Recently I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful educational program with the California Chaparral Institute. This program was the Advanced Chaparral Naturalist certification course, and I found it intriguing because it had a great deal of focus on geology. Geology is one subject that I knew almost nothing about. Aside from some basic, middle-school level earth science knowledge about types of rock, I could not claim to have any knowledge of geology whatsoever.
I found that geology has a lot in common with philosophy and theology. Now I know that some of my naturalistically-inclined friends will scoff at this comparison, but bear with me. Geology, like theology and philosophy, is typically not the first choice of study for those interested in natural sciences. Studying rocks and dirt is just not quite as accessible as plants or animals. Sure there are impressive instances of geology, such as the massive granite cliffs and domes of Yosemite Valley, but these are rather simplistic examples in geological terms. Geology is much more of an intuitive pursuit. You cannot see the movement of tectonic plates and the formation and transformation of rocks in the same way that you can watch a plant grow.
Through the course, I found that my home region of Southern California has a particularly unique geological makeup. We are located at a sort of crossroads – the boundaries of tectonic plates, uplifted ranges from ancient subduction zones, and the proximity to the ocean have all contributed to the variety of the topography found around here. You can find specimens of many different geological ages in close proximity in San Diego County.
This impressed upon me most the idea that our topography is not just a matter of chance. The forces that have come into play in this region have each shaped our coastal bluffs, mesas and canyons, rolling foothills and boulder-studded highlands in specific ways. This variety of topography, in turn, has created watersheds and environments for the native plant and animal species that live here. You cannot have the life without the land.
One of the most significant parameters in the study of geology is that of time. Geological time is measured in terms of ages, epochs, eras – periods of time so massive that our minds can barely comprehend them. We speak of the uplift of continents and the movement of ranges along plate boundaries, and we are asked to picture and think of these things in real time, while in fact they take place over lifetimes longer than any species alive on the Earth. Imagining these things takes a shift in the way of seeing. It involves viewing the landscape and the places we know with whole new dimensions – time and motion among them.
Geology really is, at the root, a story of motion. And it is here that I find the most congruence with theology, at least the kind of theology that I espouse. The lands that we know are in constant motion. They were someplace else before, and they will be someplace else later. In 50 million years, San Diego county will be in Northern California (we are moving northwest at a rate of a few inches per year). Even the things we find most solid, rocks and mountains, are not so solid after all, but are moving and will be transformed again and again. Such is the nature of spiritual things as well. That dance of transformation, of birth, life, death, and re-birth, is inherent in the nature of the universe in both a spiritual and physical sense, and this is manifest even in the ground we stand upon. This is the profound mystery that geology reveals to me.
I can’t claim to have anything beyond the most basic layman’s knowledge of geology even after this course, but that’s beside the point. What I have gained is an appreciation for the story that geology has to tell. It is a story about the places that we live and move around in. The best theology is also more about stories than it is about doctrines or details as well. We need stories to frame our existence, whether we acknowledge this or not. I’m glad that I’ve learned, in a small way, to listen to the stories that the rocks, hills and mountains have to tell.