Jesus, History and Mount Darwin: Part 8
In part seven, Rick continued to use his mountain climbing experience as a metaphor for his own personal thinking about evolutionary biology. Today he reflects on the metaphorical and actual significance of "summiting" a mountain and also spends some time considering what Jesus meant in Luke 8:18 when he asked those gathered for his Sermon on the Mount to "consider carefully how you listen."
Summiting and Submitting
There are actually two Mount Darwins. We woke up to climb the second one. The first Mount Darwin was named in honor of the budding scientist’s twenty-fifth birthday. He wasn’t even the Charles Darwin yet when he got his first mountain. Captain FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle, when surveying Tierra del Fuego and anchored in Ponsonby Sound, looked out on some sharp peaks in the distance and named the tallest one for his sailing companion as a birthday present. I suppose you have to be a British naval officer at the height of the empire to be that presumptuous. Theodore Solomons was less cavalier when naming mountains. But naming mountains still seems a bit presumptuous. This morning we were at the base of Solomons’ Mount Darwin—the tallest peak in the Evolution Range.
In deep Sierra canyons, the sun does not warm things up till late. Dawn is just the brightening of the sky. It was 28 degrees when I got water boiling. We stood around the stove eating oatmeal as I read our Sunday morning lesson from Colossians 1:15–17:
“Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
After prayer we began to pick our way up and over to the shoulder of a ridge where, at about 11,400 feet, we would be able to see Mount Darwin. Dave and I carried daypacks and the kids were just in their sweatshirts. No one else was around. It looked like we would be alone going up the mountain.
The first known ascent of Mount Darwin was in 1908, by three geologists studying ice action: Grove Karl Gilbert, Willard D. Johnson, and E. C. Andrews. Leaving the University of California, Berkeley on July 31, they approached the Evolution Group from the west. Andrews wrote an account of their trip for the Sierra Club Bulletin:
“As we approached the district, we noted, far away on the horizon, perhaps as much as sixty miles distant in front of us, an immense mass, presenting a wonderful arete along the skyline. Johnson, who knew I was anxious to climb a high mountain, thereupon drew my attention to this formidable pile, and suggested that its ascent would furnish a good alpine scramble. I replied, “It is the roughest mountain in the whole landscape,” to which he replied in turn, “That is the very reason why I would suggest its ascent. It is Mount Darwin . . . and not yet ascended.”
Setting up a base camp at Evolution Lake, they scrambled up the western face to the chimney on the ridge that we were headed toward from the east. They did not carry ropes and the chimney was slippery from ice. “The frost,” Andrews wrote, “was almost our undoing from the start.” But soon they reached “a very small area which constituted the main summit.” Gilbert and Johnson were happy to get to where they were, but Andrews wanted to climb the nearby pinnacle that was obviously the real summit, a few feet higher than the summit plateau. Andrews made his way down another chimney and over to where he “then made use of a monstrous icicle one foot in diameter to assist me in climbing the broken masonry of the outstanding peak.” Sitting on the summit, he realized that “the descent was more perilous than the ascent, especially as I had the terrible abyss below in full view the whole time that I was rounding the crag.” With the thought of falling a couple of thousand feet, Andrews dropped down to the narrow ledge six or seven feet below and climbed back over to where his two companions were watching.
This was why I was carrying climbing equipment. To get my kids up through the chimney, especially if there was any ice, and then to the top of the pinnacle, I wanted the security of good rope and good knots. On the other hand, I would not be surprised to find the climb easier than they described. Climbers tend to over-write their accomplishments. Darwin is not the Matterhorn or the Eiger. The Sierra Club Bulletin published a picture in 1934 of the pinnacle showing that it was formidable, but accompanying the picture were the mountaineering notes of a club outing in 1933 base-camped at Evolution Lake. Twenty men and nine women summited Darwin that year.
Summiting is, to use the cliche, a mountain-top experience. Darwin assumed that “everyone must know the feeling of triumph and pride which a grand view from a height communicates to the mind.” Summits encourage mountaineers to wax metaphysical. Henry Thoreau wrote about climbing Mount Katahdin in Maine:
“The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains,—their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. Pomola is always angry with those whom climb to the summit of Ktaadn.”
In 1921 Chester Rowell, a regent of the University of California and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, declared in a speech to fellow members of the Sierra Club:
“A great peak is a frowning challenge, until we have scaled it; a strong and trusted friend thereafter. We can share the life of the mountain; we can search its history until we are as old in knowledge as it is in experience; we can stand on its summit and be lifted in spirit as if we had grown to its height and expanded in soul to the whole reach of a broadened horizon. The glaciers have carved a castle for us whose ceiling the sun emblazons with cubic miles of filmy gold; the winds fling banners from the bleak peaks; the winters of ages have piled out partitions; the summer of centuries have grown the pines for our bedposts, and God has scattered the firmament with stars, to give us courage by contemplating their infinity, to measure our pygmy finitude against the giant but also finite mountains. The torrents and the pines sing to us, the birds and busy squirrels speak to us, the rocks preach to us, and the mind is at stress with muscles as the soul breathes deep with the lungs. So the mountains enter into our lives as we enter into theirs. We are lifted up in the high places, not beyond ourselves, but to our best selves.”
