Archive for March, 2012


Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Roadside attractions that draw tourists also seem to draw Pterosaurs.

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: Dinosaur tracks at Clayton Lakes State Park.

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Some of the quietly amazing fossil trackways at Clayton Lakes State Park.

This site is, admittedly, out of the way.  Unless, that is, you decide to drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Hugoton, Kansas on Highway 56.  Located about 12 miles north of Clayton, New Mexico, these multiple dinosaur trackways eroded out of the bare rock that was scraped clean to make a spillway for the damn that created this reservoir.

To get to the trackways you have to head north from the main intersection in Clayton and hang a right at the Dollar Store.  From there the signs will guide you to the lake and a parking lot from where you can make the relatively short hike to the trackways (this is a State Park fee area).

At first, the trackways don’t look like much.  But they are worth giving a little time to emerge.  I would also encourage reading all of the descriptive signs.  In my case it was as if my eyes needed time to adjust to the landscape (helped, no doubt, by the sun that was getting a little low in the late-afternoon sky).

There are some rather quietly amazing things recorded in this ancient mud flat, including an interesting variety of animal prints, as well as the patterns of ancient cracked mud and rippled beach sand.  Of the more interesting trace fossils is a hadrosaur track that shows the animal pausing, rocking back on its hind legs, and then continuing on.  Another shows the place where a similar creature seemed to be struggling for its balance in the mud and used its large tail to stabilize itself, leaving a distinctive tail-drag mark in the mud.  This was the one that got to me.  Suddenly I was connected as one living animal living out a  moment in time with a long-extinct fellow creature experiencing his or her moment of stepping through the mud along the coast of the ancient interior seaway.

For me it was worth the drive into the far northeastern corner of New Mexico.  If you’re up that way, give it a look.  I found it deeply moving.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!


Sunday, March 18th, 2012

It seems only natural the he and I would cross paths in the American Art Gallery at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City.

SERMON: “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

There are ideas to which we offer safe harbor that we never really think about.  One of the most persistent, to my mind, is the craving for ease.  Specifically I’m thinking about our passed-down notions of what Heaven would be like: there will be no more death, no more sadness, no more hunger, and we will all (well, the pre-qualified all, that is) have everything that we could ever need without having to work, trade or ask for it.

Taking, for a moment, a step back from this cherished chestnut, what are the most obvious implications of this idea?  The first that comes to mind is that anything less than Heaven is somehow iniquitous.  That change (particularly actual physical change) is bad.  It seems to be a common thread in religious belief that there is — underlying all physical reality — a certain unchanging (in fact unchangeable) forged-in-iron, carved-in-stone TRUTH, and that Heaven is the certain logical perfection of a deeply-flawed temporal existence.

Once again I run into something I’ve come to understand about certain religious beliefs: the major problem with the concept of Heaven is not the obvious one (that it is not true), but that is in, in a very fundamental way, a profoundly pernicious denial of reality.  The very idea that the teeming, complex, frenetic activity of life is a condition that Heaven will put right by bringing everything to an eternal stasis is — as has been pointed out by minds greater than my own — not a description of Heaven, but rather of Hell.

One of those truths of life that I resist acknowledging is that the only things that have stopped moving, growing or changing are those that are inert or dead.  (But even then, it’s hard to think of a rock that isn’t undergoing some sort of alteration, be it ever so slowly deep in the earth’s crust or more rapidly, exposed to the erosive effects of wind and weather.  And no life form dies that is not immediately given over to a process of “natural” recycling).

The reality is that our living bodies are a walking, talking, never-ending process of death and renewal as we slough off old skin cells to make way for the new, for example.  Our teeth may be wearing away faster than they can renew, true, and our brains may not be producing loads of new cells but they are, nonetheless, ever creating new pathways and connections that make the mind itself an evolving phenomenon.  Our bodies are constantly repairing damage to our DNA caused by the cosmic rays that pass through us every day, and despite our thoughts to the contrary, we continue to evolve on a species level, as does every other living thing around (and within) us.

