Time Is of the Essence

A Discussion of Uniformitarianism
and Catastrophism

You will say, When was the world made? And why so late? . . . And going back through unmeasured ages, you might still ask, And why not sooner? . . . It is manifest that it was made. It is necessarily the work of a powerful and supreme Artificer; and if this is evident, it must be left to the choice and judgment of the wise Artificer, when He should please to make it. . . He has doubtless a certain reason and evident causes why, and when, and how He made the world. But it would not be proper that these be disclosed to those who are reluctant to inquire into and understand the things which are placed before their eye, and which testify of His providence. . . . But those who speak of nature and not of God, and declare that all things were made by nature, do not perceive the mistake of the name which they use. . . But if it is Reason — that is, Logos — by which it appears that all things were made, they change the name without purpose, when they make statements concerning the reason of the Creator (Recognitions of St. Clement, ch. xxxiv).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. And all things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made (John 1:1).

Until recently, the popular American mind, persuaded by the medium of modern science, had gradually come to accept the two-hundred-year-old scientific doctrine of uniformitarianism. This doctrine holds that the geophysical forces which shape the earth and all life on it have been relatively constant from the beginning of the planet's existence. Put simply, uniformitarianism holds that "the present is the key to the past," i.e., physical processes witnessed today mirror identical processes occurring throughout all prior time.

This thought brings to mind that when I was a child on the boundary between the 1920s and 1930s, common people learned to accept the proposition that motor oil derived somehow from the decay of prehistoric plants and animals. (The Sinclair Oil Company logo was a dinosaur.) Therefore my childish and uninformed mind jumped to the conclusion that motor oil must come from dead dinosaurs. Since then I've learned that while the question: Where does petroleum come from? has an answer, there are still many unresolved questions regarding the manner of its origin.

The word, petroleum, coming from the Greek/Latin (petra, rock, and oleum, oil), reflects a basic scientific fact, namely, that petroleum is commonly associated with sedimentary rocks found in a variety of places on earth. It is understood that carbon and hydrogen, the components of petroleum, originated in primordial earthly matter, but that they first had to pass through an organic phase (i.e., through living beings) to be combined into the various complex molecules recognized as petroleum. Single-celled planktonic plants (diatoms and cyanobacteria [blue-green algae]) and primitive animal life (shellfish) rather than dinosaurs would appear to be the most likely candidates.

In the early 1800s, the doctrine of uniformatarianism
was vigorously opposed by the much more popular
doctrine of recurrent catastrophism.

A hundred years before my 1930s childhood, the doctrine of uniformitarianism was vigorously opposed by a doctrine that enjoyed much greater popularity than uniformitarianism at the time, namely the doctrine of recurrent catastrophism. It enjoyed greater popularity then because the Protestant mind, which controlled the culture, still retained an active remembrance of the Old and New Testaments which were still widely read, believed, and acted upon as a source of personal and public morality. ("Noah's Flood" was but one example of catastrophism.)

Among the differences between uniformitarianism and catastrophism is the attitude toward God's intervention in the normal operations of nature. Uniformitarianism deliberately rejects any and all such intervention, while eighteenth and nineteenth century catastrophism accepted the continuing recurrence of God's intervention throughout all time. At present, supporters of both schools take little cognizance of the Creator's involvement in the work of nature. It seems that only Orthodox Christians and the adherents of "Creation Science" still believe in God's active role in the creation of nature.

To accommodate its basic assumption, uniformitarianism had to look back upon a great protraction of time and very slow and gradual change in the shape of land and sea and in the species of animals and plants, including man, by processes imperceptible to those creatures which lived at the time.

The episodes of catastrophism, on the other hand, were originally assumed by catastrophists to occur as the result of the active intervention of God which divided the earth's history into a series of "brief, convulsive, and lethal chapters." Such episodes — of which ten have been identified — were recently "found" by Raup and Sepkoski to occur at more or less regular intervals of about 26 million years. Catastrophes, it is claimed, have acted suddenly and dramatically to change the elevation of the land and the depth of the sea; rapidly and violently heaving up mountains; dislocating, folding, and twisting strata of earth; often flooding entire continents; and instantaneously altering climatic conditions. Such sudden change implies the temporary suspension of the normal operations of nature. While originally God was assumed to be the source of catastrophe, today's scientists generally postulate some extraterrestrial body such as an asteroid.

