Last month Elizabeth and I celebrated our 22nd (!) wedding anniversary by visiting one of our favorite cities: Washington, D.C. She had some work there (including a meeting with John Lewis) but we had some time for ourselves too. Back around the turn of the 00’s we spent a few summers there and were pleased to return and visit some old haunts and discover some new ones. Evenings we visited Dupont Circle and days we walked downtown among the museums. As usual I loved the art: Munch, Hopper, O’Keeffe. Also memorable: At the National Portrait Gallery there was a display of the winners of a national portrait competition.
Art can be exhilarating and challenging and fun, yes. And last month it was all of these. But when we walked into the National Museum of Natural History I felt instantly happy. Walking through the old Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit (which is about to be closed and updated) put me in a happy and expansive philosophical mood, just as it always has. Elizabeth and I started from the trilobites and worked clear around to the Tyrannosaur. We covered therefore about 500 million years of (very) prehistoric life in about an hour.
We re-entered the atrium and glimpsed a new sign, over on the other side of Henry the Elephant. It read “Nature’s Best Photography 2012.” Curious, we walked in and were blown away. We had just stepped through hundreds of millions of years of natural history and now stood face-to-face with nature as it is today.
The photographs are amazing. You really should see them. Here’s a link to the exhibition but the tiny jpegs don’t do justice to the brilliant 3-foot by 4-foot images at the museum. I could go into great detail about the dalmatian pelicans, the proboscis monkey, the southern pig-tailed macaque, the camel thorn trees, but really, where to start? Where to end?
To see such a exhibit is to be overwhelmed, knowing that what you are seeing is such a tiny fraction of what there is see now, today. And to then imagine these variations — and so many more — on life’s great theme rolling back through countless forms over hundreds of millions of years, well. What a happy overload that is.
Such a view of creation is challenging because we like to think that things are pretty much about us. I don’t mean us as individuals but us collectively, human beings. We are the ones made in God’s image after all, so aren’t we pretty important? God was incarnated in a human being, not a trilobite or a macaque. Isn’t that suggestive of some kind of favorable rank order?
Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. One of the great lessons of the Bible, it seems to me, is: What is marginal to us is not marginal to God. We are told to look to the margins of human society to find Jesus: to the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked, the weak. So maybe the Creator may be found at the margins of creation: the remote, the impossibly tiny, the vast, the strange, the alien and inhuman.
Job is one of my favorite books of the Bible. Near the end of the book after poor shaken Job has been taken on a crash tour of the created order, God points him toward the wilderness and asks, “Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?” (38.25-27)
God is with us, you and me. God knows us. God takes joy in us. But God also takes joy in reviving parched landscapes human beings will never see. God takes joy in each and every one of those oddball creatures that came and went long before we showed up, the ones who lurched through primordial swamps and flitted through Triassic skies and slithered silently across ancient ocean floors.
I just find that to be a total relief somehow: It’s not all about us. It really isn’t. God so often speaks to us through things that have nothing to do with us. At the museum, as I stood in front of Jed Weingarten’s White-headed Langurs my mind relaxed, my breath became regular, I remembered this from Anthony de Mello: “We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us,” and I was grateful.