How our days are numbered - 11:11:11 on 11/11/11

By Simon Barrow
November 11, 2011

What will you be doing at eleven minutes and eleven seconds past eleven AM tomorrow - the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year of this century?

With just a little more foresight and planning, my wife and I could have been celebrating the moment we got married. It was 11/11 in 1995... but just after midday, rather than just after eleven.

Human beings have been fascinated and bemused by numbers for a very long time. From cultic numerology and numerical religious symbolism right through to the elegance of the formulae that govern the extraordinary regularities of a nonetheless open and contingent universe, numbers - based on the mathematical markers made possible by that very regularity (and, in Godel, indecidability) - shape our lives.

But they do not determine them. That is the key point to remember.

For Christians and others of good will with eyes to see and hearts to discern (as well as minds to understand and explore), it is love embracing justice and peace that makes the world go round, as much as fractions and integers.

It has often been suggested (following the work of theologians J. A. T. Robinson, John Marsh and Oscar Cullmann) that in the New Testament there are two different Greek words for time: kronos and kairos indicating, respectively, a distinction between chronological time and "event time" - as in "the right time" and "God's time", or "the time of opportunity". Attractive though the notion may be, biblical scholars and semanticists (notably James Barr in his classic Biblical Words for Time, published by SCM as long ago as 1962) have disputed this claim.

Factually, the straightforward kronos - kairos differentiation is unsustainable from the text and from less lexically rigid language studies. Yet in a non-literal sense, it is still pertinent. Time, expressed in numbers, is certainly a matter of measurement. But it has also become a deeply-rooted metaphor for decision-making. (Thus the significance of church-initiated 'Kairos Documents' emanating from South Africa, Central America, the Philippines, Europe, Zimbabwe and Palestine from 1984 onwards, each of which put a powerful case for a radical change of direction in situations of grave injustice.)

The place of imagination in interpretation creeps revealingly into forensic statements of the 'facts', too:

1. The cardinal number equal to 10 + 1.
2. The 11th in a set or sequence.
3. Something with 11 parts or members, especially a football team

That final example, which - honestly! - I did not insert myself, but is cited from the Free Dictionary (, is but one indication of how we put the numbers to work in all kinds of decidedly curious ways...

So, yes, it is the free association of ideas and forms, as well as their disciplined formation, that is needed to respond adequately to the world around us. And vice versa. Metaphor and measurement are equally important in arriving at a picture of what we are, where we are, and where we are heading.

Eliminate or reduce one of these at the expense of the other, and we are in serious trouble - something that hardline rationalists and zealous religionists alike need to remember.

That said, here are a few curious facts and fancies to get you through the 11/11/11 11:11:11 moment (which, if you're not a strict adherent of the 24 hour clock, you can repeat in the evening, just in case you missed it):

* Eleven is the smallest positive integer requiring three syllables in the English language.

* Eleven is the first number which cannot be counted with a human's eight fingers and two thumbs additively.

* Etymologically, in terms of its Indo-Germanic roots, eleven means "one-left" over (that is, past) ten.

* After Judas Iscariot was disgraced by his betrayal, the remaining apostles of Jesus were sometimes described as "the Eleven".

* Sunspot activity increases and decreases on an 11-year cycle.

* The 11th dimension may refer to Supergravity, a field theory that combines the principles of supersymmetry and general relativity; or M-theory, a proposed meta-theory that unifies the five superstring theories.

* 11/11/11 in the last century was the most intense cold snap in US history.

* I started to support Dumbarton FC when I was eleven years of age.

* More poignantly, on Armistice Day, we recall that the agreement that ended the bloody First World War on 11 November 1918 went into effect at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year. That, too, has been the pattern of Remembrance in the Commonwealth of Nations and parts of Europe.

Make good use of your time, therefore. For all our days are, well, numbered...


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He lives in Edinburgh. Eleven years ago he was in Brighton.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.