Today, Whitby Abbey sits on a headland overlooking the North Sea, empty stacks of stones over a trim Yorkshirian lawn. Its windows are open to the sky, as blue as the windows in Van Gogh’s “Church at Auvers.” There is not much to do here. Tourists on TripAdvisor only rank the abbey as #13 out of 40 “Things to Do” in the Whitby area, behind the lighthouse, the beach, and even the “Falling Foss Tea Garden,” whatever that is. Ranked #1 is the “Museum of Victorian Science,” which bills itself as “a virtual visit to Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.” (Presumably, “virtual” means that the demonstrations do not extend to actual corpse reanimations.)
Whitby Abbey has tried to keep up, adding meaning to the space with its own museum, coffee shop, and even a ramshackle brewery, but for all this, there remains a silence at its center, among these bare ruined choirs, that raises the question of what it all means now that the place is empty. The community here is gone, destroyed and dispersed at least twice, first by the Danes around 867, then by Henry VIII in 1542. The negative space enclosed by these walls holds only invisible things. The walls do not have much to say. It leads the observer to ask, can these stones live?
Caedmon’s Theological Poetry
The most famous figure drawing people here today is Count Dracula, which has resulted in many opportunities to spend too much money for too little life. Bram Stoker, on holiday after a long period of work, filled this negative space with vampiric tales that twisted even the meaning of the word “gothic.”
In honor of Stoker’s creation, the town puts on a “Goth Festival” twice a year. On dark nights in October, for the price of a few pounds, you can watch cleverly situated red lights paint the abbey’s arches as with blood. I wonder if the lights can be seen from afar, like the spotlights I remember from my childhood in Arizona advertising used-car lots. At least this light show, and Stoker’s story itself, comprise only the most modern layer of this place, a thin layer of garish paint on an ancient structure.
Dracula makes money, but the real history is found outside the walls. Long before the merchants turned on red spotlights, before Stoker imagined his vampire, before the extant 13th century walls were built, something remarkable happened on top of this cliff: the oldest poem in Old English was composed here.
You learn this not from the silent stones, but a few steps outside the abbey, at Caedmon’s Cross, a 70-foot-tall Victorian monument to St. Caedmon. His poem, 42 words in Old English, praises the Creator who made “heaven as a roof” for us. Now at Whitby Abbey, heaven is the only roof left. Caedmon’s hymn carries a memory of the large community that once worked and worshiped here, which incubated, chanted, and preserved the words. All of St. Caedmon’s words have been lost save the nine lines of his Hymn, which live in the worship of the Church.
In its original language, the hymn follows the Anglo-Saxon technique of “rhyming at the front,” repeating consonants rhythmically. Translated, this is lost, but the Hymn retains its simple appeal. It is not about the flowery imagery of a hymn like “All Creatures of Our God and King.” It is deeper than that, being a strong statement of God as creator and giver of gifts to men, including heaven’s roof.
This line of song was a thread tying together the sky to the cliff, and the angels to the men below, by acknowledging that all this was given by a Creator who spoke it into being. English poetry began with this alliterative theology: in its beginning was this sung word.
Before he was a poet or a saint, Caedmon was a shepherd who one day had a dream. This was not a “Wish Upon a Star,” flimsy, metaphorical dream—he had an actual dream in which God told him to sing about “the beginning of all things,” according to Bede. Caedmon’s Cross shows him composing his hymn in a stable surrounded by animals, a picture of the incarnate word. Caedmon’s vision of the Creator reconciled heaven and earth by repeating that they were joined at their origin: In the beginning God created them both. Caedmon must have sat somewhere on this high cliff, close enough to touch heaven and earth, and brought them together in song.
Hilda’s Kenotic Politics
Every writer needs a publisher, and St. Caedmon’s publisher stands over him on Caedmon’s Cross: St. Hilda, abbess of Whitby. She saw that this shepherd had the gift of words, and she encouraged him to write them down and join the abbey as a monk.
