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Countdown to Extinction

On the wall of my school dormitory was a picture of a golden retriever in mid air about to land in a lake. The caption read: “I don't know where I'm going, but I'm going.” To live in the west during the late twentieth century was to live like the dog. We were not concerned with the destination as much as we were with the motion; steering the ship was secondary to getting it out of the harbor. Then something changed. Terror, war and financial disaster forced us to freeze like a rabbit caught in the headlights. The West, marked by clocks, mass transit and progress, seemed to grind to a halt, or at least to slow. Now we are caught in mid-air, unsure of where we are going and whether we are even going at all. And what are we are waiting for? Another act of terror? The emergence of a new world empire? Slavoj Zizek calls this “the age of anxiety” and he is not far from the mark. I think, perhaps, our fear is not only about the decline of the West, but the fragility of humanity. 

This fear, I think, has much to do with our adoption of Darwinism. Darwinism manacles humanity to survival within a closed system of nature. We are constantly aware that just because we have done quite well so far does not mean that we should rule out the possibility that we shall, at some point, fail as a species. As Marilynne Robinson points out, "Since those who are alive tend to make up the majority of the population, one cannot really be surprised to find their traits predominant, and their offspring relatively numerous. At the same time, one cannot be sure that they have not found the broad path to extinction, like so many creatures before them, doomed by traits that cannot at this moment be called incompatible with their survival, given the fact of their survival." Our strongest traits may even conspire in our downfall. This informs paranoia about flu viruses, who mutate in response to our attempts to eradicate them. Our very ability to come up with preventative treatments, we fear, might be the very cause of our downfall. 

Darwinism provides no resources for indignation. We may strongly desire survival and we may be willing to do anything to achieve it, but there is nothing in Darwinism that suggest that we ought to survive, no moral imperative for the survival of our species over any other.

At midnight tonight the world will stare at the clock, ready to cheer. But the truth is we are increasingly staring at the clock all year round and not with any impulse to cheer. Darwinism has taught us to look at the clock as a kind of countdown. Elster, Don DeLillo's character in his latest novel, Point Omega, describes this kind of felt time as:

All embedded, the hours and minutes, words and numbers everywhere...train stations, bus routes, taxi meters, surveillance cameras. It's all about time, dimwit time, inferior time, people checking watches and other devices, other reminders. This is time draining out of our lives. Cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature. There's an endless counting down.

Elster retreats to the slow pace of the dessert and looks back at the city, in which he once lived, and says, “When you strip away all the surfaces, when you see into it, what's left is terror.” The desert, for DeLillo's character, is a retreat from an unforgiving clock to a “deep time, epochal time.” He attempts to escape a countdown to extinction. Time, for Elster, marks a distance from universal death. We—the human race—are an at-risk species. It will be the end of time, the natural usurpation of a formerly dominant kind. Nature will unshackle herself from the clock; she will throw off her master. Elster fails in his bid to escape the city clock. His daughter is murdered and he is forced to return to the city. The desert leads to nowhere except back to the city. There is no escape from the countdown.

Transcendence, in this line of thinking, must be ignored, eradicated or, to apply our mood, rendered extinct. Nothing exists over and above time. And without any reference to transcendence, time is a countdown to death—either personal or for the whole species. Time is merely a category used to mark off distance from death, to describe our relationship with extinction.

The notion of eternity is the notion of transcendence. If it is ripped from the personal God of Theism, transcendence is dulled. Instead it is rendered as monotony, a repetitive cycle of life and death.

However, as Christians have always argued, finitude is dependent for its meaning on the infinite. The clock we watch tonight indicates our relationship with history, with His story. It is with reference to Christ that we are able we understand this; he is our location in time and space. The declaration of location is not merely a historical assertion, but positional. The church is found in the Alpha and Omega, the one for who time was made, the origin of time and space (Col 1). We find our place in time by our union with him. Our place in time is also between the two comings of Christ. It is the church age. This is our relationship with redemptive history: “poised between memory and hope.” The Christian speaks to orient people in relationship to this story. It thus competes with the story of man's evolution, and the accompanying risk of extinction.

Central to our location is the crucifixion. The gospel is not just the story of a visit by the infinite to the finite. A visit implies a return to what had gone before. The transformation of the relationship between God and humanity occurred in the death of Christ on the cross. Richard John Neuhaus writes that the crucifixion of Christ, whilst affirming the distinction between the finite and infinite, destroys the division:

Finitum capax infinitum—“the finite is capable of holding the infinite.” The whole of incarnational and sacramental living is caught up in that phrase. Time and eternity, the finite and the infinite, the physical and the spiritual, the immanent and the transcendent, the earthly and the heavenly—all these distinctions are no longer pitted against one another. In the incarnation Jesus assumed the fullness of our humanity, and on the cross he commended it to the Father.

The coherence of our location is found in the commending of humanity to the Father. Without it our location is that of eternal alienation from the transcendent. Only in the death of Christ are both finite humanity and infinite God united. For this reason Christ can secure both memory and hope. Only Christ can affirm both the finite (in humanity) and the infinite (in divinity), because he remains both God and man. The transcendent God cannot now jettison humanity without jettisoning the Son. The unity has been made permanent.

We may yet see horrendous evil, terror on an industrial scale, mutations in our environment leveled, it may seem, at our destruction, but we are not subject to the diktat of what Robinson calls a "chilling doctrine," the survivor doctrine. We are instead, when the clock strikes twelve, re-oriented to our origins, our great need and our even greater savior. 

My plea to you, dear reader, is this: Do not unshackle the clock from whom it derives meaning. Just as our seasons derive from their creator, the new year derives from our savior. The promise of a new year is not the chance for survival, but the renewed hope for redemption. 

Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), 32.
Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003), 56.
Don DeLillo, Point Omega (New York: Scribner, 2010), 45.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Redemption: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 3.
Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 246.
This is the admonition of Jewel to her fellow Narnians as they entered the new Narnia: “Don’t stop. Farther up and farther in! Take it in your stride.” It is that sense which eternity should be taken for the Christian not the static sense. We will never really cease from pilgrimage. From C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1956), 156.