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  • Parker Samelson

The Persistence of Memory

St Augustine wrote, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

Even though St Augustine is widely regarded as one of the greatest minds of the history of the Western world, he struggled to define this elusive concept. How would you try to define time?

Confusion surrounding time is nothing new. The famous 1931 Salvador Dali painting, The Persistence of Memory, featuring the “melting clocks” timelessly characterizes this phenomenon.

There are two important contextual events that help to explain Dali’s surreal depiction of time as melting.

Firstly, Dali painted this during a time in which he was suffering from a deep depression. He had just been disinherited and rejected by his father.

More importantly, this piece was painted only sixteen years after the paradigm-shifting General Theory of Relativity was published by Albert Einstein in 1915. Dawn Adès drew this connection by saying, "The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order." Indeed, the discovery of general relativity by Einstein was earth-shattering. In a way, the modern world is still reeling from the fundamental worldview changes that took place as a result of Einstein’s discoveries. One of the major ways that Einstein changed our understanding of the universe is our understanding of time.

Most simply put, scientists understand the “arrow of time” in terms of increasing entropy. Increasing entropy basically means irreversibly increasing disorder. Simple examples of this include breaking an egg, melting an ice cube, and burning a wooden log. You cannot unbreak an egg; you cannot unmelt an ice cube; you cannot unburn a log. You might agree with me that “irreversible increasing disorder” is a depressing definition of time. The consequences are equally daunting. The obvious implication of this concept of time is that events cannot be undone. All decisions and actions are final. What is done cannot be undone. What dies cannot undie.

Jesus changed all of this. He "undied". He moved backwards across entropy and shattered the confining notion of time. He offers us forgiveness from the sins of our past as well as a new hope for the future. Jesus Christ unambiguously declared, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In exchange for our allegiance, Jesus lowered the life rafts so that we can escape the disorderly waters of our experience of time. While a life lived for Christ is rewarded by eternal life in the future, the Christian is not supposed to forgo the present. In fact, the Lord calls us to live life with dedication and focus for the present moment. Jesus communicates this in Matthew 6:34 by saying, “Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." As confusing and daunting as the unending onslaught of time can be, the follower of Christ can put hope in a joyful eternity as well as a purposeful present. In the words of CS Lewis, “For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”