We are physical animals in a physical world.  Despite the scorn we heap upon physical exercise, there is absolutely no denying that we require a certain amount of activity to remain mentally and physically fit.  (It could be argued that there is much about our current levels of obesity, depression and anxiety that could be dramatically reduced if we human animals would just use our bodies as more than passive receptacles for technology and industrialized foods).

(As I’ve said before, we are not so different from the bears and tigers in the local zoo pacing off their boredom: we evolved in a physically-challenging environment.  Life in the wild may not be safe or secure, but it certainly is stimulating and tends to keep any and all animals in top form).

We humans are remarkable if for no other reason than we have developed the mental power — and through it the technological skill — to bring about the kind of reality the cold, frightened, hungry animal that we were for millennia could only dream of.

But somewhere in the Middle East, some thousands of years ago, one poor, hungry and tired soul penned an idea of Heaven as having “streets paved with gold” and rivers flowing with “milk and honey”.  We parrot these ideas in countless sermons in countless churches and Bible studies, but how many of us would actually choose gold streets and sweetened milk as our idea of an ultimate reward of comfort and ease?  But this is how we are with ideas of Heaven (be they religious or otherwise): we use them as tools to endure present distress more than as actual templates of a world we might want to inhabit, and, therefore, they need not be, well, practical nor even desirable.

And yet we have created a world with incredible ease for ourselves.  Hell, we weren’t happy with just creating an electronic device that brought the world’s best entertainers into our living room, someone designed a small plastic device that meant we didn’t even have to cross the room to turn the damn thing on.  And now we have our favorite shows on DVD, which allows us to exercise mastery over time and space as we watch them until we’re sated, skip ahead, or repeat a favorite scene.  (I don’t know about you, but too much of that, and I find myself with sudden urges to replay reality when I miss a moment in time!).

And though I am low-income by American standards, I am so loaded with goods and technology compared to the rest of the globe’s population (not to mention the mass of humanity that lived and died owning practically nothing we would consider valuable) that I have little choice but to see myself as “rich” by human standards.

But all wealth and ease is relative, isn’t it?  I heard a joke on the radio today about what is the perfect income for a trader on Wall Street.  The answer?  “A dollar more than anybody else is getting!”.

We know now from studies that we humans are so adaptive that any increase in income or the acquisition of new goods and comforts will only elevate our happiness for a very short time (hours, perhaps days), and we’ll then go on pretty much as we did before.  Some of us answer this challenge with non-stop acquisition (a trait we seem to grudgingly admire in those who can pull it off)!

But leaving aside the vapid morality of such an approach, that behavior is not simply an expression of being “spoiled” or “out of touch”, but actually returns us to our inner animal that evolved, frankly, in a challenging natural environment that required our rapidly evolving large brains to survive: having evolved with the stimulating challenge of survival, we still crave the stimulation that our natural environment no longer supplies in its most raw form.  What has happened to our species over a very few hundreds of years is that our technology has jumped us forward much faster than our Ice Age bodies and minds can handle.  In a very real sense, we have lost our way by following the technology we have been able to create, and find ourselves using our technology more and more to tickle our bored brains.

Now I’m no Luddite: I think the only way forward for us is, well, forward.  Even were we able to convince ourselves of the attainability of some mythical past “Golden Age”, we couldn’t get there.  (But neither am I fooled by the new technological utopians who have become their own priestly class, accumulating vast wealth from their impoverished parishioners).

Like it or not, history is something that is always happening to us right now, and we have only the option of facing it with the knowledge and tools that we have as it happens.  There is no template, no plan, no ideal other than the ones we ourselves conceive of.  And, that being said, there is also no Heaven in our future.  There is only the Heaven (or the Hell) that we are all part of creating in the (very real) here and now.