While originally God was assumed to be the source of catastrophe,
today's scientists generally postulate some extraterrestrial body
such as an asteroid.

As scientists and influential laymen ignored or rejected the revealed plan by which God affects the earth and everything on it in favor of a placid, benevolent nature in which everything "in every way is getting better and better" [Emile Coue], catastrophism eventually lost out to uniformitarianism as a school of geological thought. It should be noted, however, that many, if not most, of the great geologists of the eighteenth century were deists who supported the doctrine of progressive development of nature by God. After every catastrophic episode, it was believed, God replenished the earth with ever new and higher forms of life.

Surprisingly, both schools were able to point to evidence buttressing their assumptions:

Catastrophists believed that the folded and fractured strata observable in mountain chains in which former sea life now rests at the summits demonstrate the operation of greater forces than can be observed in nature at present. Such forces can only be interpreted as functions of divine power.

Uniformitarianists, on the other hand, who initially respected the creation of matter by God, argued that underevaluating a presumed necessary lengthy duration of geological time was impeding the progress of the science of geology. Given time which was "vast beyond human comprehension," the process of strata-folding can be attributed to the action of secondary causes, and do not need to be ascribed immediately to God's intervention. Allowing a very extended protraction of time for folding to take place demonstrates the possibility that such processes are entirely natural. Requiring conditions of very brief, even instantaneous, time, on the other hand, demands the immediate intervention of God in the form of miraculous events. Thus scientists came to prefer the purely natural approach, without God's involvement, which has persisted to this day.

For a time, strict uniformitarianism, we should note, was anti-evolutionary. Charles Darwin built his theories on the uniformitarian assumptions of naturalism, gradualism, and protracted time, but went on to propose a radical new theory, that of "natural selection." Eventually Darwin succeeded in converting one of the chief proponents of strict uniformitarianism, Sir Charles Lyell, to his theory of evolution.

The Arizona landscape bears scars which seem to illustrate the operation of both uniformitarian and catastrophic principles: the Grand Canyon in the northwest, and the Barringer Crater in the east. The former seems to exemplify slow, steady evolution over a great expanse of time; the latter, sudden devastation wrought by a meteorite.

Within the past few decades, scientists have breathed new life
into the theory of catastrophism by discovering and interpreting "evidence"
of violent natural catastrophes caused by asteroids.

Within the past few decades, scientists have breathed new life into the theory of catastrophism by discovering and interpreting "evidence" of violent natural catastrophes caused by asteroids (asteroid, Greek, "like a star") or some other terrestrial or extraterrestrial medium affecting the earth and wiping out large areas of trees, plants, and animals and perhaps even entire species. One of the first modern scientists to exploit implications of this idea, but "before its time," was Immanuel Velikovsky (1895–1979), a Russian-born immigrant to the U.S. The American scientific community became extremely hostile toward him and his catastrophist concepts, and in fact threatened to boycott a scientific publisher if his Worlds in Collision were published. It had to be turned over to a firm not involved in textbook publishing.

As recently as June 30, 1908 a mysterious event occurred over or on an isolated section of Siberia called Tunguska. The location of a vast "forest fall" of trees and vegetation was not discovered until 1927. Science at the time was unable to account for the event except by attributing it to an "astrometeor." Moreover, the Soviet government would not permit access to the area, and the event has had no noticeable impact on American scientific thought. Recently it has been suggested that a "geometeor" rather than an "astrometeor" (a difference without a distinction?) may have been the cause of the extensive damage at Tunguska.

In 1979 Walter Alvarez announced the existence of a world-wide layer of irridium which suggests that the strike of a meteorite at least ten kilometers in diameter near the Yucatan Peninsula had caused the so-called Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction which wiped out the dinosaurs. Impressed by the announcements of sudden, unexpected past catastrophes, the world is now asked to contemplate that an asteroid could wipe out modern civilization at almost any time.

The above discussion shows that time is really "of the essence" in resolving this matter: Is the universe, created by God, from 6,000 to 10,000 years old as proposed by Creation Science; or is it, created by God, 10 to 20 billion years old as proposed by Theistic Evolution; or has it, instead, evolved naturally, without the necessity of God's creation and intervention, as proposed by Naturalistic Evolution?

