When one looks at my part of north Texas, it is perhaps not so different from thousands of other miles of transition prairie.
Suburbs grow up almost as quickly as the tract home builders can acquire farmland in which to expand them. The blackland prairie studded with creeks receded into farmland studded with creeks and lakes which receded into suburbs studded with brick homes, lakes, concrete lined creeks and crape myrtle trees. If one looked at my area for the first time, with no sense of change or history, one might imagine that in the beginning, God created the SUV and the two story brick home.
But Collin County, Texas did not always serve as a haven for soccer leagues and paleolithic Republicans. In its day, this bit of prairie "transition" zone was used for things other than growing crops and high tech companies. A great ocean once stood where Collin County is now, in the Cretaceous era.
I've always been impressed by the old story of the bishop who put forth the theory that dinosaur bones must be Satan-planted devices to lead believers astray. This is because a particularly literalist way of looking at the Christian faith essentially rendered the entire faith of certain adherents susceptible to the doubt each time that science failed to match the pentateuch creation stories. If God did not, the theory went, sit in His Heaven devising a set-piece in which man's primacy as His servants was the central plot device of reality, then wasn't everything about the faith thrown overboard--baby, bathwater and all?
I was amused as I did a few google searches for factual materials at how many literal creationists still roam our earth, impervious to the Ice Age of reason. On balance, I rather like the Flat Earth folks better, because creationists have a sad tendency to damn those who disagree with them to Hell, while Flat Earthers merely point out that if the world is not round, then one might fall off. Call it, if you will, the difference between a dire warning and a travel advisory.
But in Collin County, Texas, we have a fossil record, which one can examine and sometimes even hold at various museums in the region. One does not have to speculate as to whether an ammonite exists--they are readily seen at the Heard Natural Science center.
Bony fish, even perhaps the awesome mosasaur,predate modern man by millions of years. North America in general has an impressive fossil record (and I am glad that places like http://www.cretaceousfossils.com exist to help one examine samples of it).
What can one make of fossils, really? One spends one's childhood simply in awe of them. If dinosaurs could roam the earth, then we live in a time borrowed from the storybooks. If we could not "really" have dragons or wizards, we could have allosaurus.
But fossils are also a reminder of individual mortality, and of the small lights we shine in a deep darkness. The cretaceous era was millions upon millions of years ago. Our own civilizations are less than 10,000 years old. Whatever the human "fate", it is but an inkdrop in the entire story of this world.
I find immensely inspiring the apocalpytic texts of various religions. I do not find the Revelations story interesting as a literal story per se, but instead as a prophetic text about how systems in decline can inevitably result in catastrophic fall, and require redemption and grace beyond understanding or human agency to understand. If, as in the Book of Mormon, the elect will someday become godlings of sorts in their own right, perhaps we find an evolutionary purpose to which to aspire.
But is it really necessary that we be the exception to the evolutionary process in order for life to have meaning? Does our life matter only if we are not fossils-in-the-making? Was a mosasaur's life meaningless because it was merely bones destined for rock?
I believe that fossils teach us that we are part of an immense continuum of life. I do not know if life is an omnipresent fact in the universe, although I suspect it is. I also believe that a grand adventure awaits us all if people can overcome the day to day greed and in-fighting which besets everything and focus on discovering scientific truths which will give us a glimmer of ultimate things.
I do not believe that we necessarily will be able to halt the effect of evolution upon us. Instead, I assume that people will one day be "left behind" as our own devices and desires, coupled with our rather ordinary set of defenses against the elements, will ultimately defeat our ability to last forever. We may well be supplanted by other species, or life on this planet may end altogether.
I think that the great Satan in our time is not the Satan of planted dinosaur bones, nor even the Satan of "sin". I believe that the great Satan of our time is the Satan of meaninglessness and hopelessness. No longer can we rely on the simple formulae of the faiths of our fathers and mothers, as each time that we define literally a space for God, then science seems to close that space up. As one English theologian put it, "that God is too small". A God who exists only in the spaces where science has not reached will soon be legislated from existence altogether.
Some have proclaimed that this "God" is best lost, a fossil in His own right. But my own view is that this way of thinking about ultimate things--either with God or in negation of God--is losing a valuable chance to find meaning in life.
At some point, the fossil record does not rob me of my faith, but instead confirms my faith. We are born in medias res into a world which predates us by countless millions of years. We are given a kind of sentience, a self-awareness which allows us to experience awe when we look up at the stars, or when we peer into a microscope. St. Anselm suggested that we could find God merely by intuiting God from the existence of such order and beauty. I am not willing to go so far. Although I place my faith in what I experience as God, it really does not matter if my literal God exists or if God is just my term for an inner experience I have.
The sense of calling, of higher purpose, exists independent of
whether a grand old man with a beard can be seen by the cosmonauts.
I look at fossils, and I realize that we are sentient participants in a brief moment of a very long, unfinished tale. I do not believe our species will occupy more than brief passages in that tale. I do not believe that the tale is really about us at all.
