God s Clock By James Carroll ONCE A WEEK or so, I come downstairs in the morning to find that the three weights of the grandfather clock in the living room
Message 1 of 1
, Jan 1, 2005
By James Carroll
ONCE A WEEK or so, I come downstairs in
the morning to find that the three weights of the grandfather clock in the
living room have fallen to the bottom of the oaken cabinet. To keep the
clock going, they must be lifted on their chains. I dutifully open the
glass-fronted door and grasp each brass cylinder, pulling down on the chain
as I bring the weight up -- first one, then another, then the other. I close
the door carefully, waiting for its fitted snap.
Once again, the
weights will do their work to keep the pendulum swinging, the chimes
sounding every 15 minutes and the gong striking on the hour. In this way, in
concert with the force of gravity, I assure that time does not stop in our
I must occasionally remind myself that in fact, nothing important
depends on this clock's ticking. When, through my neglect, the weights
descend to the cabinet floor, the chains become twisted and askew, the
pendulum drifts to a halt, and the chimes fall silent. A precious harmony is
broken, but the earth stops neither its rotation nor its course around the
sun. Time does not stop. Birds chirp in the morning and darkness later
descends no matter what happens in the living room.
The clock is a
sacrament of the passage of time, a way to note the movement of one day into
the next, a method of location in the otherwise uncharted ocean whose two
horizons are the past and the future. Mariners are fond of saying,
especially when the ship unexpectedly runs aground, that the chart is not
the sea; similarly, the clock is not time.
I propose this image for our
new and urgent discussions about religion. In America, a religious divide
has suddenly emerged as politically decisive, and in the world, religion is
a runaway engine of violence. A fanatic fringe of Islam asserts its doctrine
by joining suicide to murder in Allah's name. In Gaza and the West Bank,
some hypernationalist religious Jews stake claims to land with God as
guarantor -- disastrous consequences to Palestinians and Israel both be
damned. Similarly, America's war in Iraq has evolved into a two-sided holy
war, even if only one side explicitly defines it as such.
mainstream churches waste themselves in conflicts over sexual identity, the
new meanings of marriage, and mysteries of the medical frontier -- arguments
in which "God's will" is invoked as if sacred texts elucidated the biology
of genetics, postsexual reproduction, open-ended lifespan. The "religious
right" fervently seeks to impose its definitions of the social good on the
devout and the indifferent alike. "Bright" nonbelievers, in turn, match the
absolutism of the zealots of faith with absolute rejection.
ferocity of human arguments over God, whether in affirmation or denial,
reflects a terrible forgetfulness. Religion is to God what the clock is to
time. Religion participates in the mystery of what it represents but does
not embody that mystery. Not even Christianity, with its self-understanding
as a religion of the incarnate Word, does more than enshrine that Word in
symbol and sacrament. Indeed, "Word" is the clue, since all religion,
however infinite the object of its worship, remains bound by the finitude of
language -- and language always falls short of its purpose. That truth
applies to religion and science both. Words are to what they aim to express
as the clock is to time. That is why silence, too, is a mode of worship. And
it is why, also, the language of science always leaves room for what is not
When I come down in the morning and see the weights of the
clock near the bottom of the case again, my heart sinks at the evidence of
the passage of time. But the clock is not the motor of such transience.
Arguing over religion is like arguing over a clock, which is precisely what
happens, for example, when Darwinists and creationists clash. Their great
fight is less over the deep mystery of being than over which timeframe to
use in measuring it.
We humans naturally reach toward transcendence,
seeking symbols with which to make it present. Religion and science are ways
of doing this. So are poetry and music. So, for that matter, is clockmaking.
Yet transcendence, by definition, transcends. We should be modest,
therefore, in the claims we make on the absolute. And equally modest in the
claims we make on one another in its name.
James Carroll's column
appears regularly in the Globe.
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