Rowell carries the reader up to the summit with him. Summits are romantic. They make people feel good about God, themselves, and nature.
Jesus was transfigured in glory on the summit of a mountain. Tradition puts him on the impressive little hill called Mount Tabor (1,843΄); however, since the gospels call it a “high mountain,” some people have preferred to think of Jesus being transfigured on Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain in Israel (9,230΄). Whichever mountain it occurred upon, the event lacked romance. At the summit, Peter wants to turn the event into some sort of worship moment, but God was short and snippy with him. Out of a cloud God interrupted Peter with one short directive: “This is my Son, whom I love; listen to him.”
“Consider Carefully How You Listen” - Luke 8:18
History is an academic discipline founded upon listening. More than any other intellectual strategy, history uses listening in order to get at the past—especially to get at the individuals who spoke and did specific things. Psychoanalysis uses listening too, but is especially oriented to hearing what is not being said. Many historians have sadly been taught to listen with a cynical ear. Certainly listening to hearsay reports is always tricky.
Thucydides reminds readers that the speeches in his book are actually short accounts of speeches. We teachers have to remind students that ancient books did not use quotation marks. There is no account of an ancient speech, conversation, or advice that should be taken as the literal words spoken. The constraints of writing a book about long events usually make it practical for an author to not even try to give a whole or exact transcript of a speech. The Sermon on the Mount certainly lasted longer than the 10–15 minutes it takes to read out loud. And Jesus surely did not preach in Greek.
On the other hand, we historians who are not overly cynical still listen carefully for authentic ideas, words, commands, conversations, and even complex political or religious speeches that we believe are embedded in the hearsay of our authors, even our ancient authors. We can hear Pericles within Thucydides’ account of Pericles’ funeral oration in Athens. It fits with what we know about Pericles. Thucydides has earned our trust throughout the whole of his book. We understand that Thucydides has written a highly organized book. Though it has a specific agenda, he is giving his readers true information. Pericles’s oration artfully illuminates Athenian political ideals, imperial perspectives, and deep antagonism to Sparta. The authentic event bubbles up, allowing us today to listen to Pericles.
Ancient historians have to have ears to hear. Natural historians, Darwin’s kind of history, don’t listen so much as look. Natural history is mostly a discipline of observation and extrapolation by analogy from present observation to the deep past. Christianity is about human history, the story of God’s interactions with people of ancient West Asia. Darwin on the Galapagos observed nothing that necessarily affects what a historian hears about a man who claimed to be God in ancient Palestine. Natural history can observe gravity at work and appropriately assume that gravity worked two thousand years ago as it does today; however, to know that Jesus defied gravity and walked on water, one has to move from natural history to ancient history, from observation and extrapolation to listening and believing.
Jesus told his disciples to “consider carefully how you listen.” The “how” in that sentence is important. With what attitude do you listen? With how much openness do you listen? Do you listen with a cynical ear? How much are you willing to believe? Who gets the benefit of the doubt? Are you fundamentally optimistic or pessimistic about whether the truth is coming down to us through time in documents and by hearsay witnesses?
Aristotle is again my guide. Aristotle optimistically believed that truth is stronger than error. At the beginning of his Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle taught that truth, ultimately, is more persuasive than it’s opposite. “Truth is not beyond human nature,” wrote Aristotle, “and men do, for the most part, achieve it.” Aristotelian optimism is a tradition in many university disciplines. University disciplines generally assume that they are on the right track and that, over the long run, knowledge and understanding are progressing. Lots of professors like to act cynical because they think this makes them seem wise, but most university professors are deeply optimistic.
The Aristotelian tradition values long periods of time and much social interaction because it asserts that truth is best discerned generally but not necessarily individually. If large numbers of reasonable people, especially those recognized for wisdom and discernment, agree over long periods of time on the authority of statements of wisdom and information, then there is a good chance truth is in the wisdom and information. Truth will out. Truth is stronger and more lasting than error.
Christians have long associated this with the work of the Holy Spirit. The Bible books were gathered together and core church doctrines developed over several hundred years out of the interactions of diverse peoples, institutions, and cultures. Christians, many of whom appreciated Aristotle’s teachings, have long gloried in the authority that comes from social consensus through time. This does not mean that errors do not proliferate in time, but it does mean that the benefit of the doubt should go to information being passed down through history that has the momentum of great consensus. Herodotus wrote of having an “obligation” to such information and Augustine wrote of “submission” to it.