All that we humans can do is do our best to negotiate the present in ways that make us feel good about the way we’re going about it.  In general, that means living lives that create a bit more good than bad in the world (not always an easy result to quantify) while acknowledging the actual physical, temporal animals that we are.  We all understand this.  And we all know that there are times when life’s challenges swamp our capacity to face them with good cheer or even hope.  These are the moments we pray for a Heaven of ease (or a Hell to punish those that do bad things to us and to others).

But these are wishes to get us through the rough spots, not realities we should ever really want to see come to pass.  Besides, we are such adaptive animals that a few days of Heaven would soon have us wondering if they weren’t having a bit more fun down in the more challenging Hell.

In reality, every moment spent on “Heaven” is a moment wasted here on earth.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, March 18th, 2012

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Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Snow on the Sandias...with Tyrannosaur.

SERMON: “The Rocks Cry Out” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

It seems to be the case for me that to be on the road is to be aware of natural history.

As I drive north (through south-central New Mexico) on the interstate I pass the Elephant Butte Reservoir that I know contains an outcropping of the McRae Formation: late Cretaceous fossiliferous rocks that have yielded bits of Tyrannosaurus jaws and skulls.  Further up the road is my favorite evidence of volcanism — a pert little plug of former magma that reminds me of a giant nipple protruding from the earth.  And every road-cut exposes the layer-cake of geology in which every stone or pebble tells a part of the story of the active life of the craggy crust of the earth.

My favorite, suggestive, volcanic plug in central New Mexico.

And, of course, here am I — a modern human animal scooting along a strip of pavement in a machine made of intricately-designed parts of metal, glass and polymer and fueled by the distilled carbon of ancient, long-gone forests.

The Bible says that should man refuse to recognize the evidence of God that “the rocks would cry out!”.  I can’t help but think that there is a deeper truth in this than we realize.  The rocks, do, indeed cry out, but not as evidence for a creator.  Rather, they bear mute testimony to the active, ancient history of the planet we occupy.

“Young earth creationists” are in the most difficult spot, I think.  On the one hand, they are among the more “honest” of religious believers in that they stand by their “book” unflinchingly.  They do not make accommodations to either culture or science (well, at least not to the degree that more moderate believers do).  But on the other, they must actively deny a literal mountain of evidence, for the youngest geological formations put to the test their determination to hold that the earth is about six or seven thousand years old.

So they have to deny the reliability of any of the multiple cross-referencing dating systems we have discovered (even tree-ring data takes us back some 11,000 years!).  They must also endorse the idea that God must have created the universe with light beams from distant planets, stars and galaxies (that he also created for some reason) already hitting the planet earth — otherwise our modern skies would be very, very dark indeed as we waited the billions of years some of those light beams would have to travel to reach our “irreducibly-complex” eyeballs.

The fact that we even SEE the stars is one more bit of compelling evidence for the true age of the universe.  So the reality that surrounds us is that every rock, every star and every living creature are the bearers of the evidence of our natural and ancient origins.  The elements that make up my body were formed in the deep furnaces of exploding stars.  My DNA carries the record of my evolution as a living organism from the first multi-cellular life forms that successfully colonized the waters of earth.  The rocks aren’t so much shouting as screaming at us (in their mute, polite manner).

It is a curious artifact of our natural tendency toward belief that we will not only ignore, but actively resist evidence that threatens our view of reality.  This isn’t a mysterious trait of humans — I think we understand it fairly well in psychological terms.  There is clearly something about possessing a consciousness like we do that demands that we maintain a sense of inner coherence — a unity of the self.  As rational as I think I am, I am no less the servant of this need to feel like my beliefs line up with reality.

As a result, I can wonder whether my views are driven as much by belief as any fundamentalist’s.  To be sure, my mind works to smooth off the rough edges of my own personality with justification, rationalization and — when those fail — apologies and efforts at amends with whoever I may have offended by my selfish actions.  But that being the case does it does not necessarily follow that my embrace of scientific evidence and evolution is purely rooted in my own sense of wish-fulfillment that is the root of so much religious dogma.

