Why does time seem to point in one direction? That’s a question the writers at the Economist recently asked. The answer requires looking in another direction.
“Fugit inreparabile tempus.” Time flies irretrievably. In a September article, the Economist asked “why time flies; why it has direction”—to the future. We can remember the past but not the future. The writers say this is one of the most profound questions there is.1
Time’s direction has always been a profound question. But it became more urgent in 1887 when two American physicists, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, set out to measure the Earth’s velocity. To everyone’s surprise, their findings seemed to indicate that time is not constant but variable. That didn’t square with Newtonian physics which taught that time moves forward but always at a constant speed.
Albert Einstein theorized about time’s elasticity in a 1905 paper titled: “On the electrodynamics of moving bodies.” Einstein devised three tests to prove his theory. The most important was photographing a solar eclipse. Scientists had to observe a ray of light grazing the surface of the sun being bent by just 1.745 seconds of arc—twice the amount of gravitational deflection provided for by classical Newtonian theory.
Arthur Eddington of the Royal Astronomical Society was the man for the job. He assembled a team that set sail to the island of Principe off West Africa where a solar eclipse was to occur on May 29, 1919. Eddington’s team shot sixteen photographs, developing them at the rate of two a night. On the evening of June 3rd they proved that massive bodies such as the sun bend light as well as slow time.
This set off a series of mind-bending theories seeking to explain why time flies forward but at varying rates of speed. Eddington introduced the phrase “time’s arrow” to express time’s uneven drive toward the future. He claimed this has no analogue in space. Eddington believed all analogies had to be in natural science, not in something beyond.
Historian Paul Johnson believes these findings undercut the faith. With E=mc2 and relativity, “the belief began to circulate… that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil. Mistakenly, perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.”2 Scientism replaced science. Absolute systems, including Christianity, were no longer analogies for such things as the unevenness of time.
In Webster’s dictionary, scientism is defined as “a thesis that the methods of the natural sciences should be used in all areas of investigation including philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences: a belief that only such methods can fruitfully be used in the pursuit of knowledge.” Scientism disallows any analogy in something beyond. But look at the result. The Economist writers note that our current theories seem unable to “get to the heart of what makes time so mysterious.” You can’t get to the heart of what makes time mysterious if you overlook one analogue—the Christian tradition.
What makes time mysterious is that it points to a mystery. The mystery? There is no time like the present in eternity. God exists apart from time. Present time is a pointer to eternity. It moves in one direction because the gospel moves in one direction, toward an end or purpose. It bends and slows because the gospel is not an unwavering straight line from the beginning to end. It is a story that ebbs and advances.
In his correspondence with Sheldon Vanauken (preserved in Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy), C. S. Lewis writes “how we are perpetually surprised at Time. (‘How time flies! Fancy John being grown-up and married! I can hardly believe it.’) In heaven’s name, why? Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal.” Human beings are made for eternity. This supernatural mystery is echoed in Lewis’s Mere Christianity. We are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.
Scientists have been trying to answer questions regarding time by looking forward but not to the faith. That approach will not prove to be satisfying. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy,” Lewis writes, “the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” This coming Sunday, in the wee hours of the morning, Americans will be reminded of the variability of time. We set our clocks back one hour. It’s one more reminder that there’s no time like the present.
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1 “The moving finger writes,” The Economist September 5, 2015
2 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 2-4.