Playing With Time

Can you imagine if God had tried explaining to Moses that the Earth is 6 billion years old?  We live in an age where huge numbers get thrown around all the time.  There are 6.5 billion people on the planet.  The gdp of the United States is in the trillions.  The universe we can see is thought to be 16+ billion years old.  Heck, some people have billions of dollars.  We’ve all heard those explanations of how if the history of the earth were crammed into a year, humans wouldn’t show up until a few seconds before midnight.  So when we hear “billions” we have some frame of reference for understanding that amount of time although it remains incomprehensible.  But if God had told Moses that the Earth was 6 billion years old, it would have meant nothing.  A billion.  Eternity.  It would all be the same.

So what do eternity and time mean to us today?  The best explanation I can think of is to imagine each point in time as a tiny particle.  Now, imagine each of those particles lined up in a line like a string.  Now, imagine taking that string and wrapping it up like a ball of yarn.  Now, imagine that you could enter that giant ball which contains all that has ever been or ever will be here in the physical world, all at once.  Imagine that you could experience it all at once – like a constant hum of movement and emotion and light.  Imagine that you could see the ball of time from the outside and watch what it does – again as a constant pulsing, moving, feeling thing.  Imagine that you could reach out and take hold of one particle that represents one point in time.  Or a section of the time string to watch events unfold.  I imagine that depending on how much detail you looked at, it would be like looking at a picture or a movie or even a poem that captures a sense of place and emotion.  This is all very theoretical and speculative, but when I imagine what it must be like to exist outside of time, this is the idea that helps me to even begin to conceive of such a thing.

If we could see from the perspective of eternity, we would be able to see how things all hold together and work themselves out.  We could know in a way that right now we can only hope for and believe in that God really “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” – Roman 8:28.  If we could see the whole ball of twine, so to speak, it would all make sense.

But the reason that everything can work itself out that way is because we exist inside time rather than outside of time.  In time, things can change, grow, morph, even die.  Outside of time, what is – is.  Outside of time, if tragedy strikes, it just is.  Inside of time, if tragedy strikes, we can fight back, survive, learn and grow from it and allow it to become something beautiful or even just recede so far from memory that it no longer has any sting.  Time is the gift we have been given so that things can work themselves out into a beautiful whole.  Without time, whatever pain, sorrow and suffer we experience would just exist.  It would exist alongside of whatever joy, triumph and pleasure we experience, to be sure.  But it would always be there.  And frankly, that’s not good enough for me.  I don’t believe it’s good enough for God either.

*Originally published 8/2011

4 thoughts on “Playing With Time

  1. I have often wondered about the meaning and experience of Time. There are a few intriguing hints in Scripture:

    Jesus cited as “the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world” (huh?!!!) and the text about one day being as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day to God. Does that mean that Eternity is endless time or timeless? I sort of go with Augustine for timelessness; but who knows.

    Einstein gave us the scientific take on *the space-time continuum”; but Einstein’s scientific insights are waaaay beyond my comprehension, although I really resonate to his spiritual insights.

    I read Augustine’s philosophical excursus on time in the Confessions (I have attached an article that mentions it); but that was a long time ago. All I can remember is that I found it interesting. Excerpt from the article:

    After opening with some introductory comments and a prayer for understanding, Book XI deals with the issue of time and eternity. Similar to his first commentary, he argued that time itself was created when God created the universe. He speculated that time may be simply a matter of one’s consciousness but seems to reject that notion after contemplating some of its ramifications. He even anticipated Einstein’s theory that time is marked by the movement of physical objects, although he remained unsure of the very nature of time (Augustine 1997, XI.25.32). In the end, Augustine praised God for being beyond man’s understanding and encouraged others to do the same (Augustine 1997, XI.31.41).

    Speaking from experience, I know that time “felt different” during the 18 months that I lived in Liberia, West Africa in the early 60’s.


