“One of the things you’ll never know without God is what it feels like to be completely outside of time, submerged in something both boundlessly immense and profoundly personal.”
It’s one of those things you hear at the end of a long, circular night – all of the standard arguments and counterarguments have been batted about the table, all the requisite statistics recapitulated, and, bleary-eyed and hoarse, the real issues that separate believers from non-believers start making their quiet voices at long last heard. And what those issues often amount to is a personal unwillingness, on both sides, to renounce a whole category of human experience as merely the phantoms of neural fancy.
For the religious, that depth of feeling that they get when they feel Jesus over their shoulder must be real, and they cannot comprehend how we stumble through our day without its eternally fortifying presence. For us, that wild rush of pure intellectual freedom that stands before the towering maw of entropy and says Go Ahead, Bring It, and which we can’t imagine another thinking creature mangling in the name of comfort. These are experiences that each side thinks as unknowable to the other, experiences that keep them reconciled to the rest of the intellectual contract they’ve signed.
The experience of altered time is one I hear rather a lot, and have always felt as something well within the confines of secular culture to accomplish. Some of my favorite bits of artistic production revolve around just this ability to take our experience of time and twist it, alternately suspending us in pure timelessness or otherwise diverting our sense of its pressing linearity. For the former, you can hardly do better than the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. There is a great deal of wonderful classical music out there, but no composer has his ability to craft a tonal landscape that simply arrests time in its tracks. You stop noticing the things that Desperately Need Doing, stop even really analyzing the music as music, and instead just let it grow over you, an insulating layer of lush moss that keeps space and time at bay for an hour.
You can really pick any symphony to feel this (though 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 are perhaps slightly more effective than 1, 2, 3, and 5), but for me it doesn’t come any better than the third movement of the 8th symphony (and if you’re of an impatient sort, but want to hear an absolutely perfect musical moment, fast forward to 1:58):
I would pit that against the most intense moment of prayer any day and never feel myself the loser. But it’s perhaps easy to hypnotize with music, to do so with words on a page is a whole different level of artistic sorcery. And precisely that is what Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) achieved on a regular basis throughout his long career. From the scratching, morphing staccato of Hunger to the sense of cyclical death and regrowth in The Growth of the Soil to the drifting euphoria of Wayfarers, Hamsun is the guy to go to when you want mere sentences and paragraphs to change the very beat of your heart, the way you walk through time after having put the book down. And not a word of it relies on the neurological cocktail that religion leans on to pull off its hallucinogenic spurts.
We are, persistently and mostly fortuitously, creatures of linearity. We armor ourselves in the past to deflect and absorb the shocks of an unknown future we cannot reach fast enough. But, from time to time, it doesn’t hurt to place ourselves in the experienced hands of one of our great creative minds to know time’s flow in a way that defies the strictures of pragmatic necessity. Religion can do that, but never forgets to charge heftily for the pleasure. Bruckner, Hamsun, and the dozens of others who found in them models for a new temporal sense in art, give us variations upon lived time of exquisite refinement, and the only criteria for admission is Being Human.