Converting to Time A Lesson from Theoretical Physics

by Nicole Roccas

“I used to believe in the essential unreality of time,” wrote theoretical physicist Lee Smolin in the introduction to his somewhat controversial work Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe.

The book traces what I like to refer to as Smolin’s conversion to time. Like many in his field, Smolin spent much of his career in the realm of abstraction, analyzing phenomena through the lens of theories and formulas so far removed from the actual texture of lived reality that temporality—perhaps the most given element of our universe—had become illusory, nonexistent:

“Time is the most pervasive aspect of our everyday experience. Everything we think, feel, or do reminds us of its existence. We perceive the world as a flow of moments that make up our life. But physicists and philosophers alike have long told us . . . that time is the ultimate illusion.” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, xii)

How has mainstream physics come to regard time as an illusion? Over the long centuries of the Newtonian paradigm (and more recently relativity and quantum mechanics), theoretical formulas—the lifeblood of physics—have become more real to physicists than the world they seek to describe, a world in which something as tiny as an untimely dust particle colliding with a spacecraft can render even the best theories tragically irrelevant.

This anti-time bias, as Smolin eventually recognized, fails to account for the way matter actually behaves in a cosmos characterized by particularity, change, and interaction—the unavoidable consequences of temporality.

“I no longer believe time is unreal,” he explains. “In fact, I have swung to the opposite view: Not only is time real, but nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time.” (xii)

The inability to “think in time,” for Smolin, is not just confined to physics. It afflicts social policy, politics, law—any area of life and society where we try to meet here-and-now needs with the rigid form of ideals rather than responsive strategies.

In the Church, we easily fall prey to the same tendency as the physicists and philosophers Smolin imputes, namely that of ignoring or explaining away the reality of time. Like them, we perceive the world through universal principles–the call to love our neighbor as ourselves, for example, or preach the Gospel to and make disciples of all nations (Mt. 28:19). But in realtime—where languages change, where our “neighbor” is no longer the romanticized poor of St. John Chrysostom’s Byzantium or Queen Victoria’s British Empire, but the depressed, the underemployed, the opioid addicted—our principles prove to be little more than ideals.

Here, too, it seems even the smallest speck of dust (now in our own eyes) renders our theories as irrelevant as it would those of a NASA control room.

Our anti-time bias, as Orthodox, is all the more difficult to detect since (unlike the physicists) we gladly pay lip service to time’s existence, even its goodness. After all, Christ entered this world “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). Likewise, we envision liturgy and the Christian calendar as an appeal to time’s capacity for sacredness. And as a people who ascribe to Holy Tradition, we appreciate the providential mystery behind the veil of earthly history.

But again, these ideas fail to extend beyond grand (albeit beautiful) theorems when they neglect to impinge on our actual, lived perceptions, behaviors, and experiences.

Is our faith truly lived in the realtime arena of change, particularity, interaction?

I’m not sure that we, as the collective body of Christ, can answer in the affirmative. If we could, the inclusion of English and other native languages in our liturgical services would be greeted as an opportunity instead of the regrettable loss of a cultural ideal. Likewise, the shifting needs and demographics of our neighbor—not to mention those of our youth, elderly, mentally ill, and neuroatypical parishioners—would not be seen as inconveniences or distractions but as opportunities to become more Christ-like, self-giving, responsive.

And what’s more, we would understand these developments, these “changing times” (and the times are always changing), not as deviations from the Way Things Ought to Be but as the whole point.

Ideologically, what frightens us about time is that it brings change, and change (we assume) opens the door to relativism. To guard against this looming specter, we tend to project the Church—and with it our rituals, liturgies, traditions, and even exegesis–as somehow immutable, above the sway of time and circumstance.

But, to take another page from Smolin’s book, time does not so much open the door to relativism as it does to what he calls “relationalism.” As he sees it, without the moments of opportunity and encounter time affords us, relationship would be impossible.

And without relationship, as our faith constantly reminds us, time remains empty and vacuous. Here we would do well to remember the words of the late Romanian theologian, Dumitru Staniloae, in his paradigm-shifting essay, Eternity & Time:

“[Time] is a state of movement in the direction either of death or fullness of life. It is the flight from Egypt through the desert of Sinai towards Canaan; the flight of Lot from Sodom towards another place, passing through a country where he cannot remain. To remain stationary is to die; we must move on, renouncing this state threatened by death in the sure faith that we shall find the fullness of life. In practice, this means no longer living to ourselves but living to him whom we shall find only by dying to ourselves. . . . Time is only real and creative when a person is advancing, in his journey through time, towards the union of his own life with that of others and with the infinite life of God.” (Fairacres Publications, 2001, 7–8)

As a Church, not just as individuals, we must seek to be always converting to time, always advancing into the uncertainty it brings us so that we may learn to die to ourselves and live to Christ.


Nicole Roccas is an adjunct faculty member at the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College in Toronto. She is the author of Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2018) and blogs and podcasts about temporality on Time Eternal. She has a PhD in History from the University of Cincinnati and lives in Toronto with her husband, Basil. 

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.