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The Weight of Time

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

Just read an article last week in a profile in the New Yorker about some science whiz who studies the vagaries of time and how different parts of our brains and bodies process time in different increments and ways. The plasticity of time is what this guy is all about, and he points to an experience when he was a kid and fell off his roof, and how suddenly time itself was divided up into these very discreet parts, so that it was like taking a film strip and slowing it down so that you could see every frame. His attention to detail was heightened to X-Men categories: the red of the flowers in the pot on the porch, the brown eyes of the robin sitting on the telephone wire, the ridges on the individual blades of grass that he was unfortunate enough not to land on… (I’m not getting the exact details right, but it was that level of phenomenal detail that he remembers noticing on his way down to landing on his head on the cement).

We all know that time moves faster or slower depending on your vantage point, right? In science this is known as observer-conditioned knowing (a thing changes by virtue of its being viewed, and in what ways and from which angle it is viewed, etc.). This plays itself out on the quantum level, so science has shown, but couldn’t it play itself out on the phenomenal level, too? For instance, I’m slightly different around people than I am when I’m alone, and different around one set of friends than I am around another, even though I’m essentially the same guy regardless of whom I’m with (or not with). I’m a little different around my family than I am, say, in front of my classroom. That’s observer-conditioned reality at the phenomenal ~ normal ~ level.

But what if we applied this concept to God? Couldn’t God appear (or not appear, as the case may be) in one form or another depending on who was viewing him, and from what particular existential or spiritual angle? Why not? Makes eminent sense to me. And doesn’t God ~ and the Church ~ say as much? That you finally see when you choose to believe. Jesus didn’t do miracles in a certain town because they didn’t believe. Faith-seeking-understanding is what the Church has called it down through the ages. And this idea has become a veritable trope in literature ~ the thing that is only there for those who choose to believe in it. Which doesn’t mean that everything you choose to believe in suddenly shows up (every 5 year-old eventually figures that out), but only that there are some things that require belief in order to be seen (many adults seem to have forgotten this apparent law of the universe).

So what if time, then, like reality, is pliable, flexible, not constant, like Einstein said. What if certain moments “weigh” more than others? Or are lighter? What if certain periods of our lives move more slowly than others, but because time is flexible, we can still all manage to live together because there’s enough consistency that we aren’t all thrust into completely different dimensions. We all talk about the importance of “timing” right?

But what if that were actually true, objectively speaking? What if, quite literally, people whose timing is off are literally people who are in two different and incompatible modes of time? What if many of our problems with communicating, with connecting, with loving, have to do with not literally being in sync (in the same time)? And what if those times when we truly do connect with others is when we are both inhabiting the exact same time/space continuum? What implications does this have for worship, for example, or marriage?

And what about redeemed time? What are the implications of time being redeemed in history (contrary to Mr. Eliot and his Four Quartets ~ see esp. Burnt Norton)? What if time is redeemable, say, through memory? What if we can actually somehow “reach back” into time to fix some damage that was caused there, and in so doing, we redeem that time? What if that’s essentially what counseling is all about… giving us a map to get back to a particular time in our lives in a way that goes beyond time in order to redeem it?

And what if, like Frederick Buechner says in his wonderful novel Godric, that we can also reach forward in time to where we are going by leaving a part of our hearts there to wait for us? And isn’t this why the word “remember” is practically an incantation of God in the Old Testament? Maybe by remembering, we can reach back into the past. This is eschatological stuff we’re dealing with here.

What if the definition of a saint is someone who lives in a different order of time, which is why they can rejoice in suffering because they live “ahead” or “behind” time… they either see how things will turn out, or they understand something that is happening now because they see and understand more clearly its cause? Jim Loder talks about this, particularly on p. 343 of his book “The Logic of the Spirit.” A student of mine wrote this in her final paper (shout out to Karissa Soeter) about the redemption of kronos time:

“…the freedom that humans are in need of from the chronic underlying dread of proximate or ultimate negation. This dread that Loder talks about is in complete alignment with the fear of death that every human spirit is ultimately fighting against facing. Loder’s point is correct in a number of ways. This continous struggle that the human spirit fights against is what brings people to the places of conflict within themselves.”

What if Karissa’s more right than perhaps she even realizes? What if many of our problems are related to our need to redeem “chronic” time into kairos (redeemed) time, and the degree to which we insist on living in chronos (measured) time is the key dilemma behind our colletive unwillingness to face the inevitability of death, which is the root of so many of our neuroses and anxieties? And so we enter into conflict, not only with ourselves and with others, but ultimately with God.

For most of my life, the issue of time has been my salient issue. It’s been the one conundrum, more than any other, that has kept me up at night. I used to wake up in the middle of the night when I was 3 and 4 years old in a cold sweat over eternity (yes, I was an existentially wrought child). And I’ve continued to be beguiled by time, and mystified by it. And my interest in it only increases as I trudge on in chronos time through middle age. What if our experience of life depends more than we think on our perspective ~ but not only our experience of it, but the actual reality of it, too? What if things change depending on how we view them? Michael Polanyi dealt with this to some degree in his books “Personal Knowledge” and “The Tacit Dimension.” It’s been a topic of conversation and speculation for millennia.

And it’s a nut still waiting to be cracked. I’ve been trying to crack it for years, knowing full well that it won’t yield itself to me or to any other mere mortal. It’s what drove C.S. Lewis’s and Madeleine L’Engle’s imagination (among countless other writers), and it’s what drove Einstein’s imagination toward his theories of special and general relativity. And perhaps it’s what drove St. John to his reveries. Either way, the weight of time (glory) ~ indeed, the sheer waiting involved in all of it ~ is part and parcel of what makes it so fabulously mysterious. “We all now see dimly through a mirror…” Oh how true that is.

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