Change and continuity

Human understanding of light has wavered over the centuries. Some famous philosopher/scientists, including Rene Descartes, insisted that light consists of waves; others, including Isaac Newton were convinced that light consists of particles. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, most scientists who deal with the physics of light acknowledge that light is both wave and particle. The particles, called photons, also have wave-like qualities. Moreover, electrons also possess the same paradoxical wave-particle duality. Even protons and neutrons, consisting of quarks, appear to have wave-particle duality. Therefore, everything in the material world rests upon the paradox that the component parts of every item are, at the same time, tiny particles of matter and also waves of energy.

One result of this paradox is that knowledge is limited about each particle. For example, no one can know the precise position of a particle and also how it is moving. This principle was first enunciated by a scientist named Heisenberg and is called the “Heisenberg uncertainty principle.” One famous scientific joke involves a police officer pulling over a car driven by Dr. Heisenberg. When the officer asks the doctor the standard question, “Sir, do you know how fast you were going?” Dr. Heisenberg replies, “Please don’t tell me, because if you do, I’ll never figure out where I am.”

By the way, there is also a Salvageable uncertainty principle. Ask me what that principle says, and I will answer, “I’m not sure.”

Larger material items, made out of enormous quantities of protons and neutrons and electrons, generally follow rules of geometry and physics that make sense to the average human mind. A police officer’s radar gun accurately measures the speed of a moving car. That car might be shown, by the radar gun, to be traveling seventy miles an hour. That measurement does not prove that an hour ago the car was seventy miles away. Until a few minutes ago, the car might have been sitting in a parking lot only a few miles away. But, for large material objects, we can account for both the speed and the location of that object and can accurately report both statistics at any given moment.

Philosophically, though, the motion of a material object and its location remain a puzzle. Greek philosophers more than twenty-four centuries ago were already asking how any object could move through an infinite number of points in a finite time. Dividing time into an infinite number of punctiliar moments does not solve the philosophical quandary. We can observe an object at rest and can measure its size and describe its location. We can observe an object in motion and determine its speed and direction. Trying to gather all that information at the same time seems as though it should be easy, but problems remain. As we begin measuring size and location and speed in appropriate units, we are forced to make statements that are philosophically untenable. The car that is moving seventy miles an hour does not disappear from the highway this instant and reappear seventy miles away an hour later. Assuming that its speed and direction do not change, it will be present on every bit of paved highway between here and its destination at some point during the next hour. Chopping the highway into miles, feet, inches, or any other unit—while also chopping time into hours, minutes, and seconds, or any other unit—leaves the location of the car between those identified units a mystery. If, for example, we film the car at a rate of twenty-four frames per second, each frame will show the car at a different location on the highway without any explanation of how the car traveled from one point to the next point, since an infinite number of points exists between those two points.

Aside from that problem, the car in each frame of the film is not the same car. The car constantly changes. From instant to instant, it burns a tiny bit of gasoline. Its tires rotate, and tiny bits of rubber from the tires (perhaps mere molecules) separate from the tires. From time to time, dirt and insects are added to the windshield and other parts of the front surface of the car. Take the same car at any two points along its journey and compare its description; one will see that it is not the same car. Tiny changes have occurred to make the car slightly different as it travels down the highway and also travels through time from past into present and on into the future.

We are all like that car. We change continually. None of us is the same person who woke up this morning. We have breathed air in and out of our lungs, and some of that air has been taken into our body to be used by our cells; other air that was in our bodies has left our bodies. We eat, we drink, and we use the bathroom. We wash, removing dead skin cells from the surface of our bodies. Sometimes we cut our hair or trim our nails. Even our minds change as we experience and remember new events every instant of our waking lives (and also while we sleep). You are not the same person you were when you were a child. You are not the same person you were ten years ago. You are not the same person you will be ten years from now.