The obvious difference is, of course, the actual existence of evidence for evolution and our purely natural origins.  There is, yet, absolutely no evidence for the existence of any god or gods, or anything about our existence that requires such a god’s existence for its explanation.  The only hand-hold available for the theist is to believe that any gap in our understanding of life is the same thing as a mystery answerable only by god.   There is, of course, no reason this should be so.

For while it is true that science can never prove or disprove the existence of god, what it has shown is that the idea of god has become completely irrelevant to any understanding of life on earth, the existence of the earth itself, or the universe as a whole.

Science has steadily dismantled the myriad claims about the nature of reality that theistic religion claimed to have answered, leaving only the human need for something to believe in as the last sanctuary of god.

But from within that sanctuary, many believers still sally forth in an effort to discredit science, or to bend it to their doctrine.  They call themselves Creation Scientists, which rings about as sensible as Biologist Priests or Rabbinical Paleontologists (I know, I know — the terms can seem to fit a level of perceived arrogance, if not doctrine).

My motivation for using science to understand my place in the world is not a religious one.  And yet is satisfies an existential hunger in me that religion has traditionally fed.  But I would argue that religion, in the end, isn’t really up to the task of telling us who we are and why we’re here and has, actually, become a sort of intellectual anchor on our progress as humans.

And yet, returning to my awareness of biology and nature, I must recognize that there are loads of things about life that aren’t ideal or efficient — such as the convoluted paths our nerves and veins take through our bodies that are leftovers of the lifeforms our modern shapes were built upon.

Nothing in Life is about perfection — the changes wrought by natural selection are never started from scratch, but must work from what already exists.  It took us a very, very long time to change from fish to humans, but we’ve never completely left our watery ancestry behind.  And so religious belief is a part of the evolution of our consciousness and, as such, will never be completely left behind either.  Even if it gets in the way of our hearing what the rocks are really trying to say to us.

t.n.s.r. bob


Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Although absolutely no help in moving things out of the studio, the dinosaurs seemed very concerned about where I was moving to.

SERMON: “Splitting the Hairs of God” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Attempting to see the world in a materialist, scientific sort of way (which is a formal way of saying “See the world for what it actually is”) has a sort of cumulative effect on one’s perception of life.  One of the more interesting of those are the moments of rather startling clarity about former beliefs.  It is the nature of such insights that they can only come after a certain distance is put between one’s self and the spell of belief (assuming that the spell of belief has been “broken”).  This makes sense: we rarely, if ever, see things very clearly in the heat of the moment.

And so it was that I was suddenly able to see the astounding quality of fantasy that attends such notions as a creator God that has — literally — numbered the hairs on our head.  Now I can assume that this includes eyelashes and beards, but what about the some five million other hair follicles on the human body (times the bodies of some 8 billion living humans)?  And what could possibly be the point?  Such a statement of religious devotion is clearly intended to be poetic, and, like poetry, it goes straight to the heart in a warming sort of way.  That is all well and good, but both you and I know that a whole lot of our fellow humans actually believe this sort of thing on some foundational level.  Of course they don’t analyze it or dissect it — to do so would to rob the poetry of its sweetness.  So we just sort of nod in approval whenever someone repeats this chestnut, savoring the warm feeling it gives us.

And here comes another wag (me) — like that kid who pees in the pool — saying it’s all rubbish!

Now I have a conservative Christian friend who is convinced that I am deeply angry (what is it about the archly conservative that makes perceived-anger-as-instant-argument-invaidator such a fetish with them?).  But I’m not angry.  I’m incredulous!  For how can it possibly be more believable that the God of all the Universe devotes his vast energy to keeping track of the status of, say, lower back follicle number 3,452,789 than it is to accept the vast amount of scientific evidence of the evolution of life on earth?  This doesn’t make me furious — it leaves me almost speechless.

Loads of people try to dismiss champion of evolution Richard Dawkins as "angry" and "arrogant", as if that proves that his arguments are invalid.

