Recently, my wife and I explored the Konza Prairie Nature Trail a few miles outside of Manhattan, Kansas. Contrary to the popular perception of the state as a flat, boring wasteland, the Flint Hills of northeastern Kansas are a delightful landscape that nearly fooled us into thinking we had been transported to New Zealand.
The trail crossed terraces that revealed a fascinating sequence of alternating limestone and shale layers, with water-eroded limestone rocks poking through the sides of the hills in messy but clearly defined rows.
How did this beautiful pattern get here? I wondered. A few years ago, I might have buried such curiosity under the vague and mysterious powers of a chaotic global flood, but more recently I’d been reading other viewpoints, from contemporary theistic evolutionists like Joel Duff to 19th-century old-earth creationists like Hugh Miller and Edward Hitchcock. They say limestone comes from the chemical remains of countless millions of tiny shelled creatures, slowly settled over time at the bottoms of seas. They say Kansas was covered by such a shallow inland sea millions of years ago, when these rows were deposited.
Could a chaotic flood really have produced such orderly alternating rows in a single year? Was that enough time for seashells to dissolve into rows miles across and somehow dry out enough that layers of mud could lay down on top of them — multiple times — and then after it was all deposited, for more water to carve out parts of the whole thing into the beautiful Flint Hills?
There was a time when such questions might have challenged my belief in God. I was pretty sure the Bible could only be legitimately understood a certain way and that contradictory scientific views would falsify the whole thing. But the Bible never says the fossil layers were deposited by Noah’s flood. As I journeyed through a literary array of geological and theological interpretations over the last four hundred years, I realized how arrogant and ignorant my assumed limits had been. There were simply too many other sincere and studious Christians who grew up in different contexts and sincerely and studiously came to very different conclusions about natural, reasonable ways to interpret the Bible and the scientific evidence.
Maybe they were wrong about all these eons. But maybe they weren’t. Maybe exploring the story of the universe’s unfolding over billions of years of time is just as exciting as exploring its billions of light-years of space! And if it is — if the universe doesn’t just have the “appearance of age” but an actual story — it doesn’t mean God isn’t real. No, it actually makes him exceedingly more wondrous!
If I could marvel at all the God-ordained orchestrations in my story — the way he has brought different pieces together at just the right times and places to further his ultimate purposes for my own little life, soon to wither like the grass — how much more marvelous to glimpse those orchestrations on a cosmic scale of orders of greater magnitude! As Edward Hitchcock liked to say, such glimpses greatly enlarged our understanding of “the vast plans of Jehovah.”
Not that I totally understood the long view of the Flint Hills, either. Did the limestone really slowly build up at the bottom of the sea over millions of years? How did it switch to and from shale deposits? Does it have something to do with the land going above and below the water multiple times over long periods of shifting plates and sea levels?
I probably could have looked for answers to those questions before writing this post — but I wanted to pause to make a point. There will always be unanswered questions. I will always be on a journey of mystery and learning and discovery. And I’m a lot more comfortable with that than I used to be. When I rejected the false dichotomy of Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins, it didn’t mean I became open to anything. But it meant I became free to enjoy learning about possibilities instead of simply poking at them for problems.
That’s why I like to call myself a middle earth creationist. I didn’t “leave” the young earth creationist camp just to “join” another one. These days I’m less interested in identifying with any particular camp and yelling about what all the other camps get wrong — because they all get some things wrong — and more interested in simply exploring the mysteries of God’s amazing universe… which actually makes the whimsical reference to an adventurous alternative universe pretty fitting. God knows how he created everything, and while we may never figure it all out, it’s our joy to explore his story.
I came away from the Flint Hills eager to learn more about that story. I’ve gone from nervously avoiding it to soaking in a rapturous awe at a God capable of crafting and ordering a beautiful creation of extraordinary complexity over incomprehensible lengths of time and space, from the mosasaurs of the Western Interior Sea to the terraces of modern Kansas. When I consider all that… what is man, that you are mindful of him? I can’t wait to find out what I’ll learn about next.
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