On an atomic and molecular level, we change constantly. On a cellular level, we change constantly. In other ways, we continually change while we travel the timeline of our lives. Yet, as we view that timeline from outside of time, we also perceive continuity. Because that timeline is unbroken, we are able to describe ourselves as the same person through the years and over the course of a lifetime. In the same way, a car remains the same car in spite of the many changes that happen to it—a new tank of gas, an oil change, new tires, replacement of damaged body parts, replacement of damaged engine parts. Over twenty years, every piece of a car could be replaced, but legally and philosophically it remains the same car. The philosophic implications of continuity as we change are enormous. J.

A little more about time

Picturing our lives as a timeline, a threat or string running through time from beginning to end, makes a lifetime seem something like old-fashioned film, the way movies were created and shown before the digital age. One could hold a reel of film in one’s hands and have the entire experience in one place, but the film on the reel said nothing. The film had to be threaded into a projector and shown on a screen to have meaning. As a motor moved the film through the projector, a flashing light shone through each frame—twenty-four frames per second. Trial and error showed that aspect to be ideal for viewing. Seeing twenty-four images each second, a viewer saw action and motion that seemed normal—they could be filmed by a camera that took twenty-four photographs per second, or they could be a series of drawings or still photographs that were carefully arranged to imitate normal action and motion.

An average human life—we will say seventy-six years—would require many reels of film. One would need enough reels to contain over one million feet of film. Nearly 57 billion frames would need to be shown at twenty-four frames per second to cover those seventy-six years. We can take this metaphor to think about time and about living our lives in time. However, this metaphor has a simple yet important shortcoming. In spite of the successful illusion captured by film shown twenty-four frames per second, time does not move in tiny bursts the way film operates.

If time clicked along at twenty-four units per second, a photon or neutrino (or anything else moving at the speed of light) would jump 7,750 miles between each frame. Science shows no evidence of particles jumping from point to point in space. Particles appear to move at a consistent rate, existing in every inch or centimeter between any two locations. Time, then, must also operate consistently, not jumping from instant to instant with a tiny gap between instants, but flowing effortlessly through every conceivable instant.

Early philosophers questioned the geometry of points and lines and planes and three-dimensional space. If a moving object must pass through an infinite number of points to reach its goal, how can it ever arrive? It must first reach the half-way point, but before getting there it must reach a point half-way there, and on and on cutting the distance in half again and again but still having more intervening points to achieve. Now, it seems, time must do the same. We approach an instant… we reach that instant… we pass that instant… and somehow, that instant has traveled from the future into the past although it was scarcely present at all.

Experience tells us that objects indeed travel through space and through time. The problem of traveling through an infinite number of points in space and an infinite number of instants in time does not bother moving objects in the least. Change, it seems, is a constant reality in our world. But, in a world where everything continually changes, how can we hold to the belief that anything stays the same? If each of us is constantly changing, how can any of us remain the same person throughout a lifetime, or even in the course of one year? J.

Looking at time

Greek mythology described three goddesses called the Moirae, or the Fates. They were responsible for the lifespan of each person. One of the fates spun the thread of life, the second measured the thread, and the third cut it. They decided how long a life would be and how it would end. People who feel helpless about their lives, who feel that everything is decided for them by outside forces, are still called “fatalistic.”

To spin and measure a life and determine its end, the Fates had to work outside the stream of time. They could see every life from beginning to end, being able to measure that life and cut it at the end. More recent writers have also imagined beings that could see human lives outside of time. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, describing beings from another planet who saw time the way we see space. When they looked at one of us, they saw our entire lifespan, from beginning to end. Vonnegut called himself a Free-thinker; he was not a Christian. He found comfort in the thought that every person lasts forever in the universe as a glowing thread that runs through time. That permanent life might exist entirely in the past, but Vonnegut proposed that the past life still exists from some points of view, making that person immortal in one sense of the word.

Vonnegut was not fatalistic, though, about that lifespan. The value of a permanent life, preserved as a thread through time, was found in the choices made by each individual during the duration of that thread of time. If we imagine someone—God, or the Fates, or beings from another planet—seeing our lives from outside of time, knowing what we will do before we do it because they can see it already done, that knowledge does not rob us of our freedom. We make choices, steering our lives through time. We are free, because knowledge of what we will choose is not power that forces us to choose what is already known by someone who exists outside of time.

