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Monday, April 12, 2010

Spirituality: Kairos and Chronos

The conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Romans celebrates the present as a time of revelation of the mystery “kept secret for long ages [chronos]” (16:25). The word translates the condition of history as chronic, awaiting the special time of the healing advent of the Christ.

These chronic episodes, personal and cosmic, climax in the coming of God in Jesus. Kairos, in fact, refers to three different climaxes or end-times in the New Testament: the final and absolute end-time, brought on by God’s judgments (krisis); the final period of history introduced by Jesus’ coming; and specific points in history (individual or social) where one stage of life ends and another begins. John L. McKenzie describes this third meaning of kairos in the New Testament: “Each step in the process of time is a kairos in the sense that it is a critical time, a decisive moment which hastens or retards the kairos of salvation and judgment.” Some moments in personal and social time stand out in special significance. Ordinary duration is broken by the experience of kairos, which is, in Tillich’s words, “qualitatively fulfilled time, the moment that is creation and fate. We call this fulfilled moment, the moment of time approaching us as fate and decision, kairos.”

It is the peculiar features of kairos as end-time and as the saving presence of God that interests us in the context of adult crisis. Crises and passages have been seen to be end-times; the terror of such transitions is precisely that something is being lost, some part or understanding of the person is coming to an end. Crises are potentially kairotic moments in their vulnerability, their peculiar openness to learning and to the re-visioning of one’s life. For one who believes, a crisis is a place in which one might expect to encounter God. The anticipation of God’s illuminating presence in such crises is reinforced by an exploration of similar times in one’s past and God’s guiding presence.

A reflection on how we live in and use time can be aided by a review of chronos and kairos in our personal past. In such an exercise chronos would apply to those periods when life has moved along smoothly or at least busily. This can be called secular time, not because it is evil but because it is an ordinary and regular experience of time. Such periods can be filled with productivity or with boredom; what marks them as chronos are the characteristics of regularity and control. Kairos, then, may refer to transitions in one’s life, when the regular flow of time is broken and (often, at least) a sense of control is threatened. The experience is of something or someone breaking into one’s life. At first experienced as disorientation or loss, such a crisis or special time may, in retrospect, be recognized as a period of extraordinary growth. Often, it is only in such recollection that we can realize the mysterious presence of God. Such a religious “recovery” of the past teaches us about the uneven and unexpected sacredness of our adult lives.

Evelyn Eaton and James D. Whitehead, Christian Life Patterns

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