Anthropocene

The word “Anthropocene” has been showing up quite a bit lately.  For a period of many years I was an avid, self-taught amateur geologist.  In my dreams I still am, I guess.  My interest in the ages of rocks began when I, like Charles Lyell, began to consider the implications of their extreme longevity.  The Bible, of course, famously intimates we live in a comparatively new neighborhood.  Having grown up believing that literally and firmly, and also having started a modest fossil collection, I failed to see the conflict.  I mean, there were fossils right down there by the river.  Tons of them.  Some Young Earth Creationists had already begun, by that point, to suggest they’d arisen because of Noah’s flood, but dinosaurs still seemed to be a problem.  In many ways rocks broke me out of my fundamentalist stupor.

While at Nashotah House I taught electives on Genesis 1-11.  I read about the geologic ages of the planet and would fall into Devonian dreams of a world entirely different from ours—a world in which there was no Bible for there were no humans to make God in their image.  I knew that we lived in the Quaternary Period of the Holocene Era.  I don’t think the term Anthropocene was in wide use then.  Parsing it is simple enough—it is the “human age.”  The age in which the planet was, has been, and is being altered by human behavior.   There’s no agreed-up start date for the Anthropocene, but it will likely be set in the twentieth century; the twentieth century in our way of counting.  There have been millions of centuries before that.

A couple of weekends back I attended a church program on plastics.  These useful polymers are deeply, deeply integrated into our lives and are promoted by the far too powerful petroleum industry.  The problem with plastics is that they break down and invade the bodies of animals and humans.  And although they do decompose it takes many centuries for them to do so.  Naming the Anthropocene is an effort to get us to see that a human perspective is far too brief to deal with the many issues we raise.  Our practices on this planet will likely not destroy the earth, but they may very well make it uninhabitable by us, or by creatures we like to see.  Life is persistent, and rock lasts for eons.  Even stone’s not eternal, however, and the idea of the Anthropocene is to get us to look at ourselves and realize that our use of this planet, as toxic as it is, is shortsighted.  We will someday be the fossils under a bridge long crumbled to dust for those in the future who know of no such thing as Genesis.  Perhaps we should act like it.

Evolving Intelligence

In the process of unpacking books, it became clear that evolution has been a large part of my life.  More sophisticated colleagues might wonder why anyone would be concerned about an issue that biblical scholars long ago dismissed as passé.  Genesis 1–11 is a set of myths, many of which have clear parallels in the world of ancient West Asia.  Why even bother asking whether creationism has any merit?  I pondered this as I unpacked the many books on Genesis I’d bought and read while teaching.  Why this intense interest in this particular story?  It goes back, no doubt, to the same roots that stop me in my tracks whenever I see a fossil.  The reason I pause to think whenever I see a dinosaur represented in a museum or movie.  When a “caveman” suggests a rather lowbrow version of Adam and Eve.  When I read about the Big Bang.

The fact is evolution was the first solid evidence that the Bible isn’t literally true.  That time comes in every intelligent life (at least among those raised reading the Good Book).  You realize, with a horrific shock, that what you’d been told all along was a back-filled fabrication that was meant to save the reputation of book written before the advent of science.  The Bible, as the study of said book clearly reveals, is not what the Fundamentalists say it is.  Although all of modern scientific medicine is based on the fact of evolution, many who benefit from said medicine deny the very truth behind it.  Evolution, since 1859, has been the ditch in which Fundies are willing to die.  For this reason, perhaps, I took a very early interest in Genesis.

Back in my teaching days it was my intention to write a book on this.  I’d read quite a lot on both Genesis and evolution.  I read science voraciously.  I taught courses on it.  I’d carefully preserved childhood books declaring the evils of evolution.  To this day Genesis can stop me cold and I will begin to think over the implications.  When we teach children that the Bible is a scientific record, we’re doing a disservice to both religion and society.  This false thinking can take a lifetime to overcome, and even then doubts will remain.  Such is the power of magical thinking.  I keep my books on Genesis, although the classroom is rare to me these days.  I do it because it is part of my life.  And I wonder if it is something I’ll ever be able to outgrow.

Fossilized Ideas

In our current political climate, perspective helps quite a bit.  Indeed, one of the shortcomings of our conscious species is our inability to think much beyond the present.  In either direction.  Because of the biblical basis of western civilization, a significant portion of otherwise intelligent people believe that the world was created 6000 years ago.  I grew up believing that myself, before I learned more about the Bible and its context.  I also grew up collecting fossils.  Somehow I had no problem knowing that the fossils were from times far before human beings walked the earth, but also that the earth wasn’t nearly as old as it had to be for that to have happened.  Faith often involves contradictions and remains self-convinced nevertheless.