A minority of Creation Science supporters believe that the biblical "day"
was much longer than twenty-four hours, and may have been
a distinct "age" of indeterminate length.

We are told that about 44 percent of the public and 5 percent of scientists believe that God created the universe during six consecutive 24-hour days less than 10,000 years ago. According to this view, all the animals which exist and have ever existed, including dinosaurs, are descended from those animals created by God during "creation week." A minority of Creation Science supporters believe that the biblical "day" was much longer than twenty-four hours, and may have been a distinct "age" of indeterminate length.

About 39 percent support theistic evolution. In this view, the universe is over 10 billion years old. The earth's crust developed 4 billion years ago. Human beings evolved out of lower animals under God's guidance, and God uses evolution as the medium for developing new species to replace older ones.

About 10 percent support naturalistic evolution which holds generally the same views as theistic evolution, except that God played no part in the processes, and evolution was driven by purely natural forces.

It turns out that about half the population seems to believe that animal species evolved over hundreds of millions of years, and half believes that God created the foundation animals a few thousand years ago.

Obviously, if the theory of evolution is true, then the earth must be billions of years old in order to accommodate the time necessary for the species to evolve and for old species to die out. (Only a few species coexisted in the same time frame.) If creationism is true, then all the species that ever lived must have been accounted for in the initial creation by God. There would not have been enough time for new species to appear.

While the theory of evolution, it would seem, rules supreme, science will never be able to prove absolutely that the universe is over 10,000 years old, despite its ability to produce pieces of evidence displaying traces of an "ancient" earth. If God has the power to create at all, and we believe He has, then He has the power to create everything with a history of evidence. Trees could be created with tree rings; mountains could be created to look like the remains of even higher mountains; and thus the debate could continue without resolution.

While we may consider all these speculations of secular man for whatever validity they possess, we should never forget that when and how Creation occurred, the work should not be ascribed to nature, but to the Logos of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, as emphasized in The Symbol of Faith and Recollections of Clement. This is the basic principle which the world is choosing to ignore.

Father John Bockman

The Holy Fathers Speak

In the beginning God created the Heaven and the earth (Gen. 1:1).

It is right that any one beginning to narrate the formation of the world should begin with the good order which reigns in visible things. I am about to speak of the creation of heaven and earth, which was not spontaneous, as some have imagined, but drew its origin from God. What ear is worthy to hear such a tale? How earnestly the soul should prepare itself to receive such high lessons! How pure it should be from carnal affections, how unclouded by worldly disquietudes, how active and ardent in its researches, how eager to find in its surroundings an idea of God which may be worthy of Him!

But before weighing the justice of these remarks, before examining all the sense contained in them, let us see who addresses them to us. . . Now it is Moses who has composed this history. . . Moses, finally, who at the age of eighty, saw God, as far as it is possible for man to see Him. . . It is this man, whom God judged worthy to behold Him, face to face, like the angels, who imparts to us what he has learned from God. Let us listen then to these words of truth written without the "enticing words of man's wisdom" by the dictation of the Holy Spirit; words destined to produce not the applause of those who hear them, but the salvation of those who are instructed by them.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. I stop struck with admiration at this thought. What shall I first say? Where shall I begin my story? Shall I exalt the truth of our faith? The pagan philosophers have made much ado to explain nature, and not one of their systems has remained firm and unshaken, each being overturned by its successor. It is vain to refute them; they are sufficient in themselves to destroy one another. Those who were too ignorant to rise to a knowledge of a God could not allow that an intelligent cause presided at the birth of the universe, a primary error that involved them in sad consequences.

Some had recourse to material principles and attributed the origin of the universe to the elements of the world. Others imagined that atoms and indivisible bodies, molecules, and ducts form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting and separating produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider's web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Deceived by their inherent atheism, it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that all was given up to chance.

To guard us against this error, the writer on the creation from the very first words enlightens our understanding with the name of God. What a glorious order! He first establishes a beginning. . . Then he adds "created" to show that that which was made was a very small part of the power of the Creator. . . And God is named as the Creator, the origin of all that exists, the source of life, intellectual light, and impenetrable wisdom. It is He Who "in the beginning created heaven and earth."

St. John Chrysostom

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