St. Hilda’s greatest accomplishment may not have been in the arts, but in politics—she unified through conferences as well as canticles. On these grounds at the Synod of Whitby in 664, under Hilda’s leadership, the date of Easter was decided. The question was sharpest at this location because of its geographic position, located between two opposite missionary movements.
In 5th century post-Roman Britain, the pagan Germanic Anglo-Saxons had settled half the island, including Northumbria. This meant that the kingdom of this world was outflanked on two sides: by the Irish church to the west and the Roman church to the south. Both were on a mission to bring the Gospel to the Anglo-Saxons. As Irish monks converted, heading southeast, and Roman monks converted, heading northwest, they met in the middle near Whitby, so that the newly converted Anglo-Saxons in the area were a mixture of influences, depending on which monks got there first.
The Irish and Roman missionaries, long separated from each other, had developed different customs. Most importantly, they celebrated Easter on different dates. Should it be celebrated according to the lunar calendar, like Passover, or should it be celebrated on the same day each year, like Christmas (in fact, one tradition places Easter precisely nine months before Christmas on March 25)?
This came to a head for King Oswy of Northumbria, who had been baptized by Irish monks but whose wife came from the Roman tradition. It is not good for a marriage for the husband to celebrate Easter while his wife is still observing the penance of Lent. So, caught between these traditions, Oswy convened a Synod to set a date for Easter at Whitby in 664, only 7 years after he had founded the community to be led his relative, Hilda.
The outcome of the synod is obvious for those of a democratic mindset: the Roman church outnumbered the Irish, and King Oswy chose the side with more people to it. In political-scientific terms the number of bonds between humans led to a conclusion that appears foreordained in hindsight. We cannot assume that it seemed foreordained at the time.
The most important parts of this conflict are lost from history. There are hints from the historical record that it was not an easy decision for the King. His ties to the Irish church were personal and strong. The Irish and the Romans sent a number of prominent personalities of the type that lobby powerfully and, in my experience, these types of people do not naturally get along. I imagine an academic conference with warring camps and high stakes. Afterward, a number of hagiographies were written about various synod participants—perhaps some reputations needed to be burnished after bruising conflict.
We cannot see this conflict but we can know who carried its burden. Hilda managed the personalities and the misunderstandings of this collection of beliefs and egos. She herself had been baptized by Roman monks, but had much closer, current ties with the Irish church, like her kinsman Oswy. It is probable that her sympathies lay with the Irish arguments, and we can speculate that she personally disagreed with Oswy’s decision. Her public commitment was to disregard these concerns and to pursue unity in reconciling the two traditions. Her private commitment is lost to history.
Alfred Kracher wrote that “Hilda gained a reputation for smoothing the transition and persuading other monastic institutions to accept the decision of the synod.” St. Caedmon unified heaven and earth with his song, while St. Hilda unified the Irish and Roman churches with her scheduling and hospitality, ensuring that people were housed, fed, and heard.
A conference like the Synod of Whitby that produced lasting unity (for the Western church) out of disagreement is a rare thing in history. My second son was born on March 25, one of the traditional dates of Easter. Personally, I would have voted for the Irish, and can imagine being put out should the King decide against me (just ask my wife how I respond when a university administrator makes a decision I dislike). The pursuit of unity required a spiritual emptying, and not a little Irish grumbling and sulking on the way home, if I know academics.
From the long view, one can infer the work of the Spirit in unifying the Church through temporary discord and debate so that later the Church can worship as one. As Luke Timothy Johnson argues, events that “appear as ‘politics as usual’ are actually the things that God is causing to happen through the human agency of kings and armies.” Hilda’s reconciliatory administration of the Synod’s “politics as usual,” without consideration for her own presumed political inclination, opened space for the dynamic work of the Spirit, and the Church survived and grew after the fractious debate.
Hilda’s accomplishments are therefore political in facilitating this Synod, artistic in encouraging Caedmon, and scholarly in fostering a community of worship and learning from which five men became bishops. All of these were founded on her invisible, even kenotic, hospitality and administration of day-to-day life, opening a space for others to work.