To be “outside of time” is difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine. We still think of beings outside of time of having their own timespan while observing our timespan. But, outside of time, before and after do not exist. All events are seen in one gaze or glance. Time, like space, exists insofar as it is measured. We measure a distance between two objects and define that space, whether it is as tiny as the space between an electron and a nucleus in an atom or as large as the observable universe from one end to the other. We measure emptiness or void in space, but we cannot measure the nothing that exists outside of space. Likewise, we measure time between two events, but we cannot measure time outside of events. No time existed before the “Big Bang,” or before God said, “Let there be light.” To ask what existed before the Big Bang or what God was doing before he began to create is nonsense; there is not empty or void time before time begins—there is only nothing.

But, if our lives are viewed from outside of time, the viewer can also see imaginary time. The viewer can see where we would have gone in our lives if we had made different choices. We see the road we traveled in the past; looking right and left, we glimpse other possibilities that we have not visited. The viewer outside of time sees the entire landscape, all the things that could have been in the past and present and future, things that were not and are not and never will be.

Fatalistic people deny that freedom. To them, only the road exists. They might blame God or the Fates for their journey; they might blame their inheritance (coded in their DNA) and the limitations of their situation in life, or the traumas that they endured in childhood. Fatalistic philosophers claim that we have no freedom. Clearly, we exist under many limitations. We must breathe to survive; we must eat and drink; we must rest and exercise. We can be only one place at any given time. We cannot levitate (although we can make machines that lift us into the air and that even fly us from place to place). The Fates, or God, or the laws of the universe place parameters around our existences; but they do not deny us all freedom. If we had no freedom, God would not make commandments telling us what to do and what not to do. If we had no freedom, governments would not make laws and punish people for breaking those laws.

Sometimes people claim to be helpless, unable to stop themselves from sinning or from breaking the government’s laws. They blame their DNA, their childhood, their environment. Their defenders say that people should not be punished for crime; they should be rehabilitated. Jail is for correction, not for revenge. The legal system recognizes a certain level of helplessness called insanity. The insane (according to legal judgment) are not in control and cannot be punished for their crimes. Still, for the protection of society and for their own protection, they must be restrained and kept from breaking more laws.

Debate continues about freedom and predestination. Some believers insist that, because God is Almighty, whatever happens is what God wanted to happen. People who refuse to believe in God are unbelievers because God made them that way. Others say that faith is a choice. God forces no one to believe; his Judgment is based upon the way individual people used their freedom, whether they used it to trust God and follow his plan, or used it to deny God and reject his plan. Yet other believers hold to a paradox called “election.” While people are free, they are unable to come to God under their own power. Without God’s help, they are dead in sin, enemies of God, incapable of coming to him. By his power, God brings the dead to life. He grants saving faith and gives individuals the power to obey his commands, starting with the commandment to believe his promises. Those who are made alive are free; they can remain alive, or they can choose death. But on Judgment Day, all the saved will credit God with their salvation, acknowledging that they could not be God’s people without his help. On Judgment Day, all the lost will accept the blame for their rejection of God. They chose their rebellion; they preferred death to life.

In other matters, though, people are free. The clothes we choose to wear are not predestined by God or by nature and nurture. The acts of kindness we perform or fail to perform—and the acts of cruelty and neglect we perform or choose not to perform—are all free choices we make as we travel our timestream. Sometimes we face big decisions; many other times, paths we might prefer are closed to us. Sometimes the little choices we make change more than we expected. We cannot see the future. We cannot even see the present with all its possibilities. We live in time and we move through time; the flow of time is one dimension of our lives. J.

O Jerusalem–sermon on Luke 13:34-35 (shared with permission)

              “It’s all God’s fault.” That’s been part of the temptation from the very beginning. When things go wrong, we look for someone to blame, and who is easier to blame than God, the One who started it all? When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he pointed the finger of blame at Eve, at “the woman you gave to me,” as Adam said to God. Since that time, many other people have asked why God put that tree in the Garden. He knows everything—didn’t he know that the tree would cause a lot of trouble? God created everything that exists; if things go wrong in creation, it must be his fault. God has the power to do whatever he wants; if he wanted to help us and protect us from harm, he certainly could do it. When Jesus said that there would be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other disasters, he showed his knowledge of the future. Why didn’t Jesus do something about these problems? Why didn’t he offer us a better future?

