The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable.
     —Martin Buber, “With a Monist”


Mark, my five-year-old son, was nestled into the crux of my arm, peering into my eyes. “Mom,” he asked, “when I die, will I see?”

“No, honey.”

“Mom, when I die, will my eyes be open?”

“No, honey.”

“Mom, when I die, will I walk?”

“No, honey.”

My heart sunk with each query. Mark had been in a season of inquiring about existence and nonexistence. The family cat had died six months earlier, and he wanted to unbury Pollifax to say hi. In his mind, Pollifax was enjoying life six feet underground. His young mind was twisting and straining to wrap itself around nonexistence, around the limits of time in a mortal life.  

As I lay there, holding my son in the throes of his first existential crisis, I thought of Martin Buber, as one naturally does. Buber was vexed by the problem of timelessness and time limitlessness at a young age. Much as my son struggled to comprehend a world that imposed limits on time, Buber found himself in an existential crisis at the age of fourteen, his young mind attempting to grasp the nature of time. As his thoughts swung back and forth between the incomprehensibility of time’s finitude and time’s infinity, Buber was so filled with despair that he contemplated suicide. 

It was during this time that Buber encountered the work of Immanuel Kant. Buber took great solace in Kant’s idea that time is not a real property but rather a construct. The ideas of infinity and finiteness, he realized, are abstractions representing a constellation of irresoluble ideas that don’t necessarily correspond to reality. These ideas are not embedded in our experience of time; rather, we experience time through our sense perception, by which we grasp the world of phenomena. Thus, through Kant, Buber discovered that discerning the finite or infinite quality of time doesn’t necessarily correspond to the lived reality of being alive. These realizations took on a mystical quality for Buber—one that would have been quite foreign to the rationalist Kant—and laid the groundwork for Buber’s later development of the “Eternal Thou.”1 In this way, Buber transcended the dialectic of finite and infinite time to encounter the holy embedded within time. He became less concerned with the philosophical and mathematical properties involved in comprehending time and more interested in contacting time. Instead of attempting to comprehend time, Buber sought to encounter time.

This concept of encounter became integral to Buber’s work. For Buber, one of the highest virtues is to offer oneself to encounter the other, to make an ontological turn toward the other—whether that other be a person, idea, or thing—which requires vulnerability, risk, and trust. Such an encounter means venturing into uncertain spaces with a willingness to be changed and transformed by the other. To enter into these spaces of unknowing and uncertainty is holy work.Buber’s commitment to encounter is made more meaningful when understood from the backdrop of his life, as his young life was shaped by an intimate Vergegnung (mismeeting).2 At the age of three, Buber’s mother abandoned him, leaving for a foreign country where she began a new life, starting a new family. This dialectic—meeting and mismeeting—would eventually frame Buber’s work, most famously demonstrated in his development of the I-Thou/I-It frame. On the one hand, in an I-It encounter, we treat the other as an object to be used. Whether that other is a person, an object of creation, an idea, or a tree, in an I-It relationship, we act on the other through the world of objects.3 On the other hand, I-Thou encounters involve turning toward the other with our whole being and thereby recognizing the sacredness and uniqueness of the other. Taking creative liberty with Buber’s I-Thou/I-It frame opens up conceptual space to consider how we encounter time.  

Time Is Culturally Situated 

If time is a matter of sense perception, as Kant suggested, then it is embedded in context. Our experience of time is influenced by the cultural, social, and relational context from which we experience it. Although this liberates us from some of the philosophical dilemmas—to the great relief of Buber—it also opens up new considerations to mull over. For instance, if time is culturally and socially situated, then it is vulnerable to taking on qualities of the culture from which it is situated. Unfortunately for those of us in the Western world, much of our cultural and social situatedness is cast through an I-It pragmatic lens. 

And indeed, I have not escaped the allure of an I-It pragmatic relationship to time. My husband refuses to go to the grocery store with me. Despite how helpful I can be at shoving yogurt, almond milk, and hastily bounded carrots into the cart and at helping mitigating the meltdowns of our two young children, I nonetheless stress the poor man out. He finds my divide-and-conquer efforts, through which I aim to master and submit the grocery store to my will, bothersome. I might blame my desire to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible on the fluorescent lights or the small-town chitchat I fervently attempt to avoid, but there is something much more powerful at play in my strategies: time. The ache to drain every ounce of productivity and efficiency out of time pulses through me.

