‘How old is that?’
The television has recently been reminding us how long ago things were. Hundreds of millions of years of Walking with Dinosaurs followed by tens of millions of years of Walking with Beasts; latterly Lord Winston has been striding across hundreds of thousands of years Walking with Cavemen.
The mind boggles at the sweep of the geological ages (each compressed into half an hour’s easy viewing). So we come to think of history, even our history, as being longer than it is.
This discontinuity of our present with the past is exacerbated by the acceleration of technology and the rejection of accepted historical frameworks, accentuating the feeling that the past is not just a foreign country, but was all a very long time ago. For Arthur Bryant there was an Island’s Story to tell; today we have to defend such an idea. Probably the best bit of Simon Shama’s book of the tele-history is the introductory essay defending and reinventing narrative history.
God’s actions in history are driven away from our day to day experience. The Angel of Mons and the arrival of Augustine are alike parts of an unreachable past. Walking with Jesus is as much a fantasy as walking with dinosaurs, and the patriarchs are fossils.
In this context it is shocking to realize what Walking with Cavemen in fact says. There is a clear distinction between Homo sapiens and all other Homo including Neanderthal; Sapiens had (has!) imagination and spirituality. And that development was a very short time ago. Homo sapiens appeared it seems about 200,000 years ago. But geneticists trace us all to a handful of individuals, not more than 48,000, one as recent as 10,000 years ago.
We can date to 40,000 years ago a sudden awakening as Homo sapiens began to create those haunting images we call ‘cave art.’ The beginning of spirituality? If so, then it is the beginning of history as distinct from palaeontology. That is not long. Written history begins only about 5,000 years ago.
So when we read words less than 2,000 years old that ‘now in these last days he has sent us his Son’, we do well to remember that the Good News is still, in historical perspective, breaking news.
Luke Miller is parish priest of St Mary the Virgin, Tottenham.