Whitby’s Dynamic Geology
If heaven is Whitby Abbey’s roof these days, then the rocks are its foundation, both given by the Creator. Looking closely at Hilda’s panel on Caedmon’s Cross, a curious detail can be seen: she is standing on multiple spirals. These are ammonite fossils, coiled mollusks with shells like the modern nautilus that are found on the beaches and in the cliffs. As a tourist stands looking at the spirals carved in the cross, ammonite spirals are embedded in the rock below.
The fossils are revealed from a geological conflict between water and rock. The geographical location that made this spot ideal for the Synod of Whitby also made it ideal for revealing these fossils. The cliff beneath Whitby Abbey is caught between the River Eck and the North Sea. The North Sea eats away a meter of headland every decade, meaning at least 100 meters of cliff have been lost since St. Hilda’s time. After a spate of rain in 2013, a small landslide pulled away St. Mary’s graveyard, sending human bones and mud down toward the river. (Good thing that did not happen in October. The deep reality of death might have soured the Goth Festival.)
The unusual fossils are therefore associated with the unusual history of this place, with Caedmon’s hymn and Hilda’s synod. One late legend says that the ammonite fossils were once snakes that Hilda turned to stone. Some Northumbrian one-upmanship might be in evidence here: St. Patrick may have driven out the snakes, but St. Hilda petrified them like a holy Medusa.
By the 16th century, enterprising Whitby residents were selling ammonites with carved snake heads. In Brittania, William Camden chalks this up to the “credulitas” or credulity of the locals. The carved heads seem more like a joke than a con to me. The ones who take the carved snakeheads literally tend to be the historians critiquing the practice.
Rather, these wonderfully silly relics are evidence of the enduring power of St. Hilda’s personality. If her words were powerful enough to open the space for the synod’s unity and to incubate the first English poetry from a shepherd’s lips, then why would they not be powerful enough to turn snakes to stone? The “just-so” story of the ammonites is not there to explain the ammonites (that would be like explaining a joke) but to reflect the deeper reality of the creative, kenotic power at work through Hilda’s ordering words and open arms.
The legends about Hilda are right in another way: the fossils were once living creatures that had been subsequently turned to stone. According to Martin Rudwick, most other classical and medieval theories about fossils assumed that these were primarily rock and only were living in some accidental, superficial sense: to Neoplatonists, an affinity caused resemblance, and to Aristotelians, seeds from life generated life-like forms that were literal rock-fish (The original word fossil covered any non-metal dug from the ground, too). These theories all assumed too high a barrier between rock and life. As wrong as Hilda’s legend was about the timing and cause of the petrification, it conveyed the deep truth that these ammonites were once alive, and that the line between bios and petra can be crossed, repeatedly.
Good theology resonates with good science in this case. Aquinas knew that there is a great gulf between geology and biology, but that because both were created by God, the line between them is blurred and they are in a sense alive: “The earth, for instance, was made and also were the metals, and neither is life not has life . . . Yet if things are considered as they are in the Word, then they not only have life, they are life.” Conor Cunningham notes in Darwin’s Pious Idea that the material differences between rocks and ammonites are superficial: “The problem begins when we are distracted by materiality, presuming it to possess life in itself.” The life that each has is (or was) a gift, not a possession, and its source is not found in the atoms but in the Creator of atoms.
As natural philosophers began to realize that fossils, no matter how bizarre, were connected to present life-forms, they started museums and societies to classify this evidence of ancient life. In 1823, the Whitby Literary and Philsophical Society was founded to curate this abundance of fossil life. The roots of this society are intertwined with faith: its founder was a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. George Young.
