Of dinosaurs and discernment

“Every now and then it helps to step back and take the long view…”

Carnegie Natural History Museum (credit: http://www.carnegiemnh.org)


These are the opening lines of a reflection attributed to Salvadoran Archbishop (perhaps soon-to-be-saint) Oscar Romero. “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision,” he goes on to say. What might it mean to take the long view?

Debbie Blue in her book Consider the Birds: a Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible, writes that “in 1973 a griffon vulture collided with an aircraft flying 37,900 feet.” That is over seven miles, the highest ever recorded altitude for a bird. Blue challenges us to find new ways of thinking about God as we reflect on creation – even or especially on those species considered less-than-majestic, like the vulture. Might even vultures – a species we normally consider unappealing if not downright ugly – reveal something of the Divine face to us in their ability to ride the air currents and take in all below them? Certainly if we seek to take the long view, the griffon vulture provides a powerful example from the natural world.

Another inspiration from the natural world came during a visit to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. It was a grey, cold December day, and I had a case of what I have come to term the “discernment blues.” I knew I needed a change in scenery and a break from wrestling with those big, thorny questions of call. So I drove to Pittsburgh and spent the day wandering among skeletons of tyrannosaurus rex, diplodocus, apatasauras, and many others. I walked through the Mesozoic era and learned about the slow evolution of various species long before mammals were part of the picture.

Throughout the exhibit, time is measured in mya (millions of years). The tour guide told us that dinosaurs walked the earth for 180 million years. In contrast, we human beings have been on the scene for 9 to 12 million. As the example of the griffin vulture invites me to “take the long view” in terms of space, reflecting on the Carnegie Museum’s dinosaurs invites me to “take the long view” in terms of time.

If all of world history could be condensed into twenty-four hours, homo sapiens sapiens (that’s us) would come on the scene at two seconds before midnight. To stretch even further back, dinosaurs only enter the world scene at 10:56 pm.   This serves as a humbling reminder that it is not all about us. That human beings – as beautiful and unique as we might be – aren’t, in fact, the focal point of life on this planet. That God’s creation starting with that initial flaring forth nearly 14 billion years ago is much vaster than I usually consider. This creation includes myriad species which came before us and – potentially – myriad others who will come after us. Human history is an eye blink of time if you start counting with the Big Bang. And, of course, the earth is one planet in one solar system in one galaxy out of an estimated 200 billion galaxies in this expanding universe.

You Are Here

(Credit: Pixshark.com)


Feeling small yet?

Beyond an invitation to humility, it’s also an invitation to awe and wonder – which as Catholics we name as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Awe and wonder at all that has come before us as well as that which may come in the future. Theologian John Haught speaks of “a universe still aborning” to describe the reality that nature is incomplete and subject to ongoing creativity.

I drove back to the motherhouse after my day contemplating dinosaurs with those big, thorny questions of call still alive within me. Yet somehow my time at the Carnegie did bring some consolation amid the discernment blues.

Geologian (no, that’s not a typo – it’s a combination of the words geologist and theologian!), scholar, teacher and Passionist priest Thomas Berry often repeated the phrase: “we are not a collection of objects, we are a communion of subjects.” I am only one of nearly seven billion human beings currently alive in the world. And human beings are only present in a tiny percentage of cosmic history. We are part of a communion of many, many subjects – past, present, and future. From quarks to quails, from amoeba to avaceratops, from vultures to vine maples – we humans are one strand in an enormous, complex, beautiful web of God’s creation.

Yet I as an individual and we as a species have a role to play with the Creator in the ongoing creation of this “universe still aborning.”   With humility, awe, and wonder we strive to “step back and take the long view.” We celebrate that we are simultaneously infinitely small and yet infinitely significant.


About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

God is Bigger Than …

I just finished taking a Soul Beliefs class through Coursera. When talking about the course to my husband, I would jokingly refer to it as, “The class that’s teaching me that I don’t have a soul.”

You see, I went in expecting a comparative religion class. What I got was something along the lines of “the psychology of spiritual belief,” and I probably would have taken the class even with that title. But it was essentially a psychology class, most of which covered ground I’d already covered (the only thing that kept me from a major in psychology was my unwillingness to take upper-level stats classes, so I ended up with a very heavy minor). What’s more, it essentially used psychology to “explain away” religious beliefs. In addition to the class lectures, we were required to watch a two-hour discussion amongst the four leading atheists thinkers, and then another full-length documentary about the battle of evolution vs. intelligent design. The conclusion was essentially this: God doesn’t exist because everything we used to attribute to God is now explained by science; and the soul doesn’t exist because everything we once attributed to the soul we now know happens in the brain.


Yes, but.

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A human animal ponders Creation

In God’s image?

“Who warned you, you serpent’s brood, to escape from the wrath to come? See that you do something to show that your hearts are really changed! Don’t start thinking that you can say yourselves, ‘We are Abraham’s children,’ for I tell you that God could produce children of Abraham out of these stones!” – John the Baptist, St. Luke 3:7-8 (J.B. Phillips)

I was listening to an Assembly of God pastor give a sermon on the radio Sunday, and he said something that struck me. During his closing prayer, he told God that “some sociologists seem to think that we’re animals.” He followed by assuring the Divine that his congregation knew better.

I’ve heard this said before in not so many words, but this time it came on the heels of my completing Amir D. Aczel’s The Jesuit and the Skull (review coming soon!), a wonderful read about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest/archaeologist. Teilhard was a part of the expedition that discovered a Homo erectus skull in China in 1929, but most of his writings about evolution and how it can be reconciled to Christianity were suppressed by the Jesuit order and the Vatican until his death in 1955.

Part of what has made – and continues to make – the theory of evolution so hard to swallow for biblical literalists is that it demonstrates that humans are a species of the animal kingdom, which puts us in the same category as chimpanzees, polar bears, anacondas and sponges. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us three times that God created Man to be in his own image, and literalists have a problem with the image of God looking like Peking Man. But it is the notion of Man’s “dominion” over the creatures of the earth that gives rise to the belief that we cannot be labeled as animals.

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