God and the Dinosaurs: a gift from my Father

Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Today is my father’s birthday. He died just over a year ago, but one very special gift that he gave to me when I was small will live in me for the rest of my life.

I was about seven years old and heavily into dinosaurs. Dinosaur books, dinosaur figures, if there were dinosaurs involved, that’s what I wanted.

I had also received a nicely illustrated, big fat children’s Bible.

That created a problem for me. If God had created the world in seven days, how did dinosaurs fit into the picture?

I remember the moment vividly. Daddy and I were sitting in the car on our driveway. It was a Saturday morning, and I’m not sure where we were headed. What was memorable was how he answered my question about dinosaurs and the Bible.

He didn’t use the word “metaphor,” but in essence that’s how he explained it. The seven days weren’t days as we humans understand them, but long periods of time, ages, eons. Decades later, as I read through the psalms, I realized how perfectly his explanation accorded with the verse: “A thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past and like a watch in the night” (Ps. 90:4, translation from the Book of Common Prayer).

The gift my father gave me that day was priceless. It went far beyond reconciling dinosaurs and the Book of Genesis. Science and religion, too often portrayed as enemies, don’t have to cancel each other out.

Years later, this continues to bear fruit. My latest novel-in-progress is about a Jesuit professor who is fascinated by the theology of Teilhard de Chardin, a French Catholic Jesuit priest who was also a distinguished paleontologist and made it his life’s work to reconcile evolution with Christian thought. Until Vatican II, the Catholic Church considered Teilhard a heretic, but today he is seen as an exemplar who was able to reconcile religious belief with scientific inquiry.

My father was raised in a very conservative family, both religiously and socially. He went to college, then on to graduate school, where he received a degree in engineering. Curiosity was always a strong component of his personality, and I can easily imagine him as a child, endlessly asking about everything. He must have done some serious thinking about the very issues that he addressed when I came to him with my question about dinosaurs all those years ago. I imagine he did a lot of hard soul-searching to discover an answer that would engage both his spirit of curiosity–the essence of science–and the religious beliefs that were so important to him. There was no hesitation at all when he answered me that day. He had already thought about it himself, already done all the hard work, and now he was ready to give me one of the most important gifts I would ever receive in my life.

Kids and Trees

Photo by Carl E. Lewis from Flickr Creative Commons

When I was small, mimosas were my favorite kind of tree. For one thing, they were just the right size. I wasn’t athletic and I’ve never had a head for heights, but I could easily “climb” into the low fork of the mimosa in our backyard and stay in my little tree nest for the longest time.

I loved playing with the bright pink flowers and palmlike leaves, too. I’d weave the individual fronds around the central stem of the leaf to create little garlands. I’d wear the flowers in my hair or give them to my stuffed animals. The flowers were not only bright and beautiful, but satisfying to the touch. Slightly sticky, with a feathery kind of feel, sort of like cotton candy.

Mimosas have cool bean pods, too, especially when they’ve dried. By late summer, the ground beneath our tree would be covered with the pale brown pods, just begging for closer examination. They were easy to dissect, peeling readily into two halves. The tiny dark brown seeds thus revealed served in their turn as interesting play objects that could be counted and lined up in various ways. Or you could leave the pods whole and shake them, enjoying the satisfying rattle of the seeds inside. All in all, it was a wonderfully tactile plant, just perfect for a small child.

Seemingly small, a trivial thing, yet I think my play with mimosas was one of the experiences that gave me a deep and abiding appreciation for nature, both its beauty and the companionship it offers.

What was your favorite tree or plant when you were a kid? And why?

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