Redeemed humanity is still young. –C.S. Lewis
We often think of human history in terms of centuries, and are impressed if a family tree can be traced back a few dozen generations. But on the grand scale of our species, we are the leaves at the top of a very bushy tree of life. So I learnt from the August edition of Scientific American, which was dedicated to human evolution. In old textbooks our descent is described in a relatively linear fashion: Australopithecus became Homo erectus became Neanderthals became Homo sapiens—that is, us. However, the past couple of decades of research have shown that things are more complicated. There were often several hominin species at the same time, sometimes competing, sometimes coevolving in different regions, sometimes interbreeding. It turns out, for instance, that the Neanderthal is not so much a direct ancestor on the trunk of our family tree as it is another branch with which our own trunk interbred before it died out.
In addition to tracing our family tree, researchers have also been figuring out our family’s timeline. Our own species, Homo sapiens, emerged around 200,000 years ago. In other words, you would be hard pressed to distinguish between a modern man and a 200,000-year-old ancestor by studying their skeletons. Based on artefacts recently discovered in South Africa, it appears that symbolic thinking and representation emerged 80,000 to 100,000 years ago. To put that in context, this is well before the Neanderthals disappeared around 30,000 years ago—a race that had sophisticated tools and perhaps even burial rites. And it is aeons before the Agricultural Revolution, around 12,000 years ago, when humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming and animal husbandry.
All of this puts salvation history in a thought-provoking context. Moses, who is usually dated to the thirteenth or fifteenth century B.C., is practically our grandfather on these time scales; the two-thousand years of Christianity is a mere two percent of the total duration during which our species has used symbols to express itself.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Redeemed humanity is still young.” This may be very literally true. If we think in terms of our history as a species, the Incarnation of God is very recent—“late in time behold him come,” as the Christmas carol says. Moreover, for much of the past two millennia, knowledge of the Christ event has been limited only to certain cultures and peoples. Even if today there are Christians almost everywhere on the planet, there are some peoples who have never heard the Gospel—and others who are forgetting it.
Really, in many ways we are quite new to being adopted children of God. There is still unawareness and confusion that a new situation even exists. But it is nonetheless a concrete reality. Pope Benedict XVI once spoke of salvation as
… a qualitative leap in the history of “evolution” and of life in general towards a new future life, towards a new world which, starting from Christ, already continuously permeates this world of ours, transforms it and draws it to itself.
Like past progress, it is strange, unexpected, and perhaps not widely noticed. Would anyone 200,000 years ago have predicted that our puny ancestors with oversized skulls would become the most successful species on the planet? But unlike past progress, this recent development propagates not by more brain or brawn but by baptism. As Benedict continued to explain:
Baptism means precisely this, that we are not dealing with an event in the past, but that a qualitative leap in world history comes to me, seizing hold of me in order to draw me on. … It is also more than a simple washing, more than a kind of purification and beautification of the soul. It is truly death and resurrection, rebirth, transformation to a new life.
We are, then, in the midst of wholly new and not even fully commensurate to what went before. And it has come at a propitious time if we consider human history from a demographic perspective. Today there are about seven billion people on earth, more than have ever before existed at one time. It is roughly six or seven per cent of all humans who have ever lived—not a majority, but still an impressive fraction when one thinks of our long history and the relative shortness of our lives. It means that we live in a privileged time when it comes to the sheer volume of people that are implicated in salvation history.
Christ may have come “late in time”, but he came at a time when knowledge of him could be reliably remembered through the written word, transmitted through the continual contact of mobile peoples and shared among the billions of people that have come after him. It may be useful to remind ourselves of this from time to time. Unlike many of the other religious movements of the time, early Christianity was not tribal or regional. Christians consciously proclaimed a gospel for all times and all peoples, and indeed for the whole cosmos. The Paschal Mystery is not an interesting historical event; it is the event in the 200,000-year history of our species. Today, just as much as 2,000 years ago, it is our exciting job to let the world know just exactly what has happened to the human race in its recent history, and invite them to plunge into its new current.