There’s an old book that rests on the shelf beside my fireplace, taller than the little novels surrounding it. It’s wrapped in a worn dust jacket with black letters printed on the spine
Life Before Man.
I found it at a thrift shop one October, buried beneath National Geographics and fashion magazines from the 70s. The vintage volume boasts 162 illustrations “in color.” It’s yellowing pages are filled with sprawling landscape scenes from the Precambrian to the Cenozoic- of murky green waters, flora that twist and curl, primitive toothed fish, smooth skinned sea monsters and the brutish, towering T-Rex.
These ancient beasts are the monsters of science fiction, and yet somehow, find themselves in this book about the true history of earth.
Archaeology is the science that proves the stuff of myth was once fact. There’s a magic to it; a tug on the imagination to fill in the mysterious cracks and crevices of history, speculating on what might have been. Swirling fossils pressed into dust, layers of earth, footprints, teeth- they whisper to us over the millennia. Man exhumed million-year-old bodies, brought them back from long sleepy deaths, and hung them from museum ceilings. Ancient bones dangle ominously like ghosts, haunting and delighting us as we pass below them.
Skeletons are a promise that there was once indeed flesh- there was breath, blood, sight, maternal love, jealousy, fear, and joy. Billions of creatures were born, lived, and died long before human beings ever existed.
Nearly 30 years ago, Astrophysicist Carl Sagan introduced a generation to the Cosmic Calendar, a visualization method in which the 13.8 billion year old universe is condensed into a single calendar year. The universe is born in a bright explosion at midnight, January 1st. The milky way is formed on May 11th. On December 5th, multi-cellular life emerges from the primordial waters of earth, and by Christmas morning, animals awaken, blinking, gasping, breathing, crawling, swimming, creeping, and soaring. Humanity does not appear on the scene until late December 31st.
I breathe in and recall the creation poem of Genesis, where the repetitive ebb and flow of words echoes the march of time. In it, an eternal spirit hovers over primordial depths; a divine, guiding voice brings order out of chaos. White hot stars burst forth from darkness, the sun and moon emerge spinning on their axis. The oceans and the lands churn and shift and settle, a new world grows green and teems with life. The divine breath of heaven mingles with the dust of the earth, and gives rise to humanity.
“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff.”
There’s a profound humility that settles in your soul when you think about it. In all those billions of years before mankind arrived on the scene, God was there, present, spinning unspeakable wonders, and whispering: it is good, it is good, it is good.
It was not a lonely expanse of millennia. It was full of color, depth, drama and life. I was not “filler” time that merely anticipated the arrival homo sapiens. It was, in and of itself, purposeful, glorious, and significant, and beloved by God.
This is a potentially troubling thought for those who prefer to think that universe revolves around us.
I’ve heard it said that Christians view the universe in three categories: God, Humanity, and the rest of creation. As if all the world were a stage and we were its star actors. Of course, a better estimation would include only two categories: God, and everything else.
We’ve had a long, unfortunate tradition of placing humans at the center of the story. Anthropocentrism has lurked in the Christian religion for centuries, hinging on “dominion,” claiming unlimited power and obvious superiority over the rest of the earth.
Carl Sagan said that “Science came along and taught us that we are not the measure of all things.”
But was that revelation really so new after all? If we had been listening closely, wouldn’t we have known it all along?
Colossians 1:16 tells us that All things have been created through him and for him.
For him. Not for us. The animals, the oceans, the stars and the skies- they are not for us. They can be enjoyed by us, certainly, but our enjoyment and our use of creation is not creations primary purpose. We do not give significance to everything else.
The Creator does. It is his.
To me, the gospel has always demonstrated how small we are rather than how great. It reminds us that we are only a breath (psalm 39:5) but dignifies our existence with meaning by extending an invitation to participate in the larger story of eternity.
It is my hope that my meditations on Christ would open the door wonder rather than shutting it. I hope that I always take seriously the fact that God loves his creation, in and of itself, and that that inspired me to love it, too. And I hope that whenever I am tempted to place myself at the center of my own proverbial universe, I pause and remember how small I am in the scheme of things.