My productivity-oriented relationship to time has been most profoundly challenged when I’ve been immersed in other cultural contexts. When livening in Malawi, I experienced time differently. When I would go the market or grocery store with my African host family, I realized they were oriented to time by different values.4 Being together, I found, was prioritized over efficiency. Gathering groceries was a leisurely, relational, and enjoyable experience. This was a culture that takes time to reflect on heritage and that values the relational quality of the present. As the months I spent in Malawi stretched on, my experience and relationship to time continued to shift. Being immersed in a culture that considers its ancestral roots and the theological and social significance of place, land, and tradition ultimately changed me. The content of my dreams and inner monologue shifted from future-oriented to present-oriented. This process was not the result of any cognitive decision—I wasn’t intentionally engaging in mindfulness practices. Rather, this shift resulted from being incubated in a culture that supported a different way of being in time. 

Searching for Cultural Incubators in an I-It World  

I’ve now been back in the United States for over ten years, and I’ve struggled to maintain that organic I-Thou approach to encounters with time. It seems that in the fast-paced, industrialized Western world, we could use some cultural incubators that support an I-Thou encounter with time. 

Since the work of Karl Marx, many thinkers have reflected on our slow march toward alienating relationships with self, other, creation, and existence itself. Our relationship to time has not escaped this slow march. The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, in particular, have influenced Western culture toward an I-It relationship to time, as we now apply economic, quantitative lenses to time, measuring it by productivity and efficiency. 

Modernity has taken a grasping approach to time—feebly attempting to control, possess, and master it. The poet and essayist Christian Wiman describes contemporary American life as frenzied and fragmented, a “collective ADHD” culture. The very technologies modernity created to free us up to have more time have merely “degraded the quality” of time while exacerbating our collective anxiety. And then, in our feeble attempts to give ourselves respite from the frenzy, we engage in “self-care” in a similar obsessive, frenzied, and panicked way.5 Time has become the great object to be used, mastered, owned, and slayed. It has become the it to our I

These economic and technological shifts have also affected our relationships to ourselves. We routinely draw on economic and technological metaphors to discuss our bodies in time: I’m spent. Burned out. I need to recharge/reset. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explores the troubling consequences of this kind of a relationship to time and ourselves: 

The disciplines of our modern civilized order have led us to measure and organize time as never before in human history. Time has become a precious resource, not to be “wasted.” The result has been the creation of a tight, ordered time environment. . . . We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done. This “time frame” deserves, perhaps more than any other facet of modernity, Weber’s famous description of a ‘stahlhartes Gehäuse’ (iron cage).6

In other words, today’s iron cage is built on an I-It encounter with time. 

I want to suggest, though, that an I-Thou encounter, a phenomenological encounter, can break us free of the cage. Phenomenology has to do with our conscious, sensory lived experiences of the world. Phenomenology concerns itself with how we experience the world and the meaning these experiences hold. Whereas an instrumental approach is concerned with using and mastering time, a phenomenological approach emphasizes how we encounter time—our conscious, sensory experience of time. 

Encountering the world through sensory perception is a risky endeavor: to encounter the world through sensory perception is to invite the world to leave its mark. Such an approach is an invitation to willingly subject oneself to the world and to allow it to shift, change, and transform our inner landscape. Jürgen Moltmann notes that “the act of perception transforms the perceiver, not what is perceived.”7 That is, when we attempt to grasp and dominate time, we buffer ourselves from a transformative encounter with time, but when we perceive time through our senses, we participate in time, inviting it to transform us. Buber felt that to encounter the sacred was not to exit the world; to encounter the sacred was to delve more deeply into the mundane. Encounter involves ontologically turning toward the other with our whole being. As we open ourselves to encounter time differently, we enter the moment more fully, risking being transformed and changed by the experience. 

For those of us in the Western, postindustrialized world, it can be difficult to find communities, rhythms, and rituals that support this way of being in time. Sabbath theology offers a countercultural corrective to our fast-paced, I-It cultural reference point. 

Toward an I-Thou Encounter with Time

Perhaps understanding the urgency with which we direct our labors, God embedded time with a sort of reset ability (although God likely would not have applied such technological language to humans). In the creation of the Sabbath, God indwelled time and invites creation into a phenomenological relationship to time. The Sabbath, which I might characterize as a kind of cultural incubator within a fragmented world, invites us to reconsider an I-Thouencounter with time and thereby calls us into the eternal moment. Three themes emerge from Sabbath theology that beckon us to consider a different way of being in time: the Sabbath does not grasp; the Sabbath is the presence of Being; and the Sabbath embodies the eternal now. 

