A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, The Sixth Extinction. I knew her writing from the New Yorker, and I was looking forward to reading more of her excellent science journalism. I expected her book to be well researched, well written, and challenging, and I was not disappointed. I couldn’t put it down. What I didn’t expect was how reading it turned into an ongoing Lenten moment of seeing with painful clarity what an impact human life is having on all of life on earth. I was filled with awe at the sheer immensity of life’s history and with amazement at life’s flourishing again and again after great devastations.
The first mass extinction of life on earth, roughly 450 million years ago, at the end of the Ordovician period, is believed to have been caused by dropping temperatures and the resulting glaciation. The third and biggest, known as “the great dying,” at the end of the Permian period about 250 million years ago, seems to have been caused by rising temperatures and changes in ocean chemistry. That one, writes Kolbert, “came perilously close to emptying the earth altogether.” The fifth and most famous, which ended the Cretaceous period some 65 million years ago, doomed the dinosaurs as well as perhaps three-quarters of all living species. It was brought on by an asteroid slamming into the Yucatan Peninsula. Which brings us to the sixth mass extinction, happening all around us. This one is unique in that its underlying cause is a single highly successful species, yours and mine. In geological time, humanity has been around for only a blink of an eye, but long enough to become a planet-altering force.
In her book, Kolbert took me along as she joined scientists in the field who are closely following the trail of destruction – in tropical forests on the slopes of the Andes, in the Amazon, on the Great Barrier Reef, and in caves in Vermont and the Adirondacks. Reading her stories I found myself wondering at her capacity for grief. How could she not be overwhelmed by all the losses she encountered? I can’t forget the scientist from Australia who became a Marine Biologist because he loved the ocean and the incredible diversity of life it supports; now he studies dying reefs, fully expecting that they will all be gone by the time his children would become grandparents. How does he do it?
In a conversation with Claudia Dreifus Kolbert said about humankind’s role in the sixth extinction,
“It’s not something we’re doing because our species is greedy or evil. It’s happening because humans are human. Many of the qualities that made us successful — we are smart, creative, mobile, cooperative — can be destructive to the natural world. When we use fossil fuels, we are reversing geological history by taking organisms that were buried millions of years ago and pumping their carbon back into the atmosphere at a very fast rate. If I go to Antarctica, an organism I bring on my shoe could be devastating to a life form that has evolved there without any defense against it. Humans have sped up the rate by which we change the world, while the rate at which evolution adapts is much slower. There’s a mismatch between what we can do and what nature can sustain.”
Like I said, reading her book has turned into an ongoing Lenten moment for me, a moment of questioning, wondering, and waiting. Her stories set me down in the middle of the valley, full of dry bones, side by side with Ezekiel, where the Lord asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Her stories prepare the ground of my heart for a spring planting of hope. I listen to the opening line of Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?” And I remember and affirm, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
Kolbert’s story, grand as it is, is still too small. Yes, there is the first call that brings into being all living things, the call of God the creator who speaks and there is life, wonderful, colorful, breathing, swimming, jumping, flying, crawling, growing, roaring life. But the one who calls the worlds into being from first light to the Holocene makes a second call.
In the opening chapters of Genesis we read about the creator’s struggle with a repeatedly rebellious, violent, and corrupt humanity as a whole. Kolbert says life’s a mess because humans are human. Scripture teaches us to look at ourselves as creatures in need of redemption, because there’s a mismatch between what we can do and what we are to be and do.
Standing on the threshold of Genesis 12 we linger for a moment at the place where one epoch in the divine economy ends and another begins. Behind is the record of humanity’s sin, and ahead lies the history of God’s redemption. Looking back we see that up to this point, ever since our first parents stepped out of Eden and the gate fell shut behind them, most of the human stories in Genesis add up to tales of human sin: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the flood and the tower. At the end of the eleventh chapter of Genesis, eight sad words speak of the fruitlessness, the hopelessness of our world in the grip of sin: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.” This family, and with it the whole human family of Genesis 1-11 has played out its future and has nowhere else to go. Under the curse of sin, human history is a dead end.
But the one who calls the worlds into being makes a second call. The Lord speaks to Abram, and with that speaking the walk of faith becomes a possibility in the world.
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God’s call interrupts the hopelessness of humanity’s exile and opens a new and different history, the end still being the same as in the beginning of creation: blessing. The history of hope, the new humanity begins where God speaks and the children of Adam and Eve listen. “Go,” the Lord said to Abram, and Abram went, as the Lord had told him. He set out, not knowing where he was going when the Lord burdened him with this curious hope, this peculiar combination of command and promise, ‘Go, and I will bless you.’
The passage opens with God’s command and closes with Abram’s obedience. God’s call and Abram’s response are set like parentheses around the promise, the account of what God is going to do. God’s action is the center of the word, and because God is going to act, Abram must and can act himself. He must go, without a map, without a schedule or an ETA. He must leave behind country, kindred, father’s house. It’s one radical step – and then another. He must leave the security of home and give up his identity and become a sojourner of God’s promise. He must leave his land for the land which God will show him. He must abandon his kindred for the great nation God will make of him and Sarai. He must let go of his present security for the promised blessing. He must move out of his world for the sake of living in the world to come.
This is a call we do not hear easily or readily. We’re comfortable enough in Haran, half-way between Chaldea and Canaan. We like our little world, the familiarity of it all, although we know that everything hyped as new is really just the old stuff with a new façade, just another turn on the old carousel.
“Of all the things in the world,” wrote Jim Mays many years ago, “we are most interested in those to which we can attach the possessive pronoun—my family, my home, my possessions, my plans, yea, my life.”
God’s call creates a crisis. Our response determines whether we live with and for the promise, disengaging from the present barren way of things, or against the promise, holding on grimly to the present ordering of our world, our vision, our life.
In contrast to the resistant and mistrustful world presented in Genesis 1-11, Abram and Sarai are responsive and receptive to God’s presence and promise. They hear God’s call to live as people of the promise in creation gone awry, and they embrace the promise with just enough passion and courage that they relinquish their present for the sake of God’s future.
It is God’s hope that in this new family all human history and all of life can be brought to the unity and peace intended for creation. And the One who keeps watch over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord will keep you from all evil; the Lord will keep your life. The Lord will watch over your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
 Elizabeth Kolbert in a conversation with Claudia Dreifus http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/11/science/the-sixth-extinction-looks-at-human-impact-on-the-environment.html
 Ezekiel 37:1-14
 Genesis 11:30
 James L Mays, “God has spoken,” Interpretation 14, no. 4 (October 1, 1960), p. 420