Happy Birthday, World!

Happy Birthday, World! October 23, 2018





As pretty much everyone knows, the world was created in the late afternoon, okay, maybe early evening, on this day in the 4004th year before the birth of Jesus.

James Ussher, the Anglican archbishop of Armagh, and Primate of all Ireland, figured it out in the 17th century. Actually he was following in the footsteps of many before him attempting to use the scriptures as a guide to their calculations. He did it with a bit more rigor than the others, marshaling an impressive intellect and genuine scholarly knowledge. He resolved the issue of calculating the earliest times which has different dates in different manuscripts by relying exclusively upon the Hebrew text. The so-called early age of kings is rife with complexities as there are obvious errors, overlaps and gaps in the chronologies, so, he used what non scriptural historical records available to reconcile this period. And finally in the so called late age of kings, the historical records become more certain and the calculations begin to fall into place. And he wove it all together.

Archbishop Ussher assumed the date of creation should be in the Fall as that’s when the Jewish observation of the new year occurs. And with a few more tweaks he came up with the date, today, by his best calculation probably around six in the evening.

Now, there were a number of such calculations available for people, but for one major reason the archbishop’s dating became “the” date. Starting in 1701 annotated editions of the King James Bible included his chronology. Apparently it helps to be primate of all Ireland when picking whose commentaries to include with the Anglican church’s study bible. Now, by the middle of the nineteenth century people began to notice the discrepancies between the archbishop’s dating and the emerging awareness of evidence that the world is in fact much, much older. And that annotations for the King James Bible was dropped. But, it was too late. That date was imprinted upon the English speaking mind. And it continues to be defended to this day by “young Earth” advocates, even if it has long since moved from a reasonable scholarly view to pure crankitude…

And, back to that earlier reasonable scholarly view. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Archbishop Ussher, he doesn’t deserve the disparagement he often gets from those who don’t think it through. The article cites Stephen Jay Gould, who tells us, “I shall be defending Ussher’s chronology as an honorable effort for its time and arguing that our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past.” Gould continues, “Ussher represented the best of scholarship in his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working toward a common goal under an accepted methodology…”

And, of course, he continues in a long line of brilliant people who use logical analysis of too limited data and come up with a wrong conclusion. My favorite example from my early reading was Heroditus’ account of being in Egypt and told there were three theories about the source of the Nile. One had it the Nile has its source in the River Ocean, another that there is a bottomless well from which it springs, and third that it has its source in mountain snows far to the south. He had traveled extensively and dismissed the River Ocean as a myth. He also traveled in Egypt and the further south one proceeded, the hotter it got. So, he reasoned that was bogus, as well. And, he knew that often springs and natural wells and other such places frequently have eddies and currents and a drop line could get caught in one and appear to be “bottomless.” So, he declared that obviously the so-called bottomless well, correctly understood, had to be the source of the Nile.

Heroditus used perfectly reasonable assumptions to come up with the wrong answer. Archbishop Ussher used the best tools available to him at the time and within the world view he lived and breathed and took his being, and came up with a wrong answer.

For me there’s a pretty straight forward take away. The world is complex and mysterious. Our views are shaped by the gestalt of our times and place. We always, always see through a glass darkly.

And, and this is important: in matters of science things continue to advance. Every day we know more stuff. Now, that dark remains dark, but not so dark. Will there ever be a day fully knowable? I strongly suspect our capacity for knowing has limits, but I suspect we can get pretty close. That is if we don’t kill ourselves off first. Which, sadly, I suspect is a more likely thing.

Still. In matters of science generosity and humility appear to be the watch words.

And maybe they are the secrets not only for the pursuit of factual knowledge, but for lives worth living.

My little take away. There might even be a deep spirituality on offer, if we are willing to look at the great matter with generous spirits, and a large dose of humility. Okay, and maybe some critical decisions about what is more and what is less likely to help focus.

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