Sermon in Two Parts: Time, Love & Death by Amit Mehta and MLK’s Afterlife by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

2019 January 24
by DoMC

Time, Love and Death

Amit Lucia Mehta

January 20, 2019

 

On January 6, 2008, a car struck and killed my mother on her way to temple.  She died at 63, weeks after retiring.

 Her death began my year adrift at sea.  To re-anchor, I combed through religion, near death experiences, memoir, and psychology.  My mother gave me love of physics, my undergrad major and hers before me. So I thought it poetic that that’s where I found comfort, in the spiritual implication of flowing time being an illusion.  

By “flowing time,” I mean how we consider existence a snapshot of the stuff and energy in the universe at this moment, which then vanishes as another moment arrives.  Time feels like a river, always in motion, flowing from past to future. That’s illusion. As physicist Brian Greene puts it, “the flowing river of time more closely resembles a giant block of ice with every moment forever frozen into place.”  

All moments exist.  No moments are forever, but each is eternal.  

 


You probably think I’m insane, high, speaking in metaphor, or delusionally escapist.  Denying the flow of time seems to require a leap of faith beyond what any religion demands.  

But I have faith in observation and experiment.  Movement and mass warp space and time. These are Einstein’s insights, backed by a century’s experiments.  Time warps such that for anyone in the universe, all the past and future can occur simultaneously for an observer, somewhere else, with an equally valid perspective.  This means that all of time exists at once.

 


Religions adapt to science.  In 1500, the Catholic Church believed that the sun orbits the earth, the divine center of the cosmos. In 1800, no one believed that.  In 1800, God created species by decree. In 2019, the pope accepts evolution.

We UUs uphold a free and responsible search for truth, so we led the search for the spiritual implications of evolution.  We should do that with the even greater spiritual implications of relativity, now a century after Einstein developed it. But that’s harder.  Relativity paints a picture too foreign to our intuition.

Let’s try anyway.  Take conjugations of “being” – a special verb in Rev. Ana’s book.  Only the present is. The future will be but isn’t yet. The past was but isn’t anymore.  Erase all that. All three of them are.

Nostalgia for childhood summers makes no more sense than nostalgia for family trips I’m planning this spring.  Zooming out, I need not feel wistful for eras lost, like La Belle Époque or the Summer of Love. Each one is, as if happening now.

Still, so what?  Even if time sits still or moves backwards… in this moment, the only moment I ever know, my decisions don’t touch my past, your past, or most of your future.  I can only affect my future. Everything else is, but in this moment I can affect none of it. So we’re trapped in the illusion, right?

Almost.  

 


There’s an exception, where the spiritual implications of Einstein shine brightest.  That brings us full circle to where we started, my mother’s death.  Martin Luther King’s death. The poet Mary Oliver’s death. Even humanity’s death.

Death inspires terror, hope, sadness, confusion, denial, and anger-directed even at God and the universe.  I lived these emotions the year my mom died. For Marci and me, raising Artemis and Aranyani includes preparing them for our deaths.  

Death plays the lead role in Hindu, Muslim, and Christian ideas of who we really are; and in Rev. Forrest Church’s assertion that “religion is our response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”  In his Pulitzer-winning magnum opus, Ernest Becker argues humans have built all of civilization upon denial of death.

Hence I consider the spiritual significance of Einstein greater than that of Darwin.  Through a fictional character, Kurt Vonnegut captures it in Slaughterhouse Five: “When a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past…. All moments… always have existed, always will exist… it is just an illusion we have… that one moment follows another one… and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”  

 


I can’t contact my mom, but she lives still, in the past.  She’s growing up in Surat, India, with her parents and four siblings, living in what they later call the “happiest times.”

“But,” you might say, “that past is fixed and the future wide open.”

Wrong.  This gets tricky, so bear with me: Take your perspective outside flowing time.  From there, past and future are both eternally equally wide open.

As Einstein put it when his friend Michele Besso died, “now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me.  That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

“But how can her childhood decisions still matter?  You already know the outcome.”

I hear those interloper words “still” and “already”; you assume time flows.  Your decisions at any moment affects that moment’s future. Time need not flow for that.  

“But in this moment, you can’t see her.”

 True.  I won’t see her again.  But I also wouldn’t in the Hindu afterlife, reincarnation, which comforts a billion people even without the prospect of seeing loved ones again.  

 


I bet you’re still thinking, “dude, do you seriously get comfort from all this?”  

I’m – not – comfortable.  I wish she were here with us, enjoying her seventies, playing with my daughters, dining with my family, and participating in this congregation.  You would have loved her, and she’d be out there listening to me talk about something else.

Trapped in illusion, my heart can’t grapple with time not flowing, but it can grapple with this:  Imagine at my mom’s funeral that I know the casket is empty. She’s been spirited away, alive but outside my reach.  That gives me comfort.

I don’t mean afterlife.  If time doesn’t flow, afterlife loses importance.  Nonetheless, reality is, for all intents and purposes, equivalent.  

In this two-runner relay race, my heart takes the baton from my mind.  What gives my heart comfort – that she lives, now, outside my reach – is, in my mind, equivalent to a reality where time doesn’t flow.

 


I feel your skepticism, as your smartphones tick along from 11am to noon and you anticipate your afternoon.  Time not flowing doesn’t jive with your intuition, but I believe reality doesn’t, either.

I believe in a spherical earth, though it looks and feels flat.  I believe the universe expands at unimaginable speed, though the constellations look stationary.  I believe organisms evolved over eons, though I don’t see them morph. I believe my DNA blueprint fits into 1.5 gigs, though I’ve never read it.  I believe half of that blueprint is shared by the banana tree, though I don’t see nearly 50% resemblance. I believe time doesn’t flow, though it subjectively seems to.  

If any of those requires a leap of faith, then they all do.  Humanity’s story includes observing and experimenting to uncover a weird and wonderful reality much deeper than our experience suggests but nonetheless we believe.  Almost nothing epitomizes that story better than relativistic time.

That brings us to the spiritual implication of Einstein:  the casket is empty. The past isn’t gone.

We are not forever, but we are eternal.

One Response
  1. January 24, 2019

    Following is a short poem I wrote on this subject in the 1960s-

    “Did Anyone See the Sound of My Question?”

    Where am I?
    Now
    What time is it?
    Here
    Now, Here
    Now hear this
    Here now
    Why am I if
    I won’t be there and then?

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