A year ago I spoke about the mystery of time. And it is a deep mystery. It's haunted philosophers and physicists for a long, uh, time. In recent times, many physicists have concluded that time is an illusion. So last year I quoted one of them, Julian Barbour, who says that time is just a cosmic convenience that keeps us from experiencing everything as happening all at once.He said — his words —

Quantum cosmology — and hence our universe — is timeless.[1]

Well, time is a spooky subject. The Danish physicist Niels Bohr liked to say that the fabric of reality is not only stranger than we think, it is stranger than we are capable of thinking. But. Well, um. I think I got the bit about time being an illusion wrong.


There is something appealing about the idea that there is something that is timeless, beyond time. And I think there is. I think of the very Ground of Being as a realm of the Unmanifest, beyond time. But a year later, gotta say, time is no illusion at all. It's real, and at the beginning of a new year, it's worth a sermon. Because there's something important here that gives real meaning to our hours and days and years.
The idea of another year of life and opportunity and possibility gets people kind of cranked. I saw bits of that excitement in the celebrations around the world a few days ago. They tell us a lot about ourselves. Great spectacular celebrations, throngs of people standing out in the cold night. I saw a kind of statement about ourselves the other night, too. I watched all these celebrations, concluding with New York. But New York — our American new year spectacle — was different from all the others. It was the only one where the focal point of the festivities was festooned with brand-names, utterly commercialized. Maybe we shouldn't make too much of that. Mostly, I think these extravaganzas happen because people love a big party when zillions of people can stay up late, stand together, and at least enjoy the feeling for a little while that we share something important in common.


I guess humans have always wanted to believe there was a realm without time, above time. I'm whatever timeless realms there may be, time is real, and fundamental, and precious.

We've always confronted forces that seem like timeless laws. Everybody knows that first strange force we struggle with and that sometimes brings us down, gravity. Stuff falls, and so do we. When in the early 17th century Galileo Galilei figured out that stuff not only falls, but falls along a particular path, which is not a straight line but a parabola—well, wow, amazing—a timeless law of Nature! Doesn't matter what it is or how big or small or from what height.

Then as science became more sophisticated, mathematics itself seemed like a timeless law. It is, after all, constituted out of pure thought. Nothing in the real world, nothing actually found in Nature, is as perfect as a mathematical circle or triangle or parabola. Plato imagined this timeless realm—a realm of eternal truth and beauty, a timeless essence of perfection. There is in us a yearning for transcendence.

For quite a long time, science was dominated by the idea that that fundamental reality of the universe was atoms. Perfect spheres, absolutely hard, indestructible, indivisible. There was a set, fixed number of atoms in the Universe, and a set, fixed amount of energy that acted upon the atoms, and the conservation of matter and energy meant those quantities could never change. Einstein blew that one up in 1905, yet I grew up with it, I was taught it, in the 1950s. But gradually we learned that there's nothing solid about an atom; it's more like a vibratory streaming of energy. The electrons and neutrons and protons and quarks are indeed stranger than we can think. And all this happens, happens in a moment of experience, followed by another, preceded by another. The fundamental thing we have, and that all Nature has, is this moment. We always exist in this moment, the present moment.


Humans—who are time's finest achievement as far as we know—have a capability no other creature seems to have. We can live this moment and, in this moment, imagine other moments. We can imagine the past and the future. We can imagine possibilities that aren't exactly obvious from the data we have. We can anticipate dangers before they're upon us, and prepare for them. And—marvelous human capacity—we can imagine "wonders still" that the world might "witness, never known in days of old, never dreamed by ancient sages, howsoever free and bold."
And we can imagine what my best friend, Thunder the dog, cannot: our own death. Which means a quality of pain Thunder will never have to know. Still, contemplating it, our imagination could make our aging and our end into something far less desolate and painful than it is, or once was.

There was a time, when people were scared to death of fire, when somebody used their imagination and figured he or she could keep the tigers away by building a fire. Must have seemed crazy. Everybody knew fire was dangerous and destructive. Now we have it built into our homes.

So on the cusp of uncertainty and fear, we figure out how to thrive.

Other animals evolved just to be in sync with their environments, never imagining anything else, anything new. Which meant that for them, any surprise was always bad news. Surprise means some new danger they're not adapted to face. We get to turn change and surprise into opportunities to evolve our human culture and enrich our experience of life.

This is brilliant, except that by now we've noticed that our brilliant improvements are impositions on the Earth's natural systems have come to present the greatest danger we've ever faced. We need our imagination now more than ever.

Our fabulous technologies have so thoroughly overtaken the surface of the planet that all we understand is exponential growth, and more growth, with the result that our closest relatives are becoming endangered species living in a few forests in Africa. We need to use our imagination better. We have got to think, in time, in these moments of time, and imagine more creatively. We have to imagine our way out of a very blind, greed-based political system and do so in time if we hope for a chance to thrive for centuries more. We have to imagine what will happen if we don't: the rising temperatures and sea levels, the drought and failing crops, the northern cities crowded with refugees, while whole nations lay uninhabitable.