The cliffs at Whitby (and therefore the fossils at Whitby) are especially prominent for a reason. This can be seen by overlaying the surface map with a map of the underlying geological faultlines. The River Eck meanders down from the moors in an easterly direction, like the other English rivers, until it does not. A mile before it reaches the coast, the riverpath veers straight north, following a small, deep fault running north and south, which channels the water north. The east cliffs underneath the abbey are pushed up by the same fault.
This abrupt angle erodes the eastward cliffs. The Eck runs into the raised wall of the east cliffs and turns, flowing to the North Sea, eroding the earth while revealing fossils (and occasional graveyard bones). The geological action of the earth buried these ammonites, then the geological action of the earth brought them to light again.
Evolution’s Chemical Unity
The dynamic processes making and remaking the Whitby landscape are mediated by liquid water and the flowing mantle below the earth’s crust, pushing on the crust and cracking it into faults. Geological processes like this operate in deep places on a deep timescale, in which a thousand years are as a day.
Most global processes are gradual and most abrupt changes are local. But some are both global and abrupt—disparities, or “unconformities,” erasing billions of years instead of mere millions. The first geological unconformities were cataloged in England and Scotland, not far from Whitby. The greatest of these unconformities is unfathomably deep in time and unexpectedly ubiquitous in location.
The geologist John Wesley Powell found this most important of all unconformities in the Grand Canyon, exposed by the Colorado River. If you fly over the Grand Canyon, you may be able to glimpse it as flat tan layers stacked on top of greyish walls tilted down toward the Colorado River below. In some places, the tan layers on top are 525-million-year-old Cambrian Tapeats sandstone sitting on top of the grayish 1,740-million-year-old Vishnu schist. Between those layers, a billion years of rock are just gone.
The same pattern with similar timing is found in Nevada, and in Colorado, and throughout North America, and on all seven continents. It took 40 years after Powell for the first geologist to realize that these dispersed sites must indicate a global event. Over the past century, geologists found compelling evidence that the earth was completely covered with glaciers at one point, essentially freezing over into a “Snowball Earth.” According to scientists, these glaciers flowed like slow rivers, scraping an average of 3–5 vertical kilometers from the entire globe. The waters covered the earth: frozen waters, pre-dating us by a half-billion years.
A second unconformity follows the Great Unconformity in the fossil record, but this one is biological rather than geological. Again, the English found this and named it anglocentrically (obscuring the fact that this too is a global phenomenon). Up to about a hundred years ago, the oldest fossils known were dug up from the 600-million-year-old Welsh rocks, named after the Latin for Wales, Cambria. But, curiously, no fossils were ever found in older rocks. The English fossil hunters, and later scientists across the world, came across this pattern in all their collections: all sorts of life forms suddenly appear. The first of these are unlike anything we have seen, bulbous and elongated, spindly and plated, spoked and spiky. This biological Cambrian Explosion pattern is as global as the geological Great Unconformity.
It has not been a single Eureka moment, but a gradual dawning of a connection between the geological and biological unconformities. The first sign is a sequence to these global events: the geological unconformity dates to about 800 to 600 million years ago, and the biological to 540 million years ago. Precedence is necessary but not sufficient for causation, but chemistry provides a causal link. Several geochemical and biochemical lines of evidence suggest that as glaciers scraped down the planet, they ground down mountains and cast them into the sea (in little bits), changing the chemistry of the oceans and filling them with elements that served as seeds for life.
Take the element calcium: it moved from mountains to oceans to the shells of those weird Cambrian creatures, which were buried, fossilized, then dug up by some British reverend fossil-hunting in his spare time (as many of them did). A similar story can be told for phosphorus, oxygen, even molybdenum. These newly dissolved elements were the seeds of life that caused the Cambrian explosion and kick-started the processes of evolution. It was the dust of ground-up mountains that eventually became the bodies of Adam and Eve (with a few hundred million years and a few hundred million biological intermediates). The same water that eroded the mountains helped the dissolved elements circulate in the novel beasts.
Because it has taken centuries to find these connections, this story is still told in fragmented pieces across the scientific literature. I put the pieces together in a book, A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life about how each element used by life plays a role that is deeply dependent on its chemical properties in water.
