Which Way Does Time Work?


I have a 19 year-old son, who would probably rather watch episodes of almost any science fiction show than eat pizza (almost). He particularly loves shows about time travel. In a town like Oak Ridge, it’s possible to have serious discussions with serious people about things that I thought only young boys took seriously (we have some particle physicists in the parish (Russians) and, as I say, Oak Ridge is a town that takes its science very seriously).

I am not a scientist – I opted out for the arts a long time ago. But some questions cross boundaries, at least in home. My son likes time travel. And I wonder about time – mostly about which way does it work?

What I mean by that – is that we always presume that time works from back to front, from past to future. This is very handy and means that we can always look for causation in the past. If it exists now, then something in the past had to make it so. This is the essence of the historical worldview.

I have already shared a piece, based on St. Maximus, that places the “cause of everything” at the incarnation (which is not at all the same thing as saying that the cause is a linear, historical time-line. Maximus upsets the apple cart of our modern world-view.

As Christians, we ought to side with Maximus more easily and naturally than we do. We believe that the end of history is already a settled matter – thus it can’t be that it’s a linear, time-line thing. There are Protestant theologians, now so married to the modern world view, that they want to historicize God and leave him “open” to the future. I don’t know enough about Protestant theology to discuss that idea (particularly since this involves some fringe of Evangelicalism and my knowledge is mostly on the level of gossip). What I do know is that the End (and the Beginning) are quite the same thing for Christians. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.

That is an extraordinary statement when you think about it (if it’s possible to actually “think” about it). We are being drawn towards the very thing that is also the cause of our very being. It is though the end to which we were are being drawn is itself our own beginning.

I only offer such thoughts because there is such an abundance of other stuff out there. This week I listened to people talk about Adam and Eve and Dinosaurs cohabiting an earth that is less than 10,000 years old. While this may be “the faith” for some people, it is even less than interesting to me. It is linear in the extreme and lacks any grasp of the mystery presented to us in Scripture.

This is Christianity that will ultimately die: either because it will not be able to meet the final challenge of the culture in which it lives, or because the culture it produces will lack the imagination to survive.

Not that I am sanguine about the triumph of the Orthodox faith in its fullness and creative wonder. I am not at all certain of its triumph in this lifetime of mine, or even in the age of this world. Indeed, Scripture would seem to say this is not going to happen. But I have no doubt of its triumph finally, because it is true, however odd or hard it may be for some to understand.

Tonight I stand at the very end of history, and thus my own beginning. From here you can see eternity as it breaks forth into this earthly realm and swallows up every created thing. Pascha is come and all things will be gathered together into one. The end into the beginning – time into eternity – created into uncreated – all things into Christ Jesus.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



, ,



19 responses to “Which Way Does Time Work?”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Himself. The would-be time-traveler.

  2. Jack Avatar

    So Holy Sabbath wasn’t a 24-hour period 6,000 years ago!?!

    Great post, Father.

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar

    A day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day.

  4. Margaret Avatar

    Christ is Risen!

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen, the last few days have really focused my mind on the question: “what is ‘time’?” It is a question I’ve thought about fairly frequently, maybe it started when I was a child reading the Chronicles of Narnia and C.S. Lewis’ suggestion there that a “world” can exist with a different rate of passage of time than our known earthly world.

    Recently, during his devotional time, my husband read aloud about how the sun stood still for Joshua and the Israelites. After this he commented that it was a shame that the Israelites probably didn’t understand how this could not happen — of course, he was being sarcastic!

    There is so much in the Bible and in the Liturgy and in our daily existence that points to our inability to acurately measure and define “time.” I tend to want to tie myself to a schedule dependent on a clock face and then get upset when reality doesn’t meet with the painted numbers! Again, thank you for the comments!

  5. Margaret's Husband Avatar
    Margaret’s Husband

    The concept of time in Christianity also fascinates me. I have an intuition that enternity is very different from our idea of linear time. Eternity is all of the past, present and future somehow rolled together – beyond time. This is how we can truly sing, “Today [is suspended, or some other event we are liturgically celebrating]”

    Is this off base from a theological perspective?

    By the way, I was joking about the Israelities not knowing that the Sun could not stand still. This is, however,one of the the episodes athiests and liberal “Christians” use to disprove miracles. I have no problem with it myself,maybe beauase I majored in history and English rather than physics.

  6. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I think it’s quite possible for the sun to have stood still for Joshua and the Israelites, and yet not have stood still anywhere else. The “miracle” of the Sun associated with the visions of Mary at Fatima, were obviously “local” – they weren’t seen in N.Y., etc.

