Book Review - WHen scientists sound like ancient writers of scripture

Over the past month, I've been working through Elizabeth Kolbert's history of extinction on planet earth, entitled "The Sixth Extinction." It has been a challenging (intellectually, I'm not a biologist or even a scientist per se), thought-provoking (philosophically, and the reason for this post), and (honestly) discouraging read. The thesis is that we are currently living in the midst of what is dubiously named "the sixth" of a series of mass extinctions suffered by different sets of creatures on earth. Unlike other extinctions, Kolbert writes, the sixth one is principally being caused by humans as opposed to asteroids or other such cataclysms. For the sake of this article, I'm not going to debate with the author's (or my readers') short-earth or long-earth geological chronologies. Clearly, this book is built upon the prevailing scientific viewpoint that the history of earth is in the billions of years, not thousands. Furthermore, I am not going to recount the details of her thesis, how she goes about discussing it, or even the flow of the book -- I encourage you to read it yourself.

Instead, I want to make some observations, and then riff a bit on themes that emerge in my mind from them. As I read, I found myself surprised at how many times the author sounded in tone like ancient near-eastern poets, or even apocalyptic mystics from the time of Christ's death. More than once, she rattled off conclusions, judgments, or observations about life, culture, and the nature of humanity - all based on her scientific viewpoint - that sounded incredibly similar to judgment's I've read in the scriptures for years that come from a decidedly different rationale. When evolutionary biologists begin sounding like the ages-old writers of spiritual tomes, my ears perk up. 

Without further ado, some ideas that the author of "The Sixth Extinction" suggests: 

1. That humans have NEVER lived in harmony with the land/planet.

Over the course of her retelling of the history of homo sapiens, Kolbert repeatedly highlights ways in which people have affected the planet and other species on it. She writes extensively, for example, about a disease spreading amongst and wiping out bats across the planet. This, ostensibly, has been caused by human influence. She writes about the isolated ecosystem of Guam, and how invading species brought by people has led to the extinction of several animals. The case studies from past and present, go on and on in the book. Humans fundamentally change all other species around them seemingly without exception. 

"People change the world," she writes, without qualification. And this dynamic began far before the era of modernity. Kolbert goes on, "This is indistinguishable with what make us human in the first place." She suggests, without much judgment or fanfare, that intrinsic somehow to our humanity as expressed in the world today, is the capacity, drive, inclination to destroy other species. In other words, unlike other species, humans cause destruction wherever they go. They've brought death into the world in unique ways. 

You can see where I'm going. The oft-quoted account in Genesis about "the fall of man" and sin entering the world carries with it similar weight and implications. For generations, religious people have read Genesis and come to the conclusion, as the Apostle Paul explains in the letter to the Roman church, that through the sins of the first people, sin entered the whole world. That because of their decisions, the trajectory of the entire planet had shifted. That rather than a harmonious relationship, the first humans set the stage for a contentious one between homo sapiens and all other species. Later, theologians have discussed how this sin is indwelling in humanity from generation to generation, functionally intrinsic to our being. 

In the broadest and most uncharitable of brush strokes, it can be said that liberal theologians or Christian practitioners tend to minimize the reach of sin in practical life. We who are more progressive don't like to emphasize the fallen state of humanity, but instead seek to affirm the intrinsic value, beauty, and goodness in people. This is a good thing overall in my opinion, emphasizing the fallenness of humanity over the intrinsic goodness has its negative consequences. However, when scientists begin saying essentially the same thing as inspired poets from thousands of years ago, it makes me take notice. Perhaps the observations we make of our world verify the wisdom that has now been passed down for thousands of years. 


2. That Shopping malls and consumerism is bad for us.

Early in the book, Kolbert discusses the impact of consumerism on the planet - how entire ecosystems being converted into parking-spots, and others transformed into mines or fields to make the things sold to people who park in those spots has ravaged many species. She implicitly suggests that the rampant and vapid consumption humanity exhibits across the planet is not ideal, creates more harm than good, and should be eschewed in favor of a more simple life. 

