Circles, points and lines: Spiritual reflections on time

Posted May 21, 2010, at 6:51 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:39 a.m.

The obituaries page of the April 15 Bangor Daily News carried a story of the death of Antony Flew, a British philosopher and atheist who late in life changed his mind and converted to belief in a Creator. The article reported that, “Flew said he was impressed by the works of Gerald Schroeder, a physicist and Jewish theologian who wrote ‘The Hidden Face of God,’ published in 2001.”

I have written before in this column about Dr. Schroeder, an MIT scientist who discovered that Einstein’s theories about the flexibility of time made the Genesis story of creation a scientific possibility. Schroeder demonstrated mathematically that the forces within the Big Bang so distorted the dimension of time that the 14-billion-year evolution of the universe took place in a seven-day period — as experienced outside of this expanding universe.

In other words, as residents of this universe, we look back through billions of years to the Big Bang; but to a creator located at some still point, a time period equal to only seven (24-hour) days that had passed. Thus, the Bible’s myth of a seven-day creation is scientifically correct.

Now I’ve long held the theory that much of the confusion, misunderstanding, and argument about God and religious belief hinges on our profound misunderstandings about the nature of time. In fact, the three main schools of theology think of time as circles (or spirals), points and lines. Circle religions would be the Dharmic, which include Indian religions such as Hinduism, and some schools of Buddhism. Point religions would include the Taoic faiths, Far Eastern religions including Taoism and Zen Buddhism. Lines would be the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

I’ve turned these major faiths into stick figures because the forms describe, to some extent, the way these religions view reality and time. The circles of Indian faith have to do with recurring cycles over millions of years — from the repeated creation and destruction of the universe (a 36-million-year cycle), to the reincarnation of the individual soul over many lifetimes.

The Tao, conversely, emphasizes unity. To quote Wikipedia, “Taoist propriety and ethics place an emphasis on the unity of the universe, the unity of the material world, and the spiritual world, the unity of the past, present and future; … Taoist theology focuses on doctrines of wu wei (‘non-action’).” The “point” represents that unity.

Judaism, Islam and Christianity, on the other hand, suggest one story and one history. Evolving history was created but once, and we were created to live one life, followed by judgment and our eternal fate. It’s one straight line from beginning to end.

The different contours of these faiths have held out some appeal to scientist-philosophers over the years, as they sought to find a rational link between religion and the science of the day. During the Middle Ages, the notion of earth as the center of the universe fit the one-creation, one-history notion of the Abrahamic religions quite well.

As science uncovered cycles of disaster and restoration in the natural history of the planet, a more circular vision of reality tended to match up more closely with Hindu thinking. A good example is found in the text, “Forbidden Archeology,” which was written by two Hindu scientists whose ideas have begun making real headway in shaking the established order of linear thinking about the “prehistoric.”

Not that there wasn’t an oral tradition about it already. Plato’s telling of the story of Atlantis, a wealthy, powerful and highly developed technological society that was destroyed by natural disaster (or by some self-made technological disaster) has been available to us since 400 BC. Of course, our linear-thinking scientists insisted (and for the most part, still insist) it was fiction. In their eyes, it is impossible that we are only rebuilding a knowledge base we lost thousands of years ago.

And yet … the ancient Indian texts known as the Mahabarata describe in excruciating detail the consequences of nuclear war, and some scientists claim to have found some unexplainable “hot spots” of radiation in areas where ancient civilizations once stood. Some of these places date to approximately the time of Abraham himself. Wouldn’t it be something if Abraham’s move from Ur was to escape the ruins of a high-tech civilization that had destroyed itself by nuclear war?

But I digress. The point is, each school of theology has grasped onto one aspect of time, and has hotly defended its own interpretation. They are like the blind men attempting to describe an elephant: one holds the leg, and says, “elephant is like a tree,” while another grasps the trunk and says, “elephant is like a snake,” while a third, sitting on its back, says, “elephant is like a rock”…. Well, you get the idea.

But meditate on an existence unshackled from time, and the whole elephant comes into view — multiple lives become one life, history condemned to repeat itself becomes Itself alone, and a crucifixion and resurrection that shoulders all sin, from the Alpha to the Omega, becomes easier to understand. This is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” (Revelations 13:8)

If this comprehension of time seems far out, consider that Paul gives us a glimpse of the same thing when he writes: “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 2:6) Paul’s use of the past tense is on purpose, because it already has happened. Time for us is the unrolling scroll, written even before God rested on the seventh day. Trapped by time, we are living, line by line, that which already has been accomplished.

The Rev. Dr. Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at leewitting@midmaine.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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