    Actually, I almost never worry about what science thinks about miracles. I live in Oak Ridge, TN, which is where one of the National Labs is. We have lots of particle physicists here, including a number of Russians who are quite brilliant. When you start looking at things on the level of quantum physics, as some of them do, the “laws” that others speak about just don’t apply.

    You can actually speak, scientifically, about something coming into existence from nothing. It’s not an impossible thought in quantum physics.

    So, I suppose I tend to think that the more we know, the less problem there is for “science.” It’s old timey science that tends to cause problems.

    Of course, I’m not someone who thinks of the world as 10,000 years old, etc. That, I think, its a poor reading of Scripture. That kind of Biblical literalism is a lacking in imagination as Newtonian Physics. Sometimes I think of them as the flip side of the same coin.

  7. Kellen Avatar

    It’s interesting that you posted this. I was just talking to my wife a couple of days ago about how it was strange, looking at the relationship between Orthodoxy and science. Being somewhat of a scientist myself, I’ve become aware of how deeply rooted modern science is in Western culture and its constant insistence on knowing everything.

    So many Westerners have made so many audacious claims because they perceive the Bible as being a common Western document, only to end up eating their words. Orthodoxy may end up benefiting greatly from the shambles of efforts to reconcile science to Western Christianity.

  8. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    Time is a fascinating concept. It pertains to humans more that to God, who is eternal yet, by virtue of the Incarnation, is both outside and inside time. God established time, seasons, days, feasts and fasts to slice eternity thin because eternity frightens humble clay. HE knows of what we are made and for what we were made.

  9. Fatherstephen Avatar


    I think that the problems of modern Western Christianity and modern Western science (and modern Western everything else) are all interrelated. They also have positive points – I’m not across the board anti modern West – which is a mistake too easily made.

    But, indeed, I do think all of those things are connected. They grew up in the same culture and context. How could they not?

    The question which is very important for Orthodoxy, isn’t just to stand around in the shambles, but to actually engage the important questions. If I can find it, I’ve got a good quote from Florovsky that I might post which is very to the point.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Sadly, I just went looking over at Pontifications, which is where I think I posted the Florovsky quote, and apparently the site has been hacked by someone. I hope it can be fixed.

  11. Mark Avatar

    Christ is Risen!

    I haven’t picked up any of Robert Jenson’s work lately, but as I recall, he was one of the more interesting Protestant writers on issues of time and eternity. Now that we’ve made it through Holy Week and Pascha, I may have time to look back over some of that. Then again, I may just ease my tired mind with some science fiction!

    On a somewhat related note, I was especially delighted the other night (Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday?) during the extensive Old Testament readings. From a “historical” viewpoint, they seem somewhat “out of order” – we go from Genesis to Isaiah, back to Exodus then on to Jonah, back to Exodus, then to Zephaniah, back to Genesis, and then on to the rest (I’m doing this from memory, so I’m sure I’m leaving some out).

    Rather than following some sort of “reconstructed historical” timeline, they instead had a kind of kaleidoscopic effect — focusing and refocusing, again and again, on foreshadowings or typoi of Christ.

    I was reminded that all of history, whatever its “historical sequence,” points to Christ.

  12. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Not to sound postmodern – but “history” is always some sort of narrative, following something other than sequence. It is always a selection of events, an arrangement, etc.

    The difference, I think, is that the gospels not only do this, but know they are doing it and have true theological points to make as they do this.

    This would be to say, that God Himself is narrating history.

    I was reading the first chapter of John today in a variety of languages – and noted both the Greek and Latin of 1:18. “The only begotten who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known,” is more or less the English reading.

    But the Greek original says that the only begotten “exegesato” (it’s the verb for “exegesis”. He “interprets” the Father (obviously in a strong sense). The Latin has “enarravit.” Literally, he “narrates” the Father. Of course, John could have said, “made Him known” and used some version of gnosko or whatever, but chooses a very different verb. John has amazing depth and layering (forgive my saying something that is so true it’s silly to say it).

  13. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    Its never silly to reiterate truth or fact. Fr. Tom, the presit at my church, has suggested that the next Sunday adult class study John. I’m glad that he will be helping me, as I feel out of my element in the New Testament and am awed by the dense layers of that book.

    I’ll be addressing the question of dating in future posting at my “Just Genesis” blog. Those who believe that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time will not find support for that at http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com

  14. Theron Mathis Avatar

    “This is the day that the Lord has made, Let us Rejoice and be glad in it!”

    Pascha brings an interesting light to this verse of the Psalms. Perhaps this “eighth day” is the day of which you speak from which all things flow.

