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 house.
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.
Meanwhile, 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.
Such 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 known.
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.