Sunday, February 23, 2014

Polytheogenesis: The Emergence of the Gods (2/23/14)

Polytheogenesis:  The Emergence of the Gods
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 23, 2014

When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.
Deuteronomy 32:8-9

Peering into the ancient past from a cultural context that long ago abandoned primitive polytheism, we too often fail to appreciate that, inasmuch as the gods were created by human imagination to explain natural phenomena, they were just as much concepts of primitive science as they were of primitive religion.  Just as modern physicists have created such terms as electrons, quarks and black holes in order to explain natural phenomena, the ancients created terms like spirits, jinn, angels, devils and gods…”
Lloyd Geering, From the Big Bang to God, p. 102

Your car won’t start.   You turn the key and you hear wuhhh, wuhhh, wuhhh.   You pat the car on the dashboard.  

“Come on, baby.  Come on.”   Wuhhh, wuhhh, wuhhh.

Finally, when you realize that the car will not obey, in frustration you hit the dash board harder, “Stupid car!”

You speak to the car as if it could hear you or could act or had a will.   You speak to it as if it were an agent.    Why do you do that?  You might say that you don’t really mean to, that you know better.  Of course.   Absolutely you know better.   

But you do it anyway.    It can be a car, a lawnmower, a raincloud, the sun, “Come on sun, come on out and shine.”   We know better.  But we do it anyway.   We may even laugh at ourselves for doing it.  

Play a game and notice it.  Notice when you or someone else treats an inanimate object as if it were an agent.   

“That table cloth wants a cleaning.”

“That cupcake is speaking to me.  I can hear it calling my name.”

“The moon is showing off tonight.”

Now, of course we don’t mean it literally.  We are being poetic.    Poetry, stories and songs are full of this attribution of agency to inanimate things:

“The bottle was my friend but now it wants me dead.”

“Thank God and Greyhound you’re gone.”

Yes, we are playing.  But why?  Why do we do that?   

The answer may go way back, way before human beings even.  It might be a matter of survival.   Your dog hears a noise and is immediately on high alert.   Why?  No the question is, “Who?”  Your dog connects noise with an agent.  Somewhere in evolutionary history, animals survived by linking noises with agents.   The noise of a breaking stick could signify lunch.    It could be lunch or I could be its lunch.   Every noise signaled the possibility of predator or prey.  Better safe than sorry.    That trick of giving agency to sights, sounds, smells, even the change of air pressure or temperature on skin provided a survival advantage to animals that were faster than others in making those connections.  

Now your dog after hearing a noise, responding, and realizing that the threat or opportunity is over, goes back to sleep and forgets about it.   Here is where human beings are different.  Human beings continue to worry over it.  We imagine things and tell stories to ourselves.  Those stories are particularly creative if there is nothing there!   The trick of giving agency to inanimate things aided by the evolutionary development of language led to the explosion of explanation by storytelling.            

The telling of stories to explain the who behind the event is primal and natural.  This orange ball that is so bright it hurts your eyes rises over there, moves across the dome, and dies over there.   Everyday it is born, shines and then dies.  He gives us heat and light.   Who is that?   He is Shemesh.   That is the proper name from one ancient near eastern culture.    Every ancient culture has had a proper name for him.  He is the main guy.   The main god.   

All those little lights in the sky at night.  Who are those guys?  What do they do? Stories get told about them.   The stories are fascinating, beautiful and complex. Maybe that is where father or mother have gone.    Maybe they control what happens to us.  If I study them maybe I can learn my future.

Not just stories about stars and the sun get told.  Forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, lightning, everything is a who.   The world is populated by “whos.”    These whos become goblins, spirits, and forest nymphs, and of course gods.    If these gods and spirits are doing things, it would be important to be in relationship with these beings.     Not only are there stories, but there are rituals and practices designed to help us be in good relationship with those beings who are in control of our lives. 

If you look at our hymnal, you can see that it is filled with song stories about an agent.   We will talk about the emergence of monotheism next week, but it is a development of this early storytelling that had been going on for tens of thousands of years.    The hymns are especially fun when they try to be modern.    One of my favorites is called, “God Who Spins the Whirling Planets.”    I know I am being irreverent but I can’t help but picture a Harlem Globetrotter spinning Jupiter on his finger.      You can’t have a spinning planet without a spinner.   You can’t have creation without a creator.  You can’t have rain without a rainmaker.  That is the logic of agency.  It is natural to think that way.  It is common sense.  It is ancient and likely a product of giving agency to inanimate things that goes back tens of millions of years, long before humans.      

