Do you know about the large, ‘moai’ statues on Easter Island? They are the most recognisable feature of the island, and they pose the biggest question “What happened to the people?”
For a long time, no one had an idea. Then some archaeologists (like Jared Diamond) came up with the theory that the people over exploited the resources on the island, and then had ‘resource wars’ which wiped everyone out. In the process, the people became disillusioned with their gods, and so knocked over their statues. That explains why some of these statues appear to be ‘fallen over’.[ * See the article in the link below]
Recently there has been another set of theories put forward by archaeologists like Carl Lipo and Christopher Stevenson and Mara Mulrooney who argue that it was not the native’s fault, but that changing weather patterns, and the introduction of disease by white visitors drastically reduced the population to unsustainable levels.
The first thing that strikes me about this information is that underneath the competing theories, are competing implications for us westerners in the 21st Century. One story warns us that when people are unaware of the ecological effects of their actions, they are likely to ‘foul their own nest’ so much that life itself becomes unsustainable.
This is the message about climate change. We have, since the industrial revolution, pumped so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, that now we are making life here very difficult. There will be wars over water, and there will be more migration problems than we have now. The sea levels will rise and ruin coastal communities. This is what happens when our ability to do something outstrips our ability to see the consequences. This is what happens when our whole economic system, based on ‘growth’ means that there are no limits and there is never ‘enough’.
This is one of the warnings of our own Judaeo Christian mythology in the story of the Tower of Babel. When people’s pride makes them unaware of the limits to their power, or when God’s limits are ignored, then confusion results, and our ‘tower building’ activity comes to an unhappy end.
The implicit meaning of anthropological study is “If we can get a ‘handle’ on something by studying this micro-community, are we able to extrapolate it to our own?
But there is the competing story of what happened to the people of Easter Island. Tis is the one that does the same job of comparing cultures, but in this case the story goes ‘Happy natives did a good job managing their limited resources. It was only when nasty white people, who do not respect the ecological way of life of the natives brought disease that it all started to go wrong.”
Again, this version of the story is meant to tell us something about how we should repent of our cultural imperialism in the West, and to learn from the more modest ecological footprint of indigenous peoples who, in general, live in ‘harmony’ with ‘nature’. This time the implication is the same ‘The West has not learned to live in harmony with nature’ only this time the example is not one that says ‘we are like the Easter Islanders’ but one that says ‘We are not like the Easter Islanders.”
So what actually went on depends upon the narrative that can be constructed out of the evidence. There is discussion about what evidence is reliable and what not. There is discussion about how individual pieces of evidence should be weighed for their importance, but in the end, archaeologists want to make a narrative out of the evidence.
This in itself is important, because it represents what we do all the time. Archaeologists say “One stone is just a stone, but one stone on top of another stone, now there’s the beginning of a wall!” Or doctors say ‘where tow or three symptoms are gathered together, there is a disease or a syndrome in the midst of them.’
So the ‘evidence’ itself is not as important as the construct that results from the engagement of human thinking with the evidence.
Now Christians do the same kind of thing, all the time. The significance of biblical studies is that this kind of research gives us a picture of ‘what kind of a person’ Jesus was. Or, it gives us a picture of ‘what kinds of conditions Jesus lived under.’ Everyone reads the Bible and tries to construct an image of the Jesus that they want to follow from the ‘evidence’ that they see there.
But just like archaeological evidence, the ‘picture’ of the Jesus we want to follow is one that results from the engagement of our lives and our search for meaning with the ‘evidence’ we find there.
That is why Biblical scholars like Stephen Fowl are important, because they emphasise that we should not only ask ‘what was it like for them, back there?’ but we should also ask ‘What is God in the Spirit saying to us now?’ Not only that, Fowl suggests that we look for ‘evidence’ in the Scriptures that challenge our cultural assumptions, and make us uncomfortable. He thinks that it is in the places where we are uncomfortable that God is also speaking to us.
I remember in the 1960s, when the ecological movement just got going with the Club of Rome report and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” the Churches were not particularly in the vanguard of this movement. Even today ecological concerns are not very ‘big’ in Church life.
Again, the Anglican Church has been, like many others, captive to its culture and so has been described as ‘the conservative party at prayer’. To the extent to which this is true we end up being more like the conservative party, or any political party for that matter, than the Church of Christ.
So as fellow human beings, Christians share with the archaeologists, the same kinds of problems about how to deal with ‘the evidence’, what kind of a story we tell about it, and what this story means for our action.
The sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are the sacraments of transformation par-excellence. We can come to them and have them be like the icing, or a candle on an already ‘formed life’ (one whose story is already fixed), or they can be the places where we are, week by week, ‘unpicked’ so that in being open to new pieces of ‘evidence’ and the Bible’s stories, we will as St. Paul invites us to be ‘not conformed to this world, but 9to be) transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might know the will of God.’