Friday, January 22, 2021

On Time and Beauty (Some Notes)

Beauty appears to be both temporal and timeless. Every human experience of beauty is in time, and yet, when we experience beauty, we seem to transcend, even to be removed, from time. To understand beauty, it seems to me that we need to figure out time.

I am continually drawn to Augustine’s profound reflections, which are often cited and for good reason, 

“What, then is time? There can be no quick and easy answer, for it is no simple matter even to understand what it is, let alone find words to explain it” (Confessions XI. 14).

What do science, philosophy, and theology say about time?            

The consensus view in physical sciences, following Albert Einstein, is that time and space are related, not independent aspects of reality (as in classical physics). One reason time cannot be entirely relative is what Hermann Minkowski identified as the “causality constraint,” that is to say, even within the relativity of time in an Einsteinian universe, observers in uniform motion find that causes occur before effects. More precisely, causes according to one observer are causes according to all other observers in uniform relative motion. In essence, causality is invariant, not relative.     

From a philosophical perspective, time can be understood (i.e., explained) as phenomenal, but not noumenal (Kant), or as the very structure of reality (Hegel, Whitehead). Similarly, beauty can be viewed as one of the atemporal Transcendentals (Thomas).      

Theological perspectives frequently explain and thus unfold time as a gift from God (Augustine), but are unsure about whether God’s eternity is atemporal (Thomas) or supratemporal (Barth, Russell). 

More personally, I’d like to see how time can be a component of human flourishing and a resource for the common good. 

This reminds me of a psychologist with a remarkable name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (For what it’s worth, I once heard someone comment that he prefers “Mike” and that his last name sounds something like “Chick-sent-me-high.”) 

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, my buddy Mike presented a key idea for grasping how we find our passion. In the state of the mind he named “flow,” we experience deep enjoyment, challenge matched by our skills, creativity, and a sense that time is moving in a different, and fuller, way. How can “flow”—or “optimal experience”—be described? He writes 

“‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Put another way and drawing from Emanuele Ciancio (“Time Flow in the Natural World: A Theological Perspective”), the beauty of time might be summarize in the Greek New Testament word kairos, which means “opportunity,” or perhaps better, "the fullness of time."

Does human flourishing mean living a beautiful life regularly imbued with kairos

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