Robert McCauley at Emory has written a new book called, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not.   He shows that science is a hard way of thinking.  It goes against what is intuitive or what appears to be common sense.     Science challenges those more natural ways of thinking.  Even if we know that a being isn’t spinning the planets in a literal way, it is still unnatural to think that ultimately no one is spinning them.    

Even as human cultures have evolved from more primitive polytheism to various forms of monotheism, in practical matters, it isn’t pure monotheism.  Think of saints, angels, spirits of the dead, all acting as agents within popular forms of religion, or beyond religion, just life.   

The book of Deuteronomy is an ancient bridge between polytheism and monotheism.  You could call it henotheism.  That is there are a lot of gods but one in particular is the god to whom you need to pay attention.  The book of Deuteronomy written in the 7th century BCE is filled with references to gods.   

When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.
Deuteronomy 32:8-9

Notice that the “Most High” and the “Lord” is not necessarily the same character.  The Most High created the gods.  The “Lord” is Jacob or Israel’s god.   The message is he is your god.  Don’t go flirting with the others.   That is a big challenge.  The other nations seem to be doing well.  Maybe a sacrifice to one of those gods would be a good idea.   

Early Christians in the Roman Empire ran afoul of their neighbors and were called atheists because they didn’t sacrifice to the Greek and Roman gods.   By not sacrificing they were bringing danger on the community.    Their neighbors would say it is because those Christians didn’t sacrifice that we didn’t get rain.  The gods are punishing all of us because of the arrogance of the Christians. 

Ironically you hear this kind of rhetoric today from Christians.  Many Christians talk about how their god will remove his blessing on our nation because we have taken god out of school or have removed Christian symbols from public places.   You hear things like, “God will punish this country because of gay marriage.”   The superstition that a divine agent will punish us is alive and well whether people are polytheistic or monotheistic.   Superstition is really primitive science that is no longer credible except to the people who still believe in it. 

I am not really a purist.  Even though I don’t think unseen whos exist, I still think it is fun to recite poetry and to sing songs to them.   I still speak to my car as if it might respond.   I still sing a hymn to the god who spins the whirling planets even though at most I am singing the praises of gravity.    But I am also singing with limited words a song of awe and wonder that there are such things as planets.  

The gods and particularly the stories of the gods are important to me.   They manifest human creativity and imagination.   The gods are ours.  We made them and we deserve credit for doing a remarkable thing.    The gods are an expression of the universe.   They didn’t create the universe.  The universe created them through us.     

The gods tell us about ourselves.  They are windows into our psyches.  The gods are our fears and our hopes.  They are our sins and our virtues.   The names we give to the gods are the names we are trying out on ourselves.   Who are we and why are we here?  What are we to be about?    Who is my neighbor?  Why am I suffering?    Why am I feeling restless?    What is love?

We answer our own questions by telling stories.  Here is one about Jesus Christ who like the sun dies and rises again.   Here is Krishna who when you look into his mouth and into his soul you see the universe.    Here are Zeus and Hera.   They can tell you about hubris and jealousy.   

Perhaps the gods do speak about a reality, the reality of the human mind.   Perhaps as agents they touch on another desire, the desire for a relationship, for a Thou who I can embrace.    Perhaps the gods are the guideposts I find as I search for meaning, for love, for a who who knows me and who cares that I am.    

Maybe this who is only a projection.   Then again, maybe projection and story is our limited way to speak of a reality beyond all words.   I’ll leave that open.   After all, we want to leave something to mystery.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Noogenesis: The Coming Into Being of the Human Thought World (2/16/14)

Noogenesis:  The Coming Into Being of the Human Thought World
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 16, 2014

The Apostle Paul and Stephen Hawking

Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are discerned spiritually. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.

‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’

But we have the mind of Christ.
--Paul, 1 Corinthians 2:14-16

However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God.
--Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

One of the advantages of being the baby of the family is that I had the chance to be with my parents when they were a bit less busy.   From elementary school through high school my brother and sister had left and I hung out with my parents.  

At the dinner table, often after church, we would have some theological discussions.   My mother would pray before every meal and my father would on occasion push her buttons.    He would say something like,

“It would be easy to set up an experiment to see whether or not prayer has any effects.  You have a control group that doesn’t receive prayer and one that does and measure the results.”   

My mother would say something like,

“Oh Gordon, you can’t test God.”

Since then there have been various experiments testing the efficacy of prayer on people with illness.   The largest funded by the John Templeton Foundation concluded in 2006 that prayers by strangers had no effect on the recovery of patients undergoing heart surgery.  

