Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Science, Time, and Eternity: A Meditation on the Way to Easter

(This entry is excerpted and adapted from my book, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Science and Theology. Look right or click here.)

Time—one of the most fascinating topics for human reflection—arises from God’s creation. It was the brilliant fourth century North African rhetorician and philosopher, Augustine, who presented the question,
What, then, is time? There can be no quick and easy answer to that question, for it is no simple matter even to understand what it is, let alone find words to explain it. Yet, in our conversation, no word is more familiarly used or more easily recognized than “time.” We certainly understand what is meant by the word both when we use it ourselves and when we hear it used by others. 
What then is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.            
And so time is a puzzle, but also a gift. Without creation—and scientists would remind us that without matter—there is no time. God continues to relate to creation as the eternal God, as the One who is not limited by time, but encompasses time. To grasp this relationship with the temporal world, we have to look at God’s entering human history in Jesus Christ. There time is “baptized” so-to-speak—God touches time and surrounds it with eternity. Thomas Oden, a theologian who has done much to demonstrate the importance of classical insights from ancient thinkers, summarizes the connection between Jesus Christ and time this way:
The decisive Christian analogy concerning time is that between the eternal indwelling in time and the incarnation. Brilliantly, the classical exegetes taught that the creation of time is analogous to the incarnation in this way: The Father inhabits time, just as the Son inhabits human flesh.         
In this light, God’s eternity surrounds our time-bound world. God is before all, in the present moment, and the One at the end of time. The Bible clearly presents God’s ability to act “before” all now exists. 1 Timothy 1:9—where on would never expect to find a metaphysical thought about time—describes God’s grace as “given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began…” (my italics). In a similar vein, God comes “after” our current temporal sequence. God is described in Revelation 6:12 as the One “who was and is and is to come” (my emphasis). 

God’s eternity therefore is not timelessness, but the fullness of time. You can imagine a piece of paper with a long, thin line written on it. In this analogy, time is the line, God is the surface on which it is written. One has to advance along the line to get from point A to point B. Yet using the paper, you can move between A and B without moving along the line. Or try another analogy: an author writing a play. The author can write in Act Two, then step back to Act One, then jump to Act Five, without any difficulty. She can even be writing more than one play at a time. God, whose eternity encompasses time, is not bound by a chronological sequence.
This understanding of time is reflected in the language of biblical Greek. Its two words for “time” create a distinction that instructs powerfully. Chronos is clock-time, the rhythmic advance of minutes, hours, and days, which surprisingly, I am told, has only dominated Western thought since public clocks became prominent in the late Middle Ages. “Does your watch keep good time?” That is the question of chronos. The other word for time, kairos can be translated as “opportunity,” or more literally “a decisive point in time,” and in it is contained the sense of divine appointment, a “God incident.” An event is kairos not because a watch says that it is five minutes before six on a Friday morning, but because all is in place and God is ready to speak. So God is not confined by the chains of time (chronos), but can fill any moment with divine Presence (kairos). We long for this fullness of time. We crave a ripple of Eternity in the waters of time.
The Oxford scholar and twentieth-century Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis, offers an electrifying analogy for this longing as a sign of our eternal life. Our constant surprise at the flow of time (which scientists call “the arrow of time”) means God created us not for temporality but for eternity. Lewis comments on the insight from 2 Peter 3:8 that for God, not only is a thousand years like one day (Psalm 90:4), but also “one day is like a thousand years.” He reminds us that the Eternal can meet us at any moment, “but we have touched what is not in any way commensurable with lengths of time, whether long or short.” Our hope then is to be removed from the sequence of time.

For we are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. “How he’s grown!” we exclaim, “How time flies!” as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.

This “fish” is meant to swim in the waters of eternity. Doesn't that lead us right to the heart of Easter, the promise of resurrection to new life through Christ?


Steven said...

The analogy using the piece of paper gave me a thought...what about using an A to B line on a Möbius strip? Now God has no end nor a beginning.

Anonymous said...

Lewis commented on ideas about "Time & Eternity":

"This idea has helped me a good deal. If it does not help you, leave it alone. .. But it is not in the Bible or any of the creeds. You can be a perfectly good Christian without accepting it, or indeed without thinking of the matter at all."

As the joke goes, “God created time to keep every thing from happening at once!”

A timeless world, however, would be a world frozen without change (a Problem of Plato). It puts God in fixed box. What separates “past” and “present” is our awareness something has changed. The Oxford Dictionary defines time, as "the interval between two successive events.”

Vincent notes on 2 Timothy 1:9 (you miss typed as 1 Timothy) that the Greek literally reads, "before eternal times..." It is impossible that anything should take place BEFORE everlasting times. It should be understood as before the "time of the world." or as Thayer notes before ("Chronos") time was marked by "star-shine" repetition as in seasons.

For Christians, God is both a God of order (but not confined to "Chronos" repetitions) and of History (God is always on the move with creative purpose .."kairos"). Always "Further up and further in..."

Bill Jackson, Oroville