  15. Fatherstephen Avatar



    That’s one of the little Bible facts that drives me crazy when I listen to local 7th Day Adventists. They have a college in TN not too far down the road which means a number of members concentrated in the area.

    Indeed, East Tennessee is quite different in its Protestant makeup than upstate South Carolina where I grew up. It was fairly surprising to me. Of course, this is a complete aside to the conversation. But it’s late on Pascha. Many days, many hours, many services. My brain is saying, “Go to bed.”


  16. Andrew Avatar

    Time and “the laws of physics” are all relative and malleable in the face of the communion of divine being offered by the Godman Christ; truly, there is no Newtonian system of natural law, only the deifying uncreated energies of God sustaining all creation, in a personal relationship of love. This is why there is no such thing as a triangle, a circle, or a straight line in reality; these are all abstractions as a result of human rationality, of the limitations of our mental framework. Time is one of these limitations of our minds. In reality, in the communion of the Holy Trinity with creation, and especially with beloved mankind, love is the law. Trees have their own will in growth, stretching out in a beautifully unique way, but still upholding their logos, as does humanity, and all things are fulfilled in God. And as Elder Sophrony has so eloquently and cohesively stated, entry into divine being is an entry into eterntiy within the limits of time, and outside the limits of time, just as Our Lord enters time but stands without it. Truly, all of this is marvellous!

    Sorry for the rant!

  17. Fatherstephen Avatar

    A very good rant. And I agree with all of it, with one small observation. The problem is that my knowledge, and likely the knowledge of everyone reading this blog, does not extend to energies, logoi of created things, etc., except as a matter of Orthodox doctrine that has been revealed to me by reading it somewhere. I do not know it as St. Maximus knew it, or even as St. Silouan (or Elder Sophrony, I imagine) knew it. It cannot be an argument, therefore, that is in any way distinct from the rationalized approaches of the West. I suspect that if I did know these things as the Fathers knew them, I wouldn’t argue them, but mostly pray and live in awe of everything around me. I do not mean any personal points here, other than to say that most of the discussions of these matters on the internet are problematic. We should share them with each other and with those interested (as you have here), but since these are not ideas abstracted from creation or God (as in pure rationalizations) they cannot be discussed in the same way.

    I would love to know the “logoi” of created things – because I believe it is the truth of the world. But I have to admit that my perceptions of the world are nowhere near that. My prayer is not nearly pure enough and my nous is too clouded.

    However, Christ is risen and I’ll gladly start there.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A case in point. In September I met an Orthodox woman and we have become great friends. During the linearly brief course of our friendship it seems as if she has always been part of my life even before we met and I hers. The reason is the communion with our Lord, His Incarnation, and our mutual willingness to allow that communion to form the foundation of our friendship. We have always been friends and always will be friends although we are just meeting and getting to know each other.

    The materialistic rationalism of science is only a real problem when it is applied to living beings as a explanation for being, existence, and behavior. It’s dogmatic and inflexible reality is not only linear in the extreme but makes it impossible to deal with non-material reality at all. Even a simple act of love of one person for another.

    Archmandrite Zacharias in his book “Enlargement of the Heart” states that all of modern science grew out of the spiritual despondancy of medieval monks. They gave up hope of salvation through prayer and began to use their human minds to observe and experiment in the natural world.

    The interpentration of the human, the created, by the Divine Logos cannot be explained, defined, or codified. We either submit to God’s love slowly, through repentance, being able to stand more of it, or we grow cold and die becoming cindars that flame up at the fire of God’s love rather than being transformed and transfigured by it–allowing His energy to move us into a new quantum state so to speak.

  19. cort Avatar

    There is a great little book by Alan Lightman called “Einstein’s Dreams” that is an exercise is thinking about other ways in which time may flow. It is fiction, but is written as if Einstein had kept a journal about his thoughts on time.

    It is basically a collection of little 5-page snippets contemplating time as a circle, in reverse, as a wheel, how we are slaves to the increments of time that we have created, etc.

    While not purposefully written for Christians, it really speaks to the ideas presented here and helps one think about alternative views of time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Amen! Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for these encouraging words.

  2. Matthew, “finding those firm foundations of goodness of which you speak can, sometimes, be difficult especially when we read something…

  3. Just want to add that I believe that Father has said many times (please feel free to correct me) that…

  4. Janine said: “How do you know God is not looking at you the same way you see your son?” Man…

  5. Thank you SO much Carlos! I really appreciate your thoughts and your prayers. Thanks also Fr. Stephen and Simon. Do…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast