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The Sacred Chain | The Challenge of Time

What do the long times spans of the earth and the universe tell us about being a human loved by God in the here and now?


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Image by Sloan Stump

What do the long times spans of the earth and the universe tell us about being a human loved by God in the here and now?

Description

The science of evolution has caused friction for many Christians. And science does pose some challenges to the way people have been taught to think about their faith, but those challenges don’t have to lead to a decision to reject faith—or to reject the findings of science. In fact, understanding science can lead to a deeper faith. Jim Stump, host of Language of God has a new book coming out—The Sacred Chain: How Understanding Evolution Leads to a Deeper Faith. In this series Jim walks through three of the challenges posed by science. 

The challenge of the time explores the long time spans of the earth and the universe and what it means about being a human loved by God in the here and now. Featuring clips from previous conversations with John Walton & Makoto Fujimura.

Theme song and credits music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Other music in this episode by Babel, Nick Petrov, & Vesper Tapes, courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

 

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  • Originally aired on April 04, 2024
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Stump:

Welcome to language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

For those of you who have been around here while you know I’m normally the host of this podcast and usually ask someone else to answer a tricky questions about science and faith. I’ve discovered it’s a lot easier asking the questions than giving answers. But this is the second of three episodes now, where I’m forcing myself to try to give some answers. I guess I’m not really asking myself the questions, but approaching this more like a class that I’m teaching. And when you teach class, there’s usually a text of some sort that everyone has access to. And for this one, it is the book that I have just written, The Sacred Chain: How Understanding Evolution Leads to Deeper Faith. The book is divided into five challenges that accepting the science of evolution might pose for Christian faith, at least they did for me. And I tried to write about these in ways that it wasn’t just autobiography or memoir, but in ways that might be relevant to other people who have traveled the same path, or even others who are simply curious about science and Christian faith in this way. 

So, second of three episodes. Last week, I talked about the challenge of the Bible, and how we’re supposed to understand what the Bible says if evolution is correct, or even how to understand that the Bible is inspired and authoritative. This week’s challenge builds on that. And I call this one the challenge of time. Because even after you accept that the Bible isn’t giving you, like a newspaper account of creation, that helps with the challenge of the Bible of understanding what the Bible is. But there’s still a challenge with reconciling these incredibly long ages of the universe, with the story of what we have believed about God and about ourselves. And does that push us in directions that we’re less comfortable with? And what it means about God and what it means about ourselves, in ways even that makes authentic and relevant faith harder for today? Or does it go the other way and show us a deeper faith. And spoiler alert, I’ve already given you the subtitle, How Understanding Evolution Leads to Deeper Faith. 

But let me build up to articulating this challenge a little bit more precisely, and for that, we need a little backstory. So 10 or 15 years ago, I was traveling in Southern India, the state of Kerala with a friend who grew up there. And one day we were at an open air book market in the city of Kottayam. And when I go someplace, I like to read a novel about those areas that I go to that gives you a better, I think, sense of place than facts and figures that you might read on Wikipedia about it. So I asked my friend, I said, “is there a novel that’s set in this area?”, and he said, “well, the obvious choice would be the God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.” It’s a novel set in Kottayam and smaller surrounding villages, right where I was. And I said, “Oh, would they have that here, you think?” And he kind of laughed because, yes, don’t you know who Arundhati Roy is? And I’m sorry to say that I did not know who Arundhati Roy is, it turns out she’s a novelist and now a public intellectual of India. This book, The God of Small Things actually won the Booker Prize in 1997. The Booker Prize is given to the best novel in English. 

So The God of Small Things, the title of that we’ll come back to in a little bit. But first, there was another aspect of this book that proved to be pretty important for this book that I ended up writing. And in particular, for this challenge of time, Roy had one of her characters talk about the 4.6 billion year old Earth as though it were a 46 year old woman. So if you condense the time in that way, this woman was only 11 years old when the first single celled organisms appeared and was already 45 by the time the dinosaurs were roaming the earth and human civilization began only two hours ago on the scale of her life for the history of our planet. I thought this was interesting. And I had seen something similar one time on the TV series cosmos that took the history of the entire universe, not just the history of Earth, but the history of the entire universe, and put it on the scale of a year and gave when during that calendar year, various things of our natural history would happen. 

So I decided to do this same thing on the scale of a week. And maybe that’s kind of cheeky response to seeing the creation week of Genesis one, and what things would have really looked like if God’s creative activities had been on that scale, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because I wanted to frame this as God’s weekly planner, with the underlying assumption that God is continuously at work in creation. And I wanted a visual of what that looks like on a scale that’s a little more comprehensible to us. So I did a lot of math with some really big numbers and had to find calculators that would let me put that many digits in and started working out when things would occur on this weekly scale, if we condense the entire 13.8 billion year history of our universe into one week. So when you do that, the Big Bang occurs just as the clock strikes midnight on Sunday. And then the next morning by 9:36am, the Milky Way galaxy is created. But then, most interestingly, for this exercise, it’s not until Thursday afternoon at 4:22pm that our sun is created. 

So think about this a minute, all day long, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, most of Thursday, about all that’s going on in the universe, about all that’s going on with God’s creative activities, is that stars are forming and fusing heavier elements, and then exploding and that dust collects together and forms new start new star systems again. So our sun comes at 4:22pm. It’s probably a third generation star. So you can tell from the composition of it and the kind of elements that are included in it, that it’s probably the third time when some of these particles have been parts of stars exploded and then coalesced again. And it turns out when that dust comes back together after a supernova, it’s not just new stars that formed but also planetary systems. So our Sun was 4:22pm on Thursday, just 22 minutes later on the scale of a week, our Earth is formed at 4:44pm on Thursday. 

So now we keep going. And life is a little bit tricky to pin down as to exactly when it starts. But we do have microfossils and rocks that have been dated from somewhere between 3.7 billion years ago and 4.2 billion years ago. And if we go with somewhere around 4 billion, 4 billion years ago, first life would occur on our planet at 11:17pm on Thursday night. Now that is just single celled life, for multicellular life, you got to wait until Saturday. Now we’re all the way on the last day of the week. When you condense the history of the universe into a week, we’re now on Saturday, 2:16pm, by the time multicellular life comes along. 

Then of course, there’d be lots of other things. We can talk about different kinds of plants and animals, you might skip ahead to the dinosaurs. When did the dinosaurs roam? They had an incredibly long stretch when you think about how long different life forms usually last on our planet. And the dinosaurs lasted from about 11:12pm until 11:23pm. So all of 11 minutes long on the scale of a week. And not until Saturday night after 11pm—again, kind of shocking to think about something that we normally think of as so long ago in the distant past, when you take it on the scale of the entire universe and how long things have been along—we’re after 11pm already by the time you get to dinosaurs. If you think about our last common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos—11:56pm. And all of this then leads up to our species, Homo sapiens, which if we take the most generous interpretation of how long homosapiens have been around, that’s 300,000 years. When did homosapiens appear on God’s weekly planner? 11:59 and 47 seconds. On the scale of a week, Homo sapiens have only been around for the last 13 seconds. Most of God’s time during this week was spent watching heavy elements get created in stars. 

Now, why is this challenge? Well, if you look at any of the leadership or management gurus who write books about such things, they often say something like if you want to see somebody’s real priorities, don’t just ask them what their priorities are. Look at their calendar. So what happens when we do that for God’s calendar? What are God’s priorities? And what’s our place in the universe? 40% of the week, 6 billion years in real time, God was content to have stars produce heavier elements. And only .002% of the week has been devoted to our species, Homo sapiens. And it would only be in a fraction of one second of the week, if we’re just talking about the last couple 1000 years of recorded history. So this is the challenge of time, what can we say about it? 

Well, before we try to say anything, let’s make it harder. There are some other measures we might consider when we’re thinking about our relative importance among things in the universe. For example, it wasn’t just a couple of years ago, I think that a study came out estimating the number of ants that are alive on Earth today. 20 quadrillion? I can’t even imagine what that means exactly. If you break it down, though, that means for every person on earth, about 8 million of us now, for every person on Earth right now, there are 2.5 million ants. That’s an awful lot of individuals. Does that say anything about relative importance? You could say, well, they’re just so little. And well, yeah, but even if you take the littlest living things, bacteria, there’s more biomass of bacteria on Earth than there is biomass of humans. If you added all of us up and weighed us, there’s a lot more bacteria than there is humans. 

Or one of the favorite examples that people use for things like this. J.B.S. Haldane was one of the leading geneticists and evolutionary biologists in the 20th century, he was supposedly asked one time what he could conclude about the Creator based on what he sees in creation. And his answer was, “God must have an inordinate fondness for beetles” Because of the one and a half million species of living things that have been scientifically described, as of now, more than 400,000 of those are beetles. 400,000 different species of beetles. 

You could respond to this and say, “well, you shouldn’t just think there’s only one species of homo, right, because there used to be more. But that leads us to a different kind of problem, because all of those are now extinct. And extinctions itself, on this evolutionary understanding of our planet, are challenging because at least 99%–some people I’ve seen have said 99.9%—of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. What does that mean? Do you look at that and say, What inefficiency? What wastefulness? Shouldn’t there have been a better way? I don’t know. 

I think maybe there are some assumptions packed into that judgment that could stand to be critiqued a little bit. So yeah, can we ask, couldn’t God have just said, I want there to be humans, and I want them now. So poof, there are humans. Maybe I want to say at least two things about that. First, even when you take Genesis to be a literal, like a newspaper account, God didn’t make humans out of nothing. God transformed some dust to make Adam and some part of Adam to make Eve and it’s at least fair to ask, where did the dust come from? Turns out the answer to that is stellar fusion that I was talking about earlier that took from Monday until Thursday on God’s weekly planner. 

God made the dust, but it took a really long time. That reminds me of Carl Sagan quote at the beginning of one of the cosmos videos that he made back in the 1980s. He’s sitting at a posh dining room table and a butler walks up and puts down on an apple pie in front of him and Carl Sagan says in his sort of distinctive halting voice, “if you wish to create an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Was it creation out of nothing only once and then everything else has been manipulating and adapting that stuff into other stuff? Maybe. But here’s the second thing I want to say. Even if you are committed to saying that God could have spoken humans into existence immediately out of nothing. Maybe God didn’t want to do that. I don’t think we have to question miracles—God’s ability to do miraculous things—but I think I would want to note that in the sort of biblical, scriptural way of understanding miracles, they’re not labor saving devices. Miracles are signs and wonders that testify to God’s glory. And I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to perform signs and wonders if there are no people around who appreciate that. 

I guess that’s different than how we’ve thought of miracles. Again, if they’re labor saving devices, and I had this power, I’d say have the autumn leaves fall into neat piles, so I didn’t have to rake them. But I wouldn’t use a miracle for something like, let’s just skip to the end of a game to see who wins or to determine the winner. I want to play the game. Even if, for us competitive people, the point of a game is to win, it’s still fun to play. And here, the question I’m asking, the analogy I’m drawing, is to say, maybe God wanted to play the game out. In that sense, if you want to make Homo sapiens from scratch, you first have to have primates. And you have to have other terrestrial tetrapods before that. And before that you need fish. And before that you need single celled creatures. And before that, you need all of these heavy elements. All that takes a lot of time. But maybe time isn’t really a concern to God. Maybe God enjoys that part of the process, even if, and we’ll talk about this later, even if God’s main point was to get to us humans, for us humans to become God’s image bearers. God still didn’t skip over the fun part of the game to get there. 

Here’s a different analogy. Most weeks I bake my own bread. I got on the sourdough train during COVID, had done some before that, but ever since COVID started, I made my own sourdough starter from scratch, which takes some time and lots of feeding. And making your own bread isn’t a labor saving device. It takes a lot of time.I if I want a loaf of bread for dinner on Friday night, I have to pull my sourdough starter out of the fridge Thursday morning, let him warm up a little bit. I say him because I named him Francisco. I have to feed Francisco and make sure that there’s an active yeast production going and then that evening, mix up the dough and let it work all night converting the sugars into carbon dioxide to make those lovely holes for sourdough. And it also creates alcohol that gives this amazing taste. And then there are several more steps on Friday of things you have to do. It would be a lot quicker, a lot easier to go buy a loaf of bread at the store. You can’t convince me it’s better. I like my bread. And I enjoy it makes me wonder whether God has a similar experience with creating humans from scratch through all of the long process that it takes. But being invested in that process and enjoying the process somehow makes you appreciate the end result a little bit more. I wonder if God’s like that. Or maybe think about God as an artist. 

We interviewed a contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura for the podcast a couple of years ago. He talked about slow art. He doesn’t go to the art store to buy paint and paper. He makes his own paper and he pulverizes minerals to develop his own paints. We asked him a little bit more about this. And he talks about this slow tradition of Japanese art where you lay down 100 layers of paint before you start painting the subject of the piece. And he talks about this experience of sensing time differently during the creation of slow art such that eternity is packed into each moment. Here’s what he had to say about that.

Fujimura:

So you might be laboring for years and years to prepare something then and then all of a sudden, discovery happens, where there’s an explosion, an opening, that would only happen if you had spent that time preparing for that moment. But it seems like every other, you know, notion of slow labor, is, it’s no longer slow or no longer tedious because it becomes such an accentuated reality of seeing something new for the first time. And then and that, to me, is how, you know, I want my work to capture that sense.

Stump:

So understanding time this way, goes a long way toward overcoming the challenge in this part of the book, the challenge of time. And I think a main takeaway here is that God doesn’t seem overly concerned about time and efficiency, the way that an engineer would, if it were the important part of creation to get to the actual process, seems wildly inefficient, right? It seems more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a Henry Ford assembly line. To an engineer, the incredibly long time from the beginning of the universe to now might look wasteful and inefficient. But I think that’s only if the whole point of creation was for human beings to exist. 

And this is another part of the assumptions that we might challenge because I’m not sure that the whole point of creation was for human beings to exist. We can still maintain that human beings were a really important priority. Later in the book, I talk much more specifically about that. But we can still think we’re a really important priority without thinking that we’re the only priority or that everything else in creation is just a means to the end of human beings. I think God takes delight in the other stuff, too. This is back to Arundhati Roy’s book, The God of Small Things. The small things aren’t just needless side effects. But maybe God loves all that stuff, too. And I think with that perspective, we can look at the same history of the universe with all of the ants and bacteria and beetles, and even the extinctions. And instead of wastefulness and inefficiency, we might see the lavishness of God’s creation. 

The history of science can be read as us discovering that our universe as bigger and more extravagant than we had ever imagined. Back in the Middle Ages, the European scholars at least thought that our Earth was a cozy place in the center of the universe and human cultures were all clustered together around the Mediterranean. But then explorers found other continents and even people on the bottom of the earth. Then scientists discovered that Earth is only one of several planets that are orbiting our sun. And they discovered that our sun isn’t unique. But the same kind of thing is those 1000s of other stars that they could see in the sky. Then with telescopes, they learned that there are hundreds of billions of stars just in our galaxies. And then there are hundreds of billions of galaxies. And now we’re finding more and more planets around other stars. Most scientists wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these other planets have life on them, too. And can we even wonder whether there are other universes? It’s difficult to maintain that all of this creation we’ve discovered is only for the sake of us humans as though we’re the only point. Most of what we’ve discovered here now can have no causal connection to us at all. It’s beyond the realm of what we’ll ever be able to experience. So why did God make it? The answer, I think, is that God delights in all of it for its own sake. That applies equally to these examples I gave earlier. I can see God’s saying, “wow, these beetles are really cool. I’m gonna let there be 400,000 different species of them.” Even the extinctions might be understood along the lines of God’s creative extravagance, all the species that have existed, couldn’t do so at the same time, any more than the 1000s of planets we’ve discovered, and I’m sure millions and billions more to come, even any more than those could exist in the same space. So by creating this way over this incredibly long stretch of time, God has allowed for many more kinds of things to exist than they could have. If creation had happened all at once, or even over one week. 

Part Two

Stump:

Okay, someone might respond. Got it. It’s not all about us. God doesn’t seem in a hurry. But still, 6 billion years of nothing but stellar fusion that still needs some explaining. An engineer might liken this to watching paint dry. I guess I should quit making engineers the villain of this story. I’m sure to be fair, any adult would probably be bored by stellar fusion after a few days, maybe even a few minutes. But what if we reclaim the kind of childlike wonder and delight in it? This section of the book, this challenge, has two guides. Each of these five challenges has a guide It helps me work through the challenge. Last week’s, the challenge of the Bible, I had CS Lewis. This week the guides are Arundhati Roy, and then another Brit, GK Chesterton. He was a writer in the first few decades of the 20th century, wrote fiction and essays as well as popular books defending the reasonableness of Christianity. One of the more popular ones that he wrote was published in 1908. Still widely read today called Orthodoxy. In it, he attempted to explain how he came to believe in the reasonableness of Christianity. In one section, he reflects a bit on the tendency of scientific explanation to push God out of natural processes. Too often, he thinks, when we discover a law of nature that shows why certain things happen over and over and over again, we then think this is just due to impersonal causal forces. It was only back in our pre scientific days when we thought that nature was impulsive or capricious, and then we had to assign gods to be the causes of those things. But in typical Chestertonian style, he flips this on his head. And this passage, I think, is worth quoting at some length here. 

Fleming:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore, they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “do it again.” And the grown up person does it again until he’s nearly dead. For grown up people are not strong enough to exalt in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exalt in monotony. It’s possible that God says every morning, “do it again” to the sun, and every evening, “do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike. It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy. For we have sinned and grown old and our father is younger than we. The repetition in nature may not be a mere recurrence, it may be a theatrical encore. 

Stump:

Watching sunrises on billions of planets in the galaxy doesn’t get old for God. Perhaps God is watching closely enough to see inside those stars where elements are fusing into others. Do it again, hydrogen, make another helium atom, another oxygen atom, then blow them out into space in a supernova and let them collect again into other stars and planets, then do it again. Maybe that’s not boring or insignificant from God’s perspective, but amazing and endlessly fascinating to watch. I was glad to find a better way of understanding God’s relationship to time that doesn’t challenge the findings of modern science, but I’m still curious about how to interpret what the Bible seems to say about the history of us humans and the earth. Do we just have to say that the authors of those texts got it wrong? I don’t think so. Even when we look to Genesis 1, the classic text that seems to say everything was created in a week. But if that’s not what it was attempting to communicate, it would be good to know what really is going on in that text. 

So, one plausible interpretation of that has been advanced by John Walton. He’s an Old Testament professor at Wheaton College outside of Chicago. Wheaton is usually named as one of the premier evangelical institutions in the country. And it certainly can’t be maintained that they don’t take the Bible seriously there. But that doesn’t mean that they simply look at a plain reading of Scripture and say that settles it. Walton has done serious work and understanding the Ancient Near Eastern culture and context in which these texts were created. And he wrote this small accessible book called The Lost World of Genesis One. I remember purchasing it at a conference that I attended in New Orleans back in 2009. I put it in my bag for the plane trip home. And once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It seemed to make so much more sense to read Genesis as an ancient document that arose in a specific ancient culture. And according to Walton, that means that the author of Genesis wasn’t concerned with the origin of the material stuff of creation. Now, to be clear, Walton believes that God is ultimately responsible for creating all of the material, all of the matter, but he doesn’t think that’s what the creation texts in the Bible are talking about. For the ancient Near Eastern mindset to create something was to assign it a function. 

So when the text says that God created the heavens in the earth, the claim was not that there was no material, the atoms of hydrogen and so on, and then poof, all of the sudden that material came into being. Genesis 1:1 itself seems to begin with material already there. And our modern English translations try to capture this by translating the original Hebrew into “when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was complete chaos and darkness covered the face of the deep.” The text then goes on to describe God bringing order to the material world so that it would function properly for humans. That means when we ask the question, how old is the earth and force the Bible to answer, we’re going to get irrelevant or even misleading information. 

When John Walton was on our podcast a couple of years ago, he gave a really interesting analogy of this. 

Walton:

I use the example of going to a play, and because of traffic and weather and parking, you end up walking into the theater a half hour late. And so everything’s going on. The theater’s dark and hushed. And nevertheless you poke the person next to you and you say, “how did the play begin?” So he turns and he says, “this play was written in 1938 it was a Pulitzer Prize candidate. That year was very popular on the stages of both America. And…” And you say, “no, no, no, no, no. How did the play begin?” He said, “well, you can’t have a play without a script.” Yeah, I know but… He says, okay, “this set was constructed by Maurice Construction Company. They’re really famous for setting, getting sets to fit in this kind of a building in this kind of a cool…” “No, no, no, no, no. How did the play begin?” “Well, you can’t have a play without a set.” I know, but.. Okay. Okay. Okay. “So the cast was chosen by…” And finally you say in your frustration, “what’s happened since the curtain opened?”

You’ll see it’s a very interesting analogy. Analogies breakdown of course eventually. But it’s interesting because all of those things are legitimate answers to how the play began, but yet a person can have one or the other in their mind. What question do you want to have answered? Okay. And that helps understand that there are different levels at which that could operate. In our modern society, when we talk about the beginnings of the cosmos, how did the world begin, we really like the set story. I mean that’s how we think of the right answer. And in fact, sometimes almost the only answer to the question, how did the play begin? Or how did the world begin? And so the set story.

Well and I come along and say, no, it’s really the action story. What’s happened since the curtains opened. And so my critique against, the critic against me would be, well, you can’t have the play without the set. You can’t have the action without the material cosmos. I grant that. But you still, there’s questions that people are interested in and other questions that they’re not interested in. 

Stump:  

Okay, so science doesn’t dictate how we should interpret the Bible, just like the Bible doesn’t dictate how we should interpret scientific results. These are different sources of truth, primarily operating at different levels. But for people who want a comprehensive and coherent understanding of reality, they have to consider how both science and the Bible can be in conversation, can be in dialogue with each other. And I think when we allow the science of our extremely old earth and planet to be in dialogue with our theology and understanding of Scripture, it leads us to a better deeper understanding of who God is. Of course, there are other challenges. I’ll talk about one more next week, the challenge of pain and suffering. That’s maybe the hardest one for evolution. But I also think it’s the hardest for every other perspective, too. We’ll see you then.

Credits

Hoogerwerf:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org. And by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. And BioLogos is also supported by individual donors and listeners alike you contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Brakemaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find the link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Or visit our website biologos.org, where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guests

John Walton

John Walton

John Walton is an emeritus professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and an editor and writer of Old Testament comparative studies and commentaries. Throughout his research, Walton has focused his attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East. He has published dozens of books, articles and translations, both as writer and editor, including his book, The Lost World of Genesis One.

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