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.

Imitation

The great mathematician and physicist Albert Einstein, during the later years of his career, went on long speaking tours around North America. Usually on college and university campuses, but sometimes for civic groups, Einstein would talk about his theories of Relativity and other scientific advances of recent times, helping students and citizens gain an appreciation of what was being discovered in the academic community. It is said that he generally traveled by car from lecture site to lecture site, with a driver who would see to his needs on the road. The driver (or chauffer) would sit at the front row at each lecture for one reason: as soon as the question-and-answer session ended at the end of the lecture, the driver would whisk Einstein out the side door of the hall, take him to a motel where he could get a good night’s rest and a healthy breakfast, then set out on the road again for the next evening’s lecture.

One summer, after a few weeks of nightly talks, Einstein was exhausted. Getting into the car, he said to the driver, “Billy, I don’t think I can do this one more time. I need a night off; I’m sick of saying the same thing night after night.”

“Dr. Einstein,” the driver answered, “A lot of people say that I look just like you.” The resemblance was slight, but Billy did have longish unruly white hair and large blue eyes, and he was about as tall as Einstein. “I’ve heard your lecture enough times that I know it by heart. Tomorrow night why don’t you let me wear your suit and stand up and give the lecture. You can wear my uniform and sit in the front row and get some rest for a change.”

“I don’t know, Billy,” Einstein said. “You could probably give the lecture from memory, but what about the questions and answers afterward?”

“It’s been the same questions twenty times over,” Billy said, “and I’ve heard you give the same answers twenty times over. I’m sure I can pull it off.”

Einstein was tired of lecturing, so he agreed. Before they reached the next town, they stopped at a service station and exchanged clothes. When they arrived, the driver met the organizers of the lecture as Einstein, and the real Einstein sat in the front row as the driver. When the lecture began, the real Einstein was nervous, but as the talk proceeded he realized that Billy was speaking his lines perfectly. He relaxed and even napped a bit. When they got to the questions and answers, Einstein woke up and was fretful at first, but the first two questions were perfectly familiar, and the driver answered then exactly as Einstein would have answered.

The third question came from a young man who clearly had been thinking about the theories of Relativity for a while. His two-part question called for a response that had not been needed at any of the previous lectures. Billy’s heart was racing, but he kept his outward composure. Peering over the top of his glasses, he frowned at the questioner. “Young man,” he said, “you clearly think you have come up with something new in the field of physics. You are mistaken though. In fact, your question is so elementary that I believe even my chauffer could offer you a response. Billy, come up here and answer this man’s question.”

 

Discipleship is largely a matter of imitation. In the ancient world, disciples lived with their teacher, traveled with their teacher, and learned to imitate their teacher. Eventually they were sent out on teaching tours of their own, sharing with others the same things they had learned from their teacher. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was probably a talk that he gave dozens of times to various crowds in synagogues and outdoors and in people’s houses, until Matthew and Peter and the other disciples could repeat the teachings of Jesus word-for-word.

Now we are the disciples of Jesus, learning how to imitate him, to say the things Jesus would say and to do the things Jesus would do. When we least expect it, Jesus invites us to stand up and take his place, to represent him to a world that needs his message of hope and forgiveness and love. As disciples, it is not enough for us to remember what Jesus said. We are called to say it too. It is not enough to remember what Jesus did. We are called to do it too. We save no one by our obedience, not even ourselves; Jesus has already saved us, and he has already saved the sinners we encounter. But the Church of Christ is his body: his hands, his feet, his voice. Our imitation of Christ forms the basis for everything that many people know about Jesus.

At times, we will be confronted with something unexpected. Jesus will not leave us on our own at those moments. He is always with us, always ready and able to take our place, to fight our enemies, and to win our battles. He rejoices, though, to see us succeed in our imitations of him. He is the genius; we are just the drivers. Yet because we know him, we can speak for him even in this sinful world. J.

The Sea of Time

“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippiin’, into the future.” Fly Like An Eagle, lyrics by Steve Miller and Steve McCarty, ©1976.

For some reason those lyrics keep rolling through my mind as I try to compose a post or two for this blog. I didn’t want to write about that song. I wanted to write something timely for Thanksgiving. I also wanted to write about a workshop I recently attended on microaggression. Somehow the two subjects keep on merging into one potential post.

I am uncomfortable when someone dismissively refers to our National Day of Thanksgiving as “Turkey Day.” I am uncomfortable when advertisers portray the best part of the four-day weekend as the opportunity to go shopping. Our National Day of Thanksgiving has already been consumed by the excesses of the traditional feast; to see even that feast and family gathering disappear for many families, because of the excessive demands of shoppers and business-owners, borders on the tragic. I remember when the Day of Thanksgiving featured a special service at church to give thanks to the Lord for all his blessings. The feast and family gatherings, the televised parade and football games, all took second place to the church service. Now that service has been moved to Wednesday night… because we are too busy celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November to actually stop and give thanks.

Other potential posts are also swirling in my mind. This fall Mrs. Dim has been spending hours each day trying to clear her lawn and flowerbeds of autumn leaves. Every morning, of course, new leaves have fallen. This fall I have spent one hour a week dealing with autumn leaves. I bought biodegradable paper bags, and every Saturday I fill five bags and leave them by the curb to be taken by the city. When my grandchildren have grown, my leaves and bags will long have decomposed into fertile soil. Mrs. Dim’s leaves will still be trapped in their plastic bags.

When Christmas is on a Sunday (as it is this year), Advent is a full twenty-eight days long. Advent always includes four Sundays, but the season can be as short as twenty-two days when Christmas is on a Monday. As we observed a Super-moon this month, now we can enjoy a Super-Advent this year.

And time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future. That song has never made sense to me. I think of time as linear, and existence in time is like a train traveling down the track. Each moment of existence, there is a little more of the past and a little less of the future. It would seem that time is slipping into the past, not into the future.

But Albert Einstein demonstrated more than a hundred years ago that time and space are relative. Perhaps that is why the future exists—perhaps it is fueled by moments from the past that slip into the future. George Santayana famously said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (When read in context, that sentence does not mean what people think it means, but that is yet another topic to consider.) Perhaps as our memories of the past fade to gray, the future becomes correspondingly brighter.

We know that a Day is coming when history as we know it will end. The Lord Jesus will appear in glory with all his angels and with the spirits of all the saints. All the dead will be raised, and every person will stand before his throne for judgment. Some will be welcomed into his perfect new creation, while others will be sent away. To open his kingdom to unworthy sinners, Jesus has already entered this polluted creation and paid the penalty for all sins. Therefore, for those who trust in him the Day of the Lord is not Judgment Day; the Day of the Lord is the beginning of a new and eternal life. The new creation will not follow the rules of entropy and decay that we know in this world. There will be no pain, no suffering, no tears, and no death. In that world, time will indeed be perpetually slipping into the future.

For that, we can be truly thankful. J.