Although my belief is that the tale has an Author, I am perfectly content if the tale is itself the author, self-creating, self-existing, without substance or Being, a kind of Atman, a kind of God in the empty spaces.
When I go to the Museum of Natural History at Fair Park, I can see dinosaurs who did not have the spark to memorialize the experience in which they were partaking. In the space of a few thousand years, we humans have been granted the grace to actually record what it is we see and learn. So many of the things we have learned scientifically date back less than four hundred years. The process is barely at the starting gate. This gift of sentience, be it God-given, or merely an evolved trait from a random universe, is an incredible thing.
It's so easy to get lost in dreamy words and high-flung phrases.
But when I see a trilobite fossil in a tiny bit of limestone, I participate somehow in something vaster than I am, a communion of saints if you will. It is in this communion that Neil Armstrong said "one small step for man"; it is in this communion that polio was cured. I join this communion when I see the moon through cheap binoculars.
Once we realize that as a species, we are but a small part of the story, and as individuals we are less than a small part of the story, then I believe that one can leave behind the pressure to pull all life together into one "unified field theory", in which everything makes sense and it all fits neatly into place. Instead, one can do two things--enjoy the comforts of mind and spirit at hand, and figure out what small impact one wishes to make in this great, wide world.
For some, it is an understandable diminishment, this idea that in the "cosmic" sense what one does will not "matter" in a world which has evolved for millions of years and may yet evolve for untold years to come. But the fossils teach us that we live our own lives, and all the record we leave may be our bones. If we accept this as true, then we must see the beauty in our lives as our own brief moment, which we make "eternal".
I think it is in this search to find what is "eternal" that the thrill in living exists. The eternal things may be love of family and friends. They may be in scientific discovery or altruism. They may be in peace-making or consensus building. They may be in seeking temporal justice, or relief from physical illness. They may be in seeking artistic expression, an effort to capture an idea, or a moment.
So many times we chafe that what we are doing is not meaningful, that it is not enough. But so many times we must imbue the meaning into our lives. What is it that we had as children that we so sorely miss today? I suggest it is a sense of wonder, and a sense of play. Most of us understood as kids that we participate in the moment at hand--this is our eternal moment, this is our High Art.
We need not reject the scriptures of our cultures, nor the heretics nor those who reject scriptures. We assemble from all the received wisdom, religious, scientific, and simple folk wisdom, a magpie's nest of working assumptions. We don't confuse those working assumptions, though, with our fundamental faith that
we imbue our lives with meaning in the fashion in which we live them. If we are granted one physical life (or even a cycle of them, although that is not my own belief system), we can choose the ways in which we want our lives to matter--to ourselves.
Rather than seeing family and friends as obstacles to our choices, we take such comfort as we can--these paths are otherwise so comfortless. But ultimately we choose what we call "progress"--what will nurture, what will show what is good, what is the "path", what is the Way.
In Los Angeles, the La Brea tar pits captured saber tooth tigers, dire wolves and mammoths from thousands of years ago, allowing scientists today to learn about these now-extinct creatures. One human skeleton has been found in the tar pits, dating from "olden" but not quite so olden times. By the time that the natural asphalt was trapping these animals at the La Brea site, the dinosaurs whose fossils are found here in Collin County had been gone for tens of millions of years.
We spend so much time in life worrying what impact we will make; I should correct that--I have spent time in my life worrying about what impact I will make. I have concluded that even in the narrow construct of my own little world, I am apt to be less than a ripple, not even a good rock-skip. But fossils teach me that even if I were a small wave in human terms, I would be nothing in the grand fossil record. For some folks this is a matter of despair.
For me, though, this is an indication that we are part of a rich tapestry I will not fully understand, and that I must define the part I am to play in it to the best of my ability. If I can love my family, express my ideas, and keep faith in the richness of all that I am given grace enough to enjoy, then that is the meaning that eludes me.
People are not dogs, but I notice that when my dogs have their roles in life, and a bit of self-discipline, a bit of exercise, good food, and affection and a bit of praise, they seem to avoid despair pretty much altogether. I hate to think that self-awareness robs people of contentment rather than granting it.
We're spinning through this life with the gift to reflect upon it all. We have the insight to see we are not the first word, and probably not the last word. So we find our meaning in the wonder we bring to the world we inhabit. It is in our sense of wonder that we are truly alive. It is in our sense of wonder that we are truly at prayer.
I believe that acquisition of knowledge, helpfulness to one another, expression of our ideas, and mutual respect are ways in which we express that wonder. I am sure there are others. What fossils teach me is that we do not live this life forever, and we find our meaning in things other than the deep impression we individually make in the chain of evolution in which we are but individuals on one narrow path.
If, when we are gone, there are other planes of existence, then fine, we will pass through them and learn their mysteries.
If, when we are gone, we are merely gone, then fine, we were tiny drips in unfathomably large oceans.
But we can never forget how fleeting and how precious the ability to wonder at and express out loud this odd existence is, and
it is in that, rather than all the law and all the prophets, that
I believe we learn what fossils teach us.