On The Death of Stephen Hawking: March 14, 2018
With the death of the esteemed scientist Stephen Hawking on Pi Day, I wondered what do The Corpus Clock and the Banksy Rat Clock say about these artists’ concepts of time? All musings about chronological time lead me to ask, Does God experience time in the same way we mortals experience time? Is time the same for all persons? Do all people in the same event experience time in the same manner? What do we humans do with our time? Moreover, do people of faith have a particular calling from God to use time in a certain way?
We might fill a book with the fully fleshed out answers to all these questions, but let’s just sketch out a few points on each.
THE BANKSY RAT
The Banksy rat running in a 14th Street clock face, as if in a hamster wheel, is believed to be his first work in New York since 2013. One of Banksy’s trademark rats was found painted on the face of a clock adorning a building façade, on Pi Day, 2018, with the distinctive silhouette of the Empire State Building looming in the background. The clock in question adorns a former bank and post office at the northwest corner of Sixth Avenue and 14th Street in Greenwich Village. This building is currently slated for demolition.
Banksy seems to think time is a circular and continuous event, ever repeating, and perhaps monotonous. If the wheel goes nowhere, we can be very busy, but gain nothing for our efforts. Therefore our lifespan, the time we have on earth, is an exercise in futility. Do we know this, however? If we’re rats in a cage, do we have the cognitive awareness to perceive this? The good news is, we are more than rats, and for this I’m grateful.
Of course, pi/π is an irrational number and irrational numbers don’t repeat forever. If you write out the decimal expansion of any irrational number (not just π) you’ll find that it never repeats. That means that π is irrational, and that means that π never repeats. It also never completes, or comes out even, as my old third grade teacher Mrs. Dickey used to say, under the old math I learned in elementary school. In November 2016, y-cruncher, a computer for large calculations, took the value of pi out to 22.4 Trillion digits. I was always doing well to remember “yes, I have a number,” for my math classes.
Since Banksy’s Rat appeared on Pi Day, his wry humor might be evident in the rat race is never ending for all time. If it’s on a building meant for destruction, however, it shows he has hope for a change in this world and a creation of a new world. We need to take care to create a better world, rather than the same old world which we destroyed.
THE CORPUS CLOCK
The Corpus Clock, created in 2008 by the inventor and horologist John C. Taylor, doesn’t look like a clock. Its shiny gold disk features 60 notches that radiate from its center. Lights race around the edges of the disc, and a spherical pendulum swings slowly beneath it. The Corpus Clock has no hands or digital numbers, but has three rings of LEDs, which reading from the innermost ring show the hours, minutes and seconds. When an hour is struck, no bells chime, but chains shake and a hammer hits a wooden coffin. Time passes and we all die, a fact further represented by the Latin inscription underneath the clock, mundus transit et concupiscentia eius, meaning ‘the world and its desires pass away’.
The most eye-catching detail is the fierce-looking grasshopper sitting atop the disc. Taylor called it a “chronophage,” from the Greek for time-eater. Like a locust devouring the harvest, the chronophage opens its mouth. Ordinary clocks emphasize the cyclical nature of time. The hands, moving in a circle, always make it back to the same place and suggest if we lose track of time today, we’ll always have tomorrow. This, of course, is only partly true. As the chronophage reminds us, we can never regain lost time.
Weirdly, the pendulum of the Corpus Clock slows down or speeds up. Sometimes it stops, the chronophage shakes a foot, and the pendulum moves again. Because of that, the time display may be as much as a minute off, although it swings back to the correct time every five minutes.
“There are so many expressions in everyday life about time going fast, time going slow and time standing still. Your life is not regular; it’s relative to what’s going on,” Taylor said.
He noted Albert Einstein’s observation: “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”
“Time is a destroyer. Once a minute is gone you can’t get it back.”
As a note of irony, Prof. Stephen Hawking, cosmologist and author of the global bestseller, A Brief History of Time, was due to unveil the clock at 5.45 pm, but in the end the curtain covering it didn’t fall until 5.59.55 pm.
Two theories of time
Actually, philosophers have multiple theories on time. Scientists hold a few more yet. Two of the main ways of looking at time are movement and stasis.
1. Time moves. The A-theory (or the process theory) holds that time moves from one point to another in a unidirectional line.
2. Time stands still. The B-theory of time (or the stasis theory) holds that time essentially stands still. B-theorists holds that the process of time is an illusion and time itself is rather static, or unmovable.
Does God experience time in the same way we mortals experience time?