That doesn’t matter to people who pray.   People who believe will believe regardless of what tests are ever conducted.   Regardless of tests, I do think there can be value in prayer.    I think prayer is one way in which some people express love and caring.    It can force our attention on something other than our own worries or regrets.    It can be a practice of awareness and compassion.  It can be a way to discern a path or direction.   When someone who loves you spends time with you and shares empathy that is prayer.  

The best prayer ever may be one without words.   It may be a hug, a shared tear, a hand held.    An authentic prayer is not forced but arises naturally as people share their vulnerability in safety and with compassion.   It doesn’t matter what is done or said, what matters is the relationship.    That is how I see prayer.   Perhaps in doing more of that, positive change could occur in our world.

The exchange between my mother and my father is one that happened often in one form or another as they parented me.   Their differences reflect the different ways in which they experience their worlds.     My father experiences his world through observation and testing, my mother through spiritual knowing.   

Obviously, when I describe my parents in that way, I am making a projection upon them for the purpose of illustration.  They are, as are we all, complex and much more interesting than either this or that.   

Still, those two ways of knowing have had a yin/yang relationship in my own life.   My Buddhism professor at seminary, Charles Ryerson, described yin and yang not as a violent struggle or contest but as lovers wrestling.    My parents both live in me.    I feel I would be less of a person if I were to allow one way of knowing to silence the other.

I included the two readings, one from the Apostle Paul and the other from Stephen Hawking to illustrate those two ways of knowing, revelation and reason.    Rather than pick a side and garner votes for our favorite, I am going to let them wrestle.  Perhaps they wrestle within you as well. 

I will suggest that these two ways of knowing have a common ancestor.  These two ways of knowing, revelation and reason, are products of thenoosphere.   The noosphere is a word coined by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.    It comes from the Greek word, Nous, or mind to refer to the world of human thought.   

Like the lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere that make up the interconnected geospheres of Earth, the noosphere is just as real even if not physical.   The noosphere is the topic for today.   But first a quick recap.

This series of sermons is based on theologian Lloyd Geering’s book, From the Big Bang to God:  Our Awe-Inspiring Journey of Evolution.    Today we start the second half of this book.   We covered the emergence of the universe, then of Earth, then of Life, then of humankind, then of language.   Now we are moving into the emergence of the human thought world and to its products.

The universe begins 13.7 billion years ago with a singularity.  Time and space emerge in what is called the Big Bang.   Everything that exists today and will exist in the future had its potential in that speck of dense energy.    That includes everything physical from bananas to Buicks to black holes as well as everything non-physical from language to lament to love.    

It takes the energy of a supernova blasting through a gas cloud 9 billion years later for our sun and its solar system including Earth to form.   Perhaps another billion years on Earth for the first single cell to appear, a perfect synthesis of chemical reactions that can replicate itself.   Perhaps another 3 billion years goes by, only a half billion years ago, for Life to explode and evolve into a breathtaking variety of plants and animals.    Our species, Homo sapiens, emerge from our immediate ancestors, the Great Apes, only two million years ago, and what distinguishes this species most from all others is what evolved less than 100,000 years ago, language.   

This ability to communicate beyond grunts and gestures allowed the universe to do something it had never been able to do at least in this part of the galaxy, that is to reflect upon itself.     Through language and the corresponding human thought world, the universe is able to tell its story.    Because of the evolution of language and the evolution of self-consciousness, the universe can say, “I am.”   

Human beings are the bards of the cosmos.    We are the minstrels of meaning.  We are the gregarious gurus of grace.   I find this to be inspiring.   I along with the rest of you can look at some of the antics of others of my species and wonder that the universe waited 13.7 billion years for this?    The Tennessee legislature?   13.7 billion years and we get the Shopping Channel?    But we get Hamlet, too, and Downton Abbey. 

All of it is recent in the universe’s history.   It is all a serendipitous interaction of the emergence of self-consciousness, language, and the products of that interaction, which has become our cultural worlds.     Everything from prayer to the periodic table to the scientific method to Jesus Christ is a product of the noosphere, the world of human thought.     

In this chapter on noogenesis, Lloyd Geering makes reference to philosopher of science, Karl Popper.     Popper invited us to think of three worlds.    

World one is the physical world as it is.   This is everything that exists.    We cannot know the world as it is, because we can only interpret it through our own subjectivity.   That is world two.

World two is our self-conscious subjectivity.   We each know our own even as we cannot enter the subjectivity of the other.   Even as world two is non-physical, this world arose out of the physical world and it is the immediate way that we experience world one. 

World three is what Popper called “the products of the human mind.”  Geering calls this “the sum total of human thought and knowledge.”   It is from World 3 that we learn who we are and experience worlds two and one.   

