Friday, March 5, 2010

Unexpected Orogeny: Geology in Culture and the Tectonics of the Eschaton

I have often thought that if I was an actuary, I would create an automotive insurance variable called ‘the road cut’ factor.[1] I would simply ask, ‘Have you had more than one geology class?’ If the answer is yes, I would increase their rate. You see, I believe that geologists are fundamentally bad drivers because where other people just see rock next to the road, we see an unfolding[2] narrative…clues to a great regional mystery…artifacts of a an sublimely distant history caught unaware; exposed by the indignity of dynamite from their multi-million year hiding place. Road cuts are the equivalent of a modest young woman revealing a little more leg than usual in a moment of careful carelessness.

I recently heard an ecologist describe education in the natural sciences as ‘getting new eyes.’ You suddenly see things that were just not there before. Where there were only trees, now there is a ferocious battle field of interspecific competition with legions of unseen combatants. Where there was only rock, now there is a global drama of power in forms both gradual and catastrophic. Suddenly I am Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense. Wonder was always there, but I was blind to it. [3] However, I have found that this gift/neurosis extends beyond the realm of vehicular menace. I ‘see things’ in surprising and enjoyable places. Here are a few of them:


Settlers of Catan is my favorite board game for a number of reasons…but one is a little eccentric. After the board has been laid, I try to reconstruct the geologic history that would result in the physical geography (mountains, deserts, moisture and soil distribution) of the island that did not exist minutes earlier. Are the mountains volcanic or mélange? Why do trees grow on the east while sheep friendly grasslands dominate the west? Does the desert make sense as a rain shadow of the mountains? And when the ‘gold’ expansion pack is used, I rack my brain to understand how mineral rich placer deposits formed. This is problematic because Settlers is won or lost in the first 10 minutes when you place your initial settlements, and I am invest precious mental resources trying to understand how the fictional world came to be rather than focusing on how to victoriously exploit it.[4]


There was a moment during the new Star Trek[5] film, where Spock’s mom was looking from a balcony over the doomed planet Vulcan. We were supposed to be feeling a sense of dread for her safety and the safety of her planet. But I could not emotionally vest in the moment. I was trying to figure out what kind of geologic process would produce alternate offsetting hogbacks ridges, steeply dipping in alternate directions. Surely this location is not tectonically stable enough to be the site for the great repository of Vulcan culture.[6] Also, I have spent nearly the whole Stargate series trying to figure out the geologic origin of Naqata and I can’t tell if Avatar was being ironic or lazy by just mailing in their efforts with ‘unobtanium [7].’


The idea of a renewed earth as the center of Christian eschatology is kind of new to me. I, like most in my movement, totally misread the text[8] and expected eternal life to be a disembodied state, reflecting an entire and total discontinuity with this life. NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope cured me of this. But as a natural scientist that is geologically trained[9] (and embarking enthusiastically on an ecological education) I have since enjoyed rampant speculation about what the implications of an eternal, renewed, earth and cosmos would be. This has led to an insight I will call ‘eschatological geology.’

The earth is dynamic, and I can not think of any reason why a renewed earth wouldn’t be dynamic. The great city(s)[10] of the renewed earth, would presumably be built in locations such that the earth’s natural rearrangements and perturbations would not translate into human disaster. But it would also mean that the new earth would continue to reveal new glories indefinitely. Yosemite and Glacier would eventually erode into unremarkable monuments to the inevitability of gravity and entropy. But an eternal, dynamic earth would continue to perform endless variations of geologic virtuosity. Only by recognizing how many Yosemities there have been can we contemplate how many are yet to be. Passing eons would bring new wonders and creations which, like their Creator could be indefinitely enjoyed not as a static perfection but as an eternal dance[11] of discovery and wonder.

This post was written while listening to Appeal to Reason by Rise Against ___________________________
[1] Of course, if I was an actuary, I would also include a risk variable for actuaries for throwing themselves in front of busses because their job is so dull. Though, to be fair, I have been studying a fair bit of actuarial theory lately since it is the foundation of Ecological Population Modeling. Many of the original break throughs in Population Biology were made by NY insurance magnates who dabbled in Natural History on the side.
[2] Pun intended…if someone makes a pun and no one realizes it…did it happen?
[3] I find the natural science education pitched as a new way of seeing delightfully and subversively similar to the theology of Christian conversion, both theoretically and empirically.
[4] Two other fun notes about Settlers. 1) My friend Corrie has declared the Cake song Comanche the official anthem of Settlers of Catan because “If you want to build cities you have to build roads.” 2) A couple that my brother and his wife play Settlers made them shirts embroidered with Gen 34:10 "You can settle among us; the land is open to you. Live in it, trade in it, and acquire property in it." Of course there are countless variants of less delicate jest that also accompany the game, mostly surrounding the phrase ‘I’ve got wood.’
[5] I am not a trecky. This is the first Trek film I have seen. My family watched Next Generation during dinner on Sundays during most of my adolescence, so I get the premise, but have almost no attachment to any of the character from the original series. Still, I appreciate the effort taken to find continuity with the original narrative despite consciously re-writing the it. (That’s right, I’m calling you out Batman and Spiderman). We enjoyed the film. But it had some glaring faults. Kirk and Spock senior’s meeting was far too coincidental, I had trouble buying Syler as Spock, and the whole thing had kind of a Space Camp feel to it (with essentially undergrads rising to positions of prominence to form the Enterprise crew).
[6] Although one could deduce that JJ recognized that this would be a tectonically unstable configuration and thus, why the Romulan villain (who was a miner and, presumably, geologically savy) chose to drill to the core at this particular site. This theory is corroborated by the fact that when Nero (who Banda hit out of the park) attacked earth, he drilled in the SF bay which the average viewer would recognize as techonically active.