    Just when I thought I had all the answers, the questions changed! ~Unknown I haven’t read this one; but it looks interesting. It would seem to challenge Augustine’s conclusion that time is not a matter of human consciousness. Perhaps both are correct, another both/and paradox instead of the either/or dualism so characteristic of our Western way of thinking: AND And teaches us to say yes And allows us to be both-and And keeps us from either-or And teaches us to be patient and long suffering And is willing to wait for insight and integration And keeps us from dualistic thinking And does not divide the field of the moment And helps us to live in the always imperfect now And keeps us inclusive and compassionate toward everything And demands that our contemplation become action And insists that our action is also contemplative And heals our racism, our sexism, heterosexism, and our classism And keeps us from the false choice of liberal or conservative And allows us to critique both sides of things And allows us to enjoy both sides of things And is far beyond any one nation or political party And helps us face and accept our own dark side And allows us to ask for forgiveness and to apologize And is the mystery of paradox in all things And is the way of mercy And makes daily, practical love possible And does not trust love if it is not also justice And does not trust justice if it is not also love And is far beyond my religion versus your religion And allows us to be both distinct and yet united And is the very Mystery of Trinity Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

    So many books, so little time . . . .

    The inner experience of time Marc Wittmann* Department of Psychiatry, University of California San Diego 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-9116A, USA ( Abstract The striking diversity of psychological and neurophysiological models of ‘time perception’ characterizes the debate on how and where in the brain time is processed. In this review, the most prominent models of time perception will be critically discussed. Some of the variation across the proposed models will be explained, namely (i) different processes and regions of the brain are involved depending on the length of the processed time interval, and (ii) different cognitive processes may be involved that are not necessarily part of a core timekeeping system but, nevertheless, influence the experience of time. These cognitive processes are distributed over the brain and are difficult to discern from timing mechanisms. Recent developments in the research on emotional influences on time perception, which succeed decades of studies on the cognition of temporal processing, will be highlighted. Empirical findings on the relationship between affect and time, together with recent conceptualizations of self- and body processes, are integrated by viewing time perception as entailing emotional and interoceptive (within the body) states. To date, specific neurophysiological mechanisms that would account for the representation of human time have not been identified. It will be argued that neural processes in the insular cortex that are related to body signals and feeling states might constitute such a neurophysiological mechanism for the encoding of duration.

    1. One of my favorite thought experiments is to imagine that all bits of creation have sentience and experience the span of their lifetime as 100 years long. So a galaxy which exists for billions of years and a cell in our body that lives for a few days would both perceive their lives as lasting for 100 years. To the cell, a human would be like a galaxy – existing for time immemorial. To the galaxy, human would be like one of those particles which pop in and out of existence in a fraction of a fraction of a second. The idea that God would be able to reach into time and know a human being intimately becomes a wonderous thing when seen from this perspective.

      Not too long ago, I heard about an experiment which was done to figure out why time seems to slow down in the middle of intense experiences of danger. What they found was that our brains seem to open wide to gather all the details which we normally filter out. It wasn’t that time was slowing down – it was that it was being filled up.

      In our house, the only clock is the one on the stove. We generally only consult it when we need to be somewhere. And we don’t have TV, so we don’t have that marker of time passing with each show. All of us tend to judge time by the light which I imagine is how people did it for most of human history. We’re quite capable of being ruled by the clock when we need to be, but as a rule, we choose not to. I just feel like it’s a healthier and more “normal” way of being.

  2. Great post as usual… You are not that far from what science seems to say. I remember reading not so long ago about the subjective experiences of longer- vs shorter-lived animals and some people think that their experience equivalent perceptions of times in proportion to their lifespans. I will try to find out where I read it and I will send it to you.

    Also, You are absolutely right about how inadequate is the human mind to actually comprehend REALLY big numbers. I recently wrote a (very) short post about this. If you want to see it, it is here:

    Thanks again for the post! (:-)

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