Why I Don’t Believe in Time Travel – a Christian historiography

Have you seen the movie, Interstellar? I had the chance to see it in our local theater the other day and really enjoyed the movie. Christopher Nolan has done a great thing for cinema over the past several years, reintroducing textures of live action and set design alongside wonderful cinematography. Interstellar is no different, though one gets the feeling it is Nolan’s take on 2001: A Space Odyssey in some ways.

Part of the movie (and I’m attempting not to reveal anything in its conclusion) has to with the theory of relativity and, specifically, the nature of time. In watching the movie, the plight of humanity serves only as a backdrop, or perhaps a pretext, for engaging in a discussion of these major issues. Time travel is introduced…though I am not going to say how. So, this morning, I thought it might be good to use this movie as a means of explaining why I find time travel quite impossible.

One of the essential philosophical conversations one needs to have, at some age, concerns the nature of history and how we understand the way history works. There any number of critical engagements, and some very intriguing writing on all sides. To make a major engagement shorter, there are many views of historiography that include historicism, Marxism, cyclical views, dialetic, and Christian. Sub-categories proliferate, though they generally stay within these major categories.

Historicism, a concept that was developed heavily among the German schools of the late 18th century, posits that all cultures are the result of their mutual historical participation and are moulded  by the past. All cultures are participants in the larger historical narrative and is a process of natural development. (See Kant, Wilhelm Dithey, and Giambattista Vico, etc.)

Marxist views of historiography are, predictably, centered around understanding how individuals work and produce their means of subsistence. For the Marxist historian, the struggle of history is broadly seen and understood through the experience of production. (See Marx, Hegel, Engels, and Greorgy Plekhanov, etc.)

Cyclical, considers the movement of history across the ages through periods of birth, growth, renewal, decline, and death before the cycle begins again. Not surprisingly this view is popularized in eastern cultures (Chinese, Indian, etc.) as well as in agrarian societies where the natural order is seen in the season. (See Stoicism, Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee, etc.)

Dialetic, advanced most critically by Hegel, the world-spirit (Geist) is progressively developing the world towards a final synthesis. Broadly speaking, it is the historical outworking of “its turtles all the way down” but progressively so. This leads to progressive stages of increasing self-awareness among humanity.

Within this discussion, Christians have offered a philosophy of history that has been, largely, adopted by most culturally though it likely no longer holds sway among intellectuals. Christian historiography begins with the presupposition that God is a creator and has created the world and wishes to be known by His creation. Taking a linear approach to the study of history, creation has a specific beginning, a timeline of existence, and then an end.

As a result, what has happened historically is done, there isn’t access back to it in the realm of creation. There is no ability, nor reason, to access historical events because the point of history is the display of the God’s story (His-Story) across the scope of humanity’s existence. What has been done is done, yet the future is what awaits. Just as we cannot fast-forward into the future (other than sleeping…or a comatose state) by leaps and bounds, we also are not able to go backwards. Nor are we intended.

To be honest, I love time travel movies. Ever since Michael J Scott jumped in a DeLorean in Back to the FutureI’ve been hooked on them. But ultimately, they’reTime Machine just good stories. While theoretical physicists and cosmologists (who are entirely dealing in theory) can postulate any number of instances where this kind of thing is possible, the simple philosophical reality is that it is not. Indeed, for the Christian the simple theological truth is that God has provided no system whereby mankind can be part of time travel in this temporal creation.

And that is entirely okay. Our goal in history is, indeed, crafting the grand story of God’s glory as worked out and redeemed among humanity. We are part of God’s story, and our hope is found in looking forward to the promise that awaits, not behind at that which holds us back.

Time travel stories are great departures and wonderful ways to dream about something beyond us. For Christian historiography, they are just that…stories. Left there we can enjoy them and have moments of release. Ironically, what undergirds so much of time travel stories is the same thing that binds the Christian historiography together…hope.

We cannot travel back in time, nor leap far ahead either. Instead we can believe with hope that God is accomplishing something great in our world and creation that, ultimately, displays His glory and with which we can partner for a greater Kingdom that is to come.

 

Addendum: Now, There is something to be said about God’s atemporality, as well as His omnipresence, at this point. Omnipresence is, usually, understood as God having causal access to all places at all times. It does not necessarily denote being able to move up and down a historical timeline. Atemporality speaks to the relationship of God and time. God stands outside of time, though having access to it, and sees all points of time. Mankind does not have this access. Perhaps this is echoed in Luke 14 and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that once one has died and is in Heaven, they are unable to re-enter the temporal sphere of creation. But I digress.