Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of CanadaFranciscains du Canada

Ordo Fratrum Minorum

On Time. And the Hour.

On Time. And the Hour.

Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day. Several strands of my life come together in this phrase. I’ll just peel off one of them. My teacher in Latin, starting in Grade 5, who would also teach me English, just a couple of years later, had been a German soldier taken captive in 1944 and shipped off to England. There was a stained-glass window in the place where he was held, and it had the words that sustained him: “Come what come may, time and the hour runs through the roughest day.” He taught them to us, and it became the first line from Shakespeare that I ever learned. A lucky fate had meant that he would be shipped further off to Canada, where he was not only safe from the rest of the war, but also graduated from McGill University. He returned to Germany, to become our teacher, and we knew that he loved Canada. He would go back, as often as he could, in order to keep in touch with the people who he had met there. He had understood time, and what it was that made it important.

The Age of the Universe

Fritz Lang, Metropolis (1927)

I want to say something about what it means for the universe to be 14 billion years old. By the way: this number refers to time in the rest frame of the cosmic microwave background. I only add this obscure little detail in case you are wondering, as indeed you should be, about the meaning of time after the work of Einstein. As far as the photons of this same microwave background are concerned, no time at all has passed since these were emitted as the universe expanded after the big bang. Such is the relativity of time, which concludes that the passage of time depends on circumstances, as only the speed with which light spreads throughout the universe is the same for everyone and everywhere.

Explaining the physics of all of this would go far beyond the scope of my simple blog, but it tells you something about time that one ought not dismiss quite so lightly as we do when we assure, with ponderous conviction rather than real understanding, that we know the age of the universe, and that it is 14 billion years, and that all those who disagree are nincompoops.

An Evangelical friend of mine, one who humbly disagreed with me even at risk of being labeled ignorant, said that he knew nothing about science, which is why he wouldn’t debate scientific concepts with me. But, he said, he always knew that the human person has a special place in creation, and that those who conclude otherwise must be making a mistake somewhere. He trusted that I would figure out where the error lies, while in the meantime, he would be happy to continue living his life as he did before. We have much to learn from him.

The error lies in an uncritical acceptance of physical time as being the same as what we originally perceive as time in personal life and personal relationships. I am not speaking of the mere psychological experience of time passing slowly in moments of boredom or quickly in times of great excitement. It seems to me that there is something deeper in the understanding of time that is lost in the abstract concept of physical time. Time is an essential reality that is inseparable from life, and it is not just another parameter in physics. Distinguished philosophers such as Henri Bergson or Maurice Merleau-Ponty or Emmanuel Levinas have spoken of this. Theirs are not fringe opinions, but theirs is a basic understanding of the world as it really is.

When Does Time Begin?

Harold Lloyd, Safety Last (1923)

Time is a mysterious thing, but measuring it by the hour means that we must leave behind the very thing that makes it important. In time, we define who we are as we live our lives, in the certain anticipation of an end in time. No matter how we understand it, our faith and our relationship with God are formed in time. In time, we make sense of our lives, and only in time, our lives find their meaning.

This leaves me rather skeptical about the possibility of time having meaning (and being fully real) in the absence of persons whose lives make this time meaningful. Now, I have no interest in trying to establish an alternative physics just so that the universe becomes younger and fits into the timeline of Bishop Ussher, who concluded that the beginning of time was the night preceding October 23rd, 4004 BC. But maybe it was a very long night. Maybe it was the kind of night that lasted 14 billion years. What strikes me as important is that Bishop Ussher’s timeline fits not too badly with the timeline that I learned as a boy, while learning history (from another distinguished scholar who happily spent his time teaching ignorant boys). Back then, I learned that history began when it was written down, or when knowledge was shared between persons across time. Everything else is prehistorical, and it is vague and uncertain. Is it really so wrong to think that the beginning of history is the real beginning of time?

Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times (1936)

Reclaiming The Meaning of Time

The reason for my musings on the topic of time is that I am thinking of what it is that those of us who study faith and science must accomplish. Studying faith and studying science follows very different paths, and each path has its own specific goals. Usually, they are not in conflict. However, beyond avoiding conflict, they must somehow be brought together so that we can make sense of our lives through understanding both. The understanding of time is a major challenge for people of faith who want to take science seriously. We should not be so quick to answer the question of the age of the universe as being 14 billion years old, with almost all of this time having passed in the absence of human persons, as if no distinction was needed between the meaning of time with and without persons. If reality is ultimately constituted by persons, as is my firm conviction, then the universe as a development in real time is with the emergence of the first human persons. This takes nothing away from the rational underpinnings of the world that physics discovers, a rationality that points to an origin far removed from human experience. But the time of physics is only a prerequisite for what we know to be real time. Reclaiming the human understanding of time may be the most important challenge that the field of faith and science must address.