Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Cutting through Time

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

Few writers capture the natural world better than John McPhee, and his 1971 book Encounters with the Archdruid is one of his best. In it, he tells the story of arch-conservationist David Brower meeting up in the field with, in turn, a mining expert, a developer, and the US head of dam-building. The last encounter involves a rafting trip down the Colorado River, which causes McPhee to reflect on one of his driving passions, geology. He is speaking of the layers of rock through which the Colorado has driven down through the millennia:
"The Tapeats Sandstone is the earliest rock from the Paleozoic Era, and beneath it the mind is drawn back to the center of things, the center of the canyon, the cutting plane, the Colorado. Flanked by its Bass Limestones, its Hotauta Conglomerates, its Vishnu Schists and Zoroaster Granites, it races in white water through a pre-Cambrian here and now. The river has worked its way down into the stillness of original time."
For some, the mere thought of process in creation, let alone the vast quantities of time needed for such processes to proceed, is enough to trigger floods of anxiety. Does this not threaten to take away the glory of God in creating the world?
Hardly. The thought of God taking his time to create is precisely what Genesis 1 is at pains to stress, however we might interpret the word “day” in the text. The fact that he might have taken more time than we expect to have brought the world into its present state simply gives us more space to contemplate his infinite majesty. Indeed, it’s hard to see how a stock phrase like “infinite majesty” can find any purchase in our minds apart from rooting it in the very large numbers provided for us by geologic time.
The point is not to pick at numbers: once we get past ten thousand years or so, we lose any meaningful existential connection to the figures. (It is like trying to measure the distance to the sun with a ruler – you are not going to get close, even if you stand on tip-toe.) The point is that the Bible invites us to think of the world as really old, and to think of God as even older than that.
There is something else at work here as well. God not only takes his time to create, he also creates a world with what Colin Gunton calls Selbstรคndigkeit or a “proper independence”. This is not the absolute independence imagined by the atheists or Deists, but rather the meaningful existence of the creation as something other than God. This is best captured in Genesis in the account of the creation of plants: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so (Gen. 1:11).” God creates in the beginning; but he also (literally) sows the seed for the perpetuation of creation through the ages.
As we wander through God’s world then, or as we watch the Colorado wander along its course through the canyons, we should be alert both to the record of what he has done in the past, and the wonder of what he is still doing in the present. Only then will we develop the confidence that he is indeed willing and able to bring the promise of creation to its fulfillment in the ultimate future…however long he takes to do it.

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