Take Two: Our Present Epoch

Genesis 6:11-23;

 

With apologies to my mother… My freshman year at college, I took a course on the Bible and told my mother about it. She sent me an article- my mother was always sending me a pile of articles- on Noah’s Ark. They had found some archaeological remnant on the side of Mount Ararat in Turkey, proof that there had really been a flood.

Of course, if you took courses in the Bible in college you know that if you read the bible literally, the world is only 5,779 years old if you add up the list of the ages of the descendants of Adam that are listed in Genesis. Furthermore, professors explain that this chronology is not meant to be taken literally but symbolically. The moral is that we lived longer when we were closer to God, like Adam and Methuselah (they each were lived to be a few hundred years). But today, we are pretty far from God which is why our lives are relatively short (in the Bible, we live to be no more than 70).

And then in college you take physics and learn that the universe is actually about 13.8 billion years old. You take Geology and learn that Earth is actually about 4. 543 billion years old.

So these stories about God destroying the world are just fanciful tales from a primitive era that are supposed to instill fear in us that we had better follow the rules or else. But now that we are educated, we understand so much more about the world, we live in a world come of Age, so we can discard this primitive wisdom.

Perhaps it is a little more complex than that as it turns out. Earlier this year, I started to review the literature on climate change to understand the science better. I wanted to know if there was a baseline on climate temperature variation so that we could put the present warming trend in a wider context.

Now that we can drill for ice core samples pretty deep, we can see back in time about 800,000 years. We can graph a picture of temperature change on our earth. We are pretty sure that ice cores on Antarctica will yield some information going back 1.5 million years. We just haven’t drilled them yet.

Long story short, it turns out that we don’t have much evidence for a steady, gradual change of global climate.

What you have is longish stretches of relative stability, punctuated by these dramatic alterations, which our scientists are still seeking to explain. In the parlance of the climate science people our planet is a lot more “dynamic” than we presumed it would be.

The last two of these dramatic alterations caught my attention. They are the end of the Ice Age, just prior to our present era. Geologists refer to them as the “Upper Dryas” so named after an alpine flower that proliferated during that period. This flower proliferates during times of rapid temperature change.

We can mark this period fairly accurately. About 12,900 years ago, we had a rapid rise in temperature worldwide. Then we had 3000 years of cooling. Then at 11,600 we had another rapid rise in temperature.

Here is what got my attention. Today, our climate change scientists are worried about sea level rise worldwide if our global average temperature rises about 1 or 2 degrees a century. A 2-degree rise would probably cause sea levels to rise 10-12 feet worldwide. That would flood Washington D.C., most of New York, and a good portion of southern Florida.

You’ve heard the list of concerns: dying coral reefs, species extinction, prolonged intense weather systems…

But about 12,900 years ago, our global temperature shot up- not 2 degrees like we are worrying about now- but 15-18 degrees Fahrenheit. That is a huge change.

According to the ice cores, the temperature rose that fast not in a matter of centuries, in a matter of decades.

Then the temperatures steadily chilled back down about 15-18 degrees over 3000 years, then they shoot back up 15-18 degrees in just a few decades at 11,600 years ago.

During these two periods almost all the ice in North America, Europe and Russia melted. Before 12,900 years ago, the ice on earth extended down to Oregon, Montana, Minnesota, Chicago… All of Canada was under ice. All of Scotland was under ice. Ditto, Norway, Sweden, Siberia.

By the way, the ice in Canada was 2 miles deep in many places. 2 miles. 10, 560 feet of solid ice stretching thousands of miles across 2/3’s of North America. That is a lot of ice. And it all melted, not over the course of thousands of years, but over the course of decades.

Today, we are worried about 10 feet of sea level change because it would destroy a huge number of our cities since humans live mostly on the coast. (80% live within 100 miles of the coast, higher back then).

At the end of the Ice Age, the sea levels rose about 360 feet. Again, not over the course of thousands of years, but in these two time periods 12,900 years ago and 11,600 years ago, over the course of decades in both cases. One big melt, period of cooling. Then another big melt.

