From the totemic sea cliffs of the south coast, through the beautiful rolling Downs of Sussex and the idyllic Wolds of Lincolnshire, to the guillemot, gannet and puffin-clad cliffs of East Yorkshire’s North Sea coast, England has some stunning Chalk scenery. Laid down in the sub-tropical seas of the Cretaceous, between 65 and 135 million years ago, the rock we look at and stand upon today is a solid revealed ‘memory’ of a hidden and lost world. Each time we enjoy walking through a chalk landscape or looking at the gleaming whiteness of a freshly exposed surface of rock, we are simultaneously presented with an underlying geological echo of life as it was in the mind-bogglingly distant past. Between then and now Dinosaurs were wiped out in a major extinction event and the flowering plants, bees and mammals evolved in turn. Our own species stood upright and pondered its existence.
Charles Darwin’s genius and the insights of early geologists such as James Hutton and Charles Lyell enable us to understand and appreciate the natural world’s dynamic story. Thanks to them we can make sense of what is daily beneath our feet and in front of our eyes. Evolution and uniformitarianism (‘the present is the key to the past’) are two of the essential scientific lenses we need if we are to pull the breadth and detail of this ecological odyssey into anything approaching accurate focus.
Take chalk, for example. The single-celled Coccolithophorids which live as part of the phytoplankton in today’s oceans are covered in microscopic plates of bioengineered calcium carbonate. As they die these coccoliths sink to the ocean floor and the mechanisms of sedimentation will eventually lead to the formation of chalk. This identical process was happening over 65 million years ago. The sea bird colonies on Bempton cliffs nest on the geological end-result of the lives of billions of such coccolithophorids. Ferry passengers arriving into Dover harbour marvel at the same thing but in a different place.
Understanding that all of this is true does absolutely nothing to undermine or diminish my faith. Why do I say this? One of the ‘advantages’ this week of being in bed with swine flu has been resting against my pillows with the laptop where it’s name says it should be. In my brighter moments I have blogged. In the wake of the publicity surrounding ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’, Richard Dawkins’ latest book on evolution, I have also been looking somewhat blearily at a selection of atheist blogs and websites. Having done so I could be forgiven for thinking that as a Christian I am an endangered species without the benefit of a protection order in law. Clearly there are those who would welcome a global ideological ‘religious extinction event’ which would see the end of faith and its replacement by the inexorable rise of humanism based on scientific rationality. Conversely there are people of faith who seek to set aside the rigour of the scientific method and who choose to frame their worldview on a particular reading of holy scripture. To the more militant tendencies on both sides of this fault-line I want to say that many of us just get along quite contentedly by trusting to both science and faith in equal measure. The one does not deny the other. As millions of people like me know, it is perfectly possible to try to live a fulfilling and well integrated life with a foot planted firmly in both camps, so to speak, with no fear of being split asunder.
The principle of uniformitarianism applied to faith suggests to me that people have always been asking spiritual questions about meaning, purpose and value in life. Since first we stood upright, developed language and the ability to reflect on the world and our place within it, humankind has engaged with this spiritual dimension to life. The stratigraphy of the great religions bears witness to this process. The search for ourselves is a search for God who first searches for us in love. The Bible resembles a great uplifted cliff of chalk which lays bare for all to see something which was once hidden and personal. The religious experiences of countless individuals have been accumulated, compressed and shaped into layers of meaning which speak right into the present day. Each act of religious devotion, each each act of service to others, each sharing of wisdom and cry of doubt added tiny coccoliths of spiritual encounter and insight to the collected experience of humanity. Today the exposed surface of this accumulation and transformation is open for us to see and appreciate as we read our bibles and explore our inherited traditions. The chalk dust of what was true and valid then can be seen on our own fingers as we make sense and meaning now, whilst underneath the surface of daily life the slow process of faithful sedimentation continues. What is laid down today will surely be chalked up in the far future for the benefit of generations as yet unborn.
The geological truths I saw displayed at Bempton Cliffs, on a beautiful sunny morning as the sea mist dispersed, in turn point me to the spiritual truths of our human encounter with God. To me these are no less valid and the view they offer no less breathtaking. Science and faith equally engender that awe and gratitude which lifts my spirit and enriches my soul.