Review: Geological virtues

"The Flatirons," near Boulder, Colo. Almost 300 million years old, these sandstone formations were lifted and tilted into their present orientation between 35 and 80 million years ago and subsequently exposed by erosion. (Wikimedia Commons)

Geologists and theologians have a complex relationship in modernity. In the 19th century, theories of deep geological time radically reconfigured theologians’ understandings of the earth’s age, with implications for the (un)reliability of the Bible as a scientific record. Now, in the first few decades of the 21st century, geology has once again thrown down a gauntlet to theology, raising the question of the deleterious impact of industrial humanity’s activities on the planet’s earth systems.

Timefulness by Marcia Bjornerud

Princeton University Press

224p, $24.95

When I began reading Marcia Bjornerud’s Timefulness, I expected a geology-forward argument about the Anthropocene—the highly fetishized, purported new epoch on the Geologic Time Scale under consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. What I found instead was a set of reflections more befitting a theologian than the arguments I had anticipated.

Timefulness is, for Bjornerud, a quality of attunement; an exhortation to a type of virtuous relationship to the natural world that contradicts the current “pervasive, stubborn, and dangerous temporal illiteracy in society” and a shorthand term for the shifting perspectives on the natural world that geology has opened up to modern minds. Bjornerud takes the reader on a tour de force of geology that explains how the contemporary earth sciences help with what religiously inclined readers might call the task of theological anthropology: a consideration of the world beyond humans, the world with humans, and the forces far beyond that shape us all.

Marcia Bjornerud: "Geology points a middle way between the sins of narcissistic pride in our importance and existential despair and our insignificance."

This is, frankly, the most poetic rendering of geology I have read since Darwin’s Origin of Species. Yet Bjornerud has a temporal advantage here—namely, in her diagnosis that “interpreting the Earth has always been deeply entangled with our self-perception as humans and our cherished stories about our relationship to the rest of creation.”

Bjornerud’s skill as a professor and her craft as a writer are everywhere evident. As a professor, she regularly encounters challenges from students who resist the idea that the earth is more than 6,000 years old; with both rigor and generosity she opens up other worlds for them and, by proxy, for us.

Read Timefulness for its captivating history of geologic science, for the suggestion that “geology points a middle way between the sins of narcissistic pride in our importance and existential despair and our insignificance,” and for constructive visions of what a time-literate future could look like. The word “timefulness” may be more than just this book’s title: It may be among the theological virtues that humanity needs to cultivate in the 21st century.

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