              One conclusion that people reach is that God must want things to be this way. He must want human history to consist of war after war, complete with death and destruction and all the trauma of war. He must want diseases to spread and limit the growth of the human race. He must want people to starve in some parts of the world, even as people in the rest of the world are throwing their extra food into the garbage. Most of all, he must want to send sinners into the fire of eternal punishment. If God did not want to condemn anyone to hell, he didn’t have to make hell. If God wants everyone to be forgiven for their sins and to live with him in heaven, all he has to do is forgive us our sins and welcome us into heaven. He has the power to do whatever he wants; therefore, whatever happens, that must be what God wants.

              This is what some people say. But the God they blame—the God they hate—is not the God of the Bible. They have created an imaginary God, a God they can reject, so they do not have to deal with the real God. Ask a group of atheists about the God in whom they do not believe, and you will receive a full description of God—a God who makes lots of rules just so he can catch people breaking the rules, a God who invents cruel punishments just to watch people suffer, a God who watches the problems and struggles of this world and refuses even to lift a finger to help people. This is the God they reject. This is why they do not believe in God. But we Christians can honestly say to those people that we do not believe in that God either.

              Instead, we worship a God who became one of us and lived among us to rescue us. We believe in a God who loves the world so much that he gave his Son to redeem sinners. We believe in a Savior who saw the sins of Jerusalem and who saw the punishment that would fall upon Jerusalem, and who wept over the city and its problems. Jesus cares. He cares so much that he sacrificed everything he had to rescue sinners. When he must turn away the people who reject his forgiveness, Jesus weeps. He does not want to punish and destroy any sinner; he wants all to believe in him and to receive the benefits of faith, the rewards that he earned for every sinner. When people blame God for the problems in this world, they ignore his love. They ignore his compassion. They ignore the work God has done to rescue sinners. When people blame God, they ignore the love that God has for them and the genuine sorrow that God has because they refuse to be rescued. They refuse to be forgiven. They refuse to let God do what he wants to do, lifting them out of sin and evil and carrying them to everlasting life.

              These enemies of God confront us with the things we say about God. We say that God is good. We say that he loves all people. We say that God knows everything. We say that he is almighty; He can do anything he wants. Having quoted those things to us, the enemies of God say that they cannot all be true. If God is good and he lets bad things happen, then perhaps he is not almighty. Or if he can do anything he wants, perhaps he is not truly good. Either God is not good enough to help us, or God is not strong enough to help us. Maybe he is good enough and strong enough, but he simply does not love us. Either way, it is all God’s fault. By saying these things, the enemies of God think that they have defeated God. They have removed God from their lives; they have put themselves in charge, because they have judged God and have found him lacking. From now on, they will be their own gods, because the God you and I know is not good enough for them.

              Sometimes you and I fall into the trap of God’s enemies. We focus too much attention on the fire and suffering of hell, and we make it sound as if God likes to see people suffer. We ask questions about the world, about why things go wrong, and we fail to show our faith that God is still in control. We get caught up in the matters of this world—the wars, the diseases, the political problems, the economic problems—and we fail to proclaim that it all belongs to God and that everyone will answer to Him. We even act as if we are in control of our own lives, as if we need to take care of ourselves and turn to God only as a last resort when all our plans have fallen short of our goals.

              Jesus came into this world to forgive sinners. He is obsessed with forgiveness. He tells us to forgive sinners, and he links our forgiveness to the forgiveness that we share with others. Not that we forgive those who sin against us by the goodness of our own hearts. When we try to find in ourselves the power to forgive, our goodness and our forgiveness falls short of God’s glory. But when we are confident that Jesus forgives sins, we pass along the forgiveness that Jesus earned on the cross. Because we are forgiven, we also forgive. Because we have been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, we act as agents of God. We warn sinners of the cost of their sin, speaking to them the Law of God. We call them to repent. But we also share the good news of forgiveness to all those who repent. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is bigger than all the sins of the world combined. His Gospel is far bigger than all the sins which have caused us to suffer. We love our neighbors and forgive those who sin against us because God loved us first and because Jesus has already paid the debt of all sinners in this world.