[7] In a film that gave such careful effort to imagining a biological system (if taking an unintentional stand on niche ecology and convergent evolution…more on this in a later post) their geologic imagination was on par with that expended on the story and dialogue.
[8] Though, the text is so clear on this, ‘misread’ is generous. Really, this is medieval theological baggage happily leveraged by dispensationalism. That’s right, I’m looking at you ‘Left Behind’ truther.
[9] I made this phrase up. In the church we often talk about if someone is ‘theologically trained.’ In music we talk about someone who is ‘classically trained.’ Being ‘geologically trained’ seems like it should be something too.
[10] One of the things that I find interesting about Biblical eschatology is that it is fundamentally urban. But that makes sense. If the new earth is to sustain an enormous population indefinitely, population will have to be concentrated so resources can be harvested sustainably. Concentrating population minimizes anthropogenic impacts on creation. Eschatological cities would be centers of creativity and would not suffer the ill effects of the endemic nature, so urban life will not be plagued with the ills that are currently associated with it. But, by concentrating habitation and environmental impact in one or a few urban centers, the new earth would presumably be mostly natural and, I suspect, regularly visited in a ‘leave no trace’ practice of redeemed enjoyment.
[11] credit, the ever quotable Capadocian Fathers.


Noah Elhardt said...

My second youngest (14 y/o) brother commented that the game of Settlers didn't adequately account for damage done by overexploitation of natural resources. To address this, any number rolled three times in a row now becomes "dead" for three entire turns (and if its a 7, the robber is caught and jailed). Additionally, we've introduced natural disasters that wipe out roads or destroy settlements, which not only reflects real life scenarios but introduces an equalizer and makes the game take even longer.

Oh, and if you think driving with geologists is dangerous, try riding with botanists. I've almost driven off roads more times than I can count, most recently yesterday racing to sight ID deciduous shrubs to species before my aforementioned brother.

Joel said...

The fact that San Francisco is techtonically unstable never registered with me while watching the "Star Trek" movie. As a non-geologist but partially reformed Trekkie, my assumption was that the Romulans picked that spot because it is the location of Starfleet Command. Your point is equally logical, so we could both (or neither) be right.

The nitpick point in the movie for me, rather than Kirk's meeting with elderly Spock, was the scene where Scotty gets transported into what is apparently the Enterprise's plumbing. As soon as I saw all those pipes and the emergency release valve, all I could think of was the scene in "Galaxy Quest" where the ship basement is full of pistons and bursts of flame and Sigourney Weaver yells, "Why is this even down here? This episode was badly written!"

If you haven't seen "Galaxy Quest", it is possibly the best Star Trek movie ever.

stanford said...

Noah, I LOVE the over exploitation rule. And I love the idea of species ID car games. It is kind of like a biodiversity version of the liscence plate game (and even - I bet - follows similar statistical patters as I suspect that liscence plates are aproximately log-normally distributed). Your family sounds very fun.

Joel, Your hypothesis about SF makes way more sense. I have not seen Galaxy Quest...but will take you up on the recomendation.

JMBower said...

Hah, I've had a long-running beef with Settlers and other resource mobilization type games (Age of Empires, Warcraft, etc etc etc.

"Ya I won the battle, I now have complete dominion over this.....entirely ravaged, barren plane. woo....hoo."

Matthew Pearson said...

Learning about the "New Havens and New Earth" was big turning point in my eschatology as well (although saying "my eschatology" is a bit generous, sort of like saying "my estate.").

Also, the other side of the coin of the urban New Earth is the fact that civilization has become increasingly urban as a result of increased agricultural efficiency. We don't have do devote 90% of our workforce to the farm (as we did a mere 200 years ago) because we can produce enough food for all of us with far fewer farmers (and much less land). This technological innovation is a mitigating of the effects of the fall, where we have reduced the amount of the "sweat of our brow" required to eat bread (Gen. 3:19). So it would stand to reason that a ground no longer cursed would bring forth an abundance that would not require a large agricultural workforce.

Noah Elhardt said...

Stanford - glad you approve. That was actually an early manifestation of the rule... it has since evolved into a full-fledged system of ecological succession, land degradation and improvement, where land type actually changes as certain time and resource investments are made, or if that land is over- or undertaxed. The specifics of these rules are a little too complex to put down here. If you'd like to give them a try through, drop me a line and I'll send you our latest stable version.