While out walking yesterday I came across a fossil leaf.  Unbeknownst to our movers last summer, I have boxes of fossils that I’ve picked up in various places that I’ve lived.  I find it hard to leave them in situ because of the fascinating sense of contradictions that still grabs me when I see one.  There was an impression of a leaf from millions of years ago right at my feet.  It was in a rock deeply embedded in the ground and that had to be left in place.  Never having found a floral fossil before this was somewhat of a disappointment.  Still it left an impression on me.  Perhaps when dinosaurs roamed Pennsylvania—or perhaps before—this leaf had fallen and been buried to last for eons.  How the world has changed since then!

After that encounter, I considered the brown leaves scattered from the recently departed fall.  Some lay on the muddy path, but few or none of them would meet the precise conditions required to form a fossil.  If one did, however, it would be here after humanity has either grown up and evolved into something nobler or has destroyed itself in a fit of pique or hatred.  We know we’re better than the political games played by those who use the system for their own gain.  The impressions we leave are far less benign than this ossified leaf at my feet.  The Fundamentalist of the dispensationalist species sees world history divided into very brief ages.  God, they opine, created the entire earth to last less than 10,000 years.  All this effort, suffering, and hope exists to be wiped out before an actual fossil has time to form.  It’s a perspective as fascinating as it is dangerous.

Creating Science

Religion and science. Cats and dogs. We’re used to hearing these two just can’t get along. High profile scientists sometimes denounce religion tout court, and some religionists doubt science’s claims implicitly. Human beings, truth be told, are both rational and spiritual. Often not both at the same time. Edward O. Wilson is a biologist who believes, as expressed in The Origins of Creativity, that the humanities and science are both essential and that the hope of humanity is that both will be embraced. It’s a fine vision—guided by science but aware of the values brought by art, we would live in a world utilizing the best our species has to offer. So, why don’t we?

Apart from the obvious fact that humans are also irrational and non-religious—what else could justify wars?—Wilson has a rather odd answer. The belief in creation myths, he avers, is what leads to much unrest in the world. Not religion per se, but creation myths. Muslims, Christians, and Jews share basically the same creation myth. Their divergences come in other forms. Many don’t much care about the creation myth of their tradition so much as about issues that are based on outdated understandings of humanity. Wilson doesn’t condemn religion per se, which is refreshing, but he does seem to circumscribe it far within its natural boundaries. I suspect his real target is creationism.

In this very insightful little book, another curiosity lurks. Wilson, although he supports the humanities and advocates for them, stresses that they are problematic by being limited to humans. I think I get this, partly. There is much to the world beyond human ability to perceive. Our senses of smell and taste are especially limited. We can’t see as well as an eagle or hear as well as a bat. Incorporating their experiences into the humanities would be way cool, but we would never experience them ourselves. This is terribly speciesist of me to say, I know, but humanities are all about what it means to be, well, human. We are limited. Rationality is limited. We don’t have all the facts, and if history is anything to go by, we never will. Accepting limitations is very human. So is attempting to exceed them. The humanities at their best embrace both. Wilson acknowledges that the study of religion is important, and that our universities let us down by not giving the humanities their due. Science can take us only so far. Creativity is about the most godlike trait we possess.

Becoming Biblical

The average reader has difficulty sorting out what’s biblical or not. For example, when Cyrus Scofield began putting 4004 BC [sic] as the date of creation in his annotated Bibles, people thought the date was biblical. It was, literally, “in the Bible.” I used to tell my students that there’s a cultural belief that everything bound between the covers of a Bible is biblical. If so, I’ve just become biblical myself. I must say, it comes with mixed feelings. For the many people with whom I’ve worked on the New Oxford Annotated Bible, having their names inside is an expectation. Employees, however, sometimes make it in, too, in a prefatory way. I was touched to see my moniker there, on Bible paper, amid Holy Writ. Almost life-changing. A little scary.

Imagine a post-apocalyptic world. (I know, it’s easier now than it was just a few short months ago.) What if all books were wiped out except a copy of the book fondly abbreviated NOAB? Some Leibowitzian monk might come across it, and, recognizing that it’s sacred dare to open it, not comprehending the language but eager to begin again. Am I ready to be in such a book? Nobody reads prefaces, I know, but this is the widest circulation my humble family name has ever achieved. In there with Joseph, Job, and Jesus. It’s heady stuff. I’ll be on the shelves of used bookstores from now on. For a guy who’s books have been printed only in the 300 run range, this is dizzying. And not too bad for being only an administrator. None of my deans ever made it into the Good Book.

