A Conversation about Time with Br. Geoffrey Tristram and The Rt. Rev. Nick Knisely.
So many people today seem to suffer from a sense of disordered time; our experience of time is polluted by misuse and abuse. And it’s poisoning our lives—like a disease, really. Yet time is meant to be a gift from God. Geoffrey Tristram of SSJE sat down with Bishop Knisely in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of this complicated realm in which faith and science intersect.
GT: Thanks so much for sitting down with me, Nick. I know that you wear two hats, being both a bishop and a physicist. I’m hoping that you might be able help us to gain a clearer understanding of how time and space relate to each other.
NK: If we can solve that one, we’ll win a Nobel Prize! Well, let’s start with Einstein. Essentially, Einstein took the relativist philosophy of the nineteenth century and began to express it mathematically. To do so, he went back to some mathematical equations that Hendrik Lorentz had devised at the turn of the century, dealing with the mathematical idea that when you move, things begin to change their character, or your experience of them begins to change their character. Lorentz’s equations found a way to express the idea that as you are moving, space begins to collapse or conversely time slows down. Either way, whether it’s time slowing down or space collapsing, the two effects give you the equivalent result: that light is always the same speed in every direction no matter whether you’re moving or stationary or anything else.
This is a huge deal for physics, because Einstein is able to take this equation and say there is no privileged reference frame. Anybody can say, “I am the center of the universe,” and they would be absolutely correct. Everybody is the center of the universe. It’s really a quite lovely thing to meditate on.
GT: That’s essentially the theory of relativity, right?
NK: Right. And what it means is that in a certain class of observers—people who are moving at a constant velocity, people who have been rotated but are not rotating at the moment, or people who have to move from one place to another (they’re called inertial observers)—any one of them has an experience that cannot be argued about by any other observer. This means that your experience of reality and my experience of reality—even though they’re different—are exactly right for each one of us.
GT: What are the implications of this for our understanding of time?
NK: This means that time—which Isaac Newton imagined as a river flowing ever majestically, like the Thames, on down to the sea—does not in fact flow at a constant rate at all. Instead, time bubbles, whirls, slows down, and speeds up effectively depending on what the observer is doing at the moment. This becomes hugely important! Practically, it means that even something as simple as sending a radio message to a robot on Mars has to take into account the relativistic effects of Martian motion, our motion, and then the dual effect of climbing out of our gravitational field, because general relativity shows that gravity also slows down time.
GT: So that’s a quite practical example. And if I understand the implications of it: time itself is not a constant.
NK: Not even close. This idea—that your reality, your experience of reality, is valid for you, and my experience and my reality is valid for me—means that the idea of finding an absolute truth becomes a lot more difficult.
GT: And I take it that this includes any notion of time as an absolute truth. What does this mean, theologically, then for our understanding of God?
NK: I think the poetic imagination is helpful here: I’d say that God is the ultimate truth in eternity, outside of the flow of time. And we who live in the boundaries of time and matter and space can get asymptotically close to God, but cannot cross that barrier—in this life at least.
GT: See, this is interesting: the very possibility of a relationship between God who is timeless (yet who creates time) and we who exist in time. For we do have these breakthroughs, moments where, somehow, we become aware that time is shot through by the timeless. Or, to say it another way, there are moments when we sense that our timeless God had somehow broken through to us, in time.
NK: Well, not to complicate matters further, but there is a whole pool of physicists who argue that time itself is an illusion. There are great problems with time—one of them is called the “arrow of time” problem. Namely, we don’t understand why you can go backwards and forwards in space in any direction—in the X-axis and the Y-axis and the Z-axis—but in time you can only go forward. You cannot go backwards, and no one really understands why. It’s a huge unsolved problem in physics and philosophy.
GT: And in theology! This issue of time moving in one direction is also a huge unsolved problem in people’s lives. In spiritual direction, we hear again and again how much of people’s longing is to go back.
NK: And there’s no reason, mathematically, why we can’t. And yet we can’t. This flow of time—we don’t know why, but it goes in one direction. Now although time flows in one direction, it can go faster and slower.
GT: Which I’m guessing opens up again the question of relativism.