Matthew - I deeply hope that the greater agricultural output required in the (eschatological) future will be brought about through a transformation of natural systems, not by an increase in labor-replacing technology. We were entrusted with the good work of tending creation well before the fall, and doing that job well is just not possible when the closest you ever get to the soil you're working with is the air-conditioned cabin of a 20 ton tractor. Yes, the land is cursed on our behalf, and we have to deal with drought, pests and thorns. But agricultural work itself is good; so while I agree that kingdom agriculture will be more efficient, I hope that the efficiency will be in terms of land, not workforce. That only a few percent of our workforce (CIA says 0.6% in ag, fishing and forestry combined) is spent directly interacting with the rest of creation speaks to me not of a victory over the curse of sin, but of a dereliction of duty (especially when we consider that we pay those who "tend creation" for us less than most of us would be willing to work for).

Not to say that cities don't have their (central) place - though just what that looks like I'm still far from understanding, though I'd love to try.

Stanford again - Speaking of human - creation interactions, I hope you don't see all human impact as negative (given your comment "Concentrating population minimizes anthropogenic impacts on creation."). Humans are as much a part of creation (and maybe more) than any other part of our environment, and a dualism that sets us "against" or "apart from" creation rather than embracing our place within the landscape God created and fostering a healthy two-way relationship seems akin to minimizing meaningful interactions with your kids to avoid impacting them negatively. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, given your relatively rare educational bouquet.

Matthew Pearson said...

Noah, I think we agree. What I meant was that as technology has improved, we have been able to mitigate the effects of the fall and reduce the toil necessary to produce enough to eat. But when the ground is no longer cursed, it will produce without toil or tractors. In economic terms, capital substitutes for labor, but a redeemed earth will require neither. Work yes, toil no.

You with us said...

Wow -- Now that I've read the other comments I am hesitant to add my own. I feel like I just got smarter by reading the contributions of your readers.

Anyway, I was going to say that I will never look at Settlers the same way again.

Noah Elhardt said...

Matthew - I like your distinction between work and toil - its one I've never made before. Could you explain it further? Do you see it as a difference of quality or quantity? And do you see toil as something we should be working now to avoid or overcome? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Matthew Pearson said...

Noah--I'm afraid I don't have much more to offer here. I remember learning about some of this in seminary, but I don't recall any good sources. But I think most of this is pretty straightforward from Genesis 1-3. God rested from his work, he created Adam to work in the garden, he created Eve to work alongside Adam--all these things were "work" in a world that wasn't cursed by the fall. It's not until God's punishment of Adam do we hear of the toil that we have come to associate with work:
"And to Adam he said,...
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return."

Another reference to this that I like a lot is the third verse of Joy to the World (which wasn't originally a Christmas carol, so it's a shame that's the only time we sing it now). It's a beautiful image of the redemption of creation (it predates dispensationalism):

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,...

Matthew Pearson said...

As for the other questions, I would say it's quality for sure, but perhaps also quantity. But if God worked for 6 days and rested one, and then commands us to do the same, there are only so many hours in the day, so it doesn't have to be quantity.

And yes I think we should be working to mitigate the effects of the fall. There are all sorts of "natural evil" that we work to overcome--natural disasters, famine, disease, pain (pain in childbirth was part of the curse too, remember?). Jesus himself overcame natural evil as well when he healed the sick. It's no different from any other evils that we resist and try to overcome. Though creation will not be fully redeemed until we are, we still work knowing that it will one day be restored.

I think Paul speaks to this in Romans 8:
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

stanford said...

Well friends, this has been one of the most stimulating comments sections I have ever had the pleasure to read. Thanks so much for your thoughts. I don’t have much to add, mostly because much of your discussion is in response to a random, half-backed foot note.

To answer Noah’s question of me: I have not given much thought to the nature of agriculture in light of the New Earth. I believe it will exist and will be sustainable. I agree with Matthew that the transformation of toil into work (or, rather, back into work) is the pivotal theological insight. I think that Noah’s point stands on its own merit and I have very little to add. My ecology professor was talking yesterday about the idea that humans suffer from ‘species self hate’ and it looks like my language lapsed into that. But I do suspect that in an escatological earth, parts of it would be too special, too aesthetically sublime to be utilized for agriculture (or other pragmatic purposes) and would be set aside for purely aesthetic and recreational uses (as I expect that the next age will be far less pragmatic in its governance than this one).

As a side not I also suspect technology will play a role in eschatological agriculture. When Isaiah describes the eschatological kingdom he highlights ‘the ships of Tarshis.’ I tend to agree with Andy Crouch that this suggests that some of the most creative, ennobling, cultural artifacts of this age will some how make the transition to the next age. Remarkable human makings both ‘Christian’ and ‘secular’ that augment our humanness will, in some unexplained and mysterious way, persist in the eschaton. (Though, I concede that this probably does not apply to the air conditioned combine.)

Again, thanks so much for all of your thoughts. Most of you know that there is nothing more gratifying for a blogger than a lively comments page.