Worlds two and three together, our subjectivity and self-consciousness combined with the cultural products of that interaction, make up what Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere. You could call it in short, human culture, and put a date on that of about 50,000 years ago. 

This noosphere is a product of evolution.    It isn’t something that came from outside of the universe or beyond Earth or Life or of human evolution, but the noosphere co-evolved with Homo sapiens.

This is how Lloyd Geering puts it:

“Just as Earth had become enveloped by the hydrosphere, the atmosphere and the biosphere in turn, Teilhard saw the evolution of thought within the human species as a significant new activity encompassing Earth, which he said now possessed a “thinking envelope”.  Metaphorically speaking, we could even think of the noosphere as an embryonic “mind of the Earth”.”

Again, we can’t underestimate the importance of the noosphere.  It is what allows the universe to talk about its birthday.    It allows the universe to be self-conscious. With it, the universe can talk about love, justice, science and any of the other things we can imagine or dream.     It does so, of course, through a serendipitous consequence of evolution, the emergence of human beings, and their physical developments that allowed for human thought and language to emerge.

My mother’s and my father’s ways of knowing have a common ancestor, the emergence of the noosphere.   This noosphere, this mind of Earth, if you will, continues to expand and grow.   The next few sermons will show how it evolved from stories and emergence of the gods to speculative thought and monotheism to to empirical knowledge and science.    

This process is not replacement.   Each development is a new way of thinking that encompasses and includes what has come before and synthesizes it all into a new whole.   

For example, our ancestors prayed to a plethora of gods so that they would have good fortune, rain on the crops, a successful love life, the avoidance punishment for sins, and so forth.    Stories of gods were created along with rituals and worship.

As the noosphere, the human thought world, evolved and expanded, we came to realize that not everything that happens in the world is explained by gods.   Our prayer and worship therefore evolved.   We interpreted these old stories of the gods in new ways.  

But these old stories can tell us surprising things about ourselves.   They are part of our cultural DNA.  They can touch the heart of life as well as the mind.    We don’t say we don’t need the stories or that we no longer need to pray or to worship.    That is part of us, too.     

We do, however, allow our prayer and our worship to evolve.  It needs to so that it reflects what is real experience.   We want our prayer and our worship to be meaningful, not something we are simply supposed to believe and do.  

As I think of my parents at the kitchen table, I realize that I don’t want those lovers to stop wrestling:

periodic tables and prayer,
reason and revelation,
science and spirit,
mind and heart. 

“Both…and” as we seek truth and goodness.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Logogenesis: The Coming Into Being of Language (2/9/14)

Logogenesis:  The Coming Into Being of Language
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 9, 2014
Evolution Sunday

                                                            Genesis 11:1-9         
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Human language originated as a medium of communication, enabling people to improve their skills and pass their knowledge on to the next generation.  It enabled the already gregarious human species to develop into more closely-knit communities.  This in turn improved their chances of survival, but soon began to do a great deal more.  Whereas language originated to make communication possible, it became the medium through which a new kind of creativity began to take place. This unforeseen an unintended breakthrough came with the telling of stories, what the Greeks called myths; their word mythos literally means ‘something told by word of mouth’.

Modern people tend to view themselves as sophisticated and hence dismiss the myths of ancient peoples and isolated tribal communities as primitive or foolish. What they fail to appreciate is that these creations represent a very important stage in the way humans came to understand and respond to the world.  Stories were invented to explain natural phenomena.  They were a primitive form of knowledge or ‘science’.  Stories led to the emergence of abstract or pure thought, and this is the chief reason why the advent of language must be judged a critical transition point in the long story of cosmic evolution. The advent of language has led to the creation of a whole new kind of world—the world of human thought, whether imaginative, rational, or irrational.  And this world, through non-physical, is just as real as the physical world whose story we have been tracing so far.”

We began 13.7 billion years ago with a singularity.    

Everything that exists was in a single point.   As it flares forth, time and space are created.  The earliest forces emerge within the first fraction of a second.   Soon the earliest particles, then Hydogen, Helium, Lithium and the first stars.  From the birth and death of these stars more elements of the periodic table.  

After nine billion years our sun was born and in turn gave birth to our home, Earth.  Nothing special, on one hand, a planet formed like the hundreds of billions of others in our galaxy and who can know how many in our universe.    

Yet this planet is special in that so many fortuitous events have taken place in just the right time and in just the right way, such as the formation of the moon that because of its dance with Earth, we have a stable rotation that allows for the changes of seasons. 

The chemical reactions for hundreds of millions of years finally led to a collection of molecules that could reproduce themselves.  Life emerged.   What could you call it but a miracle?  Yet it is a natural miracle, the product of natural law and time.   

