted to refer to this arrangement, one where time flows in a linear fashion.
Greek has a second word for time. Kairos refers to a notion, not of the linear flow of time, but of the arrival of the appointed time, the opportune moment. We speak of kairos moments to refer to the experience of something happening in a window of timeliness.
You have this great new discovery about yourself or your understanding of the world in some way, or things just fall into place for you, a long and difficult problem is resolved suddenly, the world looks different and you ask why haven’t I seen this or why has this not happened before now? Really crucial things seem only to happen when a correct alignment comes about – the dynamic operation of which appears mysterious to us.
Greek is an incredibly rich language for conveying subtleties of meaning. So it comes as no small surprise that another Greek word teleios – communicates a third conception of time. Teleios means far-reaching, fulfillment, mature as in the end of time when the process that reveals itself only by painful step after painful step, is finally complete.
Teleological time plays havoc with chronological time – obfuscating the clear delineations between past, present, and future. That which we look forward to has already arrived. It is present and still yet to come.
Contemporary Western Society is overly dominated by time as Kronos. We measure the flow of time down to the smallest millisecond. Our lives are regulated by the chronology of time passing in intervals of the minute and hour hands of the clock, the day-by-day passage of the calendar. The privileging of chronological time followed upon the invention of the mechanical clock, which paved the way for the technological ascendancy of Western Culture. Yet, Kronos is a hard taskmaster, driving us ever onward before its demands for more and more productive use of the moment. Kronos is like the bossy child who plays poorly with its siblings – kairos and teleios.
Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister and prominent New England Transcendentalist who in 1853 in his sermon: Of Justice and Conscience noted:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, its arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight; I can [but] divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.
These are prescient words in the decade lead up to the devastating War Between the States. We know Theodore Parker’s words even if we don’t remember him. For in 1964, while giving the commencement sermon at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. included Parker’s words as he prophesied:
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
King draws on Parker’s words to illuminate the workings of the way teleios bends the flow of events in a certain direction. Following in the footsteps of the great prophets of Israel, Parker and King gave voice to the paradox of teleios lying at the heart of our long Biblical Tradition. Justice is a teleological fruit -like a magnet continually bending the direction of human endeavor towards its fulfillment. However, justice also breaks into the here and now in Kairos moments, those mysterious opportune moments of time when events and human hearts come into alignment as the telos of time pulls us towards its ultimate fulfillment.
In a culture dominated by chronological time, the teleological bent of the moral universe is something very hard for us to hold onto. For we easily become disillusioned when justice does not happen instantly within our own span of time.We want things to be perfect, now and can’t tolerate the idea that we may not see the fruits of that for which we are working so hard for our eyes reach but little ways.
Chapter 32 of the book of the prophet Jeremiah ushers us into a scene in the guardhouse of the palace of Zedekiah, the last rag-tag and sorry king of Judah on the eve of the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon in 587.
Historically, Israel had always had charismatic figures in the tradition of Moses, and Samuel, himself the last of the great Judges in Isreal. Yet the prophetic movement as recorded in the books of the major prophets: Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah arose only as a parallel development alongside the rise of monarchy in ancient Israel. This point is essential for us to grasp, for the major prophetic tradition arises as a religious antidote to the politics of monarchical shenanigans. The centralization of power inevitably placed the rule of the king above the law of God. Monarchy, like all human forms of political governance, inevitably tended towards the privileging of power over justice, idolatry over true worship, and self-interested corruption over the sound governance in the name of the common good.
The period of Jeremiah’s prophecy is contemporaneous with the prolonged political crisis from 626 to the fall of Jerusalem in 587. Jeremiah preached a moral view of reality grounded in the Hebrew Epic through which God, as the only God who had brought the Hebrews out of the land of Egypt, taught Israel the way of true worship and good governance that fostered life.
As Chapter 32 opens, for his pains Jeremiah has been imprisoned in an attempt to silence him. In the king’s guardhouse, we witness a strange transaction taking place – Jeremiah amidst his prophecies of destruction and ruin, at the behest of God, transacts the purchase of a piece of land.
Jeremiah was not being a prudent businessman preparing like a war profiteer for his future. In buying the field in Anathoth, a town outside the walls of Jerusalem, which had been laid waste by the Babylonian army besieging Jerusalem, he was knowingly buying land he knew he would never see, for purposes he would never benefit from.
Jeremiah’s purchase is a symbol for the moral arc of the universe. If Jeremiah had used Theodore Parker’s words, he might have said that in the midst of fear, and on the eve of the total destruction of Temple and the exile of that nation things will refuse to be mismanaged long. That through the experience of destruction and exile the arc of the moral universe nevertheless bends towards liberation and restoration.
America is gripped by fear and anxiety. Angry frustration bubbles over everywhere we look. Black communities with long experience of the economics being stacked against them turn in upon themselves and in some cases destroy the only material fabric of community life they have. White working class males, for whom the return of economic injustice is a relatively new experience recommit with angry passion to their long tradition of voting against their own best self-interests. Young millennials, so disillusioned by a lack of inspired political choice, contemplate exacerbating their disillusion by not voting at all, in the mistaken belief that not to vote is to opt out of responsibility for the consequences. All around us, we see the seeds of our impending doom – or we certainly think we do. Yet:
Things refuse to be mismanaged long, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.
We cannot see it with our eyes yet we can divine its movement through the practice of a moral conscience informed by a use of the Bible that:
exposes our own prejudices about race, politics, and economics to the testimony of a scriptural tradition that often runs against the grain of prevailing cultural values.
One of the most commendable qualities of the American national experience is that America continues to ere long tremble as it struggles with the consequences of the evils of its national past. Some nations continue to defiantly glory in the evils of their past, refusing to hold themselves accountable to the judgment of history. The American experience is to be torn trembling into a difficult and prolonged account taking. If this is an imperfect process, one that seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time, then so be it as long as it continues.
Like the prophet Jeremiah, our task is essentially teleological in nature. Propelled by our Biblical vision that God is just. In the mysterious and sudden alignment of kairos moments producing after long struggle fruits such as the signing of the Civil Rights Act and other major breakthroughs when women, LGBT, and otherly disadvantaged peoples receive justice. The stark realities of the here and now only point us to look for the ultimate arrival of justice through our commitment to action now -thus furthering the end time’s slowly maturing fruits. Through our tireless agitations in the here and now we encounter kairos moments – evidence that the arc of the moral universe – which is simply another way of speaking of the kingdom of God -bends towards justice.
Like Jeremiah, when the night seems so dark, let us not lose faith nor abandon hope.
 Brooks E. Holifield Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of The Puritans to the Civil War