I hear the voice of Jesus seeping through her words like rays of light peeking through afternoon blinds. "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will wear..." Focus on bigger things he implies, calling, joy, fellow humans, your work. 'Live simply' this teaching from the Sermon on the Mount seems to call out. Our basic needs will be attended to. If we seek out and worry about all our whims being fulfilled, nothing good will follow.

For generations, a life of simplicity has been idealized by people of many faiths - Christianity notwithstanding. Jesus, the one who didn't even have a home, "a place to lay his head," is the prime example of this kind of life. Of course we have perverted this vision over the years. The Joel Osteens of the world have baptized conspicuous consumption, pointing us forward to a different world, a better world, one those who are saved will escape to. However, a spiritual death occurs when we slip into the rat-race of consumerism. Again, for generations, many of those who follow Jesus have pointed out the value and spiritual blessing of living a simple life, having fewer things, giving away more, eating less, and effectively having a smaller footprint.

Yet again, we find postmodern scientists sharing wisdom that sounds a lot like old things I, as a theologian and pastor, have read for many years. Live a simple life. It is better for the planet - and it is better for our souls.


3. That "the end of the world" is inevitable.

Implicit in the title of the book, and underlying the thesis of Kolbert's book, is the message: "the end is coming." 

I remember the first time I preached a Seventh-day Adventist style evangelistic sermon based on the book of Daniel, Chapter 2. For many, if not most Adventist Christians, the theme of this particular sermon is familiar. Often preached on the first or second night of 19th century camp-meeting style big-tent evangelism events, Adventist pastors have been using these texts to invite people to read their Bibles seriously for over a century. The basic message is almost the same as Kolbert's: Daniel 2 tracks through history past, identifying kingdoms and events in the ancient-near east, before it points forward to the future...the second coming of Jesus. The first time I preached one of these Daniel 2 sermons was in Zambia, Africa. I can recall fervently asking the audience of hundreds, "are you ready? Jesus is coming. We are almost at the end. We are almost there. Time is about to close." etc.

Read through any of the apocalyptic letters and stories in the Bible and you'll get a similar vibe: "the end is just around the corner. Change your ways or it will be too late. The die has been cast, but you still have good choices you can make."  John the Revelator writes in his famous book "Revelation of Jesus Christ", "Behold I am coming quickly" with a reward in hand. The end is coming. The end is coming. 

And so one final time, a well-educated, intelligent, and highly informed scientist, makes observations of the physical world that sound incredibly similar to those many Christians have made from the scriptures for millennia. 


When I hear the same thing coming from different sources, especially from different sources typically envisioned as coming from vastly divergent points of view, I take notice. Truth is there. As a progressive pastor, I can have the tendency to dismiss what sometimes sounds like shrill warnings or judgments from my more conservative brethren. And those brethren can also have the tendency to dismiss liberal, educated, atheistic/agnostic (I've no idea of Kolbert's theological worldview in this case) academics. When everyone is saying the same thing, we all ought to take note. Perhaps there is a reason our studies bring us to similar conclusions...they are true.

Book REVIEW - "All the light we cannot see"

I recently finished Anthony Doerr's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, "All the Light We Cannot See." Dubbed with the accurate moniker "instant New-York Times bestseller" because of the author's former critical success, I had seen this book at the top of several must-read lists around the internet for the past couple of years. I think I finally decided to pick it up after an interview with the author on an NPR show. 

The 2 sentence synopsis of the book is that it tells the parallel but separate tales of two young children living in WWII France. Marie-Laure, a blind daughter of a museum locksmith has her life upended by the war in unspeakable ways, and yet proves astoundingly resilient and resourceful. Werner, a German academic and engineering prodigy is conscripted into the German war-effort. The two stories finally collide in the closing scenes of the book which is near the end of the war. The novel is relevant both as a modern reminder of the lingering and overlooked effects of war, but also as a portrait of how children live through ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences as named recently by authors and researchers).