It isn’t until the universe is 13.2 billion years old and Earth is four billion years old, that Life produces another miracle, and over the course of a half billion years Life explodes into jaw-dropping complexity and variety.    No one was here to tell its story.   99% of this wild and beautiful life, 99% of life’s species have gone extinct.  The only stories we have of this Life is in the stories of rocks as scientists investigate and ponder these hidden mysteries.

Could you predict a chimpanzee, a sunflower, or a stinkbug from the Big Bang? No.    What would be the odds?   Physicist Lawrence Krauss suggests it would be like throwing a pair of dice each with thousands of sides and trying to get two sixes.    But if you had millions of pairs of dice the odds then would be in your favor.     Our huge universe provides just that.    

The universe as it matures, provides the opportunity for complexity.    Life is more complex than stinkbugs, sunflowers, and even chimpanzees.    About two million years ago, Life took another miraculous leap.    The physical evidence is the length of the larynx and an area of the human brain known as Broca’s area.    This anatomical change over the course of hundreds of thousands of years made way for the possibility of language.   

We can’t pinpoint the origin of language.  While the great apes were able to communicate through gestures and sounds 15 million years ago, the possibility of vocal language probably emerged less than 100,000 years ago.     The invention of human language is an evolutionary development of significance parallel to the emergence of life itself.  

Because of the tool of language that co-evolved with Homo sapiens, not only did it allow our species to have an edge in terms of survival, it opened the way for the universe itself to be self-reflective.    The universe through the invention of language is able to think about itself.  Language didn’t create thought.     Other animals are able to think in some form.   It depends what we mean by thought, but anyone who owns a pet knows their dogs or cats are thinking in some way. Allowing for our human propensity to project human characteristics on animals, nonetheless, animals seem to be able to do some remedial scheming.  

Symbolic language changes the game completely.   Language gives us the ability to create thought-worlds.   Language gives us the ability to distinguish past, present, and future.    Your pets live in the present.   They don’t regret their sins or live with anxiety about their future.   It requires language to do that.     To get out of the regret and anxiety, we need to trick our brains through meditation or other activities to move beyond or beneath words and thoughts and to be present in the present.   Our language works too well.    A by-product of language is that we have difficulty living in the moment. 

With language that co-evolved with our species, the universe is able to tell its story.    It is possible, perhaps with the laws of probability, probable, that elsewhere in the universe, language and the resulting thought-worlds have developed.     It is also probable that those of us sitting here will never know that.    That said, I do check in on occasion with SETI which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.    They are looking for signs of communication, language, from other solar systems.   How cool would that be?!    My religion?  If I have to admit it, I am kind of a Trekkie.    

Whether or not life and language have happened elsewhere, this development has happened here.   When it was presented to me in this way, that is that language enabled the universe to be conscious of itself, it blew me away.    We have a role. We are the bards of the cosmos.  We are the minstrels of meaning.    

Again in regards to self-confession, I have a tendency if I am not careful to be somewhat misanthropic.   Look at all the suffering human beings cause.  We kill and torture each other.  We have pushed other animals out of their habitats and made entire species go extinct.   We have polluted sea and sky and trashed our own home. God gave us the Garden of Eden and what did we do?  We blacktopped it and turned it into the Mall of America.     Earth would be better off without us. 

Yet we evolved from Earth.   We are Earth.  The universe found a purpose, if I can say that, in us.    Perhaps not a designed, planned, or intended purpose.     As the late theologian Gordon Kaufman put it, a serendipitous purpose nonetheless.    I have faith that human beings are serendipitous, a pleasant surprise, despite ourselves.  

We did make music.    

I love this quote from Gary Snyder:

If we are here for any good purpose at all, I suspect it is to entertain the rest of nature.  A gang of sexy primate clowns.  All the little critters creep in close to listen when human beings are in a good mood and willing to play some tunes.

We did create (or did we discover?) mathematics.   I find it hard to tell the difference between creativity and discovery.   We did tell tales, didn’t we?  And good ones.    We created Bibles.  We imagined the stories of the gods!    We did speak of romance and adventure.   We did calculate the beginning of the Big Bang.    We created a clever periodic table.  We mapped our DNA.   It is really pretty amazing.   

We aren’t finished.  Not yet. 

This is all because of language.    Our ancestors knew the power of language. Long before the discipline of linguistics, the mythmakers of old knew about the power of language.    Even the author of the first chapter of Genesis imagines the world, existence itself, coming from the spoken word.   The word in Hebrew is Dabar.   In the Greek, the word is Logos and it is assigned in John’s gospel to the cosmic Christ who exists with God at the beginning.    The message is clear:  with words, worlds are created. 

