Time is not the straight arrow we think it is, the physicists tell us. And this is old physics; Einstein era ideas. But I got a fresh view of the notion in an interview Krista Tippett did recently with physicist Brian Greene. Here’s a snippet:
Ms. Tippett: Alright, so let’s take this very ordinary experience we think we have of time. Right? It’s just — it is, again the substance, the structure of our days as we perceive it. So, our senses tell us — tell us the story of Newton’s clockwork world, right? We, a hundred years after Einstein told us, explained that time is relative, we cannot internalize that, right? I mean, he said it’s a stubbornly persistent illusion. We have this stubbornly persistent illusion that our senses constantly reinforce that time is an arrow moving forward. It’s linear. There’s past, present, and future.
Dr. Greene: So, if you ask me, is the past gone? Yes. I would answer yes to that. You know, is my father dead? Is he gone? Yes. That is how I answer as a human being. I can try to recognize that as Einstein taught us, the past is really not gone, it is as real as the present or the future, you just have to recognize that different observers, different individuals in the universe moving at different speeds slice up reality in different ways. So, yes, I know that stuff. I teach it. I make my students answer problems and take exams on it. But if you ask me have I been able to really stitch it into the fabric of my own experience of life, no. It’s very hard. It’s very hard to overcome the day-to-day features of the world as our senses allow us to experience them.
Greene gives a long example breaking down this idea in his books, to wit: one astronaut floating along in space will experience time passing at a different rate than another who seems to be floating toward her. Actually, each person experiences the other as floating towards them, because wherever we are is both here and now. So, which person is moving, which one is still, what are their actual rates of speed relative to … what? There is no ground zero. There is only movement relative to movement … and time relative to time, which means time is an illusion. One that we live by, but an illusion nonetheless.
One of the reasons I play at trying to understand the craziness of quantum physics is that it so often hooks into my own spirituality. This notion about the fluidity of time — it being an illusion we all agree to live in for the sake of convenience and ordering our days — reminded me of a mystical experience I had several years ago, as my mother was dying.
I had learned — and practiced in prayer — the realization that a God who is present to all places can be the Place we meet others in, through prayer. A particularly vivid way to experience this place of meeting was through kything prayer, a way of visualizing the person you are praying for and meeting them in a particular place, and inviting God/Jesus/Spirit/the Divine to join you in that space.
On a particular Good Friday in North Carolina, as my mother was dying in Texas, I was deep in prayer, holding her in my mind’s eye and heart’s hand, lifting her toward God’s presence, thankful for a God who could overcome space … when I remembered having heard a description that God lives both inside and outside time, that God can be and is present to all moments in time, even those we experience as past and future.
I realized that this meant I could pray to God about moments — and for people — on days long gone by. I sank into a deep reverie, praying for Jesus in his experience of Good Friday, among others.
Weird? I suppose. But more and more I am beginning to accept the shape of my life: that of a postmodern Christian mystic. I don’t so much argue for the existence of God as claim an experience I know as God. Because I was raised as a Christian person in a certain time and place, there are words and rituals I tend to use; because I live in a time when spiritual and religious experience is both exploding and imploding, I am continuously learning new words and ways of being with what I experience as the Spirit of Love that pervades all. (More on that soon …)
Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong century, the wrong place … but then I think maybe I am right where and when I need to be. As Catholic theologian and Buddhist Paul Knitter reflects:
Karl Rahner, one of the most respected Catholic theologians of the past century (and my teacher!), recognized this need in a statement that has been repeated broadly: “In the future Christians will be mystics, or they will not be anything.” … When Buddha refused to talk about God in order to make way for the experience of Enlightenment, he was making the same point, but even more forcefully, that Rahner was getting at in his insistence that Christians must be mystics: “God” must be an experience before “God” can be a word.