Lesson’s from the Grand Canyon

“Know the Canyon’s history. Study rocks made by time.” That’s the phrase you have to memorize to keep the geologic layers of the Grand Canyon straight. Starting from the top you have Kaibab limestone, Toroweap formation, Coconino sandstone, Hermit shale, Supai group, Redwall limestone, Muav limestone, Bright Angel shale, and Tapeats sandstone. There’s actually a bottom layer called Vishnu schist, but we figured no one could figure out how to add it to the acronym so they just dropped it. We usually said, “Know the Canyon’s history. Study rocks made by time. Victor.”

Learning some geology was one of many things we did in preparation for our 7-day hike in the Grand Canyon last month, including entering GPS coordinates, reading blogs of other hikers and buying Ratsaks, a metal mesh bag to keep your food safe from critters.

Longstanding scientific consensus has been that the canyon was created by the Colorado River over a five to six million year period. The canyon is 277 miles long, ranges in width from 4 to 18 miles and attains a depth of over a mile (6000 feet). Nearly two billion years of the Earth’s geological history have been exposed as the Colorado River and its tributaries cut their channels through layer after layer of rock while the Colorado Plateau was uplifted.

Hiking through the Canyon makes one feel at once insignificant and terribly vulnerable. Just to put it in perspective, scientists think the universe is 13.73 billion years old, give or take 120 million years. That’s when the Big Bang happened. Our earth is about 4.54 billion years old. Life began approximately 3.5 billion years old based upon the oldest fossils that scientists have found, but some others have discovered chemical evidence suggesting that life may have begun even earlier, nearly 4 billion years ago.

The oldest human fossil (named Lucy and found in Ethiopia) has been back dated to between 3 and 3.6 million years ago. Chances are our species are direct descendants of Lucy’s species. The first Homo Sapien probably walked the Earth around 200,000 years ago, but no one is really quite sure about that because fossils are hard to find. And incidentally, we have found mummified human remains as old as 9,500 years and cave paintings older than 35,000 years.

The point of all this is, in terms of geologic time, we modern day humans are a blip on the radar screen. It would appear that God was in no hurry to stamp us with the divine image until fairly recently and enjoyed the cosmos in Trinitarian solitude for billions of years just fine, thank you very much, Even though Genesis suggests that we are the crown of creation (at least in this corner of the universe) God seemed to be content to “let there be…” and enjoy watching and superintending what finally evolved. It does make one sit up and wonder with the Psalmist, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8: 4)

This was punctuated even further when we slept out under the closest stars whose light left their surface some 4.2 years ago. Red Dwarfs are supposed to have enough fuel to last 10 trillion years. We’re lucky if we get in eighty some-odd.

One quickly discovers how fragile we are as a species when spending any time in the Canyon. The flora and fauna are also hazards we don’t experience in civilization. Our first morning one of our party found a small scorpion crawling out of his pack (the same person who warned us not to rest against the Cottonwoods because scorpions often hide in the bark) and I disturbed a rattle snake our second day out. We never saw it but we surely heard it and received a subsequent adrenalin rush.

Engelmann’s prickly pear, beavertail cactus, grizzly bear cactus, and whipple cholla are vigilantly armed with spiky thorns which do not easily give up their pricks when trying to pull them out. Dagger-like yucca, whose threads were used for sandal-making by the Ancestral Puebloans, could also reach out and stab you, never mind the case of poison whatever I contracted while pumping water at a spring. I have scars where it blistered on my knee. As far as Nature is concerned, we don’t get a free pass. We’re a part of it just like everything else.

Yet, in spite of all this randomness, contingency and fragility, there does seem to be some kind of dance behind all this chance. In 1973, a Cambridge University astro-physicist and cosmologist Brandon Carter coined a concept called “the Anthropic Principle.” The Anthropic Principle says that the seemingly arbitrary and unrelated constants in physics have one strange thing in common–these are precisely the values you need if you want to have a universe capable of producing life. The universe gives the appearance that it was designed to support life on earth.

In fact, the calculations of British mathematician Roger Penrose show that the proba-bility of a universe conducive to life occurring by chance is in 1010123. I suppose we could be a happy accident, but I think that takes a measure of faith greater than one that supposes an intelligent creator purposed the universe.

While having intelligent reasons for belief in God are helpful, they are not definitive. If one is inclined to disbelieve, no amount of evidence will convince them; in the same way, those inclined to believe find the evidence convincing. Bottom line: religion is not about intellectual assent alone, but faith or rather trust that “behind a frowning Providence there shines a smiling face,” as the hymn writer puts it.

For most of us, what convinces us that this world is not just a cosmic joke, are the relationships of love and mutuality we share. We are not convinced that neurology, brain chemistry and DNA are sufficient to explain love, altruism, loyalty and friendship. We are not convinced that the only reason our dog licks our hand is because of the salt that is in our perspiration. We make meaning because life is meaningful.

About Norman Bendroth

Norman Bendroth is a Professional Transition Specialist certified by the Interim Ministry Network. He has served as a settled pastor in two United Church of Christ congregations and as a Sr. Interim pastor in seven other UCC congregations. He was also an executive for three different non-profit agencies. He has had additional training in Mediation Skills for Church Leaders from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and training in Appreciative Inquiry from the Clergy Leadership Institute. Rev. Bendroth has the M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his D. Min. from Andover Newton Theological school where he concentrated on theology and systems theory. He is married to Peggy Bendroth and has two adopted Amerasian children.
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