We love beginnings.  The power of language gave us the ability to think about beginnings and to tell stories about beginnings.   Who are we?  Where did we come from?  Why are we this way?  These early myths, or as Rudyard Kipling called them, these “just so” stories delight, inform, and guide.  

One of the “just so” stories in Genesis is about why we have so many languages.  This author knows about the power of language.   Language is so powerful and potentially dangerous that the Lord is afraid of what humans will do with the power of language.     

‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

The Lord confuses their language and makes them speak different languages. Just so, human beings speak many languages today.   We now know that is not likely how it happened that we have so many languages, but the story does highlight the power of language, the power to create and to destroy, to make a name for ourselves.   

As we were watching the opening ceremonies for the winter Olympics, Bev made the observation that it is easy to see that Russian is not a Romance language.   I couldn’t figure out the alphabet.  You had countries entering out of order from our perspective.   It is amazing that we can do anything together.  Languages, like species, have different ancestries and like species, they survive, reproduce, and go extinct.    It is the diversity itself that allows for adaptation and survival.

This variety of language allows us to say different things, to create different thought worlds, to imagine our meaning in many ways.    All of this variety, I would say, is the serendipitous creativity, the pleasant surprise of evolution.   That diversity is what makes life happen.   The lesson for human beings from the evolution of language is that diversity is not only the spice of life, but the substance of life.   

We are storytellers.  Whether through song or through science, whether religion or rap, through art and athletics, we are communicating what it means to be alive, to be human, to be related to all of Earth, and to be an expression of the universe itself.     

In its 13 billion 750 million year existence, it is only in the last 100,000 years, the .0001 of that incomprehensibly large number of years, that the universe has been able to reflect upon itself, at least in this corner of the galaxy.     Only in this last brief instant of time has the universe been able to be self-conscious of its own existence, to know itself, to say, “I am.” 

It is you and I, sexy primate clowns with a beat, who are singing its song.   Yes, you have a purpose, my beloveds.   Your purpose is to say what you see, to sing what you feel, and to tell your tale.  You are not just doing it for yourself.  You are participating in the great symphony, the magnificent opera, the glorious theatre of life itself.   You are enabling the universe to come of age, to know itself, to love itself, to be alive.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Anthropogenesis: The Coming Into Being of Humankind (2/2/14)

Anthropogenesis: The Coming Into Being of Humankind

Anthropogenesis:  The Coming Into Being of Humankind
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 2, 2014

Genesis and Lloyd Geering
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
Genesis 2:4b-8

Where did we come from?.... What the story so far tells us is that we came from the earth.  However much, during early historical times, our ancestors may have regarded our species as a race apart from all other earthly creatures, or even strangers come to Earth from another world, we can now understand how integral a part we are of the biosphere that has slowly evolved over some four billion years.  We are physically related by varying degrees to all other forms of life on the planet, and if we go far enough back in time we find that we share a common ancestor with every other species that has ever lived.
Lloyd Geering, From the Big Bang to God

Here is a sobering thought:  99% of all the species that have ever lived are extinct.   Consider for a moment the wide variety of life on Earth at this very moment from animal life to plant life to creeping things to pond scum, everything living today.   All of the variety of living species that we see and don’t see all over Earth represents less than 1% of all the species that have ever lived.    

If god cares for every bird and for every flower and for every other creature of its kind, and I am sure it is so, that caring didn’t keep 99% of every species from going extinct.      Yet here you are!  You made the cut!  I keep telling you it is better to be lucky than good.

If we look at human life that is the species homo sapiens from the vantage point of the story of life, there is no reason to think that we will escape the cycle of invention and extinction, birth and death that 99% of all other species who have inhabited Earth have experienced.   Every species has had its moment in the sun. We are having ours.

Again I am reminded of that last haunting line from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Even as I have said it is better to be lucky than good, there are some good things that individual human beings and the human species as a whole could do at this point in time that would increase our chances of being lucky.   On the other hand, there are things that we can do that will decrease those chances. 

If you are a cigarette smoker you may have heard your doctor or someone tell you that you should give up those cigarettes if you want to live.    No one of course means that if you give up cigarettes you will live forever.  No one means that giving up cigarettes makes you invincible.  You could stop smoking and the very next day get hit by a bus.    But it is true, and studies have shown, that stopping smoking will increase your chances of not contracting an illness that is directly linked to smoking.   

You might get the illness anyway.  That is true.  But your chances of not getting a smoking related illness are improved if you stop smoking or never take it up in the first place.  The question smokers have to ask themselves is whether or not it is worth it.    I think for many, including myself, it was worth giving up the pleasure of smoking and going through the pain of breaking that addiction for the chance of a longer and perhaps healthier life span.