              We too are sinners. We have fallen short of the glory of God. We do not always love and forgive as we should love and forgive. We deserve to be rejected by God, punished by God for breaking his laws. Instead, Jesus came to rescue us and forgive us. Jesus mourns over our sins as we wept over Jerusalem. We grieve the Holy Spirit when we sin. Even in his grief and sorrow, God desires our forgiveness. He wants to restore us to a right relationship with him; he wants to call us his children. Therefore, Jesus came into this world. The only-begotten Son of God paid the cost of our adoption so we also could be children of God and could live forever with him in his kingdom.

              Jesus lived as our substitute. He obeyed the Law perfectly where we have fallen short. He was circumcised, shedding his blood even as an infant to wash away our sins. Later, he also was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. He was tempted by the devil, but he resisted temptation. He loved his Father perfectly; he loved his neighbors perfectly. He submitted to earthly authority, even when that earthly authority was corrupt. He earned the rewards of a sinless life so he could grant us those rewards at no cost to ourselves.

              But then Jesus was crucified. Jesus compared himself to a mother hen, spreading her wings to gather her chicks. God the Father and God the Son do not often portray a feminine nature, but on this occasion Jesus does call himself a mother hen. When a hen chases away the intruder in the barnyard, and when she gathers her chicks to protect them from danger, she spreads her wings wide. With that image, Jesus pictures himself on the cross, spreading his arms over the world to provide protection for all the people he loves and gathering us all under his wings at the cross. There he suffers and dies for us. There he pays our debt and adopts us into his family. There he defeats his enemies and reclaims us as his people so we can live with him forever in his kingdom.

              This payment was necessary, because evil has a price. God cannot forgive sins by ignoring sins.
God cannot pretend that everything is good when everything is not good. God hates evil, because evil damages the good things God made. God hates evil, because evil hurts the people God loves. God hates evil, because evil brings darkness in the place of light. Evil brings death in the place of life. Evil is a barrier that separates us from God. We cannot remove the barrier. We cannot replace darkness with light or death with life. Therefore, on the cross, Jesus pays in full for our restoration. He takes away all our sins, redeeming us, paying the full cost to make us the children of God and guaranteeing us eternal life in his kingdom.

              Having defeated evil, Jesus dies and is buried. On the Sabbath Day he rests, his body in a tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. At the dawn of a new week, Jesus rises from the dead. He proves that he has won the victory over all evil, even over death itself. He presents the evidence of his resurrection to his followers, promising us a resurrection like his resurrection. He sends his followers as messengers, bringing forgiveness and the guarantee of eternal life to all nations.

              Jesus ascended into heaven, but he did not abandon his followers. He is with us always, even to the end of the earth. He is with us in his Word, guiding us by his Law and reminding us daily of his Gospel promises. He is with us when two or three gather in his name, reminding us of his forgiveness and giving us power—through that forgiveness—to live as his people. He is with us in Holy Baptism, daily renewing the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of eternal life. He is with us in Holy Communion, feeding us with his body and blood, and giving us forgiveness and eternal life by the power of his sacrifice on the cross.

              In the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments, Jesus shares with us the good news of a God who cares. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, he spread out his arms on the cross to embrace all the sinners of the world. Through the Church, Jesus continues to reach out to the world with the good news of forgiveness and eternal life. He shares his blessings with us this morning. He sends us again into the world to be his messengers, carrying with us the keys to the kingdom of heaven. He is with us always, just as he said, working through us to change the world, and keeping us faithful to him as we walk the paths he planned for us.

             

Philosophy and time

In our every-day world, we experience space as three dimensions—high and low, right and left, thick and thin. Time acts like a fourth dimension. We can go any direction in space—in theory, we can travel an infinite distance in any direction. Time is different—we move only one direction, and we all travel at the same speed as we journey out of the past, through that instant that is the present, and on into the future.

