Time may not exist, yet it is the most precious thing we possess

In The Age, Barney Zwartz offers a very short but eye-opening reflection on one of the great conundrums of human existence: time.

Time is impossible – it can’t exist. Fourth-century theologian Augustine “proved” this in his greatest book, The Confessions.

Augustine rightly noted that the past has vanished, the future has yet to come, and the present is problematic.

“If one can conceive any part of time which could not be divided into even the most minute moments, then that alone is what may be called the present; and this flies over from the future into the past so quickly that it does not extend over the slightest instant.”

Such a tiny instant, a fraction of a fraction of a nanosecond, is certainly beyond human cognition.

Philosophers and physicists have long pondered time and, perhaps surprisingly, the latter are often suspicious about it too. Some suggest that time is merely a way of measuring change; the bird was here, now it’s there.

British physicist Julian Barbour’s theory is as counter-intuitive as any religious proposition: there is no such thing as time, just a succession of possible universes winking in and out of existence. We can feel that time is passing, but it is not.

The counter-balance to time is eternity, but this is also a vastly more complicated concept than it first appears. A friend asked me the other day where humans got the idea of God, assuming it was a primitive attempt to explain natural mysteries.

I replied that I believe humans got the idea of God from God who, according to the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, has placed eternity in the human heart. God has created us for fellowship with him, and – to quote Augustine again – our hearts are restless until they rest in him.

Eternity encompasses two contradictory accounts of time: unending time “forever”, and timelessness. But it also has a spiritual application, as when we speak of “eternal verities” – where eternal means profound, not rooted in time – and a specifically religious one, when we speak of eternal life. In each case it is about transcending time.

And in the Bible this does not mean duration but quality of life – literally, “the life of the age [to come].” For Christians, eternity has entered time in the form of the living Jesus Christ, linking the two.

The older I get, the more I think about time. How odd that something that may not actually exist is the most precious thing we can possess.

I have just finished Willa Cather’s beautiful 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop. At the end Cather writes that “he was soon to have done with calendared time, and it had already ceased to count for him”.

In Pope John Paul II’s final days, those near him noted that the veil between time and eternity was almost transparent. May it be so for all of us.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

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