According to Big Bang cosmology, time began at the moment of creation, along with energy, matter and space as constrained by the elegant equation E=mc2. Twentieth century astrophysicists quantified the expanse and duration of the cosmos. However, geologists were ahead of them on the duration thing by introducing the concept of deep time in the late eighteenth century. Millions of years? Clearly. Hundreds of millions of years? Maybe billions. How else could the thickness of sedimentary rock and the rise and fall of mountains be accounted for without multiple hundreds of millions of years? This was decades before Charles Darwin “needed” deep time to explain the diversification of life by natural selection.
Lord Kelvin, a preeminent physicist of the late nineteenth century, used sound principles of physics to prove the geologists were exaggerating. The elder scientist estimated the age of the planet based upon the rate of cooling from its original molten condition in the early solar system. Twenty to ninety million years…max. Don’t argue with sound physics or the lord. But then younger physicists discovered radioactivity, a significant source of post-formation heat, and Kelvin’s estimate was as obsolete as his tailcoat. In a twist of serendipity, principles of radioactive decay could be applied to turn rocks into virtual geochronometers! The first rock measured by radiometric dating techniques (by Arthur Homes in 1911) clocked in at some 370 million years. Soon, other rocks tested exceeded one billion years in age. Without rejecting deep time, some geologists of the day were reluctant to accept radiometric dating as a method just because the physicists had already burned them once.
Geoscience historian Martin J. S. Rudwick recounts how geologists came to such stunning conclusions. Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters is an abridgement of several of his scholarly tomes. Nascent geology was catching on at a time when chronology was the obsession of European academics. Prime example of the fad belongs to James Usher’s 1650 calculation for the moment of creation in “Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world, the chronicle of Asiatic and Egyptian matters together produced from the beginning of historical time up to the beginnings of Maccabees.” Time started October 23, 4004 BC. Earlier eras of history were being named based upon archeological discoveries, preserved classical literature (including the Bible), and the translation of ancient near eastern king’s lists. Just as coins were used to calibrate the chronology of human history, unique fossils were the natural coins for dividing the geologic time scale. Bronze, Iron, Greco-Roman. Cambrian, Devonian, Jurassic.
By the middle of the nineteenth century there were uniformitarianists who envisioned Earth history as an endless cycle of gradual processes and catastrophists who looked upon earth history punctuated by “revolutions” or upheavals that started things afresh. Rudwick stresses that both camps embraced deep time and both camps included devout Christians. To those catastrophists, the Genesis deluge was not thecatastrophe, but the most recent of the many natural revolutions that occurred between the preceding “worlds before Adam.” Furthermore, the catastrophists got some things very right like mass extinctions, which were hard to fit into doctrinaire uniformitarianism.
Rudwick observes that Ussher’s 6000-year chronology was dropped from Bible marginal notes by the end of the nineteenth century. Bibles popular with evangelical readers early in the twentieth century promoted understandings of the creation account that harmonized with the emerging geological account (for example, the dispensationalist Scofield Reference Bible). Day-age, visionary day, and gap creation were among the available views accommodating an ancient Earth with its fantastic beasts. Ronald Numbers’ The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design is a fine companion to Earth’s Deep History, telling the story of the resurgence of fundamentalist belief in a recent creation from the middle twentieth century on. But according to Rudwick, himself a Christian, contemporary young earth creationists are “utterly out of their depth.”1
Geology professor and author Marcia Bjornerud fashions a new word to describe geology’s greatest contribution to human knowledge in Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. Notice the similarity between her title and Rudwick’s. Indeed, Dr. Bjornerud covers many of the same scientists and discoveries in the history of geology, but her book is also a personal journey with her own compelling stories and revelations. She starts with an essay that poses problems stemming from time denial, or what she calls chronophobia. Americans in particular, she claims, are chronophobic out of fear of death. But a corollary of time denial is ignorance of the past, namely Earth’s deep history.
Most humans, including those in affluent and technically advanced countries, have no sense of temporal proportion—the durations of the great chapters in Earth’s history, the rates of change during previous intervals of environmental instability, the intrinsic timescales of “natural capital” like groundwater systems. As a species, we have a childlike disinterest and partial disbelief in the time before our appearance on Earth. With no appetite for stories lacking human protagonists, many people simply can’t be bothered with natural history. We are thus both intemperate and intemporate—time illiterate2
Timefulness is a “clear eyed view of our place in Time, both the past that came long before us and the future that will elapse without us.”3
The consequence is our fixation on the bottom line, expedient exploitation of natural and human capital, constrained by fiscal years and congressional terms. “Short-term thinkers are rewarded with bonuses and reelection, while those who dare to take seriously our responsibility to future generations commonly find themselves outnumbered, outshouted, and out of office.”4
In many ways, geology is about understanding “wyrd”—the ways that the secret stories of the past hold up the world, envelop us in the present, and set our path into the future. The past is not lost; in fact, it is palpably present in rocks, landscapes, groundwater, glaciers, and ecosystems.5
We must apply the lessons of the past as we live in the future and our actions impact the lives of future generations.
Neither is Dr. Bjornerud kind to the contemporary creationists, so popular among American evangelicals and evident in creation museums, books, videos, and homeschool curricula. She discovered that her own research on metamorphic rocks was misappropriated by young earth authors taking her conclusions out of context to fit theirs. Timefulness, she observes, is absent from both ends of their calendar. A recently baked “instant universe” and an imminent raptured finality makes for a truncated, rather trivial, history. I use the analogy of the difference between a real-world downtown and a movie set. The creationist’s 6000-year span of cosmic history is 2.3 million times shorter than the current scientific determination of 13. 7 billion years, so rich with evidence of consecutive and interrelated processes and materials. A movie-set world embedded with elaborate, but fake, history raises significant theological questions about the motives and character of God.
It’s unfortunate that such chronophobia is associated with contemporary Christian faith because timefulness permeates Judeo-Christian traditions and teaching. After all, remembering and waiting are themes throughout the Bible. With Pesasch (Passover), Jews remember their ancestral deliverance from slavery in Egypt. During Advent and Lent, Christians anticipate the birth and resurrection of Christ. Remembering and waiting are joined in annual observance. More frequently, Christians share in the body and blood of Christ in the mystery of the Eucharist, believing their participation in the sacrament unites them with Christ and his church over all time and geography. Eucharistic liturgy looks back and forward in a most timeful way.The Bible gives us almost exactly Bjornerud’s vision of timefulness a “clear-eyed view of our place in Time, both the past that came long before us and the future that will elapse without us.”6
Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. Your turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust you mortals.” A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night (Psalm 90: 1-4, NIV).
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” Ecclesiastes 3:11
Our theology reminds us that what we (humanity) have done in the past and what we do now does matter as we participate in God’s work of redeeming creation, not because it’s all going to end but because God promises that it will not end. What could be more timeful than the hope and promise of everlasting life?
Header Photo: Tooth of Time at Philmont Scout Ranch, New Mexico, is composed of dacite porphyry, one of many igneous intrusions into 80- to 90-million-year-old sedimentary rock in the region over a period of 5 to 50 million years ago. Two hundred years ago, it was a significant landmark to travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.
- Ronald Number, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 315.
- rcia Bjornerud, Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 7. Page references for Timefulness apply to the Kindle edition.
- Bjornerud, Timefulness, 17.
- Bjornerud, Timefulness, 12.
- Bjornerud, Timefulness, 162.
- Bjornerud, Timefulness, 17.