“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”
—Matthew 16:18 (RSV)
The biblical metaphor of the church built on rock is interwoven throughout Christianity, used as a metaphor for the presumed stability and eternality of the faith. The Catholic church points to two thousand years of continuous tradition as proof that they are the rock in question, while other denominations cite their alleged correct interpretation of scripture, the belief that God is on their side, their anticipation of end-times vindication, or other details.
I say, let them have their analogy. We have a better one.
I wrote in “Belaboring the Obvious” that there are many pundits who confidently assert the futility of debating religion, claiming that no one ever changes their mind. I was very happy to see a substantial number of commenters step up to count themselves among that allegedly non-existent multitude. And, as I’ve pointed out, our numbers are growing generation by generation and even year by year. We’re still nowhere near a majority, but our growth is ongoing.
If reason seems futile, that’s only because it doesn’t produce dramatic changes of opinion in every case, or even in most cases. Human psychology just isn’t that malleable. The persuasive power of reason is less like a great torrent that sweeps away houses, more like the gentle dripping of water on stone. It may seem like a weak force, a tiny, imperceptible thing against the massed strength of rock. What could a few drips of water ever do to the hardness of stone?
But be not deceived: gentle as it may seem, weak as it may seem, water is the stronger of the two. It may work at a rate too slow for humans to perceive, but it has been one of the major forces shaping the surface of our planet. Given a million years, the soft, ceaseless pounding of waves can pulverize rock into soft sand. Given ten million years, it can erase impact craters or carve vast canyons through stone. Given a hundred million years, it can wear away mountains to nothing.
Over the span of a human lifetime, stone seems invulnerable. But if we could see with the eyes of geological time, it would be ephemeral as mist. We could see mountains upthrust, sharp and craggy, and then sink again as they were gentled by the scouring of erosion and carried piece by piece to the sea. We could see roots split stone, acid dissolve it, and lichen eat it away, transforming it into soil. We could see frost wedge itself into cracks and expand, pushing apart solid rock. We could see stone of all kinds crushed, metamorphosed, and ultimately subducted and melted.
The mightiest mountain is inevitably worn down to nothing by erosion, and in like manner, even the most powerful religion can be undercut by reason and fade away, brought low by forces it once scorned as beneath notice. So, let them have their rock – we are wind and water. We are a million falling drops, a million wind-blown particles, slowly wearing away at their supposedly solid foundation one grain at a time. And given enough time, we are the stronger. They may not notice the spreading cracks, but they are there nonetheless. We have seen what the future brings, and we know the trend is on our side.