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How old is the Earth?

June 16, 2018 (1,787 words)

I was reminded of this burning question by our youngest son, who had a lot of trouble with his just-completed junior year of high school biology. The job of finding a tutor to help with his summer-school review fell to me. As we were evaluating our options, this young man suggested the tutor we settle on might have a textbook he or she prefers working with, as opposed to the one he had used this past year. That seemed admirably open-minded on his part.

Then, as we were sitting in the offices of the local branch of Huntington Learning Center earlier today, waiting to be interviewed, my son explained in a quiet aside that his textbook is written from a “creationist” perspective which is not accepted by “science.” The tutor eventually assigned to us may have an issue with this approach. Even though it only comes up a few isolated times in his textbook, he explained, where the age of the earth is referenced.

So in his youthful wisdom, in order to avoid a potentially insurmountable ideological conflict, our son was prepared to go with the flow and use a different textbook the new tutor may favor. I give him a lot of credit for being “big” enough to see that such an issue is not worth getting into a tussle about. Especially since he is having so much trouble with biology, and needs all the help he can get.

… what difference does it make?

I have to confess this question of the earth’s age is yet another of those issues that leave me scratching my head as to why it generates so much passion on either side of the ideological divide. I guess it’s because people have a lot of emotion invested in their version of the answer.

The breed known as “creationists” also identify themselves as “young earth” people, because they believe this orb is only a few thousand years old, as the Bible states. These folks are also quite comfortable with the idea that God created the universe, as opposed to those who see the world in all its magnificent splendor as being the un-designed by-product of a galactic big bang.

The creationists believe the great flood narrative that appears in the Bible – and which can also be found in the myths and legends of every ancient culture – did, indeed, take place. Such an all-encompassing flood covering the entire planet compressed geological remains, which has thrown a difficult-to-account-for curve into the carbon-dating record the scientists use as the basis for their analysis.

… compressing geological remains.

The science people contend the earth is billions and billions of years old. They rely on carbon-dating of fossils and other geological artifacts to buttress this contention, even though there are known holes in the process, and flaws discovered in various age-related claims that have been confidently put forth to this point.

Their super long-view of the origin of things also just happens to support a belief in “macro-evolution,” which sees every diverse life form as having evolved from simple, one-cell organisms. Such fantastic development would need billions and billions of years to unfold, since intricate features such as an eye or a wing would require untold generations to emerge from the primordial ooze.

The creationists are routinely derided as willfully ignorant fundamentalists, unable to think independently and reason with logic. They are said to “cling” to the Bible as a source of “consolation,” because they are not brave enough or intelligent enough to accept the natural world as science has shown it to be, in all its exquisite detail.

And look, in some cases such an unflattering assessment may apply. After all, the world is full of people with differing levels cognitive chops. But if we are to speak of fundamentals, the Bible would be more accurately described as a challenge, rather than a consolation.

… a challenge, not a consolation.

It’s proven ability to convey profound truths in easy-to-understand parables and stories is precisely the reason this divinely inspired tome has maintained its influence across the centuries, among the learned and the dispossessed of many cultures, ever since the early Catholic Church fathers cobbled together the selected books of what we now refer to as the Old and New Testament.

So let’s be careful before we casually dismiss those who embrace a biblical view of prehistoric events as simpletons. The fact is, very few of us are qualified to discuss these sorts of issues with any semblance of certainty. Both sides in this debate are essentially operating on faith.

I hold no brief against academics and scholars who honestly apply the scientific method to continually question the status quo in search of ever-more-accurate answers. But many who adopt the mantle of “science” are merely modernists who have an unshakable belief in “progress.” To them everything is always moving forward, and things are getting better all the time.

I would suggest it is the dramatic increase in the overall level of material well-being we have experienced since the Industrial Revolution kicked in that serves as the foundation of this generic belief among those who tend to follow the crowd of popular opinion.

… a one size fits all approach.

But this one-size-fits-all approach muddles the thinking when evaluating the great moral issues of our age. Consider the matter of civil rights for black people. This is currently seen as the long overdue reversal of oppression and degradation imposed by the white majority in this country, who also unfailingly claim to be Christian.