Human beings are clever.  We have been able to extract and produce fossil fuels and we can even boil water by harnessing and controlling nuclear reactions.   Because of our technological wizardry, we have been able to increase the population of the human species to about seven billion today and the vast majority of us live better than royalty of a century ago.    If better is defined as number of comforts, variety of foods consumed, ability to travel, access to information, and so forth, we live like kings.   

But as smoking presents risks to the health of an individual so too does our industrial lifestyle present risks to the health of our species.    As we know the stories of other species overshooting the capacity of their environment to sustain them, human beings are hitting those limits if we have not already passed them.    Human beings are not exempt from the laws of nature.   

We are warned by many daily of the dangers of greenhouse gases, the acidity of the oceans, the draining of aquifers, the demise of marine life, and the effects of pollution and waste.     If we don’t stop, it will kill us.    That does not mean that if we made a 180 degree turn today that we would live forever.   We could get hit by an asteroid or have Yellowstone Park explode and leave us in a volcanic night. Eventually, that will happen.   Eventually the climate will change as it has over the past 2 billion years or so.   

But that could be thousands if not millions of years in the future.  We are playing literally with fire now.   Climate scientists are warning us that positive feedback loops created by the emission of greenhouse gases could make what had taken a thousand years happen in a decade or two. 

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or PETM was the event responsible for mass extinctions 56 million years ago.     It is the most well-documented temperature shift in Earth’s history.   In 2008 geologist Lee Kump of Penn State and his team drilled cores of ice layers in Norway formed during this PETM interval.   These cores detail the rates of change of atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate. Here is the bottom line and I am quoting from Robert Hazen’s book The Story of Earth:

The “PETM—…the most rapid climate disruption in Earth’s history--was triggered by atmospheric changes less than a tenth the intensity of what is happening today. Global changes in atmospheric composition and average temperature that took more than a thousand years during the PETM extinction scenario have been surpassed in just the last hundred years, as humans have burned immense quantities of carbon-rich fuels.”   P. 279-280

We might not think it is worth it to change course. It gives us so much pleasure, it is painful to change, and after all, we will eventually all die anyway.   Yet it seems to me to be worth it to be aware of the dangers of smoking fossil fuels and to make changes now.   We need to make a global decision not to destroy ourselves with weapons of mass destruction.   We need to make a global decision to change our living patterns.  Consciously making the decision as a human race to live within our means is common sense.   I think it is our best chance to avoid a catastrophe of our own making.   

There are so many forces that work against that.   Even so, I don’t give up hope.  I believe that our task is to observe, listen, learn, and say what we see.    What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  A good answer is to say what you see.  And of course, listen.   Tell what is real.  I trust in the hope that if we do that we may reach a tipping point in which what sounded crazy and impossible is actually embraced by humankind as sane and quite possible.       

Pete Seeger added only one line to the scriptural text of Ecclesiastes in his song,Turn, Turn, Turn.  He concluded the song with:

A time of peace, I swear it’s not too late!

And that is why I am devoting this series of sermons to the story of the universe, Earth, life, humankind, and human culture.    I like humans.   I like human cultures. I like the weird things we do.  I like the Super Bowl and Shakespeare.  I like classic rock and classic Bach.  I live with the contradictions as we all do.   I’d like us to be quirky a little bit longer.  We don’t have to be perfect.  We don’t have to live forever, but just enough to squeak by as our ancestors did.    

About 600 million years ago. Earth entered a new eon following the warming of the last global snowball.  It is called the Phanerozoic Era.  Phan means appearance.  It is where we get the word, phantom.   What appeared was life.   Life had been hanging on in its microbial form for 3 billion years or so.    But what is called the Cambrian explosion around 540 million years ago put life on the visible scale.

We can divide the Phanerozoic Era which is from 541 million years ago to today into three eras.   

The Paleozoic era is from 541 million years ago to 252 million years ago.  That is the age of the fishes.  

The Mezozoic era is from 252 million years ago to 66 million years ago.  That is the ages of the reptiles.

Then the Cenozoic era is from 66 million years ago to today.   It is the age of the mammals. 

First the story of land.    At the beginning of the Phanerozoic, 542 million years ago, the continents were broken up and began moving together so at around 300 million years ago they formed the one continent called Pangea.   All of Earth’s land was on one side of the planet.   It remained this way for about 100 million years.  Then around 175 million years ago Pangea started to break up into seven major pieces, the continents we know today.    Continents move at a rate of 1 to ten centimeters per year.   A rule of thumb is about the rate of growth of your fingernails.    Not terribly speedy but give them 175 million years and they can go places.  Eventually they will come together again and form a new huge continent.   

