Trying to understand time and eternity

A recent BBC programme by the physicist Brian Cox (who is not a Christian) reminded me to look again at space, time and matter in a way which is not only scientific, but relates to spirituality. I have never understood why so many people think that science and Christianity clash and are incompatible, instead of accepting that each discipline has so much to offer the other in terms of deeper understandings.

The scientific concept of SpaceTime combines the three-dimensional ‘world of space’ with the fourth dimension of time. Scientists also tell us there are even more dimensions which most of us are completely unaware of. We find it hard to get our minds round anything which is beyond our grasp and limited understanding and knowledge! But if scientists are telling us there is so much more to life and the world than we thought possible, then it’s not surprising that there is much more to spirituality than we have ever grasped. We don’t know everything!

We accept a three-dimensional world and live within it without ever really thinking about it. Each of the dimensions is a continuum and we “sit” at a particular point on the three. Perhaps the comparison with a graph (although it has only two axes) is helpful. Each point on the graph is unique. And we believe that things we have seen and experienced or learnt about (such as the shop round the corner, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the sun when it is hidden by clouds or at night time) still exist even though we cannot see and experience them all at this moment in time with any of our five senses.

Our way of looking at time is also seriously limited! We look at time as being either in the past, or the present, or in the future. This makes sense for everyday living “in the present moment” (which is not even a second, it is so brief and fleeting); we can also recall and learn from the past and plan for the future. But perhaps it is helpful, and even important, that we sometimes try to look beyond this limited and limiting perception of time. Just as we can accept that things still exist even when we can’t sense them, perhaps we can accept that time is not necessarily divided into separate entities of past, present and future, even if we can’t understand the SpaceTime concept and all the other dimensions.

We often forget that thousands of years ago, the writer of Psalm 90 (apparently Moses) grappled with this conundrum in the first few lines of his Psalm (verses 1-6) and perhaps understood it better than most of us do today.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn people back to dust,
saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
but by evening it is dry and withered.

In the concept of SpaceTime, there is no past, present and future as we think of it from our limited perspective. This links in with the religious concept of eternity, a belief which is held by most, if not all, religions and forms of spirituality.

Another ancient writer, the Biblical prophet, Jeremiah, ‘heard’ God saying to him: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5) Two thousand years ago, Paul wrote: “God chose us in Christ before the world was made…..” (Ephesians 1:4) John writes how Jesus was the Word who existed with God in the beginning – through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him (John 1:1-5).

Surely, all these are expressing something about the timelessness of eternity –“from everlasting to everlasting”. In what sense can we talk about the past if God chose us before the world was made, or the future if there are eternal truths, life and realities?

We believe many physical things exist which we have never seen or experienced – but we often find it much harder to believe in the existence of spiritual realities.

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