Wednesday, 2 December 2009

5 Degrees of Difference

At the weekend I went to a wonderful "service" at a small church in Clevedon. My brother-in-law, Noel Hector, is the priest. He organised an afternoon's celebration of the 150th anniversary of the On the Origin of Species which included readings, hymns, the first performance of an original piece of words and music about Darwin and a discussion panel afterwards.

The afternoon was a lovely and fascinating reminder of the extraordinary contribution Darwin has made not just to our understanding of evolution of species, but to our concept of God. The Jesuit priest and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin viewed mankind and human consciousness as evolving alongside all of evolution - eventually reaching pure consciousness where humanity and God become one, which is the end of time. An extraordinary idea that I will have to take serious time out to think about! His views were suppressed by the Vatican.

The afternoon in Clevedon began with reading Genesis 1, the one that always causes the trouble because of multiplying, filling the earth and subduing it. I hadn't realised it was based on an older poem written in Mesopotamia. It begs the question how it can be viewed as fact if its foundations are poetic - but it is not surprising that a powerful way to view the origin of the universe is through poetry. The science is mind-blowing enough but doesn't begin to question why.

There is another theory behind Genesis, and all the other creation myths that exist. That they are folk memories expressing the trauma and wonder that was the end of the last ice age. Ice ages come and go as temperatures get colder, then warmer again. But temperature doesn't vary uniformly, rather more like a saw-tooth pattern than an even, oscillating wave. There is a slow build up to a cold phase over many thousands of years as temperatures slowly fall and species slowly move away. The snow and ice build up takes a long time and stays in place for a long time.

But the end of ice ages, caused by all kinds of oscillations of the earth, is dramatic and fast. Sun and warmth melt the snow, less snow means less light reflected back, more warming, more loss of ice cover - and suddenly you have an ice free landscape. In some places it can happen in a human lifetime. What was once barren and freezing becomes warm and lush. Where once there were frozen glaciers now rivers flow. Dramatic events like the breaching of vast ice age lakes caused catastrophic flooding, especially in N America and parts of Europe. Noah's floods for real. The N Sea became sea instead of a vast tundra - it must have been astonishing for our ancestors who witnessed the world change before their eyes.

The Garden of Eden, paradise garden, the sudden flowing of the sacred rivers of India etc could all be poetic ways of expressing the greening of the land post the ice age.

And what strikes me as fascinating is that the fast warming of the earth produced a flowering of spirituality and creativity as people tried to cope with a dramatically changing planet. Art, weaponry, husbandry, social groupings etc all changed.

It is also worthy of note that the average temperature difference between the depths of the last ice age, where thick ice sheets covered most of the N hemisphere, and now is only 5 degrees. 5 degrees is all it took for the world to change beyond recognition. 5 degrees of warming over this century is what we are looking at if we don't succeed in holding down CO2 emissions.

I wonder if, as the earth changes, we will see a turing back to religion as we all grapple with what is happening. And if so, I wonder if it will be the extreme religions that will seem attractive, offering certainty in an uncertain world.

Who knows, but we will react, we will have to deal with what will inevitably be a difficult and perhaps dramatic time ahead over the next century. Are the world's religions ready to respond? Some I suspect are more ready than others.

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