NK: Well, it doesn’t just open it up—it cracks it right open, and there you have it! It means that there is no absolute truth, at least scientifically, that anybody who is in this universe can access. We don’t like it, but there it is. When you put together the idea of multiple truths and the flow of time, you hit upon the fact that the flow of time is completely and totally subjective. Think about it. This bears out in our experience. When I’m bored, time goes so slowly, when I’m having fun, time goes so fast. And I’m not talking about the perception of time. I’m actually talking about what’s measurable with atomic instruments.
GT: So are you saying that time actually slows down? This would mean that each observer in time, so to speak, has his or her own validity. Even if there is no absolute truth, wouldn’t their experience of time still be absolutely true for them? This has to change the way we think, theologically, about the individual’s experience of everything—even God.
NK: Yes! Surely you’ve had the experience of hearing a directee explain their experience of the divine and thinking, “That’s not what it’s like for me.” When I hear this, I know I’ve often had to just shrug and say, “Oh, I’m just wired differently.” Or, “My neurotransmitters are firing differently.”
GT: Yes! Because such experiences are unique to the person having them. The question then is this: is there a point at which you can say to a spiritual directee, “Actually, your experience of God is wrong”? Do we have any access to a greater truth that we can use to help direct or confirm or deny the experience of others?
NK: I think we can use revealed truth. That’s the majesty of the gospel of salvation history: in salvation history the eternal pokes its nose, if you will, into the temporal. As a natural theologian and as a natural philosopher, I’ve studied what I can learn about God by looking at the machinery of Creation. And there’s a lot you can learn. But there comes a point where that knowledge approaches absolute truth, yet does not cross over, because you just can’t get there. So the truth has to be something that pokes into our experience from the absolute. And we, as Christians, would say that the fullness of that revelation is the person of Jesus Christ.
GT: And can you say that this revealed truth, that “God is love,” actually trumps any person’s own particular perception of reality?
NK: That’s where faith comes in. As a person of faith, you have to give your ascent to the gospel message. But you can’t make the argument, as much as I’d like to be able to make it, that natural philosophy leads you to God.
GT: But if this God—who is Love—who is beyond time, can nevertheless poke through into time, then that’s incredibly hopeful! Because it means that whatever happens in time, however awful, there will always be love returned.
NK: Yes. You see throughout all the biblical witness that God is actively engaging in human history. And the alternative is terrifying: the idea of the watchmaker, God, who sets this thing up—
GT: —and then just leaves it—
NK: —exactly, it’s horrible. You’re left trying to explain why a God who created the universe and pronounced it “Wunderbar!” wonderfully good, is allowing the slaughter of children in Gaza today, in Europe in the ‘40s, all over the world across time.
GT: But instead we see that God is constantly pushing into reality, into time.
NK: Yes we do. An acquaintance of mine, Bob Russell, is the director of the Center for Natural Theology in Berkeley, California. He and I are both members of a religious order, the Society of Ordained Scientists. He has Ph.D.’s in both Theology and Physics and is an ordained member of the United Church of Christ. He has done some amazing work in thinking through the way that science and theology can find what he calls creative mutual interactions. His latest work is on the nature of time itself and the physical meaning of eternity—all of which is motivated by his desire to understand the meaning of the bodily resurrection of our Lord. What he seems to have proved is that if there is an eternity that contains our experience of the flow of time, not only is it possible that the resurrection of the dead is a physical possibility but, he told me in a private conversation, we can explain why time only flows in one direction (which is why we can’t go backwards in time). In a sense, the argument is that the flow of time and the bodily resurrection are intimately connected to each other.
GT: This makes me think of the old monastic theory that we are surrounded by eternity: every moment and every place in Creation is infused with divine light. There are “thin” moments and places where we can see it, and moments that are “thick,” when we cannot. But your point here suggests that if my perception is that I don’t see any light, or don’t experience that eternal break-through, I can actually be helped to see it.
NK: So then your question is: if it’s not that it doesn’t exist, what’s blocking me from seeing it?
GT: Yeah. It means that our perception is not fixed, and the Eternal is there nevertheless.
NK: Correct. It’s not as if your time is flowing at one rate, and my time is flowing at another rate, for our whole lives. It’s that at one moment, your time is flowing at one rate, and at another moment, my time is flowing at another rate. A few moments later, my time may have sped up, but your time may have slowed down.
And this change is actually happening on the order of a nanosecond. You can’t measure it on a wristwatch, but we can measure it. A tenth of a second is the shortest time that we can be aware of, but we can measure time to a femto of a second. That’s a decimal point followed by fifteen zeros and then a one.