Surely there’s some grim responsibility that accompanies becoming biblical? Some consummation devoutly to be wished? Looking around at my fellow biblical characters, I’m not so sure. Many cases of men behaving badly surround me. None of them, I expect, had intended to be biblical either. Time and circumstance led to their elevated status. Modern biblical people tend to be famous only among their own guild. Some gain wider recognition, to be sure, but none share the name recognition of those recalled by the unknown recorders of sacred scripture. I’ve written books of my own, and been acknowledged as a scholar and editor in other peoples’ books, but never before have I found myself in such exalted, if accidental company. Where does one go from here? A Herostratus of Holy Writ? I can’t help but wondering if Jeremiah started off working in a cubicle.

Nothing Better

While it may seem that the largest challenge on a blog like this is writing all these words every day, that’s often not the case. Early on in my blogging life, I learned that images draw readers in. That may no longer be the case, but I do try to ensure that my posts have apt illustrations. Due to the fact that I can’t keep up with technology, I no longer know where these images are even stored, so when I was seeking a picture—amid thousands—that I had saved on my backup drive, I came across a series of photos taken in central Pennsylvania. These showed some road-cuts with obvious and impressive folding of geological layers characteristic of orogenous zones. Geologists only discovered the earth was ancient in the nineteenth century, and evangelicals have been disputing it ever since.

Genesis, so the spotless thinking goes, says the world was created in six days. So, by God, in six days it was created! When Darwin simply put the pieces of the puzzle together, evangelicals objected loudly. They started electing US presidents in the next century—a blink of the eye in geologic terms. They don’t dispute non-biblical dinosaurs, however. Their kids would object. The impressive sedimentary layers (or for that matter, igneous or metamorphic) were, they claim, made by God to look old. To fool us. That’s the kind of deity he is. So I got to thinking of a “to do list” for a God with nothing better to do than to oversee intricate and complicated layers of rock that make sense in geological time, but which, apparently, are only planted here to test the faith of brand-spanking new Homo sapiens.

One thing such a deity might do is take care of social injustice. Since he is a father, I suspect we ought to listen to his son, my evangelical friends. Jesus of Nazareth seemed pretty set on helping other people and everyone loving one another. This was, of course, between stints of helping make the planet look older than it actually is so that sinful scientists could trick their compatriots into going to Hell by believing false evidence. There are so many things you could do if you had the time to make such intricate traps. Why not write another book, for example? The Bible could use a good sequel. But no, it is far better to spend divine time making a world look older than it is. And if I had been able to save the time looking for that image that took over half an hour to find, a post such as this would’ve never been created at all.

Paraleipomenon

EarnestI suspect, like most people, I missed quite a few classics in school. This was the ’70’s when new and experimental were still the rage. One of the must-reads I missed was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As usual when approaching books like this, I’m delighted at the sheer number of famous lines I’ve repeatedly heard, whispering to myself, “So that’s where that comes from!” as I go. Since I expect you, my cultured reader, have walked on the Wilde side, I need not provide any of these lines here. I won’t even have to go over the plot. The edition I read, however, contained lines and scenes that did not make it into the canonical version. As an erstwhile writer, I know that final versions seldom resemble those that felt so magical at their penning. Cuts must be made. Editors must be satisfied. And so goes the life of the writer.

It was one of these cut lines that caught my eye. With Wilde’s keen wit, the clergy, represented by Dr. Chasuble. (For those liturgically challenged readers, a chasuble is a priestly vestment in the Roman and Anglican traditions.) In an unfortunately stricken scene the minister says, “I am compelled, like most of my brother clergy, to treat scientific subjects from the point of view of sentiment. But that is more impressive I think. Accurate knowledge is out of place in a pulpit. It is secular.” Accurate knowledge is secular. That thought stayed with me long after reading the out-takes and deleted scenes of the play. Those that remain contain priceless comments about the church and the dangers of christenings. This particular gem, from the cutting room floor, would be hilarious were it not so often true. It explains, for example, creationism.

It’s a fair wager that science remains, even today, a subject that flummoxes clergy and laity alike. It is the new revelation, after all. No truth cannot be reduced to numbers. Even my scribbling this post is mere electro-chemical signals jumping synapses like electro-chemical salmon dying to spawn. We’ve simply substituted one clergy for another. When’s the last time a preacher has been cited as an authority on anything? What with televangelists setting the bar (for anything we see on the media is necessarily representative), it stands to reason that no real intelligence lies here. By default we nod toward those who hold the paten and chalice of empirical evidence. As it is now, but never was, and shall be forever, amen. Who’s being earnest now?