Aside from the many messages and ideas the story communicates, I found it to be simply a delightful and engrossing read. Doerr's technical ability as a writer is excellent. Of course, perhaps it could be argued that a blind protagonist lends herself to the medium of writing because to paint the world from her viewpoint requires very careful descriptions. The other side of that coin is that if an author's protagonist is blind, the writer better well be dexterous, careful, and descriptive because the risk otherwise is high. Doerr pulls the reader into the world particularly of Marie-Laure and for certain also into that of Werner. 

For me, a mark I look for in identifying good storytelling is whether or not, by the end, I care about what happens to the characters. If I'm disinterested or dis-impassioned, for right or for wrong, I lay that at the feet of the author. Perhaps I ought to judge myself as not being empathetic or loving enough - as I analytically believe that every person is of the utmost value and has a story worth telling, celebrating, protecting, and learning from. However, it's possible to undersell, to under appreciate, to do disservice to an otherwise inspiring and powerful story. In this case, Marie-Laure and Werner were served well by Anthony Doerr's masterful work, I was drawn in emotionally to their lives - and by the end of the story, I cared about the outcome (which I will not reveal here :). 

The most striking line in the novel for me came near the end of the tale as Werner finds himself in a state of existential (and literal) hopelessness. Starving, waiting, alone, and abandoned, the author makes the observation (which to me seems to come from the little boy inside him): “God is only a white cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking, as the city is gradually pounded to dust.”

I have felt this kind of despair in my life before. Hopelessness is its own kind of grave. Dark and stifling. 

I have experienced this kind of doubt at times before. Where my worldview is called into question, where even the notion of the spiritual or the divine is in the air, hanging in the balance. There is something freeing about admitting it; and also something terrifying about it. 

As a theologian, I can't help but critique the implied conception of God in this utterance. I realize it may just be the despair underneath taking hold of the philosophical wheel, but this notion is something I come into contact with often as a pastor. God is not, in my mind, nor I would argue in the portrayal of the scriptures, an old man in the sky as this quote envisages. God is not, another being, like a human or a fish, a tree, a planet, a could of ions, or even sub-atomic particles moving through dimensions. God, as David Bently Hart writes in his book "The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss," is being itself, not a being alongside others, but the source, essence, and beginning of being. As he writes, sometimes those who would take the role as evangelists for non-belief set up the same kind of straw men that unscrupulous Christian proselytizers do, casting down any notion of the divine, let alone Theism, on the basis of incomplete pictures of God. Doerr's quote, while true to human experience, is not true to solid orthodox Christian theology, that criticizes a theodicy that paints God as a kind of superfluous puppet master who controls all that happens on planet earth, good or bad, and thus purports to claim no responsibility. Any robust philosophical system, in my mind, dismisses this childish picture at the start.

We can certainly say and believe that God is all powerful; but I don't think we can flippantly say it in the sense of God as a genie. All that happens is decidedly NOT according to his will. This is the story of the Christian scriptures, which in the broadest brush strokes paints a picture that has God working with, shaping, molding, creating in a world that resists his influence at just about every turn. Trusting this God, who is in control and yet who is not, is perhaps the most recurrent motif in the Bible. God is not a white old man staring down like the moon, entirely able to set every evil right in every moment, and yet coldly, unsympathetically, mysteriously, refuses to act. 

Of course, at the core, the point of the observation by Werner (or the author) isn't to make a theological treaties about the nature of God. He simply is being authentic. He is stating what is true for him in that moment. And this is what is tragic to me, as a pastor. While I might come across as all attached and intense about theological hair-splitting, the reality is that I care about people - and certain notions of God create real and avoidable suffering. Our worldviews matter - they shape how we think and feel and move through the world. Inferior perspectives on God as the bringer of all good and all evil into our lives do not make the world a better place to live in. And in that sense, I couldn't agree more with the critique of non-belief. 

The conversation could, and does, continue on. I highly recommend "All the Light We Cannot See" despite my critique/triggering illustrated above. Quite obviously, it is deeply thoughtful, stirring, and powerful reading.