Like Augustine, we cannot understand time entirely. Nevertheless, we know that we are creatures made to exist in and through time. We can’t even fathom what it would mean to be strictly timeless. Yet there is One who is timeless—God. “From everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2).
“What time is it?” Sometimes I’m asked that question by a complete stranger. It’s an easy question to answer. I just check my phone or watch, and I state the time. But no stranger has ever asked me, “What is time itself?” That’s a much more complex question to answer. On the one hand, we know what time is, because we use it every day. We start our day with an alarm buzzing, we check the clock throughout the day to be sure we’re on schedule, and we go to bed hoping we get several hours of sleep. We also know that time has a cumulative effect. Children grow up and become adults. Relationships change. Seasons pass.
On the other hand, it’s hard to know what time is, exactly. We know it involves measurement—not in spatial units such as inches or centimeters but in temporal units such as seconds and days. Yet, we can’t define time merely by how we measure it. If we did, it would be like defining a birthday cake merely by its ingredients: quantities of butter, eggs, sugar, and flour. The idea of measurement, however, must be part of the definition, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to speak about time coherently. So, in addition to time’s being something that is measured, we could also say that time proceeds by events occurring one after another. We experience life moment by moment, not all at once.