To quote Lee Smolin, "To be human is to imagine what is not, to seek beyond the limits, to test the constraints, to explore and rush and tumble across the intimidating boundaries of our known world."[2]

One of our problems is an outdated understanding of the Universe, and our trust in imagined eternal "laws." Like the faith in the invisible hand guiding our economic life—if you pursue selfishness and accumulate all you can, and let the economy roll along free from regulation, some invisible hand will magically distribute the wealth in a just manner. It's a belief in a timeless equilibrium state where the prices automatically adjust so that supply of each good exactly meets the demand for it. That hasn't worked out so well, has it? It's good to hear the new Pope call for a more just economic system. And soon he'll do an encyclical on climate change. A bit late, but a very good thing. The imagined timeless law of the invisible hand has revealed not a whole lot more than a bunch of very greedy hands grabbing what they can. I'm glad the UUA has taken up economic inequality as its first social justice principal for this year. Voted that right here in Providence. We who live in time, must let go the superstition and take hold of what we're creating. Economies evolve in time, and change produces feedback. Our economic system has produced plenty of feedback by now: millions of people without healthcare, seniors with no pensions facing poverty in old age, and escalating housing costs that leave more and more people homeless. We've got to pay attention to that feedback. We've got to get the mythology out of economics so we can use our human power to construct a just future.

Here's another thing we have got to understand. What is evolving in time—a universe of creativity and very great powers—is one whole. It's not just a bunch of parts. It's all one. So when we take hold of the economy, we must at the same time take hold of the climate crisis. It's got to be a single coherent action.
What I am saying is that we need a new way of seeing ourselves. A new understanding of our lives in this one world, this one Universe. What we need is a new religion, and that is what Unitarian Universalism proposes, or at least, proposes when it's at its best.
In past ages, we thought that this earthly sphere is a separate and unique abode of life, and of and death and decay. And we thought that this earthly sphere was surrounded by a separate heavenly sphere, full of perfect spheres of unchanging crystal that rotated eternally around the Earth. The stars were fixed up there, and perfect, up there where God and the angels dwell. Think of the symbolism of this building! So that meant that truth and good are above us. Down here is just evil and falsity.
We've got to learn to live with our planet, here and now, as the sphere of holiness and truth. This world of change and messy evolution is where the holy is. Right here, in time, in this moment. This moment is what we have, and as Annie Dillard puts it, What you are doing today is what you are doing with your life.


So what I said a year ago about the Universe being fundamentally timeless was, I'm afraid, wrong. Which is what is so great about this place, and this spiritual perspective. You see why, don't you? If we stood here and said we were dispensing eternal changeless infallible truth, we'd never learn anything. And we'd constantly be backpedaling and explaining how premodern antiscientific ideas are actually true despite the evidence.

We don't do that. No, we live in time. Even the co-called laws of Nature evolve. Many of those "laws of Nature" came into being at the Big Bang, it would seem. They're not eternal. They came into being. They happened.

This is not a world of fixed set of possibilities that cannot be transcended. There is room for invention. Here, in time.

And we have to tend this physical world and its health because there isn't anybody else to do it. As the guy who published the Whole Earth Catalog in the 60s, Stewart Brand, put it—We are as gods and we'd better get good at it. We need a new philosophy and a new religion in which human agency has a rightful place in Nature because we are Nature. We've got to take hold.

Does that have any implication for this new year of your life? I know it does. I see you reinventing yourselves, learning new things, taking new risks, taking the next step.

If we get free of the false hope of a timeless, absolute perfection in that realm "up there," we can proceed with a genuinely hopeful view of human possibility right here, right now. Where the future is open, here, in time. Time is not an illusion and the future is not fixed. The world of now, this moment, is unprecedented. It's never been, ever before, but it's here, and it's now. It's up to us to invent it anew.

Copyright © 2015 F. Jay Deacon. All rights reserved.

[1] Julian Barbour. The End of TIme: The Next Revolution in Our Understanding of the Universe. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and Phoenix/Orion paperback, 1999. Subsequently published in the USA. From 55f, 59.

[2] Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. Boston: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, p. 254.


from: Lee Smolin, Time Reborn, 2013. Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. Boston: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, pp. 256f, excerpted

We're accustomed to seeing ourselves as apart from nature and our technologies as impositions on the natural world. But whether we fantasize about our conquering nature or nature surviving us, we have reached the limits of the usefulness of the idea that we're separate from nature. If we want to survive as a species, we need a new way of seeing ourselves, in which we and everything we make and do are as natural as the cycles of carbon and oxygen we emerged from and in which we participate with every breath.

To begin this task, we have to understand the roots of the distinction between the artificial and the natural. These have a great deal to do with time. The false idea we have to put behind us is the idea that what is bound in time is an illusion and what is timeless is real.

How can we get rid of the conceptual structure of a divided and hierarchical world separating the natural and artificial? To escape this conceptual trap, we need to eliminate the idea that anything is, or can be, timeless. We need to see everything in nature, including ourselves and our technologies, as time-bound and part of a larger, ever evolving system. A world without time is a world with a fixed set of possibilities that cannot be transcended. If, on the other hand, time is real and everything is subject to it, then there is no fixed set of possibilities and no obstacle to the invention of genuinely novel ideas and solutions. We have to situate ourselves in time.