The Sabbath Does Not Grasp 

The gods of the ancient Near East were grasping for more and more power. Egyptian, Babylonian, and Canaanite creation accounts regularly described gods who created humans to meet their divine needs and required the construction of temples as storehouses for their divine goods. The Hebrew creation account paints a different picture: God creates out of abundance. God repeatedly attests to the goodness of creation; we need not grasp to attain goodness because creation already is good. Rather than being created to serve the needs of the gods, humans are created as representatives of God and are called to usher in shalom. Rather than being a storehouse for goods, the temple is a place of holy encounter. Although the Babylonian gods anxiously related to creation, the Hebrew God rests in the knowledge that creation is tov (good).8  Whereas other ancient Near Eastern gods were busy grasping, YHWH engaged in the countercultural act of presence. 

During their enslavement, the Hebrew people were immersed in the grasping culture of Egypt. They were pushed to build bricks without straw and to work seven days a week. Do more. Do it faster.9 After leaving the grasping culture of Egypt, the Hebrew people understandably needed to reorient themselves. God established new cultural norms, gifting them with the Ten Commandments, and the Sabbath shows up right in the middle of the list. It is in the Sabbath that God reveals Godself as the one that does not grasp.

In his book, The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Heschel plays with the dialectic between time and space, exploring the danger of sacrificing the realm of time (i.e., being and existence) for the realm of space (i.e., power and obtaining things). Heschel suggests that in modern technological society we regularly orient ourselves to the world of space, grasping in our efforts to conquer space. As Heschel notes, “we spend time to gain space.” We are vulnerable to trade in our existence for the world of objects. The painful awareness of time’s limitation creates fretful anxiety, which leads us to trade in time for the fleeting security that space offers. Shifting our attention from the uncontrollable to the controllable, we consume more, produce more (including articles and books), and achieve more. Such attempts to outrun timelessness ultimately cost us the gift of time, which holds the gift of life itself. And yet, try as we might, we cannot “conquer time through space. We can only master time in time.”10

The Sabbath reorients us, inviting us to lay down our obsession with space and to encounter existence in the realm of time. The Sabbath reminds us of the God who does not grasp and who calls us to be a people that do not grasp for the things of space. This invitation stands in marked contrast to our cultural backdrop of exploitative grasping. The Sabbath proclaims that “life does not depend upon our feverish activity of self-securing, but that there can be a pause in which life is given to us simply as a gift.”11 In the Sabbath there is rest from grasping.  

The Sabbath Is the Presence of Holiness 

The Sabbath is much more than the absence of a thing. The Sabbath is the presence of rest, tranquility, and holiness. Early rabbis, reflecting on Genesis 2:2—“On the seventh day God finished the work” (NRSV)—noted that the seventh day was not merely a resting from work but was included as God’s final act of creation. Otherwise, they noted, the text would say that God finished creation on the sixth day. That is, menuha, usually interpreted as “rest,” was created on the seventh day, completing the universe. But menuhais much more than the negative concept of withdrawal and freedom from labor; it refers to presence rather than absence. On the seventh day “tranquility, serenity, peace and repose” were created.12

The presence contacted in the Sabbath is holy. The word qadosh, meaning holy, is used to describe the mystery and majesty of the divine. Notably, the first holy object in the Bible is not a place or a thing; the term is first used in relation to time: “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Gen. 2:3 NIV). God first locates holiness in time.  As Heschel writes, “Six days a week, we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time.”13 In this way, Sabbath is an invitation to enter God’s menuha, an opportunity to be welcomed into moments of sacred encounter. Entering a holy encounter reorients us—as echoes of the Sabbath linger, infusing the other six days of our week with the reminder that there is another dimension to time beckoning us toward encounter.

The Sabbath: The Eternal Moment 

Although ancient Hebrew thinkers did not have a clear physiological definition of eternal life, they were concerned with reflecting on the quality of eternal time. They understood eternity as a deepening of time rather than its extension. Eternity infuses time with spirit and meaning. And the Sabbath, they believed, was of the same essence. In the Sabbath, moments of eternity—of menuha and shalom—break through in the here and now.14

Buber also described eternity as present in time through a quality of contact with the present moment. For Buber, “eternity is not endless time. It is rather Being as such.” In other words, Buber understood time as an extension of this eternal being and genuine eternity as that which “sends forth time out of itself and sets us in that relationship to it that we call existence.”15 Writing in a modern world that was quick to dichotomize the profane and the sacred, Buber sought the sacred, the “eternal now,” by entering more deeply into the mundane.16 He sought the spiritual within ordinary moments. 