Our beautiful Appalachian mountains, now smooth and green used to be taller than the Himalayas.  They are the product of continents crashing at the speed of a few centimeters per year.  They formed 300 million years ago when Pangea was formed.    They have weathered a bit since then.     They contain coal deposits which are the result of lots of plant life.

Around 580 million years ago life was made of algae and worms and jellyfish type guys.  For about 40 million years these soft animals dominated the oceans.  Then life learned a trick.  About 530 million years ago, many animals learned to build protective shells out of available minerals.   This made them harder to eat.   What started was an arms race of shell building.   Teeth, claws, and spines come on the seen.   This is known as the Cambrian explosion. 

On land, about 475 million years ago, little spores appear on the rocks.   They multiplied for 40 million years then around 430 million years ago more and more land plants begin to appear.    If you were to go back around 400 million years ago, the plant life would be green but fungi and the plants would be stalk-like.  You would find twenty-five foot high fungi trees with little insects and spiderlike animals crawling about.    

There were no leaves on the trees.  Leaves were another evolutionary trick that enabled plants to absorb more sun.  By about 360 million years ago, forests emerged.    Earth was fully emerald green. 

Invertebrates (insects, spiders, and worms) were the first to check out the land. The vertebrates, which were armored fish emerged around 420 million years ago.   They didn’t come on land until around 375 million years ago.    A four-legged walking fish with finlike feet is the oldest known fossil of this adventure to land.      

By around 300 million years ago, Pangea is formed.  You have lush forests.  The atmosphere is 30 percent oxygen.  More than today’s 21 percent.  You have amphibians and massive dragonflies with two feet wingspans.  Life flourishes for tens of millions of years until about 251 million years ago. 

This is the Great Dying.  70% of land species and 96 percent of marine species vanished.   Scientists don’t know exactly why.  Oxygen levels might have dropped, a modest ice age, volcanoes, and even collapse of the ozone layer could have contributed to it.

The Great Dying marks the end of the Paleozoic and the beginning of the Mezozoic.  As beneficiaries of this massive extinction, dinosaurs and reptiles ruled the world from about 230 million years ago until another die-off 66 million years ago.    During the Mezozoic Era flowers began to bloom and the first true mammals emerged.    Pangea broke up during this era and the Atlantic Ocean began to form. 

On one particular day, a day like any other, around 65 million BCE, an asteroid estimated to be six miles in diameter struck the Yucatan Peninsula and a mega-Tsunami swept the globe followed by fires that burned across entire continents darkening Earth and shutting down photosynthesis.    All the dinosaurs except for one lineage, the birds, went extinct.   

Guess who survived?  In addition to the birds, your grandpa and grandma started to sing.    These little rodent-like vertebrates hung out in the dark but within 15 million years of the asteroid strike they had already multiplied and diversified and the early ancestors of whales, bats, horses, and elephants had evolved.   The Cenozoic Era from 65 million years ago to the present is the age of the mammal.  

Monkeys, apes, and Homo sapiens have a common ancestor who lived about 30 million years ago.   The hominids, the primate family who walk erect, emerged around 8 million years ago in Africa.    Meanwhile, climate change that lowered the sea level with the arrival of ice ages allowed land bridges for migrations of all types of mammals. 

Homo habilis, also known as Tim the Tool Man, came out of his garage around 2.5 million years ago after an ice age.    One theory is that cold temperatures favor the survival of infants who stay close to mama.   Also big heads reduce heat loss.  A big head means space for a big brain.  Staying close and spending time with mama and having a big head means you get smart.   Homo habilis or the tool man lived for a million years, finally going extinct about 1.4 million years ago.   Compared to him, we are just babies.

Homo erectus from 1.5 to .5 million years ago was named such because at the time she was the first to walk fully upright.  She also used tools, fire, and possessed some language. 

Homo erectus is the common ancestor of Homo heidelbergensis 500,000 to 230,000 years ago, Homo neanderthalensis 300,000 to 30,000 years ago andHomo sapiens 200,000 years ago to the present.

Many species of the genus homo had their time in the sun.   Finally, Homo sapiens, wise man, so we flatter ourselves, arrived around 200,000 years ago.   We are the last surviving sibling of the genus homo.   

99% percent of all species that ever lived are extinct.   Each mass extinction opens the way for new life.    There have been many twists and turns as Earth is in constant flux.   And life emerges anew and learns its tricks to evolve.   

The show goes on. 
The world is a stage. 
We have our time on it now.  
What part will you play?