So how much land mass was actually covered with water after this flooding was over? It would be an area about the size of Europe and China combined.

But that doesn’t really tell the story. When we drop the sea levels by 350 on our models, suddenly there was a land bridge from Russia to Alaska that is now under water.

Also, the islands that makeup Indonesia were once a huge savanna that stretched from Asia almost all the way to Australia. All of that is now under water.

This is the main reason that we don’t really know what our ancestors were like during this period because all of their settlements are now underwater, since humans mostly live on the coast and the vast majority of our cities in human history have been built near the ocean or on rivers.

Back to Noah’s flood. I saw an article in the National Geographic Magazine that got me to thinking about this on the Black Sea (Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey). Several years ago a diver discovered what he thought were the outlines of the ruins of a harbor town about 75 ft. below sea level, so researchers decided to plot what the shoreline would have been if the edge of the Black Sea had been about 75 feet lower than it is today. Then they started taking pictures underwater following what would have been the shoreline and sure enough they found the outlines of other ruins, none of them excavated yet.

We know that during the melt off of the last Ice age, during the time period I am talking about, the Mediterranean Sea broke through to the Black sea that spilled over to the Caspian Sea (further east). And the Black sea grew in size by 60,000 square miles. By the way, that is the size of Georgia, bigger than New York, bigger than Illinois. We are talking about a lot of water.

The question is what would have caused such a rapid rise in temperatures? Was it a meteor shower or a comet? Was it one of the recurring electromagnetic pulses from the Sun that causes thunderstorms on earth the likes of which have not been seen in recorded history?

Here I will leave off the science portion of the programming but simply to say that both of these things have happened several times in the Earth’s history, just not in our history our recorded history, just not in the last 8,000 years.

Whatever was the cause of this rapid rise in temperatures, it most assuredly would have been experienced by humans as a world-ending cataclysm.

Scientists presume that in addition to the ice melt, we would have had world-wide rain storms that went on for months unto years in duration. So much water was pushed up into the Earth’s atmosphere.

We do have geological evidence of widespread fires from this period, for example the southern half of the United States, we have an ash layer that we can date, whether from lightning strikes or meteors, we don’t know yet.

We also have dramatic evidence of mass extinction. The wooly mammoths, but also hundreds and hundreds of other species that die out in a very short amount of time, decades, and it is the world over.

This we do know. What we don’t know yet is considerable. But, if you ever wondered why we humans so regularly think about God in terms of fire and brimstone, from the heavens? If you ever wonder where we get the ideas that God would destroy us with raging water? The answer is very likely that it is the collective subconscious memory from our ancestors who survived whatever happened back 11,600 years ago.

Of course, the vast majority of humans surely did not survive. They were overcome like all the other animals that died out during that time, the hundreds of species that became extinct. In some way that we cannot yet explain, traumas like this must be etched deeply in our collective memory.

And if you have ever wondered why the Bible begins its story with destruction and redemption, perhaps it is because we as a species are defined in this epoch around ‘starting over’ after a huge natural cataclysm that appears to have erased the world as we knew it before and left just a few of us to rebuild, reconstruct, to remember the old culture and start over again.

You can imagine that the very few people that did survive were haunted by the question about why this horrible event happened? They must have wondered why they survived and others did not? They must have tried to figure out the meaning of this as a people?

And this may explain why every single culture, as far as we can tell, has some version of the Flood story that is told about Noah in the Bible. Most everything was probably wiped out. Only a very few people survive and only a very few animals survive. And they had to start over, pretty much in a couple generations.

The Bible, of course, wasn’t written until 11,000 years the period when we had these dramatic sea level rises, so the biblical story is nothing like history and it is not meant to be read as history. They are trying to make some meaning out of what happened long, “long time go”. Time before anyone can remember.

But they can’t forget. It was collectively catastrophic. It is story that has been told and retold and retold in different versions over thousands and thousands of years before we wrote it down.