God is absolutely timeless and exists beyond the scope of space-time. Since God’s not mortal, and not a created being, the laws of creation don’t apply to God. God is the creator, the uncreated one. We, who are the created ones, can’t experience time in the same way as God. In a sense, all time is the same for God. The past, the present, and the future are all the same for God, since all things seem as “now” to the one who is. We never say “God was,” except in reference to our own experience. For God, all events are always happening concurrently, as it were, with the present, and with all the possible futures.
We too can experience time, somewhat like God, in those moments when memories flood into our present experience, such as when a certain smell reminds us of a loved one, or a melody brings to mind old friends and old haunts. Even unpleasant associations can bring the past into the present for us. While we’d rather only have positive feelings and thoughts, at least we can know we are in the same mysterious time stream with God when our time sense begins to meld the past and present together. If we’re in the same space and time with God, we’re sheltered from any harm. If we relax in these times, we can put our focus on the God who’s cared for us before we were born and will carry us through any storm.
For us, in an excruciating time, we might sense time stands still, or moves as slow as molasses. Slow motion is a description of the telescoping or expanding sensation some of us feel. Actually, Time happens at the same speed, but our sensation or experience of it is different. The expression “Time flies when you’re having fun,” is an example of the how fast moving time is when you’re enjoying yourself. Ask a child how long it is till Christmas, then ask the parents the same question. The child says”Forever!” Mother or Daddy swears they need another month at least. My well worn Advent calendar had many little doors, which I opened daily as a child to help me count down the days until Christmas. My parents had crafts for us to make for the holidays to help pass the time and give our eager hands an outlet for our energy.
Is time the same for all persons?
I think most of us count time linearly, for we begin at our birth and count our days and years until our death. We see this life unfolding along a single line. If we were to view our lives from beyond this world, we might perceive our lives as a circular spiral which orbits around our sun as the sun makes its route around the outer edge of our galaxy. The first seems to be a straight line like a ship crossing an ocean, while the latter is more of a spiraling circle on a larger circle.
Most of us are just trying to make it to the weekend or to payday, so our concepts of time aren’t vast at all. If we think about time, it’s about quitting time, lunch time, coffee break time, or time for bed. Thinking ahead to vacation time or retirement is a future too far, so wrapping our minds around infinity or eternity is too great a stretch. God can see all our possible futures, for we all have choices and there are always events beyond our control which will affect us. Nothing is preordained or fixed, except God’s generous love and grace. If we could stand out beyond our galaxy and see our small world, I wonder if we would see our lives in a different manner?
Do all people in the same event experience time in the same manner?
If we come from different places and upbringings, we won’t take from an event the same experiences. When one person sees the flickering candles of a worship center and feels fear and shame, while everyone else feels joy and serenity, the pastor has to ask what’s wrong. The association for this person was from a cult with ritual sexual abuse on the altar. Yes, things like this happen, and thank goodness this person came out of that environment. Yet the same setting was a trigger for old memories, and an opportunity for compassion, prayer, support, and the offering of healing.
For those who found the experience uplifting, the time passed quickly. For the suffering, Time was agony, for it united the ugly past with the present. The present ministry of those who sat with her eased her pain until she could return into the present once again, and begin to have hope for a better future.
What do we humans do with our time?
Too often we overvalue work and undervalue relationships. As a city person pastoring in a country church, I often felt they didn’t value the work of ministry among the people, since God calls all to be priests (priesthood of all believers). My people felt I didn’t value relationships very much. Maybe we should have met each other in the middle. What we do with our time is more than being honest in our business dealings, doing good in our community, and being faithful to our spouse. It has to be more than giving a tithe to our place of worship. Are we rats in a hamster wheel, or mere cogs in a great industrial production machine? When we spend our time at work, have we lost it, and only get to live on the weekends or when we retire?
Does God call people of faith to have a purpose for our time?
If our time at work is only a means to an end, but the time spent there has no meaning at all, we might want to consider a career change. One person I know said, “It just wasn’t fun anymore.” Another’s eyes only lit up when she spoke about her work with the hospice patients, but she gave the pat answers to “how’s your church doing?” I knew before she did her call had changed. I taught school and sold Insurance before I became a pastor. Now I cook, paint, and write in my retirement years. I get to study anything that suits my fancy, which is perfect for one who’s a professional student!
What is God’s call for your life? It doesn’t matter what age you are, the time to answer it is now, at the present moment. Tomorrow you’ll be a day older, and this day will be long gone. It will be only a memory, but not for taking action. Like the chronophage, the monster which eats time, each moment is precious and worthy. Seize the Day! Do the work God’s got for you!
Pi calculation records link: http://www.numberworld.org/y-cruncher/
Discussion on theories of time link: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time/