This way of imagining eternity was heavily influenced by Buber’s encounters with Hasidism. In Hasidism, there are no distinctions between sacred and profane spaces, times, actions, or conversations.17 Buber incorporated this Hasidic view into his perspective as he sought a corrective to our modern, alienating world by emphasizing the hallowing of the everyday. “God dwells where one lets Him in,” he wrote. “The hallowing of man means this letting in. Basically, the holy in our world is nothing other than what is open to transcendence, as the profane is nothing other than what at first is closed off from it, and hallowing is the event of opening out.”18

The Sabbath reminds us of the importance of opening out, of allowing holiness to enter and transform the mundane. Eternity is found in the deepening and expansion of this moment. An I-Thou posture thus opens up space for moments of eternity to break through the mundane, welcoming “the presence of God in the world of space.”19

Toward Balance

For Buber, embracing and hosting sacred encounters was the highest calling of spiritual living. This kind of embrace demanded a subversive, countercultural resistance, a stepping out of the I-It relationship to time that our culture is locked in so that we might encounter the God of sacred encounters. And it is in the rhythms of communal religious life that we find an invitation to shift from an I-It, economic, grasping, productivity-oriented posture toward an I-Thou encounter with time. A culture of the Sabbath provides a collective rhythm helping us to reorient our relationship to time, moving us from fragmentation to connection and offering us a touchstone of eternal time and Being. The Sabbath stands as a space in time, cultivating rituals and rhythms to support an I-Thou encounter with time and existence.

Buber was not so naive as to suggest that we exist in perpetual I-Thou encounters. We need to grocery shop, pay bills, and meet deadlines. Indeed, Buber would suggest I-It relationships are unavoidable in the task of living. We will spend much of our lives in a posture of I-It.20 However, the Sabbath presents an opportunity to claim a renewed relationship to time. The Sabbath helps us to posture ourselves toward time in such a way that invites and fosters moments of beauty and grace to break through. The Sabbath breaks through the iron cage of modernity and imagines a new way. 

As my son Mark asked about timelessness and the specifics involved in his inevitable death, terror surged through me, the uncertainty that surrounds the end of time surfacing. I do not know what becomes of time. I do not know whether my relationship to my son continues on or severs here. Like the ancient Hebrews, I have not crafted a physiological articulation of eternity. What was knowable to me in that moment was that in holding my son, in encountering him, a betweenness surged between him and me, and that surging betweenness was a gift of eternity. Lying there with my son, his body growing heavy with sleep, I contacted the eternal now. Pinned to his bed with a mixture of gratitude and terror of leaving the moment behind, I wondered, how does one ever leave eternal moments in such a fragile world?

  1. See Maurice Friedman, Encounter on the Narrow Ridge: A Life of Martin Buber (New York, NY: Paragon House, 1991), 17, 18, and 20.
  2. Friedman, Encounter, 4.
  3. Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: NY, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958).
  4. The term African includes many cultural contexts. I use this general term here because I lived with a Ugandan mother, Ghanian sisters, and three Malawian sisters while living in Malawi. Although there are many differences across the different countries within Africa, there are also many similarities encompassed within the “Primal Imagination” (Bediako, Jesus in Africa, 85). To learn more about how this African worldview differs from a post-Enlightenment Western worldview see Kwame Bediako, Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995); Bediakok, Jesus in Africa: The Christian Gospel in African History and Experience (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2000); and John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (New York, NY: Praeger, 1969).
  5. Wiman, My Bright Abyss (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 87.
  6. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 59.
  7. Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. Margaret Kohl(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 200.
  8. See Stephanie Daley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989); and Richard J. Clifford, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and the Bible (Waddell, AZ: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1994); and Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1982).
  9. Brueggemann, Genesis.
  10. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 3 and 6.
  11. Brueggemann, Genesis, 35.
  12. Gen. rab. 10:9, as quoted by Heschel in The Sabbath, 23.
  13. Heschel, The Sabbath, 10, italics in original; also see 9.
  14. See William Lee Holladay, Jeremiah: A Fresh Reading (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 1990); and Heschel, The Sabbath.
  15. Friedman, Encounter,17 and 18.
  16. Richard Hycner, Between Person and Person: Toward a Dialogical Psychotherapy (Highland, NY: Gestalt Journal, 1991), 78.
  17. See Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, trans. and ed. Maurice Friedman (New York, NY: HarperTorchbooks, 1958).
  18. Buber, Hasidism, 30.
  19. Heschel, The Sabbath, 99.
  20. See Hycner, Between Person and Person.