But of course the answer is as obvious as it is perplexing:  the notion of a loving heavenly father is far more palatable to our vulnerable psyches.  It is an idea we are already familiar with from our own experiences of having had a father (or at least a loving adult in our lives).  Belief is warm and familiar, like a teddy bear.  Science is cold and unfamiliar, and snatches our teddy bears away from us.

The progression from childhood to adult belief is generally seamless.  And little wonder, really.  What is clearly the exception are those that break away from belief (generally, but not always, due to trauma or a betrayal of some kind).  This serves to confirm my own view that we humans are natural believers, and that it takes a certain amount of effort (be it catalyzed or self-motivated) to move us beyond the believing world view.

To me the answers — or, I should say, the lack of answers (in the case of religion) — are obvious.  The scientific evidence (the only “testable” kind) is overwhelming.  So why do so many of us not just fail to accept the evidence, but actively and fervently oppose it?  This is not rational.

Ah, but it is human.

I’m beginning to realize that science is challenging to internalize because it is describing phenomenon that — though truly a “part” of us — have no sensory connection to the way in which we actually experience life.  Some scientific concepts are comprehensible through our body, such as our own weight in relation to earth’s gravity, or the feeling of the wind on our skin that can remind us that air has mass.  But no matter how hard I smack my hand against a table, it’s almost impossible to really grasp that my flesh is not actually touching wood, and that what is stopping the widely-dispersed atoms in my hand from passing right through the equally-widely-dispersed atoms in the table is a bunch of electrical bonds between those atoms.

In practical terms it is much easier to just say that my flesh is solid, but flexible, whereas the table is just plain solid.  This is how we live our lives.  And when it comes to the “why” of it all, we’d rather cast our lot with a God who numbers our hairs than a scientist who splits them.

Our brains evolved according to the iron laws of natural selection, which means that there is little room for the frivolous or unnecessary in any animal that must compete for resources.  There has never been a need for us to see life at an atomic level.  For one, we are not naturally equipped to either see it or sense it in any meaningful way.  For another, we will never find our dinner or mate “there”.  Our living happens in the world of things that we can control, avoid or domesticate.  And yet (without meaning too!) we have developed these large, complex brains and the capacity for language that have brought us science and microscopes and space telescopes that have, in turn, opened up to us a world incomprehensibly more vast than we ever thought could exist.  And, frankly, our brains aren’t up to the task.

Seriously: they aren’t!

As I continue to read popular science, I find my brain stretched to its limits to comprehend what I read.  And I can almost feel our collective minds (and even the minds of the most brilliant humans) being stretched when I read about the frontiers of current research.  Maybe it has always been this way with us (at least since the start of the Neolithic “revolution”).  After all, there was a time when no human had ever seen (much less even imagined) a wheel, and yet someone thought it up.  Everything about us and our culture and our knowledge came about in that way.

But science has always, in a way, been the work of the outsider who upsets the calm of the tribe, pissing off the witchdoctor who has held sway over the minds of his followers for generations.  But it’s not just the witchdoctor who fights knowledge (he or she out of obvious commercial self-interest), but the individuals who find themselves forced into thinking things that are, frankly, very close to impossible to understand.

And yet…evolution makes sense.  In fact, it is the only explanation for life on earth that does make sense.  It’s hard to wrap your mind around, yes, but it’s not impossible with a little time and attention.  Ideas of divine creation are far more familiar to us, to be sure, woven poetically (and through tradition) into our consciousness, but they are laughable as actual theories (despite the intellectual contortions that creationists put themselves through).

But the science of our reality will always be a challenge to internalize, as it will always suffer from the internal conflict between the precision of description that science demands and the use of imprecise metaphor that is needed to make it understandable to the non-scientist.  I think this conflict is one of the foundational reasons that believers in the divine story feel less than confident about jumping the ship of belief.  For us humans, it would appear, it’s not enough that something be true.  We need to be able to believe in it too.
t.n.s.r. bob