So when the Bible tells the story about this event, we have two conflicting views of God held together in dialectical tension that are supposed to explain the meaning of our deep history, the pre-history from long time go that was passed down orally from one generation to another.

One the one hand, God keeps stuff in its place, the regular rotation of the planets above us, the regular return of the seasons, the regular ebbing and flowing of the tides.

But it is a fearsome, awesome power that God (we would say Mother Nature) has, evidenced by the fact that every so often we have hurricanes, volcanoes, meteor showers, floods, famine, pestilence and disease. So we should ‘fear God’ as the Bible often says.

I almost always translate those passages to read “We should stand in respectful awe”. Today we know so much more about the scientific understanding of the world. We understand just how the polar vortex can occasionally sweep down and threaten the lives of humans. To the ancient people, it was all a mystery that they didn’t have enough evidence to explain. But the more we know, the more we stand in genuine spiritual awe at what we are looking at. Physics professors demonstrate that sense of awe and wonder in their lectures as a matter of routine.

So we have this fear. God could arbitrarily zap us at any time with a comet, a meteor shower, an earthquake, a tsunami tidal wave that erases whole cities. Watch out. There is a divine limit, a divine judgment that is so powerful you can be annihilated if you cross the line.

But then you also have the other pole: the Ying to that yang. God saves us. For some reason, a few of us survived. For some reason, this remnant made it. And God’s power to save us is actually a tad bit more important than the potential catastrophe of God’s judgment because we are here. And we have to make some meaning for our survival.

It can’t be for nothing. It can’t be just to go on like we did before. God must think that something special can come out of those that remain.

And here is another piece to it that must have been part of the thinking in the intervening 10,000 years between the actual catastrophe and the written tales that were recorded in every single culture as far as we can tell. The people that survived presumably were the farthest from our city centers.

They were the people that lived way up in the mountains, in caves far from the coastline, the least civilized, the least urban builders, the least powerful of their time. They were oddballs. My relatives, to be sure.

I think we have an indirect reference to that fact, even in the Noah story. Noah was the one weirdo that started building an Ark on dry land because “God told him to do it”. It always seems that way in retrospect. After a fateful plane crash, the person that decided to change planes at the last minute because they suddenly decided to, can’t help but look back and wonder if God perhaps guided them- some supernatural force intervened somehow- to inspire them to do what they did, which was counter-intuitive at the time, but was prescient and insightful in retrospect. It saved their lives.

So God is also redemptive. God also saves us and protects us. God shows us a way out of an impossible situation. God blesses us even in the midst of a natural catastrophe that destroys almost everything.

And this understanding of God grows and grows, so that 10,000 years later, the Israelites see themselves as just a wee people on the verge of extinction by the Egyptians, but they are miraculously saved, a tiny people compared to the mighty Assyrians, the mighty Babylonians, the mighty Persians, the mighty Egyptians.

But God has a plan for them, yes, even them. They have a special calling, if only they could hear like Noah heard way back in primeval times.

No matter how awful our family history actually is, no matter how much unjust suffering we have endured just to get to this place in our lives, God will still bless us. That line is all throughout the Bible, but it is so powerfully expressed in the opening chapter of Luke, anticipating the birth of Jesus. Luke 1:78-80 says

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon[a] us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness

To bring hope to those in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

        I believe that. It is why I am here this morning in a nutshell.

        So which is it? Is God a God of judgment or a God of redemption? The Bible never answers that question. It just leaves these two conflicting images of God together. The great German philosopher Hegel pointed out that our most interesting conundrums are not those that present us with a choice of Either/Or. They come to us a “Both/And”.

        It is out of the tension of polar opposites, held together with equal value that emerges a fuller Truth. He called it “Dialectical Reasoning”. It is not a linear Truth like a simple mathematical formula. Having said A we must deduce B from which must follow C.

        No, these are competing values, both of which are important in their own right, that each become more profound if they are held in dialectical tension with their polar opposite. Judgment and order vs. mercy and redemption of what is broken.

How do you put them together in your mind?

What is it that you were taught as a child that you no longer believe? And why?

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