It is therefore construed as Exhibit A – among many other such exhibits – in the case that is endlessly being adjudicated against religion these days. But slavery and oppression and degradation have been with us since well before the dawn of the Christian era.

None of these deleterious conditions can be laid at Christianity’s – or more rightly, Catholicism’s – feet. The Bible certainly acknowledges and accounts for slavery, but it doesn’t condone it. Nor is the Christian faith in any way responsible for slavery’s most recent iteration. Allow me to provide a thumbnail sketch as to why it is not.

It was just as Catholicism’s influence was reaching its apex in the form of what we now refer to as Western Civilization that the Renaissance came along and started the modern rebellion. It repudiated Christianity (a.k.a. Catholicism) in favor of a return to the values of pre-Christian, classical antiquity. This included an embrace of the concept of slavery, of subjugating inferior peoples conquered in war as the natural order of things.

This is not to suggest the Catholic Middles Ages were devoid of injustice. Only to point out that at least a few prominent monarchs and princes – along with countless orders of anonymous monks and nuns – were busy foregoing their own personal aggrandizement, and trying their best to bring Christ’s message of a preferential option for the poor to bear on everyday life.

… starting things going in the wrong direction.

After the Renaissance started the ball rolling in the wrong direction, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, Adam Smith’s version of capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution all came together in a unified force to pour fuel on the fire.

Individual conscience joined with a renewed, now-intellectually-justifiable sense of looking out for number one, which in turn aligned perfectly with an age-old tendency to exploit those less fortunate or less intelligent than ourselves.

Lots of white people have been chewed up and spit out in the creation of vast fortunes for the select few. The black population native to Africa, having been brought here to be bought and sold as property, found itself caught in America’s economic crossfire in ways the most downtrodden European immigrants never had to experience.

The overseers leveraging this exploitation were in no way living the Christian faith, whatever they may have told themselves, and wherever they may have shown their faces on any given Sunday.

This violent contradiction is emblematic of what we who consider ourselves educated have failed to properly evaluate. We have been endowed with what amounts to a disjointed sense of history. We have been taught the few remaining failures of the modern world can be blamed on the last vestiges of a hidebound religious belief which protects established prejudices.

When in fact the exact opposite is true: It is the prideful rejection of straightforward directives such as “love thy neighbor as thyself” on the part of the advantaged and the empowered that is the reason society is still struggling, after all these years, with pervasive injustice. In spite of the obvious gains in material well-being even the little people now enjoy.

… a prideful rejection of straightforward directives.

The conventional wisdom that “faith” is bad and “science’ is good coincidently serves to flatter us into believing there is no longer any such thing as an objective moral order, no longer a clearly definable right and wrong. Backed by a misappropriation of the “scientific method,” situational ethics has become the order of the day in all things: public economic behavior, and private behavior of a sexual nature.

This free-wheeling ethic, implemented from above by our leaders and pundits, has created turmoil and chaos among both the learned and the dispossessed, among both black and white. Defending this new ethic has become the elaborate sub-text to seemingly unrelated topics such as debating how old the earth is.

Though we have attained levels of education our immediate forbearers never had the leisure to pursue, most of us don’t do a very good job of clearly defining the terms of any given discussion. We frequently end up talking past each other, with one side singing the praises of oranges, and the other speaking just as highly about apples. In this case, can someone please tell me what the age of the earth has to do with the persistent challenge we all face in trying to lead a virtuous life?

No matter how we choose to apply our rhetorical gusto in the geological realm of carbon-dating, one thing we should all be able to agree on is how the natural world is rightly viewed with awe and wonder. Reverence, even. Regardless of what our own relative level of cognitive ability might happen to be.

For as the famed mathematician and all-around fun guy Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) once remarked: “We enjoy the detail as a weapon for the further discrimination of the penumbral totality, nevertheless we have no ground to limit our capacity for experience by our existing technology of expression.”

To which I can only reply: Amen, brother.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
June 16, 2018

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