Things are never as simple as they seem. We live on the surface of a sphere, and up and down are defined for us by our relationship to the sphere. If we tunnel down, we might eventually reach the center of the sphere. Traveling further, we would be going up again until we reached the surface of the sphere on the far side. On the other hand, traveling up would send us away from the sphere, but if each of us traveled up away from the sphere, we would all be going different directions away from the sphere, getting farther and farther from one another.

If we travel north or south on the surface of the sphere, we eventually reach a pole. We could go no further north; we could only go south from the North Pole—and the same would be true of the South Pole. East and west, though, are infinite journeys. No matter how far east we travel, more east lies beyond us; no matter how far west we travel, more west lies beyond us. We could circle the Earth many times and still never come to the end of east or of west.

Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity acknowledge the three familiar dimensions of space and the single dimension of time, but Relativity also reveals that all four dimensions change when we deal with the very large, the very small, and the very fast. A traveler moving near the speed of light would experience less time than a similar traveler on the Earth—even if they were born on the same day, after journeying at the speed of light, the first traveler would be younger than the second. Curvature of the fabric of space and time, according to Relativity, account for gravity, which is why during a solar eclipse astronomers can view stars that lie behind the sun. Other strange things happen in space and time according to the theories of relativity—and every test devised to determine whether Relativity is accurate have affirmed Einstein’s theories. For our daily lives, though, the geometry of Euclid and the physical laws of Isaac Newton suffice. Variations from those systems only happen in extreme cases such as galactic events and subatomic physics.

Often we represent time as a line. We mark events on that line, showing which are earlier and which are later. We locate births and deaths on that line to show how long each person has lived. Changes in the universe happen in only one direction and are not easily reversed. If one pours a class of colored water into a tank of clear water, the colored water gradually mixes with the rest of the water until it all has the same hue. This change requires considerable effort to reverse, to remove the color from the water. This tendency of thing to even out over time is called “entropy,” and entropy indicates a direction in time, the direction we all are traveling.

When I was younger, people frequently rode in the back of pick-up trucks. We had no seat belts; our safety depended upon the skill of the driver and upon chance. We accepted the risk, trusting the driver and assuming that nothing would occur that he or she could not handle. Imagine yourself sitting in the back of a truck, looking at the road you have just traveled. You see what is behind you; you cannot see what lies ahead. Some parts of the past journey are clearer than others, just as we remember some past events better than we remember others.

Looking right and left, we can see landscape, places we have not visited. We might see roads we have already passed, roads that would take a vehicle to other places. If the road we are traveling is a single dimension of time, those other roads and other places might be another dimension. We could call that dimension “imaginary time.” This imaginary time contains all the “what-if” possibilities of our lives. Some people speak of imaginary time as if it was real, as if it existed in alternate universes. What if Nixon had won the 1960 election against Kennedy? Or what if Kennedy had not been killed in 1963? What if I had taken different classes in college and graduated with a different major? What if I had accepted that job offer ten years ago and moved then to a different city? We can guess about different events and different time lines, but we remain on the same time line we each have been traveling since birth.

Or do we? Some people claim to remember different time lines—a world where Nelson Mandela died in the 1980s and not 2013, a world in which the children’s authors spelled their name “Berenstein” and not “Berenstain,” a world in which New Zealand is to the west of the Australia and not to the east. Most of us assume that human memory is fallible—that we might misremember facts like those, or lines from a movie or a song, or the appearance of a cartoon character. That does not prevent our minds from pondering what might happen if we could journey off our timelines and explore imaginary time. Sometimes imaginary time is useful. If the dog slipped outdoors when we weren’t looking, it might have run any direction. We consider how much time has passed since the dog escaped and estimate how far it might have gone; that helps us to think of places to search for the missing dog.

Time feels relative. Some minutes drag on at excruciating length while others pass by far too quickly. Some past events feel far more recent than they truly are, while other past events seem far more distant than they really are. The week before Christmas can be far too short with people who need to prepare and far too long for people eagerly anticipating the holiday. We are traveling the same timeline, but we do not experience it in the same way.

 But what if we could view our lines in time from an entirely different perspective? J.