The most fascinating part is that any biogeological reasoning based on the periodic table will be universal for water-based life. For calcium, the chain of reasoning is that calcium will solidify DNA (and solid DNA is dead DNA), so calcium has to be ejected by a cell, to where it can solidify safely into a shell. This implies that any other planet in this universe blessed enough to have life would have fossils like the ammonites with calcium shells, and very possibly would have a biological unconformity like the Cambrian Explosion and a geological unconformity like the Great Unconformity. Deep aspects of life’s biochemistry would be repeated.
Of course, my interpretation of the significance of chemistry is controversial. The primary mode of interpretation in science is to assume that events are unconnected until you are forced to connect them. This is necessary on a local scale, but it forces the skeptics to miss patterns at the global or universal scale. Geological patterns connected the local unconformities into a single Great Unconformity. Then, thousands of fossil-hunters found local biological unconformities that connected into a single Cambrian Explosion. Now, chemical reasoning connects the Great Unconformity with the Cambrian Explosion. Because this chemical reasoning is embedded in the periodic table, it gives a universal, chemical rhythm to the emergence of life in water. All of this is an order or a logos connected by universal laws, which are signs pointing to a universal Lawgiver who is above and beyond the laws themselves.
One of the most prominent paleontologists of the 20th century, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote an entire book downplaying these universal patterns as less significant than the random motion of atoms, an argument as old as Lucretius. Gould had a brilliant knack for metaphor, so he wrote that the “tape of life” could not be rewound and repeated. But just like we do not use cassette tapes anymore, we should not use this metaphor anymore. Gould is right for genetic information, but genetic information is not what really matters here. He is even right about the specific shapes of the shells of specific species—but I say the composition of the shells is the same on any water-based planet, and expression of the same Logos that made the periodic table prescribing this pattern (see: A World from Dust).
In my view, chemistry gives a deep unity to the universe, extending even to the chemical properties of the water that makes life suitable. Gould’s Epicurean emphasis on historical contingency of atoms and void fails to account for the organized patterns that these chaotic atoms adopt over time, leading to convergent complexity, even the most complex, dynamic, energetic structure in the known universe: the human brain.
Biology and geology study things made of chemical atoms. The natural tendency when seeing this chemical link is to assume that the atoms are dead, the rocks are dead, and therefore the living thing is essentially dead. But the opposite inference can be made. The atoms are constantly in motion and telling a story, carried along by liquid water and DNA metabolism. Even the geological fossils were once alive and still move, change, and teach.
As Aquinas said, even rocks, considered in the context of logos, have life and are life. One geologist, Robert Hazen, writes about how, over geological timescales, in the presence of flowing water, the minerals evolve like life (in a non-Darwinian but otherwise appropriate sense of the word). The major difference is time scale: Biology changes on a human timescale, while the timescale of geology is closer to eternal. The earth is not dead, but sleeping—or perhaps living at a different tempo.
A living geology is upheld and sustained at each instant by its Creator like a singer sustaining a note against the silence, to use Herbert McCabe’s image. This theology is intimated by biblical passages like Job 28 and Psalm 104: “The earth trembles at his glance; the mountains smoke at his touch.” Caedmon’s heavenly roof is upheld by the gas pressure of molecules in motion and is colored blue by the Raleigh scattering of sunlight at an atomic level. At a theological level, it is commanded by God and given as a gift to all of us.
God commanded the earth in Genesis 1 to bring forth living creatures according to their kinds. That bringing forth, and those different kinds, have chemical aspects in which elements are used and how. The diversity of elements is unified by their periodic properties, and all were made by God’s word and then called good. Grace sustains it all, and allows us to discover this deep order and unity, with an inconceivable patience. The chemical patterns that I have studied appear in all sorts of things, from rocks to rabbits. Heaven is a roof over this ever-changing landscape of rocks and water, upheld, united, and given new every morning by the faithfulness of its Creator.